You will always remember the first time you crossed paths with a Himba woman or a Himba Man. It’s such an image, that it will be crafted in your mind for the rest of your life. Neither will you easily forget your feelings when spotting from up the hill and for the first time, the breath-taking discovery of Epupa Falls, after 3 hours of a dusty and engulfing tortuous road up to the Angolan Border.
Uncovered well-build torso, a colourful skirt down to the knees, a wooden stick in one of their hands, military black boots and, in my opinion, the coolest and most powerful hair style ever: a scorpion tail braided with their black hair that points up, alert and proud, exactly as the scorpion would wear its lethal weapon. He will look at you with a solemn, serious glare, somehow evaluating you, not only where you might come from, but also how proud and strong you are. Sometimes he will stare at you with his head slightly fallen to one side, one of his legs comfortably folded under the other, supported by his stick, and a mocking halfway smile, friendly but proud, that will make you feel a bit awkward in your modern clothes (in my case rock & roll ragged clothes) and pale skin.
You will not be less amazed If, on the other hand, what you happened to witness before, is the presence of a group of Himba ladies. The first thing you see is their beauty. The second, their naked breasts and then, you smell them. I could never forget this smell, that can immediately take me to my beloved Namibia, to the dust, the sun, the raw nature, the dry wind, wet with the few drops of rain that will fall eventually, and that will dramatically transform its landscape. And then, this other oilier fragrance, penetrant, animal, primitive and luring, from the skins of the death animals, from its fat mixed with the dust made of a red stone. My clients sometimes ask me if they are going to find a good or bad smell. You never know with smells in this life, hehe, but I personally find it appealing and every time I want to feel I am in Namibia, I just have to smell one of the crafts they make, and that I have been accumulating during my years of visiting them.
They seem to made of mud…
The lady’s hair challenges the originality and spectacularity of the man’s one. All the mature ladies will be wearing their hair divided in braids, long down to their shoulders, that are covered by mud. Now, maybe something is ringing a bell in your head. Maybe you have seen them in one of the National Geographic chapters, or in a Microsoft lock screen. Maybe this couple that you know that have visited the most remote places in the World, commented something about them before. Trust me, once you meet them in person, you will feel like in another planet. Their “dark red” strong bodies and their peculiar muddy hairstyles, make them as unique and distinguished as any other of the old, but still “identity alive” tribes all over Africa or Amazonas. They seem to be made of mud. And so, they smell. Alive and organic.
But what most will touch your heart and will make you act in a way that sometimes feels new for people like me, that are not specially fan of maternity, will be the kids. They are the most amazing little things, with their round bellies, happy faces, trying to breath in between their mums braids full of what seems to be cattle wool at the end of each and every braid. Their little sleepy faces will emerge among all this hair while hanging from their mama’s backs as if they were marsupials, that much the babies go with their mums. You must make a really big effort to stop yourself and touching them or trying to have them in your arms for some minutes. How crazy people can be sometimes, that you, suddenly, feel that you can have another person’s child in your arms so much you desire it! Haha, but you don’t do it, you just pass close to them and smile to these little creatures so loveable that they always make your day when you see them!
But, step by step, you must be wondering who the Himba are, where and how do they live.
The name Himba means, in the Otji Herero language, “the one that begs”. It does not seem like a good start to be called like this, and somehow, it’s a name that does not seem to fit them very well. They do not look like beggars. A way too proud. When you find out more, they tell you that this is the name the other tribes gave them around a hundred years ago. They say that they arrived at these lands 600 hundred years ago, migrating from Ethiopia and Kenia regions, down to an area where they could roam with their cattle and live with their families. That they belong to the Bantu linguistic group, specifically to the Herero people, and that when they first arrive, they settle down scattered in small family groups in the Etosha Pan plains, but the previous occupants of this area, the Ovambo people, also Bantu, did not allow them long in there.
They say that then, they started to move West and North to the Kaokoland where they stayed for a while. But that around mid-19th Century, they started to suffer a lot of raids from another of the tribes that use to live more to the South, the Namas. So, after 20 years of these attacks and, also because of a severe bubonic pest that almost killed all their cattle, they decided to move again, this time all straight to the North up to the Kunene River but also further north to Angolan territory. Because they lost almost all their cattle, when they arrive to these new lands, they had no other choice but to beg to survive. And since there, they have been called Himba People, the People that Beg.
