Protecting the Himba people of Namibia is a must.
We ought to work out ways to preserve the Himba culture and helping it thrive again.
Traveling abroad to meet different cultures is definitely one of the main aspects of international tourism. However, before including the visit to isolated tribes such as the Himba people to your itinerary, it’s important to ask yourselves how you can travel responsibly to meet them without jeopardizing their habits, traditions and cultural heritage in general.
Another thing that – as responsible travelers – you need to think about before traveling to distant lands to meet tribes is whether your visit can bring benefit to the local population. You should only embark on the trip if so.
Make sure to read my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
In this post, I will suggest the best ways in which responsible travel can help protect the Himba people in Namibia. Before doing so, let me tell you how my group and I went about approaching the Himba people, and give you some background information the Himba culture.
What To Know About The Himba People Of Namibia
Namibia culture is a surprising mix of tribes and ethnicities, counting about a dozen ethnic groups. The most well known tribes to international travellers are the Himba ones, probably because of their very interesting appearance and customs.
The Himba people live in the north-western part of Namibia. Many of them still live a traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle, sharing their very simple villages with their goats which are the main source of food and wealth in general.
While Himba men spend most of their time outside of the villages looking after the cattle, Himba women are the ones in charge for the village, where they cook, clean up and look after their many kids.
Himba women go topless, only wearing handmade, traditional jewelry and a pretty simple leather skirt. Other distinctive features are their hair, braided and covered in red mud and butter, as well as their skin, covered in a paste made of ochre, butter and spices.
The Himba people are semi-nomadic and they move according to the rain. Whenever there are heavy rains, they will follow them. But heavy rains haven’t come in a long time and people as well as their animals are suffering. Tourists however can visit Namibia in any season. This means they can help – it is just a matter of picking the right way to travel.
Himba people hardly have access to healthcare and they wish to receive medicines. This is a sensitive topic, because most of them can’t read and it wouldn’t be responsible to just leave medicines in the village: children could easily access it, and nobody would really know what they are for, making it very risky.
Approaching The Himba People Of Namibia
There are many ways to visit a place and the idea is to pick the most responsible one, the one that supports the local community and doesn’t bring any damage.
On March 2019 I visited Namibia with Nomadic Tribe, who handpicked a local operator working in a way that supports the local population in many different ways. During this trip I had the chance to meet Himba people in different locations, before stopping and camping at a Himba village for a few days to really get involved in the village life.
GOOD TO KNOW: You can view and book their tours via the newly launched Nomadic Tribe app – currently available on iOS.
During the 5-days-long journey all the way up to the border with Angola – where our small group of researchers was going to stop for the Himba village experience – we mainly stayed in the wild thanks to a local backup team, following a strict “zero-impact” camping style, not leaving anything behind.
For 2 nights we stayed in a self-catering, simple yet lovely lodge run by locals within the Orupembe conservancy, called Etaambura Camp.
Not far from this lodge is a Himba village, so we invited the Himba chief of the area and his sister for dinner to ask them directly about their views on tourism. I can’t think of a better way to get right, unbiased answers!
The Chief’s name was Uapenga and his sister’s one was Uatambauka. We sat together at the table of our lodge and after introducing each other we started asking questions. With the help of our backup team we were able to translate and understand each other.
We were told that some tourists help and some others don’t, and that it’s important to promote responsible tourism: community campsites provide support for the Himba people, especially in the last few years with severe droughts.
When we stayed at the Himba village we were told that only 1 person before us actually stayed there with the Himbas in history, and it was a National Geographic reporter. This doesn’t mean that the Himba people never see visitors, but sadly it means that most tourists are not truly interested in spending time with them.
We were told that most of the time all visitors do is take photos and some of them even avoid physical contact with the Himbas, which they find offensive.
During my trip to Namibia with Nomadic Tribe we aimed to meet the Himba people and get to know them as much as possible, spending some time with them and not just passing by to snap some photos – a shameful behavior also known as “human safari” – as most tours do.
With the help of the local operator we achieved our goal in a way that not only didn’t bring damage to the Himba people, but also positively impacted their protection and culture, thanks to the right choices made in the preparation process.
14 Ways To Help The Himba People Of Namibia
People are different, not better or worse. Responsible tourism doesn’t have the presumption of “helping.” The goal is to positively impact the protection of the local culture and environment.
If you really want to make sure you have a positive impact on the Himba people of Namibia as a traveler, there are a few things you can and should do. The following is a summary.
Pick an ethical local operator
First of all make sure to pick an ethical, local operator, and even before starting the trip sit together, explain what you are expecting from your trip, and decide how to do it with the guide’s suggestions.
