In this series, Andrew Harper-recommended destination specialists and tour operators share their insight into what they consider to be some of the most fascinating and culturally diverse populations across the globe.
One of the most iconic images of Africa is the Himba, who live primarily in the Kunene region (formerly Kaokoland) of northwestern Namibia. In particular, it is the image of Himba women and the red-hued otjize—a paste made of butter, fat, Commiphora perfume and red ochre—they apply daily to their skin and hair that gives the Himba their distinctive appearance.
With a population of 12,000, the Himba make up less than 1 percent of Namibia’s population. They live in the most geographically remote and physically inaccessible part of the region, which has allowed traditional Himba society to remain largely intact for generations. Himba culture continues to center on herds of cattle and goats and, as pastoralists, they lead migratory lifestyles, following the sparse grazing of northwestern Namibia.
“The traditional Himba culture in Namibia is an epitome of timeless Africa,” says Rockie Katsande, culture manager for Wilderness Safaris. As such, the Himba, who are among the world’s last semi-nomadic people, greatly shape a traveler’s experiences in this southwest African country. Travelers can stay at Serra Cafema Camp, for example, which sits on land leased from the 300,000-hectare Marienfluss Conservancy, owned primarily by the Himba people. Visitors get a sense of the harsh landscape in which the Himba live—a desert that on average gets less than 100 millimeters of rainfall a year.
From there, visit one of the Himba village sites where domed huts encircle stock enclosures filled with animals. A fire, called the okuruwo, is continually kept lit in the heart of the village, representing ancestors who are thought to protect the villagers. Tradition dictates much of daily life and a complex system of patriarchal leadership and matriarchal inheritance ensures a balanced heritage, Katsande says. Women do much of the manual labor, such as cooking, collecting firewood and milking the cows, while men tend to the livestock. “This is a very authentic encounter for visitors, as they are able to catch a glimpse of the Himba’s daily life and challenges,” Katsande says.
Interacting with the Himba also allows travelers to develop a first-hand picture of the Himba’s elaborate and culturally meaningful hairstyles. For the Himba, hairstyles reflect a person’s age and place in society. For example, before they reach puberty, girls have only two hair braids. Once they reach puberty, girls wear many braids covering their face to indicate they are not yet ready to marry. When they are ready to marry, the elaborate braids are worn pulled back, exposing the girl’s face. The braids are also coated with otjize, adding to the striking visual. Boys and single men wear a single braid from the back of the crown of their head; after they marry, men keep their hair covered by a turban.
Although the Himba welcome visitors to interact with them and observe their way of life, outside development, droughts and wars do threaten their existence. Working with international activists, the Himba were recently able to block a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Kunene River that would have flooded generations of their ancestral lands and posed a significant threat to their lifestyle.
Today many of the younger generation are educated in the Namibian national system, causing concern that they will abandon Himba customs and traditions. However, some Himba see this as an opportunity to reinforce their culture and gain more control over tourism on their lands, ensuring that the Himba way of life endures. Indeed, as Mr. Harper notes, “The Himba remain a colorful and strikingly traditional tribal people.”
Wilderness Safaris, a conservation organization and ecotourism company dedicated to responsible tourism, operates throughout Southern Africa, including Namibia. The company works to ensure the protection of Africa’s wildlife heritage and shares the benefits of tourism with local communities.