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Visiting the Himba People in Kamanjab, Namibia with Nomad Tours – Day 9

When the morning finally came, I trudged down that granite slope to be delighted with a view of the sun rising on Spitzkoppe Mountain.  A bank of fog nestled at it’s feet.  Breathtaking!

We traveled for several hours with a brief stop at the supermarket to buy food for the Himba people we were going to visit.

Herero Women in Victorian Dresses

Herero dolls

Herero Women Dolls

We then stopped at a Herero marketplace on the side of the road.  Herero women wear unique and stunning clothing.  This is Namibia?  Again, this is a German story.

When the Germans settled in Namibia they employed (enslaved) some Herero people but killed most of them in what is considered to be the first genocide of the 20th Century.

The Herero and the Himba people, both cattle-breeding tribes and pastoralists, wore scant clothing.  The story goes that the Victorian German women were terribly offended by this lack of clothing and insisted on clothing the Herero women and giving them a hat that appeared to mimic cow horns.  Presumably, to make the women more modest and less appealing to the wandering eye of their rapist husbands.  My guess is it didn’t work.  Herero women suffered terribly under the Germans.

There are other versions of this story that suggest the Herero women came up with the hat later.

To this day, married Herero women wear full Victorian dresses on a daily basis.  Petticoats and all!  They sew these materpieces on antique Singer sewing machines in the dust and heat of their environment.  It’s just unbelievable.

I regret I have no photos of my own to show, but the women I asked to photograph refused.  Photography must be a constant annoyance.

You can see images of Herero dress here.

About 150 years ago the Herero and the Himba people split and the Himba continued on as pastoralists.  These are the people we went to meet.

We set up camp and started our tour with an English-speaking Himba guide of the Himba community who learned English at boarding school.

This proved to be the most controversial of our tours and provided some opportunity for thinking about what responsible tourism means.  Regrettably, I got a double-dose of thinking.

Visiting the Himba Village

Himba children

Himba children.

At the edge of the village is a one room schoolhouse.  The Himba people have been resistant to education but the Namibian government is demanding that all children receive an education.  And so here, the Himba children are taught the basics.

The village is made up of small circular huts surrounding a large circular place where livestock and a holy fire is kept.

Women are topless and wear goat skin skirts on the bottom as well as lots of ankle bracelets and necklaces.   Each item of jewelry signifies status. They are covered in a mixture of red ochre, fat and ash which protects them from the sun.  The men wear loin cloths.  The tribe is polygamous.

Our guide presented a young women to the group and turned her around, explaining the various aspects of her clothing, hair and jewelry.  This observation, while interesting, felt really weird.  As we walked about the community, we visited women going about their daily chores, grinding red ochre for their bodies, making new belts and working on their elaborate hair styles, a three-day process which must be redone every couple months.

We entered the hut of one of the chief’s wives and on the walls hung ceremonial clothing and the few items used everyday: makeup boxes, a pillow made of wood, and the items needed to make a smoke bath with aromatic herbs – a daily ritual.  The HImba never use water to bathe.

My Terrible Lapse in Judgement

Children gathered all around throughout the tour and they wanted to be held, carried and played with.  One in our group gave them balloons which they were clearly accustomed to getting.

And this is when I made the worst “bad tourist” mistake I’ve made in a year.  It was so stupid, I hesitate to even write about it, but perhaps it will remind you next time you’re traveling that sometimes our “kind actions” can have unintended and bad consequences.

Playing with Himba kids

Playing with Himba kids.

When I left Oregon, my friend Kelly, gave me marbles to distribute throughout the world.  I have been doing this and plan on posting about the experience soon.  It’s been a fun project.

So, I had access to marbles and thought the kids might like them and understand what they were.  Wrong.

As I was digging in my bag, a small group of children gathered around in anticipation.  I placed one in each little hand, about five in total.

And then…

one child popped the marble in to his mouth.  I screamed “no!” and so did five other women that watched this terrible error.

The child had never encountered a marble, only candy from tourists.

Immediately, the startled child spit it out.  I took the marble from the child’s hand.  The other children had dispersed.

I ran to the tour guide and told him what I had done.  Of course, he was not pleased.  He went to the chief who started yelling at the kids and only one child returned with the dreaded “gift” in hand.  The tour guide was angry.  The mothers were angry.  The kids were angry.  The chief was angry.  But nobody could have been more angry with me than me.  I apologized profusely to everyone.

This was a nightmare and it took just one second of thoughtlessness to create it.

