The Himba are an ethnic group of about 20,000 to 50,000 people , living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene region (formerly Kaokoland). They are a nomadic, pastoral people, closely related to the Herero, and speak the same language.

Daily Life

The Himba breed cattle and goats. The responsibility of milking the cows lies with the women. Women take care of the children, and one woman will take care of another woman's children. Women tend to perform more labor-intensive work than men do, such as carrying water to the village and building homes.

The Himba wear little clothing, but the women are famous for covering themselves with a mixture of butter fat, ochre, and herbs to protect themselves from the sun. The mixture gives their skins a reddish tinge. The mixture symbolizes earth's rich red color and the blood that symbolizes life. Women braid each others hair and cover it in their ochre mixture.

Modern clothes are scarce, but generally go to the men when available. Boys are generally circumcized before puberty.

Tribal Structure

Because of the harsh desert climate in the region where they live and their seclusion from outside influences the Himba have managed to maintain much of their traditional lifestyle. Members live under a tribal structure based on bilateral descent that helps them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth.

Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans, one through the father (a patriclan) and another through the mother (a matriclan). Himba clans are led by the eldest male in the clan. Sons live with their father's clan and when daughters marry they go to live with the clan of their husband. However inheritance of wealth does not follow the patrician but is determined by the matrician i.e. a son does not inherit his father's cattle but his maternal uncle's instead.

Bilateral descent is found among only a few groups in West Africa, India, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia and anthropologists consider the system advantageous for groups that live in extreme environments because it allows individuals to rely on two sets of families dispersed over a wide area.

Disaster and Adversity

The Himba's history is wrought with disasters, including severe droughts and guerrilla warfare, especially during Namibia's quest for independence and as a result of the civil war in neighboring Angola. In 1904, they suffered from the same attempt at genocide by the German colonial power under Lothar von Trotha that decimated other groups in Namibia, notably the Herero and the Nama.

In the 1980's it appeared the Himba way of life was coming to a close. A severe drought killed ninety percent of their cattle and many gave up their herds and became refugees in the town of Opuwo living in slums on international relief.


Since the 1990's, the Himba have been successful in maintaining control of their lands and have experienced a resurgence. Many Himba now live on nature conservancies that give them control of wildlife and tourism on their lands. They have worked with international activists to block a proposed hydro-electric dam along the Epupa Dam that would have flooded their ancestral lands.

The government of Namibia has provided mobile schools for Himba children. Vengapi Tijvinda, a grandmother in her 50s, says: "Life is still the same, but the children can read and write. I am a member of [a] conservancy, and we have tasted game meat again."



  • Peter Pickford, Beverly Pickford, Margaret Jacobsohn: Himba; ed. New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 1990; ISBN 978-1853680847
  • Klaus G. Förg, Gerhard Burkl: Himba. Namibias ockerrotes Volk; Rosenheim: Rosenheimer Verlagshaus, 2004; ISBN 3-475-53572-6 (in German)

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