himba smoke bath

A Day in a Traditional Himba Village

To visit or not to visit?

Weston, who owns the Orreness Campsite where we had spent the night, agreed to take us on a tour of a Himba village.

We had read about the Himba, a tradition people who walked around bare-chested and covered in red ochre, but had some deliberation about going to see their villages.  I pictured a scene in my head of bus loads of white tourists shoving long telephoto lenses in the faces of traditional people.  The term human zoo comes to mind.

I raised our concern with Weston, himself a Himba man, and he assured us that while there are some “hollywood” villages, he would take us about 30kms to some more traditional ones.  The people in the villages we would go to are actually “honoured to have guests from all over the world come to visit their homes and villages” said Weston, adding “a village without visitors is not a village”.  We were satisfied and set out.

Do as a Good Guest Does

himba shopping
Our shopping cart filled with provisions as a gift to the Himba.

Stop one was to a grocer to buy some gifts.  Its customary and good manners to not show up empty handed.  We buy two sacks of something akin to cornmeal, cooking oil, bread, tea, sugar and a small bag of sweets for the children.  The provisions are to be divided equally among the whole village by one of the chief’s wives.  We drive along a dusty road and stop in at several villages to see if there are any people there to visit.  The first village is empty save for two old women who tell Weston that the next village has more people in it.  The Himba are semi-nomadic and follow their cattle, sheep and goats to water and pastures.  The next village was about half occupied.

Getting to Know Each Other

We arrived and Weston instructed us to wait in the Landy while he pays respect to the chief, in this case the chief’s first wife, and asked for permission for our visit.  We were granted that.  Asking is just out of respect, much as you’d say hello and ask to come in rather than barge in on a neighbour.

herero chief
“The Boss” Himba  chief wannabe

To begin, we visit the elderly first wife of the chief to show respect. She thanks us for visiting and asks some questions of us:

“Are we married?  How many children do we have?  How many wives do I have?”  The Himba are polygamous.  “How old we are?  Where we are from?  And what is Canada like?”  She was genuinely curious about her visitors and most interested in how it is possible for Kat and I to live together and yet have no kids. I sheepishly informed her that “We are quite careful” and left it at that.

Weston took us next to meet two women who were happy to show off their cow skin skirts and leather aprons.  We are shown their ankle bracelets which serve to indicate if a woman has had children and how many.  They also wear a leather headdress which identifies a woman who has arrived at child bearing age.  There is a lot of thought and work put into their clothing and seeing it up close was quite interesting.

The Himba Shower

Next we are invited into a home to watch as one of the younger Himba women is preparing to colour herself.  The Himba are easily recognizable by their reddish skin colouring.  The woman sits on a cow hide in her dark but refreshingly cool hut made of sticks, mud and cow dung and is grinding ochre with stones into a fine powder. She then mixes the red powder with butter fat and rubs it into her skin and hair.  She instantly becomes shiny and bright reddish brown.

Himba breastfeeding
Young Himba woman breastfeeds her toddler.

This covering serves to protect the skin in such a dry climate, keep them clean and defend against mosquitos.  She then places some small pieces of a plant root found locally onto a tiny smouldering pile of coals from the night’s fire and the hut is filled with incense.  She bathes and deodorizes in the smoke.  The Himba think its ludicrous that we whites bathe with water so often, spray prefume and roll on deodorant.  Now she is clean and put together for a day in the Himba village.  Her one year old grabs hold of her breast and has a suckle.  His face is covered in red when he’s finished.

Little Adults

himba baby
Moreno with a Himba baby.

Something that stands out to me in the Himba village and in many places in the developing world is how well behaved the children are.  Its rare to hear a child cry and when they do its often due to a legitimate pain or as a very brief way to let mother know the child is hungry.  Once a Himba child is old enough to walk, he is already immersed in the responsibilities of tending to livestock.  Boys as young as five already take small herds of kids or lambs out of the village corral and to far away pastures.  Boys around ten can be seen many miles away from their homes with larger herds of larger animals.

himba hair
Himba children’s’ hair styles.

Only about 30% of Himba children go to school, but after seeing how their culture works and how they live within their means, I find myself questioning whether they could actually benefit from modern schooling.  How many ten year olds in the west are as practical or responsible or even as happy as a Himba boy with his animals?  Sure our children in Canada are tech savy enough to bypass the parental controls on the family computer so he can post to facebook, but can he plough a field, monitor 50 animals or fix the village water pump?  The children of the Himba seemed satisfied in life.

We are From a Cold Country

When we leave the freshly coloured woman’s hut we are invited to sit with some of the other women under a shade.  They shake hands and we all introduce ourselves.  Right away they comment to each other and Weston translates, “Kat’s skin and your skin are so cold”.  We laugh and tell them “We are from a cold country”.  They laugh back and tell us we “must let ourselves be warmed by the African sun”.

himba women touching
Himba women touch Kat to see if she is cold.

Sitting with the women and a few children is a highlight for me.  They seem quite casual and nonchalant.  They ask genuine questions like “Did your parents use something to pinch our noses as children so that they would grow so narrow?”  They are very interested in Kat’s piercings and ask if they hurt.  The Himba don’t pierce.

kats tongue
Kat showing her piercing to the Himba women

We are asked again how many wives, children, age and I’m even asked if I would like to marry a Himba.  The one next to me confesses a crush on me.  We share many laughs through translation and hand signals.

himba concubine
Moreno’s Himba concubine, just kidding. [Kat’s edit: Himba-Selfie!!]

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