Pick campsites or lodges that give back to the community
The money paid by each guest at Etaambura Camp – more than 6.000 Euros in 2018 alone – goes to the local conservancy which is run by locals who spend the money within the conservancy. Also, the Orupembe conservancy is owned by Himbas. In other words: make sure to stay in places that give back to the community.
Approach your final destination slowly
Make sure to approach your final destination slowly, getting to know the territory first, its geography, understanding its history and gathering all the information you need about the local tribes thanks to your guide before actually meeting them.
Think about landing in Namibia without knowing anything about the country and its tribes, and going straight to a Himba village for the night. Wouldn’t it be awkward, rough and too intense for both you and the Himbas? Would you even know what to say and how to act?
The golden rule for gifting is to stick to things that are familiar to and needed by the Himba people. The village we visited was in need for durable pottery – some women were cooking in tin cans! – and containers in general, preferably not plastic ones for obvious reasons.
Other things that the Himba people will appreciate are covers and fabric in general, against the cold desert nights.
As for food, the best things to take to a Himba village are maize flour, rice and clean water.
Buying local products helps local families, avoids unnecessary heavy luggage (hence extra C02 emissions) and makes sure that you find exactly what the Himbas would buy: familiar food.
In case you’re wondering what exactly to buy, be reassured that a knowledgeable guide knows what is best to bring and what is needed at a specific time. You will also need the guide to help you with the shopping for translation purposes.
A goat is a good gift
Livestock is the main source of livelihood for the Himba people. You may think that it’s easy to have food when you have a flock of goats, but this is far from the truth. Animals must be fed, watered and taken care of, plus killing a goat a day would leave the Himba villages without any food source – not even milk – and this would lead to starvation.
Ask your guide for guidance in buying a goat from a farmer nearby the Himba village. This will be an appreciated gift which will became the dinner for the whole village.
Learn some Himba words
Going back to the language topic, I suggest you to learn some of the language before arriving to the Himba village – your guide will surely be happy to help you with that. What a huge pleasure it will be to make some conversation, although very simple, with the Himba people in their own language. They will be surprised and happy about it.
Bond with the people
A responsible way to visit the Himba tribe or any tribe in the world should include some sort of bonding with the people, and most of all a lot of respect. Get close to them. Don’t be afraid of touching the children, of holding them!
Get off the beaten path
Namibia is a wonderful country which is becoming more and more popular within the traveling community. In order to avoid the exploitation of certain areas make sure to go off the beaten path, where you will meet virtually zero other travelers. Not only this is pleasant as you will have the whole place to yourselves daily, but also with your “zero-waste” camping you know you will not be bringing unnecessary damage to the environment.
As I have said before, the Himba needs medicines but many of them can’t read. Make sure to leave yours to the manager of the lodge who knows the Chief personally and can read and bring medicines to the nearby villages only when needed. Also, make sure to recommend the manager to help the Himba people reaching the clinics if needed, as pills alone are not a solution.
Don’t leave money
If you want to leave something to the Himba village please don’t let it be money. The Himba people have no currency and money doesn’t belong to their traditions. It is risky to give money because it may be used it in turn to buy things that don’t belong to their traditions either.
Don’t bring candies
Although it looks like a harmless and kind gesture please consider not bringing candies to the Himba children. They don’t need unnecessary sugar (like all of us!) so why bringing something so addictive to their lives?
Avoid bringing plastic
Try to avoid plastic wrapping as much as possible. There are no trash cans in Himba villages and all waste ends up directly into the environment – or burnt, which is not a good idea with plastic!
Ask permission to take photos
Himbas are generally happy to be photographed, but it’s always good to ask permission before taking photos. This definitely falls under the “respect” category.
You may also want to read this post about sustainable travel photography.
Final tips on positively impacting the Himba of Namibia
To sum up, don’t force your vision, don’t “teach.” Travel is all about learning. You have the chance of learning from one of the most interesting tribes in the world. Listen to their stories, observe their habits. You may be one of the last lucky people to witness such a way of life so embrace it.
Why? Because global warming may not affect our western life much, but it’s making a huge difference for people like the Himbas who depend on rains to live. The effect of our actions are reflected here.
Be responsible, always.
Make sure to read my other posts about Namibia:
- Everything You Should Know Before Visiting The Himba Tribe In Namibia
- 27 Things To Know Before Camping In Namibia
- 35 Simply Unmissable Things To Do In Namibia
- A Complete Guide To Luderitz, Namibia
- A Great Guide To Swakopmund, Namibia
This post has been written by Giulia Cimarosti, an incredible photographer and travel writer who agreed to cover for me during Nomadic Tribe trip to Namibia. I wish to thank her for her incredible work and for all her insights.
Legal Disclaimer: Giulia was a guest of the Nomadic Tribe during her trip to Namibia and was thrilled to be one of the first to test this itinerary. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain hers.