The last reasonably big city you find before you get up to Epupa Falls is called Opuwo, and as my brother and mentor told me when he was showing me the route just before my first trip in solitary as a guide, “you will see little sister, this place is really quaint”, and so it is. Opuwo is the capital of this region in the Northern part of Namibia, called Kaokoland. It has a population of about 20 thousand people, that looks as it was double in numbers, since most of the time all its citizens are on the streets at the same time. So, you can imagine the scene: people everywhere like ants or termites in constant movement. Himba ladies with their babies in their backs buying in the supermarkets, Himba men stopped in little groups of 2 or 3 chatting calmly in every corner, kids running everywhere, obviously today they are not going t school, because “it’s a day off”, or…. “today I had to take care of my little brother and I could not go” …or…Of course, the kids you find in the streets are the ones that do not go to school. Ovazemba ladies, another tribe that belongs to the Herero group and that wears fancy and colourful bras or no bras at all and that sell beadwork or Himba jewellery in the streets….and then the majestic Herero ladies, dressed in their 19th century colonial clothes as if they were escaped from a museum. Hundreds of them everywhere, wearing these amazing colourful-patterned long dresses that can have up to 7 skirts or petticoats as layers one over the other, and that must weight several kilograms. Imagine wearing it at 40 degrees! Well, they look pretty elegant in them and no one would tell they are suffocating or anything like that. They wear this garment with pride and honour, as a sign of their belonging to their tribe and as a reminder of the genocide that the Germans perpetrated there in the past. The married herero woman will also wear, to put the cherry on the cake, a cow horn-shaped hat that reveals their marital status. And then, now and then, you will spot a white person, or a tourist, unfailingly looking like being out of element, lost in between all these people and fascinated by them.
Here in Opuwo, you will find the last gas station, the last bank office, the last pharmacy, the last hospital, the last workshop or garage, and the last piece of tar road, until….Angola! Epupa Falls is literally an end of the road.
The road up to the Falls is dusty, curved, and hot. But with no doubt it’s worth to suffer it to get up there. This oasis in the middle of the arid Kaokoland appears in front of your eyes, just about the moment you are almost regretting you wanted to go. The image of the palm trees and baobabs, the noise of the waterfalls, the black and slippery stone (one of the oldest in the very old Namibia), the green of the vegetation along the river, the intense blue of the sky, makes you feel as if you just arrived at Eden. Then you start imagining yourself under one of the many cascades of water that paint the wall of mountains just in front of you, in the other side of the river, that happens to be Angola, and swimming in on of the many pools at the end of these falls of water…. nothing in the world could be as appealing as this dream. And then, as if the music stopped in your dreams or as if the disk was scratched, you read a very yellow sign on the side of the River that advise you not to swim. And a crocodile painted in black over the yellow (aposematic colouration, haha??), so you start desperately looking for a swimming pool 😉.
The Kunene River (big waters in OtjiHimba) flows from the Angolan highlands south to the border with Namibia and then flows west along the border, to die in the Atlantic Ocean after 1.050 km. The Epupa Falls (Epupa, waters that fall in OtjiHimba), is a series of large waterfalls across a length of 1,5 km with the greatest single drop being of 37 m.
Scattered all around and along the road, you can spot the little Himba Villages. It’s difficult to imagine where in the World and nowadays, can you find people that lives in almost the same way they lived during the last centuries. Almost all modern civilizations have become one big organism that consumes and beats at the same riddim. And then you have the Himba. They still live in huts under the stars. They still give birth in these huts, assisted by no doctors but the rest of the ladies of the family or the area. They still speak with the Ancestors through the Holly fire. They still measure the time with the Moon.
There are approximately 20.000 to 50.000 Himba disseminated in between Kunene River and South Angola. They have been traditionally semi-nomadic, pastoral people that breed cattle and goats. Because of the strong traditions, their appearance, garment, hairstyle, and ornamentations will define every person belonging to the tribe, even from which family branches they come. It will show who is who in the community and until not long ago, it was also the only thing they needed to cross freely the Angolan border without having to show any documents or registers. Basically, because they did not have them. They did not have an ID, they did not have passports, they only had their identity expressed in their body and clothing, and that’s all. They move every now and then, when the circumstances get difficult or there is no rain and the cattle is dying, or when a pest is killing the goats or the babies in the family, or some family members on the other side of the river are telling them there are good lands up in the north. The Head of the family, always a man since they are organized in a patriarchal society, will be the responsible for taking such a decision, and on his success will relay the future of his family. Power comes with responsibility.
