Where are Kevin and Ruth now? Near Lauwersoog, Netherlands.

Where are Kevin and Ruth going next? Just wandering the Netherlands.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A cultural experience to remember!

A few months ago when we were researching this trip to Namibia, we came across a lot of references to "the Himba"...a nomadic group of people who settle and roam the hills northwest of Opuwo, Namibia. These people have tried to keep living a traditional life without accepting outside influence.

At the time, we posed a question via a blog post...should we visit the Himba?

You can read the blog post here...


It's interesting reading some of the comments to that post, as many of them suggest that we should not go. But as we said at the time, we wanted to talk to someone who had been. And we actually spoke with a few people here, one of whom said it was one of the best experiences of his life.

So we went about 500 kms (300 miles) out of our way in order to visit a Himba village. And are we ever glad we did!

Himba children. They were playing with a bowl of clay at the time, making little figures.

We had arrived at a guest house fairly early yesterday morning as we only had a 150 km (93 mile) drive from the dumpy place we had stayed at the night before. As we were registering, a local guy who was also standing at the registration desk asked if we had come to town to visit the Himba. I would expect that any tourist who comes to Opuwo is there to visit the Himba, and of course we answered yes and started asking him some questions.

Turned out that Carlo'o was a local guide. It was his day off and after a lot of discussion with him, he suggested that he could take us to one of the nearby villages if we only wanted a short visit. He seemed really good, so we took him up on his offer. We were driving, so the charge to him was to be N$200 ($21.40) for the two of us.

The bigger boy is holding a figure that Ruth made. She was trying to show them what a snowman would look like. The guide explained to the kids what a snowman was. They got a laugh out of that!

So we got things settled into our room and then went for a drive with Carlo'o. First, we had to stop for groceries. The Himba appreciate a gift from visitors, and they like food that they don't normally get. Also, they're having some rough times right now because of the drought and they need staples like maiz meal (ground corn). So we spent about $20 on a big bag of maiz meal, two loaves of bread, a pound of butter, salt, suger,cooking oil, and a bag of potato crisps similar to the ones you would hand out for Hallowe'en for the kids.

Then we drove about 15 kms (9 miles) from town on a dirt road and arrived at a bunch of huts just off the road. Carlo'o had explained not to be nervous. The Himba are generally friendly people and welcoming to visitors. Still, we were a little unsure of how to act. 

Himba girl with her baby brother.

Carlo'o said to not bring anything with us when we got out of the car, no food, and no camera. He explained how to say hello, and led us to an older lady, obviously the matriarch of the clan. There were no adult men around...all of them are gone looking after the cattle in the hills. Sometimes the men can be gone for months at a time. It all depends on where the water is and the best grazing areas. So there are only women and children in the village.

We've learned that the kids love to have their photo taken so that they can look at it on the screen of the camera!

We stood and spoke with this lady for a few minutes, of course with Carlo'o translating. As we did so, other ladies starting coming over as well. Then Carlo'o suggested we go for a walk and he would show us the village. First, we went over to where there were a group of kids (the ones in the pics above). We chatted with them for a while, and Ruth made the little snowman for them. Then we wandered to a group of nearby huts.

These huts are where they store and dry their food.

Except the huts were all empty. This area of Namibia is experiencing it's worst drought in 30 years. Last year's corn crop simply didn't grow and the Himba are now relying on government handouts for maiz meal. There are about 160 people living in this village, but that includes the men who are currently tending the cattle in the hills. We thought afterwards, what do the men eat when they are gone for so long?

Group of Himba women. With one who is strangely dressed!!

When we arrived back there were now a larger group of women sitting chatting. One of them was dressed kind of funny, and said "Hi, how are you enjoying Namibia so far"?

Her English wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good!

We enjoyed talking to her, and it seemed a lot more comfortable with her here as well as Carlo'o. After all, this woman was part of this village! Of course we asked her what happened differently in her life that she is wearing more "western" clothing, and that she speaks English. She explained that most of the Himba have the opportunity to go to school which is where they learn English. She decided at a young age that she wanted to continue with school whereas most of them only go for a couple of years, and some not at all. She ended up embracing the culture outside of her village, although she does currently live in the village. Interestingly, she is not ostracized at all and appears as welcome as the rest of the family.

This woman is decorating a doll that her husband carved from wood.

Of course the discussion turned to their hair and skin.

The women's hair is actually a wig. But it is woven into their real hair and stays on permanently. They even have special pillows they use when sleeping so that the wig doesn't get damaged. It doesn't look very comfortable, but maybe you get used to it!

Ruth and Carlo'o talking to the Himba women.

We were invited inside one of the huts. This is actually where they live and sleep. It contains that family's personal possessions and is exactly the same as if you had invited a visitor into your own home.

The skin mats are what they sleep on.

The walls are fabricated with sticks and once the structure is sound the cracks are filled with a mixture of mud and...cow dung. The floor felt as hard as concrete.

