by Sarah Corbett
The Himba of Northern Namibia are and ancient tribe. These visually stunning people survive by herding cattle and goats. Their lifestyle has changed little since the 16th century, and they continue to dwell in small settlements, enduring droughts and surviving conflicts. Their existence is perpetuated through tribal structures in on of Earth’s most inhospitable environments.
The Himba wear little in the way of clothing, however their appearance is very distinct due to the use of ‘Otjize’, a mixture of red ochre and butter. This gives both skin and hair a red tinge.
Traditionally both sexes are naked to the waist and wear skirts or loincloths which are made from animal skins.
The red ochre may in some part be used as protection from the sun, however, it mostly symbolises the earth and blood ( life-force). The ochre is key to the Himba ideals of beauty.
Women braid their hair, and cover the braids with the butter/ochre mixture. The hairstyles are indicators of age and status.
Girls have two plaits of braided hair. From the onset of puberty girls plaits are moved to the face and over their eyes, they can choose now to have more than two plaits. Married women wear headdresses and many plaits.
Single men wear one plait, and married men wear a multitude of plaits which are twisted in to a turban like arrangement and coated with Otjize.
Jewellery comprises of shells, leather and metals.
The women wear a leather or textile hair adornment once married, and a fine headband of fibres on the forehead from which small metal rings are suspended between the eyes. A multitude of leather, plant fibre and beaded circlets adorn the neck, each has it’s own patina from repeated layers of Otjize.
A horizontal pectoral adornment with rows of metal beads is the suspension point for a large shell known locally as the ‘Ohumba’. Men and women wear a multitude of bracelets, often long and made from ostrich shell beads, grass, cloth and copper,some weighing up to 40 kilos.
Similar anklets are worn, to protect the legs from snake bites. Stunning beltsof leather and shell adorn the hips along with a wide flat white geometrically engraved band which encircles the waist.
This pastoral lifestyle endures in an ever changing world, as does the imposing beauty of these proud, gentle people.