For three weeks, I traveled across the Namib Desert, through Damaraland and into the heart of Kaokoveld in search of these nomadic goat herders. One of the chief’s many sons, Umana butchered a goat in celebration and to welcome our arrival.
Meat is a rare luxury for the Himba tribe, who survive mainly on pap (a sort of porridge) and use their goats as a currency to exchange for goods such as fresh water and warm blankets. I felt extremely honoured to sit by fire and share in their meal, until well past midnight. My guide, Owen told ghost stories of the Himba, his eyes opening wide with excitement at every crescendo and plot twist.
The women of the tribe tended to the fire, while the men carefully finished cutting up every piece of the goat to add to the boiling pot of water. The Holy Fire or “okuwuro” is continuously kept alight and is considered extremely sacred. It is tied to both their ancestors and their god. Umana sat across from me in the light of the fire, sifting through the entrails of the goat to read the fortune of the tribe.
When the stories finished, I walked over to the Chief’s first wife’s hut and knelt down. Peering inside, I handed her my small offering; a small bag of red ochre. Hiyakondumbo beamed with joy, and motioned for me to come inside. The other wives chattered in excitement as Hiyakondumbo smiled and stroked my hair admiringly. She laughed and said words I could not understand, but I knew were welcoming.
It was time for sleep, and Hiyakondumbo offered me a place next to her and the other wives on the floor of her small hut. I lay down, feeling out of place and a bit overwhelmed. Before I knew it, the wives wrapped their many arms around me, accepting me as part of their family. Hiyakondumbo cuddled up close to me, continuing to speak words that I could not understand. Soothed by the sound of her soft voice, the warmth of the goat skin blankets, I watched the small candle die out and fell fast asleep.
In the morning, the wives prepared the red ochre that I gave them the night before. As part of their daily routine, they mixed the ochre with butter churned from goat’s milk to make a paste called ojitze. Water is scarce in the desert of Kaokoveld, and the Himba never bathe. Instead, they smoke themselves with aromatic herbs under piles and piles of goatskins, then cover their entire bodies and hair with ojitze.
I watched their daily ritual in awe and admiration. The beauty of the Himba is that they have kept this tradition and many others for hundreds of years, giving them a unique look that cannot be found anywhere else. Hiyakondumbo motioned for me to join them. At first I didn’t understand. She motioned for me to take off my clothes and I paled in embarrassment. I’ve never been that comfortable with my body, and did not like the idea of taking off my clothes in front of complete strangers.
But then something happened. I looked at the Himba women around me, proudly displaying their breasts for the world to see. Tjivio said, “You are Himba now, you must be proud of your breasts. Do not be afraid.”
Inspired, I gave myself to the moment and stripped off my shirt. Suddenly, all of the wives’ hands were on me, covering me in the thick red ojitze paste. Tjivio tied a goat skin around my hips as the other wives argued over whose jewelry I would wear. One of the wives grabbed at my breasts, then pointed to her own saying, “baby”. I said, “No baby” and they all laughed themselves to tears.
The wives pulled me out of the hut and before I knew it I was standing bare naked in front of the whole tribe! They proceeded to lead me around the entire village, stopping at each hut along the way to show everyone the newest member of the Himba people. Children ran out of their huts, laughing at this silly foreign woman, while apparently one of the chief’s sons was eyeing me and commenting on how much he admired my “perky, European breasts”. Hiyakondumbo looked on me with pride and a small gleam in her eyes.
As we said our final goodbyes, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and pride. The Himba became like family to me, and I was proud to be a part of such a beautiful tribe.
My night with the Himba tribe was an incredible experience, and one that I will continue to hold dear. Village life may seem simple, but it is incredibly beautiful and real.
Have you ever stayed with an indigenous tribe? What was your experience? Please feel free to comment below!
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