The Himba (singular: OmuHimba, plural: OvaHimba) are an indigenous people with an estimated population of about 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene Region (formerly Kaokoland) and on the other side of the Kunene River in southern Angola. There are also a few groups left of the OvaTwa, who are also OvaHimba, but are hunter-gatherers. Culturally distinguishable from the Herero people, the OvaHimba are a semi-nomadic, pastoralist people and speak OtjiHimba, a variety of Herero, which belongs to the Bantu family within Niger–Congo. The OvaHimba are semi-nomadic as they have base homesteads where crops are cultivated, but may have to move within the year depending on rainfall and where there is access to water.
Clothing and hair style
Pubescent Himba girl with hair headdress styled to veil her face
Young Himba girls in northern Namibia. The Erembe headdress indicates that they are no longer children.
Both the Himba men and women are accustomed to wearing traditional clothing that befits their living environment in the Kaokoland and the hot semi-arid climate of their area. In most occurrences this consists simply of skirt-like clothing made from calfskins and sheep skin or, increasingly, from more modern textiles, and occasionally sandals for footwear. Women’s sandals are made from cows’ skin while men’s are made from old car tires. Women who have given birth wear a small backpack of skin attached to their traditional outfit. Himba people, especially women, are famous for covering themselves with otjize paste, a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment. Otjize cleanses the skin over long periods due to water scarcity and protects from the hot and dry climate of the Kaokoland, as well as from insect bites. It gives Himba people’s skin and hair plaits a distinctive texture, style, and orange or red tinge, and is often perfumed with the aromatic resin of the omuzumba shrub. Otjize is considered foremost a highly desirable aesthetic beauty cosmetic, symbolizing earth’s rich red color and blood, the essence of life, and is consistent with the OvaHimba ideal of beauty.
From pubescence, boys continue to have one braided plait, while girls will have many otjize-textured hair plaits, some arranged to veil the girl’s face. In daily practice the plaits are often tied together and held parted back from the face. Women who have been married for about a year or have had a child wear an ornate headpiece called the Erembe, sculptured from sheepskin, with many streams of braided hair coloured and put in shape with otjize paste. Unmarried young men continue to wear one braided plait extending to the rear of the head, while married men wear a cap or head-wrap and un-braided hair beneath. Widowed men will remove their cap or head-wrap and expose un-braided hair. The OvaHimba are also accustomed to use wood ash for hair cleansing due to water scarcity.
The OvaHimba are polygamous, with the average Himba man being husband to two wives at the same time. They also practice early arranged marriages. Young Himba girls are married to male partners chosen by their fathers. This happens from the onset of puberty, which may mean that girls aged 10 or below are married off. This practice is illegal in Namibia, and even some OvaHimba contest it, but it is nevertheless widespread. Among the Himba people, it is customary as a rite of passage to circumcise boys before puberty. Upon marriage, a Himba boy is considered a man. A Himba girl is not considered a fully-fledged woman until she bears a child.
Marriage among the OvaHimba involves transactions of cattle, which are the source of their economy. Bridewealth is involved in these transactions; this can be negotiable between the groom’s family and the bride’s father, depending on the relative poverty of the families involved. In order for the bride’s family to accept the bridewealth, the cattle must appear of high quality. It is standard practice to offer an ox, but more cattle will be offered if the groom’s father is wealthy and is capable of offering more.
Despite the fact that a majority of OvaHimba live a distinct cultural lifestyle in their remote rural environment and homesteads, they are socially dynamic, and not all are isolated from the trends of local urban cultures. The OvaHimba coexist and interact with members of their country’s other ethnic groups and the social trends of urban townsfolk. This is especially true of those in proximity to the Kunene Region capital of Opuwo, who travel frequently to shop at the local town supermarkets for the convenience of commercial consumer products, market food produce and to acquire health care