Needless to say, my new philosophy when visiting a community is to avoid bringing balloons or toys (or marbles!), but instead to bring an item of food for the community which is what our guides helped us do.

Mixed Feelings

Back at camp, I talked with people about the tour experience and everyone seemed to feel some sense of conflict about the visit.  On one hand, the Himba people are living in this modern world and in order to have access to medicine and supplies they must have money.  Tourists provide them the ability to stay in their communities, preserve what they can, and not leave for work.

On the other hand, it felt uncomfortable and exploitative to view these people and photograph them as if their life were an exhibit.

It’s really hard to know what the responsible thing to do is in these cases.

I don’t know the answer.

What’s your take?  When you travel, do you bring gifts for the people you meet?

Photos below.

Official Itinerary from Nomad Tours:

Day 9 Himba Tribes

After some early morning exploration we continue north and drive towards Kamanjab. Today we have the chance to experience life within a Himba tribe. The Himba are pastoral people and predominantly breed cattle or goats. They are easily recognisable by their unique style of dress. The Himba have been extremely diligent about upholding the roots of their culture but they are also very curious about visitors to their home.

The Himba People

The Himba are descendents of the Herero people and still speak a dialect of the old Herero language. There are about 20 000 – 50 000 Himba people living in the Kunene region, where they have recently built two villages at Kamanjab. The Himba are semi-nomadic pastoralists who breed cattle and goats in this dry, rugged, and mountainous area. They are some of the most photographed people in the world, due to their striking style of dress and their traditional lifestyle. Their appearance is characterised by scanty goat-skin clothing, and they are heavily adorned with jewellery of shells, copper and iron, according to the tribal hierarchy. The distinctive red colour of their skin and hair is a mixture of butter, ash and ochre (otjize) which protects them from the harsh desert climate.

Typically the women take care of the children, do the milking and other work, whilst men take care of the political tasks. The villages are made up of family homesteads – huts built around a central fire and livestock enclosure. Both the livestock and fire are pivotal to the Himba belief in ancestor worship, the fire representing ancestral protection of the living community.

Situated about 20 km outside of town, a guided tour around the village will not only give you an in-depth insight into the life and ways of the last traditional tribe in Namibia, the Ova-Himba, but an amazing photographic opportunity as well. You will find out about the milking ceremony, the smoke bath, be informed on the beliefs around the holy fire, ancestors and herbal medicine. You will also learn about the jewelry and hairstyles to imitate the status of each tribe member and their close relationship with nature, their cattle and children. The income generated from these excursions, helps to sustain the tribe from day to day, buying food and supplies, medicine (if necessary) and taking care of the children. Please take note that the village is not for show or a human zoo, you will be allowed inside these amazing peoples’ home and have a cultural exchange. Please respect their lives and ways as they would respect yours and in this way help preserve their culture and traditions.

Disclaimer: Nomad Tours offered me a discount in exchange for documentation of the experience.  I have complete freedom to share my thoughts.  All opinions are my own.

Photos of the Day:

2 Comments

  1. Hi Laura

    Loving reading through your blog – particularly enjoyed the “Campfire Singalong” – Hehe!

    Below is a little section that I’ve recently written about the visit to the Himba people – I hope it helps, I’ll put it up on the website soon, or maybe add it into the tour dossier.

    Kind Regards
    Jess
    Nomad Africa Adventure Tours

    We visit a Himba community close to Kamanjab where you will have an opportunity to interact with the people who live there. This is a working village and is only a representation of a larger group of nomadic pastoralists.

    The semi-nomadic Himba people are extremely susceptible to Western influence and have lost a large portion of their land to farmers, engineers, miners and many were displaces during the wars that raged in Angola. The dwindling number of pastoralists that still exist in their natural envionment are protected as far as possible by creating a “buffer zone”, or an “educational tribe” where tourists who would like to get a better understanding of the way of the Himba, their lifestyle and their traditions, can do so without interfering with those still living in their natural environment.

    Visiting the Himba tribe can be a controversial topic that gets discussed at the camp fire, however not so much if the reason for visiting this particular tribe is understood beforehand.

    The income that this specific tribe generates from the visits goes towards the education of orphaned Himba children and assists the tribe in giving them a chance to learn about their own culture and heritage.

    There is a market at the end of your visit, this is a way for the women to establish a small income, used for their own private expenses, and it is up to you whether you’d like to purchase anything or not.

    • Thanks Jess. This information helps me have a better understanding of the value of the visit and the effect on the community. Appreciate it.

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