Himba: the red women of Namibia

Somewhere in the world, in one of the most pristine areas of the planet, there are still ancestral traditions that have not been affected by external influences and that continue to intrigue the whole of humanity. We are talking about the Himba people, that is right, the red-skinned people living in northern Namibia, in the wild region of Kaokoland. 

The Himba tribe descends from Herera people who had taken shelter in the state of Angola in 1800, around 1920 the red-skinned group returned to their homeland without coming into contact with the German colonizers. Thanks to the absence of closeness and union with Europeans, today this indigenous community is the testimony of a very ancient tradition rooted in its life. The Himba know the modern world surrounding them, but they have decided to live in a primitive way respecting the habits and customs of their culture. 

How does this people of nomadic shepherds live? The Himba follow their herds transhumance and therefore move two or three times during the year. They live in the villages where they build small huts with leaves and branches of Mopane, the butterfly tree typical of Africa, held together by a mixture of dung and mud. Here the women take care of the family, milk the animals (cows and goats are a fundamental element for the tribe) and provide water to their clan. In this ethnic group the private property does not exist, the goods belong to the whole community. The women who live in the villages in contact with tourists make and sell handmade items such as necklaces, souvenirs and pendants, they always wear very striking jewellery. 

One of this people most distinguishing features is the colour of the women skin that intrigues those who are lucky enough to come across the culture of this ethnic group. There is nothing magical, esoteric or bewitched hidden behind this custom, the mixture of ochre, animal fat and herbs is slathered on the women body and hair to protect themselves from the sun and insects. Now the red people “secret” is revealed. Whereas, men does not have a red skin because they only use a mixture of ash and animal fat. 

Another interesting feature is women’s hair, or rather their hairstyles that represent the different stages of life. The younger ones have their hair tied in two large braids; after puberty women have many braids and married women add antelope skin. The boys, on the other hand, are completely shaved, they only have a tuft of hair in the centre of their head; whereas married men wear a hat which they take off to sleep or in case of bereavement. The clothes are very simple, men and women only wear a skirt made with goat skin, sometimes made of fabric. 

It is beautiful and, in some way, reassuring to know that in the world still exist traditions that are strong enough to survive modernity, change and globalization. 

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