The Himba tribe of Namibia is one of the last few semi-nomadic indigenous groups in the world.
If done right, visiting a Himba village can be the highlight of a trip to Namibia. However, most of the time unaware travelers visit the Himba tribes on visits that last no more than one hour, during which an observing person may rightly have the impression that life in the village is staged for the sake of visitors.
This certainly is the case for many people who visit Namibia on a generic tour – so much so that it’s hardly something I’d recommend.
However, my experience was much better than most. I joined an expedition led by Nomadic Tribe, a new travel community platform which aims at going well beyond the mere surface when facilitating encounters between travelers and indigenous communities around the world, and that strives to create tours that are run in a fully responsible manner. You can view and book their tours via the newly launched Nomadic Tribe app – currently available on iOS.
It was not an easy trip and certainly not what I’d call a holiday, but it was absolutely enlightening in many ways.
Our journey of discovery in Namibia started in Walvis Bay. One car, five people. Uncomfortable to say the least. But the most important thing was that we stocked up on water, and we were ready to go. It took us 3 days of non-stop travel to reach the Himbas in northern Namibia, but when we finally did it our experience was nothing short of amazing.
This post highlights everything you should know to prepare your meeting with the Himba tribe, with the intent to approach them in a respectful and appropriate way; to know how to respect their culture; to be prepared and to make the most out of this surely intense experience.
Before telling you how to prepare for this encounter, however, let me give you some background information on the Himba tribe.
Some Background Information About The Himba Tribe
The Himba tribe is an indigenous people that live between Northern Namibia – in the Kunene region, once called Kaokoland – and in Southern Angola. The border between the two countries is marked by the Kunene River and the whole area is home to many Himba villages, where around 50000 people live.
It is easy to recognize a Himba village: the small, round huts are made of wood and covered with cow dung. They come in small groups. Sometimes the whole Himba village is surrounded by a fence and it can contain a smaller one for goats that live with the tribe.
Sometimes the huts are empty and abandoned, with a metal or wooden slab that shuts their door, but this doesn’t mean that people won’t be back to dwell in them. This is because the Himbas are the last semi-nomadic tribe of Namibia, and they periodically move from area to area according to the concentration of rains over time.
The Himba people survived a genocide in the 1900s, at the hand of the German troops that at the time were controlling the territory. Where the German troops have failed, however, modernity is doing a much better job – nowadays the Himba culture risks being completely lost as more and more Himba youngsters opt to leave the slow and uncomfortable life of the village for a more modern way of life in the city.
In the hope that these interesting culture is not lost forever, it’s important that visits to a Himba tribe are run in a responsible manner, one that allows visitors to observe and appreciate the culture, and to fully respect it.
Continue reading to discover how to prepare to visit a Himba village.
How To Prepare For A Visit To The Himba Tribe In Namibia
Before the trip
Pick the right operator
It is always important to choose the right operator when traveling, but if you are planning to visit a Himba tribe it’s really crucial. Make sure you pick someone who has experience in the field of anthropology and sustainable travel for a long time.
Namibian tribes are more than 10 throughout the country and they don’t have to be spoiled or – worst – exploited for tourist purposes. On the contrary, it is important to preserve their culture and habits so visitors need to be introduced to them properly by the right people and have to prepared before that.
An expert guide will take advantage of the long trip needed to reach the north of the country to explain a lot about culture in Namibia and Himba culture in particular. Our trip was organized by Nomadic Tribe and carried out by Namibian people – we even had Himba guides and staff.
This kind of approach is the most effective way to not only have an authentic experience as a visitor, but also to positively impact the protection of the Himba people and culture in Namibia.
Another simple but important reason to pick a good operator and not to go on your own is that since the Himbas are a semi-nomadic tribe, only local people know where to find them at a given time.
Learn (some of) the language
While it is almost impossible to become fluent in the Himba language in a short time – even because it is not a written language and Himba people don’t even have an alphabet – it is possible and interesting to learn some of the basics.
This way you will be able to introduce yourself when you meet the Himbas, and to have a basic conversation which will definitely be greatly appreciated by the Himba tribe.
Find below a short list of very useful words:
I = amni.
You = othe.
Hello = moro (often heard in “moro moro!” = hello hello!).
Thank you = hoku heppa.
Good morning = Wapenduka nawa? (as in” did you wake up well? The reply is “nawa” = well).
Good = nawa.
Bad = ohe.
Yes = Ah (a long “ah” sound).
No = Kako.
What is your name? = Ennaroe?
My name is… = Ennaranje…
Beautiful = Moro morinawa.
Sun = eyuva.
Rain = umbura.
Water = omewa.
Food = ovikulia.
Know what you can bring for the Himba people
Before this experience I could only think of bringing food to the Himba tribe I would be visiting. I didn’t know how else to help, what to bring. Knowing they are dressed in a traditional way, bringing clothes was not an option so I felt lost. Now I know exactly what to bring next time!
