Photo Series: Portrait of the Himba

By Susan Portnoy. Susan is a communications and public relations consultant who writes and photographs as The Insatiable Traveler. She also contributes to Yahoo Travel, Wendy Perrin, Solo Traveler, and is a blogger on the Huffington Post.

In the desert of Namibia’s remote Kunene region bordering Angola, live the Himba, a fascinating, semi-nomadic people whose way of life has virtually remained unchanged from that of their ancestors.  They live in huts made of sand, wood and dung, wear loincloths of soft leather and are best known for spreading an iconic paste of red ochre and butter fat, called otjize on their face, body and hair. They are a beautiful people: tall and statuesque with penetrating eyes, high cheekbones and sculpted lips. And for a few hours this past March, I had the pleasure of their hospitality.

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This is Krocodile – a name given to her by the local community after she survived a crocodile attack 10 years before. She’s the matriarch of the small Himba village I visited near the banks of the Kunene River, the dividing line between Namibia and Angola. She’s 42 years-old—at least that’s what my guide, Gerhardus, thought, he couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t sure. The Himba care little about age in the western sense, their lives are marked by milestones such as the onset of puberty, marriage and the bearing of children. A mother of ten, Krocodile’s youngest son still crawls.

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Himba mothers are loving and attentive but they don’t hover. There are no helicopter moms here. This is Krocodile’s son, crawling across the hot sand towards his mother a hundred or so feet in front of him. Though she saw him coming, she didn’t attempt to pick him up, knowing that he would make it to her eventually. Instead she sat on a blanket, focusing on arranging the jewelry she’d made. The Namib desert is unforgiving with its severe landscapes and extreme temperatures, and I would imagine moments like these are very important for the emotional growth of a Himba child. They must be strong, self-sufficient and brave. There’s no room for coddling. Love, absolutely. But coddling, never.

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As a Himba female ages, her development and status is distinguished by a series of unique hairstyles. As a young child, her hair will be closely cropped to her head. Prior to puberty, she’ll wear two braids fashioned to fall forward on top of the forehead. The young girl in this photo above is approximately 15 years old. Her hair has been braided and then covered with otijize paste and extended with goat hair to give it that pom pom look. After she’s married for a year, or has a child, she will wear an elaborate oval headpiece made from sheepskin called an Erembe. Men on the other hand have very simple coifs. Their hair is worn close to the head until they are married at which time they don a large cap, which they’ll never remove unless widowed.

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A view of the village as we approached in our vehicle. As a pastoral and matriarchal community, the Himba raise goats and herd cattle, and their ownership is passed down from mother to daughter. The more cattle a woman owns the greater her status and that of her family. During my visit the men were miles away, grazing the cattle wherever they could find food and water. While the men tend and protect the cattle, the women are responsible for much of the hard labor including raising the children, building their modest huts, preparing the food, collecting water—which for this village was miles away—and making the jewelry that they wear and sell to travelers.

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While sitting in a circle, the children play a game similar to Jacks. Twelve stones are placed in a shallow impression in the sand. Each child takes a turn throwing a 13th stone in the air. While the stone is on the way up, the player uses the same throwing hand to pick up one stone from the sand while making sure to catch the stone in the air before it hits the ground. With every successful throw the player has to increase the number of stones he picks up. As soon as a player drops a stone or fails to pick up the right number of stones from the ground, the game moves on to the next person. The winning child is the one who picks up all 12 stones from the ground without ever dropping the stone in the air.

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Arranged by the team at Serra Cafema, the camp at which I was stayed, I spent nearly 8 hours over two days with the Himba. When the women learned that I was single and had no children —an unthinkable scenario from their perspective—they looked at me as if I had three heads. Familial ties are a prerequisite for survival in such a formidable environment. Their tribal structure is based on “bilateral decent” meaning that each member belongs to two clans, providing them with strong ties to the families of both parents.

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The desire to play is universal. A piece of fabric or plastic ball left behind by a traveler, it doesn’t take much to inspire the imagination!

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Is she pretending to have big girl hair? Dancing with her imaginary friends? I’ll never know but she was absolutely adorable. A tiny fireball bursting with unbridled energy.

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Who needs video games when you have miles and miles of sand to play in?

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Braided leather necklaces, small beaded breastplates, the use of shells and other adornments, jewelry is an essential component of a Himba woman’s appearance. They love embellishment and will spend hours making jewelry to wear and to sell. The scarf worn by this woman is not a typical Himba accessory however. When I asked why she was the only one not wearing the signature braids, I was told that her scalp “was sick,” and that she had to shave her head. She would wear the scarf until her hair grew back.

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With the scarcity of water in the desert, the Himba women rarely, if ever, bathe. Instead, they apply the otjize paste—scented with aromatic resins—every morning in a grooming ritual that can take 2-3 hours. The mixture is a deep orange and symbolizes the earth’s red color and blood, the essence of life. Besides the protection it provides the wearer from the sun and biting insects, the use of otjize is considered the ideal of Himba beauty.

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Ankle cuffs made from leather and metal are not only beautiful but protect the wearer from biting snakes and insects.

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The day-to-day care of the children is a group endeavor, with the older children watching over the younger members of the village.

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In addition to the jewelry they sell, the Himba create dolls in their likeness, complete with braids and Otjize paste.

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Curiosity, laughter, a smile that could light up the world. This young man (all the children actually) was enamored with the buttons on my camera. He loved to push them and watch the lights flash and the LCD light up. I took out my iPhone and was amazed to see that he already knew how to swipe to make the screen change. I knew that I was far from the first traveler to visit, but considering how remote the village it still surprised me.

Which photo and story is your favorite? Let Susan know in the comments, below!