The Himba

Mike in Namibia

The Himba

A cultural highlight

by Michael Abrahams

As a new member of Travel Sommelier, last year I embarked on a five-week journey throughout Southern Africa that can be succinctly captured by these numbers:  twenty-one flights; twenty-two accommodations; forty-two property visits; and six worn and weathered moleskin notebooks acting as a record of truth.  There are a multitude of places, days, and even moments that I can point to in convincing fashion as the most memorable; however, there was one exchange that transcended them all…that with the Himba.  

In the northern reaches of Namibia, in the most remote corner of Africa, you will find the Himba, the last great semi-nomadic tribe in Africa. Stewards of the land, the Himba are a proud and pastoral people, overseeing impressively large herds of cattle, from where their wealth derives.  

As I approached the Himba village, a plain and simple circular cluster of cone-shaped huts comprised of mud and dung, it was hard not to take in how small and seemingly insignificant the village appeared against the backdrop of towering golden sand dunes and expansive field plains that ran in perpetuity.  Yet as I sat on the desert floor across from five strikingly photogenic Himba women radiating a crimson red hue from the otjize (a paste of butter, fat and red ochre) liberally applied to their skin, I would quickly discover that the Himba people and their way of life were anything but insignificant.  By engaging in real dialogue I would come to understand they were natural extensions of the awe-inspiring beauty around them; inextricably linked as one in the same.

Our conversation was nothing short of humbling and perspective shifting. They asked profound and thought-provoking questions and were shocked to learn that I did not own cattle and or have a wife, let alone multiple. They do not keep track of time or age by any traditional means, but rather rely on major events in their historical lives, such as the last great rainfall, as a beacon against which to benchmark.  The Himba were not only happy, healthy, and proud of their heritage, but unflinchingly dismissive of the consideration to change their circumstances.

The most inspiring moments I spent with the Himba were when we joked, laughed, and danced together. It was both the hardest part for me to reconcile and what left the enduring smile and twinkle of awe on my face; that despite such glaringly different circumstances, my lasting impression was how alike we really were.  There is an intangible in experiencing how people have lived for thousands of years – it delivers a pace of life that is completely foreign and highly refreshing. Gone are the noise and pull of material pursuits that have come to consume considerable mind share…this perspective shifting exchange with the Himbas resonates with me now more than ever.