tribe in Namibian where sex is offered to guests to express honour and foster
Kunene and Omusati regions in Northern Namibia have an upheld culture that has
defied western influence and agitation.
With a population of over 50,000, the women engage in the daily activity of
milking their cows, taking care of the children and other extensive duties
while the men go hunting leaving, sometimes, for an extended period of time.
These nomads’ wealth is determined by the number of cattle one has. A
polygamous people, the Himba girls are married off to male partners selected by
their fathers once they attain puberty.
You cannot ignore the red skin they have. The red colour seen on their skin is
called, the otjize paste (a combination of butterfat, omuzumba scrub and ochre)
and its function is to protect their skin from the sun and insect bites. They
are also guided by the belief that the colour red signifies “Earth and blood”.
Rather than take their baths, the women take a smoke bath and apply aromatic
resins on their skin.
They are the original traditional Herero who crossed the Kunene and came from
Angola to Namibia in the middle of the 16th century. They settled in the
Kaokoveld, the north-western part of Namibia and lived a semi-nomadic, pastoral
The early history of the Herero was fraught with severe droughts and other
disasters. Large groups of the Herero people left the Kaokoveld and looked for
better grazing grounds for their herds in the south-east.
The remaining Herero in the Kaokoveld came under attack from the Swartbooi and
Topnaar Nama in the 19th century. The Nama entered the Kaokoveld from the
south, also looking for better grazing grounds. In 1850 the Nama established a
base in Sesfontein from where they organized raids against the Herero of the
Kaokoveld. Due to the fact that the Herero were widely scattered and the Nama
had much better weapons, large cattle herds were raided from the Herero in the
next 20 years.
As the situation deteriorated and the loss of their material and social wealth
increase the Herero of the Kaokoveld fled over the Kunene River into Angola and
took shelter with the Ngambwe, which granted support to the refugees. They
called the Herero “Ovahimba”, which means “beggar” in the language spoken by
the Ngambwe. Over the years the Herero took over this name still use it until
Most of the Ovahimba followed a popular warrior named Vito back to Namibia in
1920. Ever since and up to the Namibian independence in 1990 the Himba were
able to live their traditional lifestyle. During the recent years the Ovahimba
have been more exposed to the influences of the modern world, although this
mainly refers to the consumption of unhealthy foods, cool drinks and alcohol.
The positive achievements of modern society like a proper health system, modern
schools, pension funds etc. did not yet reach the majority of Ovahimba.
The Ovahimba are a monotheistic people who believe in Mukuru, the creator of
the world, a god who is a vague and distant entity. The belief in ancestral
spirits is much more essential and present. The ancestral spirits are believed
to have received supernatural qualities by Mukuru and thus have the power to
influence the life of the living. The ancestral spirits are the representative
of Mukuru and thus communicate between the Ovahimba (or the human being in
general) and the god.
The place where most of the religious conversation takes place is the holy fire
(okuruwo), a sacred place which is kept by the fire keeper. The holy fire
should always smolder, because it is the sacred connection between the
ancestors and the living. Every family (every homestead) has an own holy fire
which is placed in the middle between the main hut of the homestead and the
SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND RITES
The Ovahimba live in large homesteads together with their extended families.
They still practice polygamy; an average Ovahimba husband has two wives. Each
of the wives has her own hut, the main wife resides in the main hut opposite
the entrance of the kraal. Marriages are often arranged by kin. It happens that
even infants are betrothed to adult man in a wedding ceremony. The marriage is
never consummated until the girl reaches menarche and becomes an adult.
The Ovahimba have both, maternal and paternal systems, that means that every
person in the Ovahimba community is a member of both their maternal and
paternal clans. There is a complex inheritance system with mainly material
wealth inherited from the maternal line (often from uncle to nephew) and social
status inherited from the paternal line.
It is a traditional custom to knock out the four lower incisors at the age
between ten and twelve. This has a big social and religious meaning in the life
of an Ovahimba. There are also several initiation rites for boys and girls.
Boys are circumcised, girls undergo a ritual where they have to leave the
homestead during their menarche and are allowed to return back later in company
of experienced older women, followed by a little celebration among friends.
NOMADISM, SUBSISTENCE ECONOMY AND DAILY LIFE
Traditionally the Ovahimba are a so-called “zero-income cultures”. They define
wealth solely based upon the number of cattle the family owns. Besides having
large cattle herds, the Ovahimba breed goats and sheep, grow crops such as
maize and millet. However their main diet is milk and milk products like sour
milk as well as wild herbs, chicken eggs and meat.
During the dry season some members of the extended family leave the homestead
with their herds to find water and grazing grounds in remote areas. Part of the
family stays at the homestead.
The Ovahimba are known as the “red nomads” of Namibia. Especially the women,
but also some men are famous for covering themselves with a perfumed mixture of
ochre pigment and butterfat which has cosmetic characteristics. In fact,
Ovahimba women never wash themselves with water but are very neat when it comes
to personal hygiene. The ochre fat protects the Ovahimba against the sun and
the climate of the extremely hot Kaokoveld and is also an effective mosquito
The hair style and the jewelry are very important in the traditions of the
Ovahimba. Hair styles indicate social status and age.
SEX BEING OFFERED TO GUEST
Give honour to whom it is due: This saying is applied differently in this
tribe. When a visitor comes knocking, a man shows his approval and pleasure of
seeing his guest by giving him the Okujepisa Omukazendu treatment. This
practice literally means that his wife is given his guest to spend the night
while the husband sleeps in another room. In a case where there is no available
room, her husband will sleep outside.
This handed down tradition has its “benefits” in the community: it reduces
jealousy and fosters relationships. The woman has little or no opinion in the
decision making. Submission to her husband’s demands come first. She has an
option of refusing to sleep with him but has to sleep in the same room as the
She is also entitled to give her friends to her husband when they visit but
this rarely happens.