Apart from the food you can buy locally, on the way to the Himba villages, there is something you can bring from home:
- Blankets: while days can be incredibly hot, nights can get chilly because of the desert weather. Blankets will be greatly appreciated, both as a base for the hut and to cover oneself at night.
- Fabric in general: Himba women don’t wear proper clothes, except for a goat leather skirt and traditional jewelry. They do however use cloths to sit on, to carry their babies and to cover up when needed.
- Metal cups: in a Himba village people tend to share a few plastic containers to drink and eat, and they get broken and dirty really fast. Metal cups for goat milk and water will last, won’t pollute as plastic does, and are easy to clean.
- Camping pots and pans: in a Himba village food is cooked on fire and in the same pots and pans over and over again. Some new pots and pans will help.
Please avoid bringing any kind of plastic wrapping and object as there is no such thing as trash bins, and garbage is disposed of in the environment, just outside the villages.
What to pack
This is not going to be a comfortable trip mainly because of three reasons: the heat, the long drives and the absence of running water while camping. Keeping this in mind, you will need to pack the following things that you are really going to need:
- Comfortable, long trousers: It goes without saying you will need comfortable clothes. Trousers should be long to protect you from the sun and insects. Also, a dark-ish colors such as brown or military green is preferable as the dirt will be harder to notice. Pants such as Kuhl Kontour Straight pants or Kuhl Weekendr are just perfect for this kind of trip.
- Comfortable, long-sleeved shirts: You will need fresh, light shirts, but long sleeves are better to protect you from the sun and insects. The weather is hot anyway and you’ll feel cleaner and safer with long sleeves. Again, a dark color – but not black – will be better. I recommend packing a Kuhl Athena top, which comes in several colors, and the Kuhl Svenna shirt Both of them are long sleeves.
- High socks: Just to give you an idea, we found several scorpions and ticks so high socks are a very good idea.
- Insect repellent: If you are traveling in the dry season you may not find mosquitoes, but it’s better to bring an insect repellent anyway. A broad spectrum one that includes ticks is the best option.
- Sunscreen: The sun burns. Never forget your sunscreen and apply it multiple times a day.
- Sunglasses: You will need sunglasses for two reasons: the sun and to play with Himba kids. They had a lot of fun with mine!
- Sun hat: You need to bring a sun hat or, even better, a turban or something to cover your head and hair. Because of the dust you may want to keep your hair as clean as possible by covering them.
- Wet wipes: Since there is no shower in the camp, wet wipes will help when nothing else is available. I remember “taking long showers” with wet wipes every night in my tent. Of course don’t dispose of the wipes in the environment but keep your garbage with the rest of your stuff you until you find an actual garbage bin even if this means carrying a bag of garbage for a full day or two.
- Sanitizing gel: Sanitizing gel is a good option when there is no water, in order to keep your hands as clean as possible. You may want to use it before meals and a few other times throughout the day.
- Comfortable walking shoes: I thought forgetting my Teva shoes at home was a big mistake but I was wrong. Closed shoes is all you need. They keep the dirt and bugs off. Comfortable walking shoes are even better!
- Med kit: Once you leave the city in Namibia there is no access to shops or medical assistance. Make sure you bring your med kit with you and don’t forget antihistamine, loperamide, disinfectant and painkillers.
- Head lamp: A headlamp, preferably with red light which doesn’t attract bugs, will be very useful at night, both in the tent and outside.
- Water bottle and filter: Bring a water bottle and fill it every time you get the chance. You won’t be able to wash it properly so keep it clean and make sure it’s properly closed and in the shadow while not using it.
- Warm jacket: If your trip includes the Atlantic coast you’ll find a really chilly weather especially at night so don’t forget a warm jacket. It was not the case during our trip, but even in the rest of the country it can get really cold at night so you may need to use a jacket every day. Kuhl Spyfire Hoody is perfect in this case.
- A sweater or, even better, a micro fleece – these are usually lightweight. Something like Kuhl Solace Sweaterand Kuhl Lea Pullover.
Books about Himbas by people involved in the community and wildlife conservation
We had the chance to meet some very important Namibian personalities who wrote very interesting books on the Himba tribe and the region where they live. Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn have been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993 because of their work to preserve Namibian wildlife. Moreover, Margaret Jacobsohn spent 5 years living with the Himbas.
If you want to do some more in depth readings about the Himba tribe, these are some recommended books:
- An Arid Eden: A Personal Account of Conservation in the Kaokoveld – Garth Owen-Smith
- Himba: Nomads of Namibia – Margaret Jacobsohn
- Life is like a Kudu Horn – Margaret Jacobsohn
During the trip
Don’t just take photos
If I didn’t stress enough the point that choosing the right operator is important, let me add this: most tours in Namibia only include a short stop at a Himba village to take photos and buy crafts. This sort of behavior is very common among tourists.
