People of Namibia

About 2.2 million people share the vast spaces of Namibia and the country has one of the lowest population densities in the world with 1.5 people per square kilometre. It is thought that only about a quarter of Namibians live in urban areas, although this figure is certainly increasing as growing numbers of unemployed people leave their villages and farms.

The population of Namibia is not evenly distributed with about 60% of people living in the northern regions, while the southern and coastal areas are almost unpopulated. Namibia's population can be divided into (at least) 11 ethnic groups, the biggest group of which is the Owambo people. As a country Namibia is still trying to find a national identity, but each of the countries cultural groups has its own a rich heritage and traditions. Most people prefer to think of themselves as Namibians.

Himba People

The Himba are a tribe of nomadic pastoralists who inhabit the Kaokoland area of Namibia. The Himba are actually descendants of a group of Herero herders who fled into the remote north-west after been displaced by the Nama. The Himba have clung to their traditions and the beautiful Himba women are noted for their intricate hairstyles which and traditional jewellery.

As Himba men and woman wear few clothes apart from a loin cloth or goat skinned mini-skirt, they rub their bodies with red ochre and fat to protect themselves from the sun and also gives their appearance a rich red colour.

The Himba jewellery is made from iron or shell, and due to their intricate designs have become very popular amongst western tourists. Himba homesteads are cone shaped structures made from palm leaves, mud and cattle dung. During the course of a year the family will move from one home to another in search of grazing for the animals. For this reason it is important not to take anything from a Himba hut even if it appears abandoned.

The Ochre People of the dry river beds

It takes exceptional skills and knowledge to prosper as pastoralists in arid terrain. The Himba, some of whom today inhabit the northern Namib Desert in Angola and Namibia are among the most proficient of Africa's herders. Their herding strategy is based on seasonal mobility and their ability to co-operate and coordinate with one another. Thus it can be said that although the Himba are known as master herders, their success as pastoralists does not merely lie in their knowledge of cattle, goats and sheep, or even in their ecological knowledge. It rests on social relations and their socio-cultural organization.

Two well known Himba proverbs make this point aptly: Don't start your farming with cattle, start it with people. And He who has people will not perish. These sayings recorded by the Rhennish missionary Heinrich Vedder in the early 1900s are still in use today, underscoring the interdependence of family members and families. Himba society is organized according to the principles of double descent. This practice of bilinear reckoning, through both the mother and the father, is encountered in only six areas in the world. All Himba are born into their mother's matriclan and their father's patriclan. Clans comprise members of autonomous lineages which means that people simultaneously belong to a matriline and a patriline which have different functions. A matriline controls inheritance of material wealth including livestock. A son inherits from his mother's brother, not from his father. The patriline is the residential unit, important for day to day life and the spiritual well-being of the extended family.

Even today, with wage labor, western schooling and the cash economy, a Himba lineage head will still light the family's sacred fire on important occasions so that the ancestors can bear witness and even advise the elders. The Himba do not worship their ancestors but see them as intermediaries between the Divine Creator and the living.

As all important decisions are discussed at the sacred fire, this forum facilitates good co-ordination within and between lineages - a classic example of how an apparently 'traditional' old custom can have important social and environmental functions for modern times.

One of the reasons the Himba have stayed relatively 'traditional' is because of their cattle wealth but also because projects such as Conservancy Safaris Namibia contribute towards the economic and cultural empowerment of those communities who own the company. This enables them to make their own choices about how they wish to live. And of course, the concept of traditional should not be viewed as the opposite of modern. People can value their cultural customs and still enjoy some aspects of modern life.

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