What makes the Himba people unique and immediately recognisable is their appearance and especially the result of a paste that women rub on their bodies and make them look like terracotta statues.
This red paste, thanks to which the Himba are known as “the Red People of Namibia”, is called otjize and it is usually smeared on the body, hair and even on clothes and jewellery.
The otjize is a mixture of butterfat, ochre pigment and scented resins extracted from the Commophora wildii, the Himba women use it to protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate of the Kaokoland and sunrays; it is also a good repellent against insect bites.
It is considered an aesthetic beauty cosmetic. It gives the skin and hair a terracotta-like reddish colour.
For the Himba, red is rich in symbolism, it represents the earth’s rich red colour and blood, i.e. the essence of life, these people live on the land farming and livestock.
For the Himba women, skincare is a rather laborious task, they can’t use water to wash themselves or cool off, the only thing they can use is the Otjize and they apply it 2 or 3 times a day.
In such a dry area, the water is considered sacred by the Himba tribe and only married men are allowed to use it for washing, but only for special religious ceremonies.
Apart from covering their bodies with the cream obtained by mixing butterfat and ochre pigment, the Himba women perfume themselves by taking real baths of scented smoke. Inside the huts they light a small fire on which they burn aromatic herbs and the resin obtained from the Commiphora multijuga tree. Smoke is used to purify their bodies and clothes and also for its anti-bacterial effect.
The traditional clothing for the Himba women is decidedly skimpy, they just wear a simple skirt of ombuku goat hide, leaving their breasts exposed and wearing leather sandals.
Also the men wear a skirt, though the goat hide is often replaced by more modern textiles and it is matched with non-traditional clothing, such as shirts or jackets, that somewhat clash with the surrounding environment.
The Himba women love wearing big adornments, mainly made of leather, iron or copper, and embellished with bone fragments, the most important and precious jewelley is given as a gift to the mother following the birth of her first child. It is a necklace called ohumba, consisting of a white large shell, the symbol of fertility, the shell comes from Angola and is hung between her breasts.
Hair and hairdressing play a significant role among the Himba as they indicate the social status of each individual within the community, young girls use to dress their hair with two braided hair plait extending forwards, whereas after the puberty, hair are worn down and numerous rasta braids are made and covered with the same butter and ochre paste used for the body.
The hairstyles of the Himba women are true masterpieces, when a woman is married she wears a sort of diadem made from antelope hide, called omarember or erembe; widows wear this singular hat in reverse.
Young boys shave their hair on both sides of the skull, except for a tuft of hair left on top, with a braided hair plait extended to the rear of the head, while married men wear a cap that is only removed when they go to sleep or in mourning.
Due to the lack of water in the area where they live, the Himba use wood ash and aromatic herbs for hair cleansing, while men cover their body in ash mixed with butter, this cream, unlike the one used by women, does not turn red but it moisturizes the skin while maintaining a natural colour.
Life, tradition and culture of Himba people
- Himba clothing and accessories
- Himba rituals of birth and death
- Himba history
- Himba people social organisation and religious beliefs