The Himba (singular: OmuHimba, plural: OvaHimba) are indigenous peoples 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. However, the OvaHimba do not like to be associated with OvaTwa. 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. The OvaHimba are considered the last (semi-) nomadic people of Namibia.
The OvaHimba are predominantly livestock farmers who breed fat-tailed sheep and goats, but count their wealth in the number of their cattle. They also grow and farm rain-fed crops such as maize and millet. Livestock are the major source of milk and meat for the OvaHimba. Their main diet is sour milk and maize porridge ( oruhere ruomaere) and sometimes plain hard porridge only, due to milk and meat scarcity. Their diet is also supplemented by cornmeal, chicken eggs, wild herbs and honey. Only occasionally, and opportunistically, are the livestock sold for cash. Non-farming businesses, wages and salaries, pensions, and other cash remittances make up a very small portion of the OvaHimba livelihood, which is gained chiefly from their work in conservancies, old-age pensions, and drought relief aid from the government of Namibia.
Women and girls tend to perform more labor-intensive work than men and boys do, such as carrying water to the village, earthen plastering the mopane wood homes with a traditional mixture of red clay soil and cow manure binding agent, collecting firewood, attending to the calabash vines used for producing and ensuring a secure supply of soured milk, cooking and serving meals, as well as artisans making handicrafts, clothing and jewelry. The responsibility for milking the cows and goats also lies with the women and girls. Women and girls take care of the children, and one woman or girl will take care of another woman's children. The men's main tasks are tending to the livestock farming, herding where the men will often be away from the family home for extended periods, animal slaughtering, construction, and holding council with village tribal chiefs.
Members of a single extended family typically dwell in a homestead (onganda), a small family-village, consisting of a circular hamlet of huts and work shelters that surround an okuruwo (sacred ancestral fire) and a kraal for the sacred livestock. Both the fire and the livestock are closely tied to their veneration of the dead, the sacred fire representing ancestral protection and the sacred livestock allowing "proper relations between human and ancestor".
The OvaHimba use a heterogeneous pasture system that includes both rainy-season pastures and dry-season pastures. Dry-season pastures are rested during the rainy season which results in higher biomass production in the soil compared to constantly grazing all pastures.
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 remarkably famous for covering themselves with otjize paste, a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment, to cleanse the skin over long periods due to water scarcity and protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate of the Kaokoland as well as insect bites. The cosmetic mixture, often perfumed with the aromatic resin of the omuzumba shrub, gives their skin and hair plaits a distinctive orange or red-tinge characteristic, as well as texture and style. 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.
Several researchers have studied the OvaHimba perception of colours. The OvaHimba use four colour names: zuzu stands for dark shades of blue, red, green and purple; vapa is white and some shades of yellow; buru is some shades of green and blue; and dambu is some other shades of green, red and brown.
Like many traditional societies, the Himba have exceptionally sharp vision, believed to come from their cattle rearing and need to identify each cow's markings.
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, unlike a Himba girl who 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 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.
Because of the harsh desert climate in the region where they live and their seclusion from outside influences, the OvaHimba have managed to maintain and preserve much of their traditional lifestyle. Members live under a tribal structure based on bilateral descent that helps them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth.
Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans: one through the father (a patriclan, called oruzo) and another through the mother (a matriclan, called eanda). Himba clans are led by the eldest male in the clan. Sons live with their father's clan, and when daughters marry, they go to live with the clan of their husband. However, inheritance of wealth does not follow the patriclan but is determined by the matriclan, that is, a son does not inherit his father's cattle but his maternal uncle's instead. Along with the inheritance of wealth, moral obligations are also important within the tribal structure. When a person dies, the OvaHimba evaluate the care of those who are left behind, such as orphans and widows. Access to water-points and pastures are another part of the OvaHimba inheritance structure.
