Then and Now: The Herero

In the afternoon of the same day we met the Himba, Weston, the owner of the campsite we were staying at in Opuwo, took us to see the Herero tribe. Though now they are easily distinguishable, the Herero and Himba are the same ethnicity, at least originally.

Spiritual Trifecta

Before the colonists arrived in Namibia, there was the Herero tribe: bare chested, ochre dyed, animal tending tribes who shared one language and one culture, tradition and beliefs.

The Herero believe in one god, Mukuru, but also place a great importance on the ancestors. There is a sacred fire near the centre of each village where about once a week the fire keeper sets it alight and communicates with the ancestors and Mukuru. The Herero also believe in omiti or witchcraft and make use of witch doctors.

herero sacred fire
The sacred fire in a Herero village

A Brief History

The Herero entered present day Namibia sometime around 1600 and later when the Nama people arrived, they began to war with them. Much later the Germans arrived, and in an attempt to put down an uprising by both the Herero and Nama, genocide was committed against the Herero people. About 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero perished after being pursued into the desert, away from the last watering holes.

herero boys
Two Herero boys on the steps.

At some point, some of the Herero fled to Angola where, without their livestock, they turned to begging various Angolan tribes for provisions to survive. In Angola, one tribe’s word for beggar was himba, and the name stuck. When large numbers of the new Himba returned to Namibia they found that the Herero who didn’t flee had abandoned many of their customs.

A New Culture

herero woman sewing dress
Herero woman sewing a traditional dress.

The women, of whom many worked as servants and housemaids to German families, adopted their own version of their madams’ dresses. They wear up to seven slips under a finely pleated dress and apron. Because the Herero did still tend cattle and count them as a measure of wealth, the women fashioned their hats to represent their pride and dependence on cows and shaped them into horns.

The Herero also adopted a square and rectangular housing design, but some retained the same method of construction featuring dung. Their villages still center around the sacred fire and while witchcraft and animism are still practiced, most Herero identify themselves as Christians.

herero house
Moreno with Herero boys and grandmother

So the Himba are the real Herero culturally, but the Herero managed to retain the name of their people despite embracing some western values and identity.  Don’d be shy about referring to the Himba as such though, they are fiercely proud of that name and what it identifies with.

Today the Herero and Himba and basically all of Namibia’s many ethnicities get along well and there is no longer any serious conflict.