Men oversee the political tasks, legal trials and important decisions and take care of the cattle. They start being shepherds at around 7 years old, and sometimes you find them, at that young age, walking alone in the roads, with the family’s cattle. Himba men travel with their animals to feed them, normally no more than 100 km away from their home village, but this makes them absent most of the time, since the conditions to find food and water for the animals are really difficult in that area. Meanwhile, the women in the family will take care of the daily chores as rising the kids, cooking, fetching water (from water wells opened by the Government or by private institutions, sometimes km away from the village), and the maintenance of the village itself and its huts.
Their villages are made of a single family, composed by the head or chief and his wife or wives and their children, plus now and then, other female members of the family that stay in the village for different reasons, in a temporary or a permanent basis. They apply the polygamy on the men side, which means that men can be married to more than one woman, as long as they can feed and maintain them. Normally they will not have more than 4 wives. Since they use no other contraceptive measure to control natality than the breast feeding of the previous child, sometimes lasting for more than 3 years, they usually have a lot of kids, which provides the family with more hands to help out with the cattle, if boys, or with the homy chores, if girls. The more children in the family, the better. That means that some ladies will have more that 7 children, sometimes even 11. If you multiply this number for 4 potential wives, then you get some big families in this area!
The first marriage of a man will be always chosen by his family, and it can be prearranged even since the kids are born. The decision again remains in the Chief, but he will be assisted by the opinion of the ladies in the family that will gossip around and find out about the other’s family reputation to find a suitable partner for their son or daughter. This kind of decisions are made on economical and social basis, they are never based on the love the components of the marriage may have for each other. A lot of times they will meet for the first time only the day of the ceremony. Fortunately for them, the decision about the rest of their marriages will lay exclusively on him and the bride’s family, so we could say that the other marriages are susceptible to be based in love.
Sometimes girls no older than 7 years will get married. This can seem like an aberration. These little girls will use a special outfit for the marriage, different than the one that grown up women use, specially for what refers to a hat that they will wear and that covers their faces with leather strips than fall from the top of the head. This way the girl will not suffer the trauma of being observed while in this “too early in time” ceremony and will keep her unidentified and unobserved. When the ceremony ends, these girls that are not mature yet, will not go with their husbands, but all the contrary. They will return with their families until they are grown up enough and only then, they will be sent to consummate their marriages and to live with their husbands in their villages. And this will happen only if the girl does not oppose when the time arrives. The girl will always have the chance to say “no”, which, somehow, makes you feel a bit more relieved. I’m not a big fan of forced marriages.
So, this first marriage will give the status to the family. The groom’s family will pay a price for her, called Lombola, paid off with cattle that will make the girl’s family, richer. When young men are ready to marry according to their family opinion, never when they “feel” they are ready, then, the marriage is gonna be arranged, if it was not already delt some time ago. After the marriage, these young men will cut out their scorpion’s tail braid, because this is the hairstyle that corresponds to young males that are mature enough to get married but that they had not done it yet. So, once the big day arrives, they will no longer wear this hairstyle. They are now grown-up men, heads of their own families. They will start their own village from the beginning, building the crawl and the first huts.
All the Himba villages, called Onganda, have more or less the same structure or disposition. They will have as many huts as wives the Chief has, since every wife has her own hut and men in the family, they do not have huts. These little conic-shaped houses are made, in their structure, of mopane tree trunks and branches placed as a honeycomb with 7 points to sustain them on the floor and covered and stuffed with animal dung mixed with clay and water. The structure is made by the men, the filling of this structure is placed by the lady owner of the hut, normally assisted by other women in the village, and it takes about 7 days to have it completely built.
All of them are placed in circle around the crawl, where they keep the cattle safe when the man is home with the animals. The crawl represents the most protected part of the village since it keeps their most value economical resource, their goats, caws, and chickens. The crawl is closed by fences made of mopane tree trunks and branches and it has a circular shape. Outside this crawl, the huts will be also placed in a circle surrounding it, being the first wife hut, the most important house of the village and its entrance, always facing East.
If the village or, said in another way, its Chief, has its own Holly Fire, then it will be lit every morning by the family’s children (because they are still pure under the eyes of the ancestors and the God Mukuru) maintained it alive during the day also by them, and left to die in the late afternoon, to be lit up next morning again. This Holly Fire or Okuruwo, if existent in the village, will be always placed in a straight and imaginary Corinthian line, that goes from the 1st wife house to the entrance of the crawl. This line is sacred and keeps the connexion of the family with its ancestors, and no foreigners or person outside the family should cross it if they want to respect it and cause no offence. This Holly Fire is called Okuruwo, and the first wife hut, Onjuo Onene, in their OtjiHimba language, that is a dialect of the OtjiHerero. The Holy Fire is inherited by the first-born male from the first marriage, but, if his father and holder of the family’s Holly Fire is still alive, then he will start his Onganda without one, until he will eventually inherit the one from his father. Other men, of course, will never have Holly Fire in their Villages. They will be protected through their father’s line and Holly Fire, though. It is completely forbidden to cook in the Holly Fire, and it will be the place where the family will have their reunions to ask the ancestors to help them, to sort any conflicts in the family or to greet the new-born. Almost every important event will take place around the fire…the rest, inside the First Wife house.