Two of the ladies showed Ruth how they make their skin the color that it is.

They use a mixture of butter fat and ochre on their skin. This protects it from the sun. It smells good too! 

Ruth, with her new sunscreen!

Jewelry for sale.

Each of the women spread out the jewelry that they make. This is a big thing for them in their spare time, and they love making these little trinkets. Ruth bought a bracelet for N$30 ($3.21). I asked the girl what she was going to do with the money...she said she would buy more beads in town to make more jewelry.

Speaking of town, you regularly see the Himba in town. Selling jewelry, or even shopping. In fact, we had a Himba lady (yes, dressed exactly as they do) in front of us at the grocery store. They have very strong feelings about their traditions and most want to keep them despite the fact that some of the younger ones also want a part of modern society.

Ruth asked a difficult question.

"Do the Himba consider themselves to be poor?"

That's the thing that comes to mind in most parts of North America. That these people are poor. Well, we got very emphatic answers that the Himba are definitely not poor. That they enjoy their lifestyle and the majority like living exactly the way they do. 

We thoroughly enjoyed the couple of hours we spent with the people of this village. It is one of the most interesting cultural experiences we have ever had, and we're so glad we decided to follow through with it..


  1. how cool, glad you went and shared with us. all you men out there, see a womans hair is very important to her no matter where she lives :-). I have the same question as Ruth what do the men eat surely they can only take so much with them. do they use the cattle for milk and meat or to sell. or possibly combination of both?

  2. How awesome. I thought the skin colour was quite unique, and now that you mention the sun screen, I get it.
    It's a challenge for many in "modern civilisation" to understand the meaning of rich or poor. A simple life doesn't necessarily mean "poor", and certainly not if its by choice.
    Sure glad you went for a visit. Would have been a huge missed opportunity for all of us. Thanks.

  3. What a wonderful experience; especially with the young lady who speaks English available to explain and translate woman stuff from a woman! I'm sure you'll always remember this day.
    I think people tend to think that dark-skinned people don't burn in the sun. I went to Hawaii with African American friends years ago and the wife got a terrible, blistering sunburn and was almost needing to be hospitalized. So the sunscreen is a very good thing. And it smelled good? Great.

  4. thank you so much for doing this. How fascinating. I think it's wonderful that they are trying to keep their culture alive and not become so Westernized. Just wish they had food.

  5. Very interesting. I've never heard of them and really don't know much about Africa and her peoples, so this was definitely an education. Did you ever give them your gifts of food?

  6. This is my favorite part of your trip. I hope that western civilization never has an influence over this society.

  7. To be happy with you lifestyle and enjoy living the way you do is much more important that money and possessions.
    Thanks for todays tour.

  8. what an amazing experience. one I'm sure will stay with you forever. Thanks for sharing!!

  9. Proof that money does not bring happiness. The boy wearing the green shirt has amazing eyes. I look forward to a life with less.

  10. I bet they were glad to see you had brought food. How did they like the potato chips

  11. What response did you get when you gave them food?

  12. That was very nice to bring the gift of those food items, I'm sure that made them happy with the food shortages due to the drought. It's a lesson that being happy with what one has doesn't mean you're poor. Maybe they're even richer that we are, not being caught up in possessions?

  13. I bet they don't contribute much to pollution, trash, etc. Just like in Mexico, living in a cabin in the mountains without electricity and running water doesn't make you poor.

  14. I was just thinking along the same lines as Paul. Happy is a state of mind and so influenced by those around you. We all seem to need to have a lot of "stuff" to be happy but these people seem to spend more time with each other than with their "stuff". Very interesting and it seems beneficial toyou and to the Himba. What a GREAT experience.

  15. Wow! This is the best post of your entire trip so far. Absolutely stunning. Keep up the excellent work. Love it.

  16. And for your benefactors sponsoring the travels, this post alone has me almost buying a flight to do some tourism!!!

  17. A great experience! Brings back some memories of my trips to Africa. You can only wonder how long these cultures can last in today's world.

  18. I have to agree, this has been one of the best post yet! While I love the animal pictures this shows the culture of a very interesting people. Also have to agree that "stuff" doesn't make you rich as not having doesn't mean you are poor. It can be a matter of attitude if you are rich or poor.

  19. Wow, what an experience. Amazing

  20. We had the same consideration regarding a visit to Soweto and did as you did going in with a local person who lived there and took food. I feel this kind of small introduction to tourism is actually good especially at times when food is scarce for them. Of course you can now also use this experience to educate others through your blog. Glad you enjoyed it all.

  21. Great post! This is the type of tourism 99% of travelers never experience.

  22. These photos are worthy of Nat'l Geographic Kevin! Such a great, great job!!

  23. Very interesting. You hear stories about these tribes where the men are away and bandits or what ever come in and terrorize the village. This must be in different parts of the country. It is very interesting so see how these people live and we really enjoy all the photos


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