At home with the Himba of Namibia

A homestay scheme allows travellers to experience the life of Namibia’s mud-caked Himba people – including braving the lenses of curious day-trippers

8 mins

"Take your clothes off,” Simson translated, bashfully. I peeled off my T-shirt and untied my sarong, until I was left standing like a toddler in my underpants. A crimson Simson beat a hasty retreat from the mud hut leaving me with Mama, second of the chief’s eight wives and the woman in charge of the Annabeb Himba homestead in northwest Namibia while her husband is away. 

She lived up to her name. Sitting cross-legged in front of me, her almighty breasts tickled the tops of her thighs while a two week-old baby lay nuzzling at a nipple. 

She scooped her fingers around the rim of an amber-stained plastic tub and daubed otjize (a mix of butter, ash and ochre paste) across my chest – her hand was warm, firm and confident. She rubbed it along the length of my legs, arms and back and then handed me a cracked hand mirror so I could apply the final flourishes to my face. I grinned at my bright-orange reflection in the knowledge that I’d be protected against the blazing sun.

Profile of a Himba woman (Shutterstock)
Profile of a Himba woman (Shutterstock)

Mama motioned for me to stand up, rummaging in the dark corner behind her until she found what she was looking for: a goatskin skirt. It was cool and oily against my skin as she tethered it around my waist. A cloth of royal purple was whipped out and fed through the waistband of the skirt, covering my modesty.

Next: two necklaces – one of metal and shell, the other of rope – were produced and passed through the smoke curling from the small fire between us, rubbed with wild sage and strung about my neck. Then, to complete the makeover, rows of metal beads were wound around my ankles and black rubber bands rolled up my shins to sit just below my knees.

Mama leant back and gave a nod of approval. I jumped to my feet and struck a model’s pose and she let out a high-pitched giggle. Another wife, Kakuhara, joined us and – with a minxish smile – motioned to knock out my bottom front teeth with a stick and stone to match their own gappy grins.

Dressed in my finery, I joined the other wives outside, sitting in a semi-circle beneath a skeletal mopane tree and rhythmically shaking the calabashes (carved wooden gourds) hanging from the branches above, which were slowly converting cow milk to curds. I watched for a few minutes before offering to take over for one of them.

Himba village (Shutterstock)
Himba village (Shutterstock)

Around me, in the fading light, their life enfolded: the girls gossiped and breastfed; Mama elbowed a dog investigating the pap pot; kids scuffed up the dust herding the goats back into the corral; chickens hopped into the tree tops to roost; young men called the cattle, which glided home like ghost ships.

After a supper of pap and black tea, Simson and I retired to our tent. I fell asleep to a cacophony of crickets and bellowing cows.

Mud on the cracks

Morning brought bright skies and the sound of snorted snot being expelled. Kakuhara – the would-be tooth remover – waved me over to milk the cows. As we entered the corral she grabbed one, tethered its hind legs and deftly fell to her haunches, pincered a calabash bucket between her knees and started squeezing confident jets into its bowels.

Within a minute her pail was full and it was my turn. I was quietly confident having milked a Mongolian yak some months earlier. How different could it be? My hands slipped and slid over the teats bringing only a piddly stream that dribbled over my knees and feet. “She can’t milk,” giggled Kakuhara to Simson.

Making the traditional Himba hairstyle (Shutterstock)
Making the traditional Himba hairstyle (Shutterstock)

After 15 minutes of ineffectual tugging, the cow and I lost patience with each other so Kakuhara introduced me to a woman from the neighbouring homestead who had come to repair the cracked walls of Mama’s hut, where latticed branches poked through the walls like exposed ribs. 

Together, we wandered outside the homestead; she strode barefoot and unflinching across rocks and thorns, I tiptoed and hopped behind in my goat-skin flip-flops, cursing the barbs that stuck in my soles like pins. Arriving at a shallow pit, we scratched the soil loose and scooped it into large washing-up bowls.

By the time we’d finished, they must have easily weighed 30kg each. We wrestled them onto our heads and returned to the compound; she again strode elegantly while I swayed like a drunkard, my spine compressed like a deflated accordion. Rocking on our haunches, we mixed equal parts of soil and cow dung, doused it with water and then massaged it into a sticky plaster – the sulphurous fumes curling our noses.

Following her lead, I grabbed great handfuls of the paste and slapped it onto the walls, smearing it smooth with my palms.

Himba women dancing and clapping (Shutterstock)
Himba women dancing and clapping (Shutterstock)

The day before I was due to leave, a 4x4 arrived carrying jewellery-seeking tourists. At first I was shy and signed to Mama that I’d stay inside and look after the baby. But curiosity got the better of me and I sidled up to say, “Hello.” Jill and Andy – a middle-aged UK couple – were clearly shocked at the mass of orange skin and frizzy hair standing before them. They ogled me unreservedly and, for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of life on the other side of the fence. 

The next morning I pulled my old T-shirt and sarong over my ochre-stained skin and, as I waved goodbye, I couldn’t help musing how the contrast summed up my homestay. I’ll never truly understand their life, but the experience of trying will leave traces long after my ‘holiday tan’ has washed away.

The author travelled with with Kunene Tours and Safaris. This article first appeared in issue 125 of Wanderlust: it won the 2012 Responsible Tourism Award for Best in Responsible Tourism Writing.

Main image: A Himba tribeswoman (Shutterstock)

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