The Himba people are so used to it that they were actually surprised when they saw us stopping by a Himba village, camping there, and sharing our daily lives with them. We were told that many people stop by but don’t want to talk to them or touch them, avoiding all contact.
For us, this was of course really painful to hear. On the other hand, we were welcomed in an incredibly warm way as second visitors ever to stop at that specific Himba village, after just someone from National Geographic did a few years before.
The purpose of a trip to meet the Himba people doesn’t have to be just taking a few photos. If you are not interested in a deeper and responsible experience, you may want to skip this part of the trip completely and enjoy the countless natural wonders of Namibia only.
Remember, you are stepping into an ancient, almost untouched culture and you’re representing your own culture. Think about how meaningful this is. Make sure you don’t make everyone from your country look bad!
Get to know Himba women and Himba men
Himba women are very well known for their braids covered in a red mud made of ochre mixed with butter. Their whole body is also covered in red ochre, they use herbs as perfumes and they dress topless. Men also dress topless and wear traditional skirts.
All Himba people – adults and children – wear lots of traditional jewelry made with beads, metal and wood.
Inside Himba villages you will likely meet many women and children but a very few men. This is because Himba women rarely leave the village and they take care of the huts, they cook, and they look after children.
Men instead walk long ways away from their village with the cattle. They can stay away for days and they normally come back at night, so it’s less likely to meet many of them.
In the Himba culture, women are in charge. Even if they rarely leave the village, for example to fetch water, their days are far from boring. There is a lot to do in the village every day: in the morning Himba women milk the goats and prepare breakfast for everyone. So the day starts.
Himba women spend a long time every day “bathing.” While men can use water in rivers, women don’t have access to water so they cover themselves in ochre powder and herbs to stay clean. Another way to “bathe” is with smoke: they cover themselves with blankets while burning herbs underneath them. This way they keep body odor away.
Other activities during the day include crafting, feeding babies, preparing food for the village, cleaning up and throwing away garbage, and fetching water – the hardest task, as they literally dig the ground with bare hands to find water, then they carry heavy tanks of water back to the camp which can be miles away.
Respect the culture
First of all, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, Himba women go topless. This is considered a completely normal thing among the Himba people. Breasts are not a sexual object, as they are only seen as organs to feed the many babies a Himba woman usually has throughout her life. So don’t stare and simply don’t go if this is a problem for you.
Another important aspect of the Himba culture is that, because of the lack of water, they drink very little and if they do they gather water in the same place where their goats drink. You can imagine how hard their life is. Also, Himba people don’t have access to food every day. Don’t flash your fresh soda can or meal/snack in front of them if you’re not willing to share.
Even if the Himba people normally agree to have photos taken of them (and then they enjoy having a look at them with you) it’s always a must to ask for permission before shooting. The best practice is to approach Himbas with conversation and then ask.
Care to travel more responsibly? Make sure to read my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Don’t give money
You will surely realize that Himba people live in very simple conditions, without running water or electricity, or comfort of any kind. Sometimes they can even go without food for days before they either slaughter a goat or receive some food from visitors.
Your specialized guide will know what the Himba tribe you’re visiting needs so feel free to ask. Don’t just give money to the tribe, unless in exchange for a service or object they are selling. This doesn’t help at all and money is not in the Himba culture. The best way to support a Himba village is to bring food or buy handicrafts from the women (for which you do need local money, obviously). Sheep-farming and crafts are the only ways Himbas have to support themselves.
Make sure you have an interpreter
Making some small conversation with members of the Himba tribe is fun, but not enough to really get to know people and to ask all the questions you have in mind. It is normal to feel curious about other people’s habit and keep in mind that the Himba tribe will also be curious about you, and you’ll be asked questions.
Thanks to a female interpreter that was part of our team, I was able to sit with a group of women while two of them were working on their braids, and to have a personal conversation about their habits and beliefs.
At first of course I asked them for their names and made questions about the technique used for the braids. Little by little the translator helped me getting into more specific questions: I was wondering how Himba women manage when they get their period and I got my answer. I was wondering what Himba tribe people think about the stars and the universe and I got my answer.
The Himba women asked me about how traditional marriages in Italy work, and about the food we eat. I had a meaningful conversation and I have to thank my interpreter for this.
Further readings about Namibia
For more information about Namibia and how to plan your trip there, make sure you read these other posts:
- 35 Simply Unmissable Things To Do In Namibia
- 27 Things To Know Before Camping In Namibia
- A Complete Guide To Luderitz, Namibia
- A Great Guide To Swakopmund, Namibia
Further readings about other indigenous communities
If you have an interest in indigenous communities around the world, make sure to read the following posts:
- How Three Tiny Villages Are Helping To Preserve Indigenous Culture In Guyana
- Everything You Should Know Before Visiting A Berber Village In Morocco
- 13 Ways To Help The Himba People And Culture In 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.