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Life Among the Himba

Jonathan van Bilsen



March 17, 2019

Life Among the Himba

One of the most wonderful aspects of travelling is meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. No matter where I travel, it is always the people that make the involvement amazingly wonderful. Naturally, some locales offer different perspectives from others, but one of the more interesting humanities I have experienced, are the Himba people of West Africa.

The entire population numbers about 50,000, and speaks a dialect of the Bantu language, totally unfamiliar to me. In fact, I found it virtually impossible to communicate verbally with anyone in the village; however, hand gestures and facial expressions seemed to work, as we did understand each other… somewhat.

I travelled through the desert of Northern Namibia for quite a while, when finally I saw a lengthy fence, made from sticks, in the distance. I have trekked to several villages in East Africa, and know the fences, made of branches and thorny shrubbery, are not meant for privacy or borders, but merely to fend off unwanted advances from lions, jackals, hyenas and the like.

I entered the village and was immediately surrounded by children. Cute, innocent faces, covered with remnants of food and dirt, smiled up at me as I made my way to the nearest and largest hut. I was greeted by the only man I saw, and after we smiled at each other, he stood and left.

The Himba people are predominately livestock farmers, who breed fat-tailed sheep and goats, but count their wealth in the number of their cattle. Their diet of goat milk is supplemented by cornmeal, chicken eggs, wild herbs and honey, all of which are mixed together in bowls and then savoured. I remembered visiting a Kikuyu tribe, a number of years ago, where the staple diet consisted of milk from a cow, mixed with the animal’s fresh blood. The Himba’s food was more enjoyable.

I soon discovered that the men were the herders and would tend to the animals, taking them grazing for many days at a time. That explained their absence. Women and girls tend to perform more labour-intensive work , such as carrying water, building the homes (made from red clay soil and cow manure, collecting firewood, as well as making handicrafts, clothing and jewellery. The responsibility for milking cows and goats, and taking care of the children, also lies with the women and girls.

I looked around and saw about a dozen huts, 25 or so women and numerous children, as well as goats scrambling everywhere. I watched a woman, seated under the hot sun, grinding a large ochre stone with a smaller one. She stopped every few minutes to collect the powder from the stone and placed it in a pot. She, like all the other women, wore calfskin loin cloths and some wore crude sandals. 

After enough powder had been gathered, the woman mixed it with butter and fat, and began to smear the mixture, known as ‘otjize’ all over her body. This tradition beautifies the woman, as well as protects her from the 40+ degree sun. She braids her hair and rubs the otjize throughout it, expertly weaving animal hair into the ends.

Once that ritual is complete, and it takes a good ninety minutes to perform, they go inside their hut and light a fire. A selection of herbs is heated over the fire and the smoke is then blown into their hair, to give them a perfumed odour. I must admit I did smell quite nice, and the red paste on my skin gave me a very appealing look.

The only way I was able to distinguish the boys from the girls was by a single braided hair plait extended to the rear of the head, for boys. Girls had numerous braids. The girls also wore loin cloths, whereas the boys seemed to enjoy life au naturel. Himba boys are circumcised at puberty, in a tribal ritual. Fortunately that was left for another day.

The Himba people worship a god of their ancestors called Mukuru. They communicate with their god through a holy fire, which is constantly kept alight in their villages. The fire acts as an intermediary between the people and their god.

I had one dollar bills, to hand out in exchange for allowing me to take photographs. To my surprise, no one wanted the money. All they asked in return for being the ‘subject’, was to look into my camera and see themselves.

Goats, children and adults ate from the same bowls; so needless to say, I stuck to my Ritz Bits and nutri-bars. The Himba people seemed healthy and extremely happy. With no materialistic distraction they live a simple, family existence. I treasured my visit and the fond memories that will stay with me forever.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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