Marriages will be celebrated in the girl’s family village. Actually, the groom will have to kidnap the bride from inside of the Onjuo Onene. The bride will be inside of the house with her female cousins and sisters, some of them protecting the hut from the outside. Then, the groom will come walking from his village, accompanied by the male members of his family, and the last 500 meters, he will go down on his knees and make this distance advancing on them as a sign of respect and submission towards the bride’s father and chief. Once in the village, him and his companions will start a theatre performance, acting as they will really trying to get into the hut forcefully. The girls will do their part, and finally, after many laughs and giggling, the bride will be taken out of the house, and the ceremony will be ready to start.
These marriages usually last around 3 days in which they will fest on home-made fermented alcoholic beverages and on the meat of some animals that will be killed for the occasion. This is one of the rare times in which they will actually eat meat, since even if they breed the animals, they are mostly used for their milk, considered sacred. They will only kill an animal for marriages, funerals, or to offer them to the ancestors to protect them. But usually they will eat maize, some pumpkins that they can grow in rainy season, and milk. It is incredible how can they be so strong eating such few variety of food. Because they are indeed very strong, having one of the highest life expectancy of all the citizens in Namibia.
One of the first things that will surprise you when you look at them is their skin colour, specifically the difference in tonality in between men and women’s skin. The skin colour of the Himba women is of a beautiful ochre, while the men and children seem to have a more conventional black. This is due to the fact that ladies that had already had their first menstruation apply to their bodies, in a daily and almost religious basis, what is called Otjize, a mixture of animal’s butter fat and ochre, a stone very easy to grind and make powder off, that has a red coloration and that mixed with this animal fat or nowadays vaseline, protects them from the sun radiation, as well as from the bugs and other insects and that, of course, gives them a special look, very beautiful in my opinion. This ochre coloration also represents the colour of the land they live in and the colour of the blood that means life in their tradition. Every Himba lady will have her Otjize ready to use every day, kept safe in a small container, normally made of caw’s horn, and will apply it every morning, all over her body, before leaving her hut.
She will also take a morning “smoke bath”, which would be the equivalent to our daily shower, but that in this case, has not water involved at all. Himba women never shower or clean themselves with water or soap, they will only do so when they have their first menstruation and the day before getting married. In a such incredibly dry environment, creativity, as always, made its way. What they do instead of using the scarce water of the area, is to burn some aromatic herbs, plants, and twigs, mostly gathered from conifers, and burn them over a flat stone that all of them have at their homes. Once the smoke begins to appear, they will place themselves on this smoke, squatting over it, and cover themselves with a blanket, in a way that the smoke will go all over their bodies and intimate areas, making them smell really nice. Without soap. Without water. When they are finished with their body shower, they will take a conic object made also from twigs and branches called Otjihanda and they will cover the stone with this object and then they will take their clothes made of animal skin and put them over the cone to impregnate them with the perfumed smoke, given that the animal skin can not be washed with soap or water.
Every thing about them is extraordinary and we could be talking about their culture for hours…but I prefer you to come and visit them to really understand their uniqueness and also enjoy the magnificent views of the Kunene River and the Epupa Falls. You will feel wonderfully lost in this World, away from almost everything and at the same time, missing almost nothing. Making the effort of arriving to Epupa Falls is something that you will never regret. Every tourist that shows the interest of travelling so far to meet the Himba people and this incredible place, will help to keep their culture alive through their traditional life style, but also with new business opportunities that still help them to preserve their culture and identity, by for example buying some of their amazingly stylish jewels, made most of the times of iron beads from fences or recycled plastic tub pipes, or one of their Himba dolls, made to their resemblance and that will smell like them for a long time, making you dream back to them every time you smell it.
Greenlion Adventures accompanies you to remote places like this one, all over Namibia. Come with the pride to one of our guided or non-guided Namibian packages, or in a “made for you trip”. Namibia is now in one of its best moments ever, ready and waiting for you 😊
Many thanks to my friend Samuel Ndiaombe, himba man and guide in Epupa Falls