The Himba, popular as Omuhimba/Ovahimba, are indigenous people living in northern Namibia in the Kunene Region (formerly Kaokoland) and Southern Angola. They are a nomadic community believed to have originated from Central and West Africa.

These indigenous people are unique in that they still uphold their traditional practices. Most still don traditional clothing, consisting of loincloths and miniskirts from animal skin. They are also easily distinguishable by their skin; they rub red ochre and fat all over their bodies, which helps protect them from the scorching Namibian sun giving them a brilliant reddish tinge.


They speak Otjihimba, a dialect of Herero, which is a Bantu language. The estimated population of the speakers is about 50,000.


They have a traditional system of government based on chiefdoms, where head chiefs decide day-to-day matters. Being of bilateral descent(a family arrangement where descent and inheritance are passed equally through both parents), every tribe member belongs to two clans. One through paternal (oruzo) and another through maternal (eanda) clans, with the clans being led by the eldest male. Sons live with their father's clan, and when daughters marry, they go to live with the clan of their husbands. However, the inheritance of wealth does not follow the patriclan but is determined by the matriclan. That means a son does not inherit his father's cattle but his maternal uncle's. 

Along with the inheritance of wealth, moral obligations are also important within the tribal structure. When a person dies, they evaluate the care of those who are left behind, such as orphans and widows. Access to water points and pastures is also part of the inheritance structure.


The Himba believe in a supreme god, Mukuru and ancestor worship and rituals concerning okoruwo (a sacred fire), which is considered an important link between the living and the dead. They believe that Mukuru only blesses, while the ancestors can bless and curse. Each family has an okoruwo which is always positioned between the entrance to the kraal (village) and the door of the main dwelling.

The fire-keeper approaches the sacred ancestral fire every seven to eight days to communicate with Mukuru and the ancestors on behalf of his family. Flames from the okoruwo are used for daily rituals and special ceremonies like births, deaths, marriages and circumcision.

They also believe in omiti, which is black magic. Some claim that death is caused by omiti or by someone using omiti for malicious purposes. Additionally, some believe that evil people who use omiti have the power to place bad thoughts into others' minds or cause extraordinary events to happen.

Users of omiti do not always attack their victims directly. Sometimes they target a relative or loved one. Diviners are consulted to reveal the reason behind an extraordinary event or the source of an omiti.


The Himba primarily keep livestock, and they determine their wealth. On average, a family can have about 100 herds of cattle, while the rich possess about 500 herds.

They also grow crops such as maize and millet. Some foraging still occurs, mainly for nuts and honey. Hunting was also practised in the past but is now prohibited.


It is a traditional custom to knock out the four lower incisors between the ages of ten and twelve. This has a significant social and religious meaning in the life of an Ovahimba. 

There are also several initiation rites for boys and girls. Boys are circumcised while girls undergo a ritual where they have to leave the homestead during their first menstrual cycle and are allowed to return later in the company of experienced older women, followed by a little celebration among friends.


The OvaHimba are polygamous. They also practice early arranged marriages where young Himba girls are married to male partners chosen by their fathers. It happens at the onset of puberty, which may mean that girls aged 10 or below are married off. However, this practice is illegal in Namibia but is nevertheless widespread. 

Among the Himba people, it is customary as a rite of passage to circumcise boys before puberty. Upon marriage, a Himba boy is considered a man, while the girl has to bear a child to become a fully-fledged woman.

Marriage involves transactions of cattle, which are the source of their wealth. Brideprice is negotiated between the groom's family and the bride's father and depends on the relative poverty of the families involved. 

For the bride's family to accept the bridewealth, the cattle must appear of high quality. It is standard practice to offer an ox, but more cattle are offered if the groom's father is wealthy and capable of offering more.


Young girls have two plaits (ozondato) of braided hair whose form is dictated by the oruzo (patrilineal descent group) membership. Right before puberty, the girls wear long plaited styles that hang loose around the head.

Once the girls complete puberty, the ekori festival takes place. They are given the ekori headdress made from tanned sheep's or goatskin with three leaf-shaped points, often decorated with iron beads.

Girls belonging to some groups have their hair shaved off except for a small bush on top of their heads. The shaved-off hair is then used to make plaits, which are woven into the remaining hair and hang down over the face.

Himba males also wear different hairstyles, such as the single plait, ondato, worn by young boys down the back of the head, two plaits, ozondato, worn by Himba men of marriageable age and the ombwiya headdress, a scarf made from a fabric covering the hair and decorated with an ornamental band.

The offering of sex to guests

The Omuhimba woman has little or no opinion in decision-making, and submission to her husband's demands comes first. When a visitor shows up, the man shows his approval and pleasure of seeing his guest by giving him the Okujepisa Omukazendu treatment(the wife is given to his guest to spend the night while the husband sleeps in another room). If there is no available room, her husband will sleep outside. There is a belief that this practice reduces jealousy and fosters relationships.

 Bathing in smoke

One of the most remarkable Himba traits is that women are not allowed to use water for washing. According to the elderly, this dates back to the droughts when water was scarce, and only men were allowed access to water for washing purposes. 

The women take a smoke bath and apply aromatic resins to their skin to maintain hygiene. They cover themselves with a blanket for a full-body wash, so the smoke gets trapped underneath the fabric. Smouldering charcoal is placed inside a bowl of herbs (usually leaves and little branches of Commiphora trees), and the smoke ascends. After that, they bow over the smoking bowl, and due to the heat, they start sweating.

Red ochre 

They apply red ochre on their skin and are guided by the belief that the colour red signifies Earth and blood. Their red skin is one of the things that make them unique. 

The red colour is from the otjize paste (a combination of butterfat, omuzumba scrub and ochre/hematite) and its function is to protect their skin from the harsh desert sun and insect bites.


The different neckpieces determine the importance and status of the person (man, woman or child).  

For a married woman, the main necklace has a shell or cone shell, which symbolizes marriage and is strung with iron and ostrich egg beads. 

The ankles and the most private parts of a woman's body are covered with iron bracelets. Their wrists are covered with coils of iron and plastic etched bands. On their head, they wear an ornate headpiece called the Erembe, which resembles cattle horns. 

Adult women wear beaded anklets to protect their legs from venomous animal bites and a large white shell (ohumba) on the breast.

It is important to note how valuable our cultures are and the need to uphold them for continuity, as depicted by the Ovahimba. 


Peter Pickford, Beverly Pickford, Margaret Jacobsohn: Himba; ed. New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 1990; ISBN 978-1-85368-084-7

Five interesting facts about the Himba people

Join the Lughayangu Community!

Lughayangu Newsletter