The very last thing I wanted to do in Namibia was visit the Himbas.
“It was very offensive,” a 24-year-old German woman struggled to say. We pulled to the side of the road for her hungover friend to lean against the dusty van. We were a group of eight, on our way outside of Swakopmund to go sandboarding down the dunes when visiting a Himba village was mentioned.
“They grabbed our hands and put stuff in them for us to buy. We didn’t have a translator, so we had no idea what was going on. It was a show.”
“George?” I turned around to my guide. “Will visiting the Himbas be offensive?”
He shook his head. “Not if you you don’t make it offensive.”
Himbas, who are indigenous to Namibia, are considered the last nomadic people of the country and one of the last of Africa. In the 16th century, when they were still a part of the Herero tribe, they migrated across the Angolan border to the Kunene region. At the end of the 19th century, most of their cattle died from a bovine epidemic. As cattle herders, some migrated south for survival while others stayed in the Kunene region. This was when the tribe split. The Himbas stayed in their territory and the Hereros — who George descended from — migrated south.
The evening before my group was set to visit a village near Opuwo, George drove out to find the Himbas and arrange for us to meet them. He returned to our lodge a few hours later and explained to us over a Tafel Lager the do’s and don’ts for the next morning.
“Greet everyone with “morro morro.” Shake by curling fingers and thumbs with each other. Don’t walk between the holy fire and the livestock pen. Don’t give away money freely. Buy only what you want.”
“But very important, be relaxed. You get from the Himbas what you give to them.”
The next morning, we drove to the Himba village of Ohunguomure. The village was enclosed in a wooden fence, lined with huts built from a mixture of cow dung and red clay soil. Children, some naked and some in oversized shirts, followed us around the village as their bare-chested mothers sat in a circle and men in Westernized clothing huddled behind a hut. Some of the women, their skin smooth with the rusted color of otjize paste, motioned for us to sit with them.
One woman rubbed her thumb up and down the screen of her dusty iPhone. Another tuned her radio emitting music broken with static before asking George if we had any pain killers. One in a green shirt and black shorts, much different than the other women with bare breasts and calfskin skirts, asked George something in Otjihimba, a dialect of the Herero language.
He nodded at me. “She asks how old you are.”
She smiled and pointed at herself.
“She is too,” he said.
We were led into one of the elder’s huts. Sitting on cowhide rugs, the daughter of the elder spoke to us in Otjihimba. George translated for her as she crushed the ochre into powder and mixed it with butterfat in a cattle horn. She then perfumed the paste by burning the Omuzumba shrub, passing the fragrant smoke under our noses. She intimately rubbed the paste on my forearm. George explained that this otjize paste is coated on their skin daily to protect them against the sun while keeping their skin clean and moisturized. She handed me a chip of ochre.
“She says for you to take a piece of the Himbas back with you to your country,” George said.
The hut was adorned in ceremonial headdresses and beads, which she modeled for us. She explained that before a woman reaches puberty, she styles two plaits of braided hair towards the front of her head. After puberty, she then textures her hair into plaits coated in otjize paste. After a year of marriage, she begins to wear the erembe crown made from goatskin and molded with the rust-colored clay.
Through George, the Himba woman went into detail on various customs of the village, such as their polygamous lifestyle, their dependence on cattle, and the roles of men and women. Women, who typically dress more traditionally than the men, do most of the labor-intensive work. They carry the water, collect firewood, cook meals, construct the huts, and craft clothing and jewelry to wear and sell. The men care for the livestock, slaughter the animals, and tend to political matters. She showed us some of the hut’s utensils made from recycled materials such as calabash, leather, wood, metal, gemstones, plastic from pipes, and cow tails, which are used for sweeping the huts.
Outside the hut, two of the elders were seated on the ground with jewelry and various crafts between their stretched legs. George explained that we were to buy from them before the rest of the women, who by then had gathered in a large circle nearby the hut to set out their items.
One of the elders put a metal bracelet colored with ochre powder on my wrist. She smiled and kissed my hand, her tongue sticking through gapped teeth.
Before we walked into the circle of Himba women, George handed us bags of hard candy, a loaf of bread, and sugar. “Give the sweets to the children. The bread and sugar are for the village.”
We gave each child a sweet. They sucked on their candy, sugary juice running down their chins from open-mouthed smiles. They jumped from a blue, upside down Ford truck bed, twisting in midair for us to photograph. One boy posed against a hut for a picture next to a smoky fire while three others chased a herd of goats.
When we formally said goodbye to the Himbas and thanked them for their hospitality, a group of four — two women and two men — asked for a ride into town.
“Where were they going?” I asked George after they got out of the van and walked into a crowd of jean and t-shirt wearing teenagers and Victorian-style dressed Herero women.
“To the doctor,” he said. “One of them is sick. They are probably going into town for a beer, but I don’t ask questions. Now they have some money from selling their crafts.”
The Himbas have felt the deep effects of tourism — an effect that creates conflict as they’re pressured to play up their routine lifestyle while also being influenced by the money and items from the Western world such as cell phones, radios, pain killers, and non-traditional clothing. This conflict disrupts the natural process and progression of the Himba culture that has existed for thousands of years. When tourists visit without an appropriate guide who can translate, their uneducated visit vandalizes the Himbas’ authentic identity by turning the experience into a spectacle rather than a transformative opportunity. Visiting a village to take pictures, paying whatever is asked, and leaving with no genuine interaction poses a damaging threat to this fascinating and fantastic culture of Namibia.
Rated as one of the fastest-growing tourism industries in the world with an average increase of 6.6% tourist arrivals each year, Namibia is quickly becoming one of the top destinations to visit in the Sub-Saharan Africa. And with this growth, tourism has become a strong influence on the economic and social development of local communities.
As these communities are involved in the industry, they have the potential to reap the benefits when tourism is done in a respectful and educational way. As the Himbas embrace their traditional culture as well as their natural progression by means of their own resources, visitors like myself have the opportunity to learn about their lifestyle in a transformative experience without losing the essence of culture in the interaction.
George turned around in his seat to face us as we left Opuwo. “You all were relaxed.”
We told him it was largely in part because of him.
“Ah, no,” he laughed. “It was because of you. And because of the Himbas.”