Meeting the Himba

November 6th – Day Forty Three

With a long drive ahead of us to reach the Kunene camp near Opuwo we left at 7am. The drive was long and hot along Namibia dusty and dry dirt roads and is best forgotten. We arrived at the campsite in time to make lunch and have a bit of a relax. The afternoon’s activity was a trip out to a Himba tribe village and to facilitate our arrival and acceptance we were joined by Kiki, a man from the village, and we headed into town to buy a few gifts under Kiki’s direction. The Himba still live a fairly traditional life and they keep to their own ideas of dress and decoration; the woman go topless and both men and woman are covered head to toe in a red/brown mud and ochre mix.

A number of items were bought, both for the Himba (things like sugar and powdered milk, essentials basically) and ourselves (ice creams, chocolate, luxuries essentially). All loaded up we headed out down one of the myriad of dusty roads towards the Himba village. We turned off down an un-signposted track and soon came across the village, a loose collection of huts arranged without obvious reason in a cleared are. We all stayed in the truck while Kiki went out to announce our arrival – the Himba were not expecting us, as we turned up we could only see a couple of people in the village. Kiki was soon back saying we were welcome to visit and he then told us a number of things about the people, their beliefs and motives. Most major decisions that affected the people and the village as a whole were made using the assistance of the village elder and the villages sacred fire, a device used to communicate with the spirits. This particular village was said to not currently have an elder which apparently made it easier for us to visit.

Once Kiki was finished we got ourselves ready and looking to the village saw that our reception had grown from a few people to a group of probably thirty woman and children. There was only one man, an elderly gentleman who mainly stayed to the background and who was dressed in grey skins with a cap that made him look almost like a priest from the middle ages. We approached slowly and Kiki showed us how to greet the Himba woman – we were to walk through the group and shake hands while greeting them in their own language, to which end Kiki gave us a phrase to say in greeting. So we wandered through in no particular order or direction, greeting those who either engaged us in conversation, held out their hand, stared at us or any combination of the above. I thought I had upset someone at one point by missing them out and stood back looking a little abashed until they started laughing and beckoned me forward. It was noticed that Keryn had a water bottle and one lady asked Keryn if she could have it so Keryn gave it to her, it wasn’t something we really needed and she looked to want it more than we did.

The greetings continued and then we started to get our camera out and take a few photos. Jacques had bought the reflector off the truck and moved around lighting a few people who had agreed to have their photo taken. The skin of the Himba woman and children was ochre red and with the golden reflector adding a warm glow they all looked wonderful. The mud braids and hair decorations were slightly different on each woman, the children often having braided hair without the mud covering. There was also a wide selection of jewellery, normally necklaces and bracelets, wide belts and leather skirts, some with headbands and some with woven straps around their bodies. These were made of leather, beads and bone primarily, occasionally there being the odd bit of metal.

Trying on Rachel's sunglasses for size, a little large I think
Trying on Rachel’s sunglasses for size, a little large I think

As time went on the people came more relaxed, the children especially more friendly and even demanding. Digital cameras are obviously something they had seen before as the children were soon asking for their photo to be taken and then reviewing the results, articulate fingers soon figuring out the playback controls. They also took photos to their own great amusement, it requiring a bit more than gentle persuasion to get control of the camera back. Helen had gone over to see some children being few and had submitted to having her hair braided by the local kids. She spent the best part of a half hour sitting while the children worked on her hair, it looked quite interesting once they were done, the skills and application of the individual children being fantastic but together there was no coherent design leaving Helen with hair pointing in all directions like some gothic take on Pippi Longstockings perhaps from a film by Tim Burton.

Helen getting her Himba braids from the children
Helen getting her Himba braids from the children

There was one woman showing us how they made the red mud paste and all those that wanted had some of the mud applied to our arms. As the afternoon shadows lengthened the woman formed a circle and started dancing with the children eventually joining in. Helen was part of the circle and had one very energetic dance, hair flying everywhere as she spun with a Himba woman around the middle of the circle. They danced and sang for quite a while, I think almost forgetting we were there as they enjoyed their own entertainment.

Lost in the dance
Lost in the dance

It came to an end eventually and they returned to their bags and started to set up an impromptu market so we could look at and buy some of their wares. Those that were interested walked around the displays, the woman sitting behind each group of bracelets and other items beckoning people forward and suggesting items for purchase. Keryn and I both bought bracelets which we’ve been wearing ever since though my bone bracelet is a little annoying to wear when typing. Once our purchasing was done we headed back to the truck where a few of our crew were being mobbed by kids looking for sweets. A few stern words were required to discourage the children from preventing our entry into the truck. People were soon back on the truck and with Kiki saying our goodbyes we were away back to camp.

The evening proceeded as evenings do with duties, dinner and talk around the truck of the coming days activities. A kitty competition was held before dinner, Charles the outright winner (kitty is the South African word for a small slingshot and we were using the two we had to fling stones at a can). There was a promise of wind so we all had pegged down our tents, thankfully the wind never arrived so it was a pleasant nights sleep.

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