The Himba are among the most characteristic populations of Africa, but they are also one of the most recent. They descend from several groups of the Herero people who migrated north in the 19th century to avoid any further contact with German colonizers. Because of this “isolation” – and the groups that remained south did not benefit from this – they are now the true guardians of ancient Herero traditions. In the 1920s most of the Himba again crossed the Kunene River to resettle in their original lands in northern Namibia.
The Himba live in an extended family, as they practise polygamy. Marriage is regulated by the obligation to make a small payment or dowry for the bride (typically a cow and two sheep). The first marriage is generally arranged when the bride is still a child, but for subsequent marriages the women are more independent and are allowed to choose their husband.
Himba women are the repositories of various traditions typical of their people, starting with their traditional garb: a short skirt composed of several layers of goat skin cinched at the waist with belts that vary according to age and marital status. For example, a white belt, white bracelets and white chokers mean that the girl has not reached puberty yet and is unmarried. The women go bare-breasted and adorn the rest of their bodies with jewellery, mainly heavy necklaces made of copper, small iron beads, shells and bones strung on thin leather laces.
Their body treatment and hairstyles also reflect ancient traditions. Several times a day, Himba women slather their body with a blend of ochre and animal fat, to which they add aromatic herbs. They use this red mixture on their skin, hair and clothing to protect themselves from the hot sun, cold night air and insect bites, but also against aging. Furthermore, it is a sort of initiation rite to be more seductive: a “sexual appeal”. The ochre used to prepare this “cream” comes from a soft Angolan stone, whereas the butter is made from goat’s milk.
The Himba people are almost obsessive about their hair; both men and women wear braids they identify with the lunate horns of zebus and that express their social status. The women’s braided hairstyle is very intricate – a veritable work of art. Little girls wear two braids that fall over their faces or two plaits in the front and two in the back; single girls have numerous braids. Married women have a number of braids and a headdress on the front resembling cattle horns.