Bilateral descent is found among only a few groups in West Africa, India, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia, and anthropologists consider the system advantageous for groups that live in extreme environments because it allows individuals to rely on two sets of kin dispersed over a wide area.
The OvaHimba history is fraught with disasters, including severe droughts and guerrilla warfare, especially during Namibia's war of independence and as a result of the civil war in neighboring Angola. Between 1904–1908, they suffered from the same attempt at genocide during the Herero Wars conducted by the German Empire colonist government in German South-West Africa under Lothar von Trotha that decimated notably the Herero people and the Nama people during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide.
In the 1980s it appeared the OvaHimba way of life was coming to a close due to a climax in adverse climatic conditions and political conflicts. A severe drought killed 90% of their livestock, and many gave up their herds and became refugees in the town of Opuwo living in slums on international humanitarian aid or joined Koevoet paramilitary units to cope with the livestock losses and widespread famine. OvaHimba living over the border in Angola, were occasionally victims of kidnapping during the South African Border war, either taken as hostages or abducted to join the Angolan branch of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN, army of SWAPO).
The OvaHimba are a monotheistic people who worship the god Mukuru, as well as their clan's ancestors (ancestor reverence). Mukuru only blesses, while the ancestors can bless and curse. Each family has its own sacred ancestral fire, which is kept by the fire-keeper. The fire-keeper approaches the sacred ancestral fire every seven to eight days in order to communicate with Mukuru and the ancestors on behalf of his family. Often, because Mukuru is busy in a distant realm, the ancestors act as Mukuru's representatives.
The OvaHimba traditionally believe in omiti, which some translate to mean witchcraft but which others call "black magic" or "bad medicine". Some OvaHimba believe that death is caused by omiti, or rather, by someone using omiti for malicious purposes. Additionally, some believe that evil people who use omiti have the power to place bad thoughts into another's mind or cause extraordinary events to happen (such as when a common illness becomes life-threatening). But users of omiti do not always attack their victim directly; sometimes they target a relative or loved one. Some OvaHimba will consult a traditional African diviner-healer to reveal the reason behind an extraordinary event, or the source of the omiti.
As a semi-nomadic pastoralist society, Himba art is limited to their clothing and portable items such as wooden headrests, metal and wooden smoking pipes and all type of calabash and wooden pots to carry milk and derivatives. Decorated wooden dolls are becoming rarer nowadays due to the introduction of imported plastic dolls.
It is, indeed, in jewelry and clothing where Himba artisan production stands out from that of the rest of the Angolan tribes. Since the arrival of European settlers in Himba territory in the early 20th Century, metal pieces from motorcycle, mainly iron chains, have been introduced to Himba jewelry. Seashells from the Indian Ocean brought by the Portuguese traders are also now part of Himba female daily attire.
In terms of architecture, Himba homesteads can be divided in two styles: the nomadic semicircular hut made of a wooden structure and covered with adobe (clay mixed with cow dung) and the rectangular semi-nomadic huts, with a wooden structure, also covered with adobe and often with a grass roof, similar to that of their neighbors, the Dimba. Both nomadic and semi-nomadic settlements are enclosed with a palisade made of thorny branches.
By reading the intestines of a goat, Himba fortune-tellers predict the future, especially with regards to climatic cycles and the health of their cattle. When the community requires an answer to a problem, the local fortune teller carefully selects a goat from the herd, slaughters it by suffocation, and places it on some leaves on the ground, to later dissect it with a knife and inspect its entrails. The disposition of the intestines and internal organs, as well as their size, is what the sage interprets, in order to discern the answer to the question posed
The impregnable and harsh environment in which the Himba inhabit has allowed them to remain relatively isolated from the outside world, and thus preserve the bulk of their culture. However, since Namibia’s independence (1990) and the increase in tourism in that country, western acculturation has been penetrating, accompanied by undesirable elements, such as alcohol. The last threat that this group faces is the possible construction of a dam in Epupa, which would change the entire ecosystem of the Cunene region.