Visiting some of the native African tribes was a must for us during our journey to Namibia. It felt important to understand the cultural roots of the country and the indigenous peoples. The history and way of life of the Himba is fascinating.
They live a simple life without cell phones, cars, or even electricity or plumbing. Everything in the village was made by hand. Sure, they are still touched by modern life, but they try to stick to their roots and cultural traditions, and we were grateful to be able to witness this firsthand. If you’re looking to visit a Himba tribe, this is how you can do it and what you can expect.
The hair of the Himba tribes is very important to signify maturity and status within the tribe. Young girls wear their hair in two braids that fall toward their face. Women who have borne children wear a headdress of sheep or goatskin like this one.
How to find the Himba Tribe
If you find yourself in the town of Opuwo, look all around you. Most of the people there are Himba who have adapted to modern life. You will even see some in traditional tribe outfits shopping in the grocery stores. Most lodging accommodations in the town will offer tours to go see a tribe or at least point you in the right direction. We booked one from the Opuwo Country Lodge and Resort which partners with several guided tours.
Things to Bring with you
It is typical to bring gifts for the tribe – staples like bread and rice, and some sweets for the kids. Much like being invited into someone else’s home, it is customary to bring a gift for your host. Some tours include these supplies as part of the tour price, but ours did not. Our tour guide first took us to a local grocery store to purchase these items.
Be sure to also bring your camera, as many tribes expect and permit photographs.
What not to bring with you
The children will be especially curious about you and the items you bring. We suggest not having too many loose things as they will undoubtedly want to investigate them. During our visit, they were fascinated by the dust blower for Brianna’s camera and even swiped a carabiner from her bag as I watched. It was all in good fun, though, and they returned the items before we left.
The tour cost $710 Namibian dollars per person for a 2-3 hour tour ($53 USD) as of this writing. This seemed reasonable for the experience of getting to see a tribe with a knowledgeable expert who could speak their language. We weren’t expecting to pay the additional $139 NAD ($10) for groceries as we originally believed it was part of the tour fee. This wasn’t a big deal as we are happy to support the tribe, but it did take us a bit by surprise.
What to expect when you arrive
Every tour and tribe is different, but we suspect they’ll follow a similar structure. When we arrived, our guide first spoke to the tribe before inviting us in. He helped translate for us, though some of the members knew limited English.
Our first moments were spent with the children, who were overflowing with curiosity. They insisted on proving their literacy by drawing “Canon” and “Sony” – the largest words displayed on our person – over and over in the sand. It was quite charming. One girl begged to wear Brianna’s sunglasses for a little bit, while others were amused by seeing all the photos she took of them and the village on her camera.
The adults rescued us from the kids and the tour guide explained the way of life of the tribe. Our guide took us around to the huts and talked a lot about the purpose of each room and the sacred traditions. We were able to ask questions of the tribe members and he translated for us. We learned about traditional headdress, outfits, and hair styles.
Understandably, individuals keep very few articles of clothing. They’re carefully cleaned over teepees of perfumed smoke that lends antibacterial properties and a unique aroma.
At the end of our tour, the tribe members set up a make-shift market to entice us with their wares. We were completely surrounded by them. They raised their hands with their special necklaces, bracelets and beads every time we glanced in their direction, competing with each other to win our business.
In the jovial atmosphere, I mimicked their movements and raised my hands with a little dance. They all laughed and tried to imitate me. We didn’t end up buying anything, but we did give them smiles. Be careful not to take anything they hand you, because they’ll insist you buy it. I handed one back after looking at it and it was a little awkward.
Himba villages are generally just one large family, and they are semi-nomadic. The women tend to do some of the most labor-intensive work. This includes carrying water and mixing plaster from clay soil and cow manure to cover the mopane wood homes.
Women cover themselves in a deep orange substance made from butterfat and clay. This is used to protect them from insect bites and the intense sun. It also keeps them clean as water is scarce and bathing isn’t part of their culture. Some areas of Namibia haven’t seen rain in 5 years. All water is brought in.
Water is so scarce it is considered sacred. It is almost never used in bathing; this red paste is used instead. Red is also a very symbolic color, representing the earth and life force (blood).
Hairstyle and jewelry play a strong role in the Himba culture. These indicate the age and social status of each member. Upon marriage, a boy is considered a man. This is unlike a girl as she isn’t considered a woman until bearing a child. Some girls are married off before the age of 10, and the men usually have more than one wife.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Opuwo Country Lodge Resort. We camped, and the price was reasonable at $350 NAD ($26 USD) per night. It was nestled on top of a hill and it was hard to believe we were headed to a resort while driving through the streets below. The location boasts a bar, restaurant, and an infinity pool with incredible views below.
The campsites were great for our 4X4 tent camping and weren’t very busy when we were there, so it was quiet. There are several other lodges in the area, but we would recommend Opuwo Country Lodge if you are camping. It is close enough to the tribes – about 18km away – and it is in a secure location.
Seeing people living on so little really made us think about how fortunate we are for what we have. It also showed us how little we really need for survival, and it put our own lives in perspective. These people overcome some of the harshest conditions on Earth without all of our modern conveniences.
However, times are changing. Many of the children are going to school and transitioning to modern life which will eventually wipe out the traditional culture. We are grateful to have witnessed this ancient history before it’s gone.
If you’re in Namibia, we also recommend visiting a Damara tribe. This was a completely different experience, and you can read all about that here.
What is the most unique traditional experience you’ve had? How did it impact you?
Psst… are you planning a trip to Namibia? You might also enjoy these:
- The Ultimate Etosha National Park Wildlife Viewing Guide
- Camping in Namibia: 8 Amazing Campsites
- Renting a 4×4 Camping Truck in Namibia – Everything You Need to Know
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