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Traditional lives in a harsh land

The Himba people of Namibia hold on to their ancient traditions.

india Updated: Sep 28, 2011 01:14 IST
Geetika jain
Geetika jain
Hindustan Times

As he pushed open the gate of woven branches Tommy said, Watch out for the landmines! When I flinched, he laughed, pointing to the cow dung in my way. We had driven all morning from Palmwag Lodge to the village of Ont Tjoridunda near Sesfontaine in the Kunene region of North West Namibia to visit the Himba Tribe.

Two young Himba men wearing loin cloths and carrying a stick each exchanged words with our guide and translator, Tommy, and let us into the round enclosure of mud huts and inner fences where chickens, dogs and goats scrambled about while the Himba ladies went about their daily business weaving ropes, feeding their babies maize porridge and braiding each other’s hair. A handful of them came over to meet me. They were truly stunning, with their long, muscular bodies covered in deep red powder. They wore the earth they lived in. Their harsh, arid, unyielding land was never coveted by colonialists or farmers and that kept them isolated, allowing them to maintain traditional ways that have not changed in centuries.


Before long, we warmed to each other. Curiosity was the natural ice breaker and they wanted to know why the lady from India had travelled so far. Each one had a name with a meaning. Kambututu means little. She had been small at birth. Kaihulwa had a rather humourous translation, you will never grab my property. They giggled as they explained their names, making their jewellery jingle and clink.

The women were bare breasted, with a loin cloth covering their waist. They showed me how they crushed ochre, mixed it with butter and aromatic herbs and applied it all over their bodies, hair, clothes and jewellery. It protects their skin against the sun and insects and makes them fragrant. The long coiled anklets help against snakebites. Every part of their dressed was symbolic. The unmarried girls had two braids in front of their foreheads. Those without children wore a thick necklace close to the neck and those who did have children showed how many in the strips on their anklets. Sherlock Holmes would have been in his element deciphering the clues.


The men were out, herding the cattle. Depending on how cow-rich the men are, they may have one or several wives. There seemed to be good camaraderie between the women, who raise each other’s children. Before I left they showed me the jewellery they made of leather, cowries and ostrich shells. There wasn’t the slightest hint of envy amongst them when I bought a few pieces. We gave them the raisins and flour we had brought along. They seemed to be delighted at the smallest things, at playing with their babies or making a beautiful trinket. Their worst fears were of a cheetah or a leopard making off with a calf or a goat. A Namibian once said, “God gave the white man a watch but he gave the black man time.” Perhaps those of us with hurtling lives ought to take a leaf out of the Himba way of life.

First Published: Sep 27, 2011 18:56 IST