As the world blazes forward into the bright, and sometimes blinding, light of progress and all that is modern, there are those who continue to dwell in the beautiful simplicity of the past. The Himba people, an ancient tribe of semi-nomadic herders, still hold on to their ancestors’ traditions, and have resisted modernizing despite the rapidly-changing world surrounding them. The Himba are a proud and exquisite people. They are a famously gracious people, too, and warmly welcome strangers into their village. You may wonder why the Himba people refuse to embrace modern conveniences we find indispensable. Read on, and perhaps you will understand . . .
Day break. Sun rise. The world, and the Himba people, turn over and awaken.
Life in the rugged, remote regions of north-central Namibia is not easy, yet every morning at dawn the Himba people rise, joyful to begin their daily routines. Upon waking, the women apply otjize—a paste of butter, fat, red ochre, and aromatic resin—to their bodies and intricately-plaited hair. The deep red paste protects their skin from insects and heat, and it also stains their skin with the distinctive red color for which they have become famous. The women then dress in goatskin skirts embellished with shells, iron, and copper jewelry, and the striking, cattle-horn-like headgear also donned by their relatives, the Herero. While the men do not apply otjize, they too wear loin cloths of goatskin. Once dressed, the women make their way to a pen at the village center, where the tribe’s young livestock—goats, cattle, sheep—are waiting. Once milked, the men lead the animals to pasture for the day. When the pasture’s offerings disappear, the Himba people travel to a new location, where their livestock can once again eat to their fill.
Mid-day. The sun reaches its zenith. The air shimmers under the intense desert sun.
The men are still tending the livestock. The women remain busy in the village, a cluster of round homes, made from sapling posts and domed roofs of dung and mud. Also at the village center is the okuruwo, or holy fire. This fire, which is kept continuously alight, is the bridge between the living and the dead, the line of communication between the village chief and the ancestors, who speak to the Himba’s god, Mukuru, on behalf of the living. All houses’ doorways face away from the holy fire, with the exception of the chief’s house, which allows its sacred glow to light his domain both day and night, assuring his link to the other side is never interrupted. Ancestor worship is perhaps the most important link the Himba people maintain from their past.
Nightfall. The ground cools as the Himba people ready for sleep. Lines between worlds are crossed.
Oftentimes, the chief can be found, aglow in the fire’s light, holding communion with tribal ancestors, perhaps asking for a blessing, or guidance. Each night, before the Himba people retire, an ember from the sacred fire is carried, lovingly, carefully, into the chief’s house. There, it is kept safe, aglow, alive. In the morning, this ember is used to reignite the sacred fire, which naturally weakened as the stars turned overhead.