"Pour survivre, les Himbas doivent avoir les pieds enracinés dans leurs traditions et les voix qui portent jusqu’aux grands pays au-delà de la grande mer..."

Kovahimba, l'association ayant pour but d'aider les Himbas, peuple nomade de Namibie
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Getting to know the Himbas

The Himbas' history

Like all the Herero peoples, the Himba stockbreeders belong to the Bantu linguistic group. Coming from the Great Lakes region, they travelled across the Kunene River -today the border between Angola and Namibia- for the first time in the sixteenth Century. As the Ovambo and Nama stockbreeders had already settled on the best lands, they did not have much choice and most of the Hereros proceeded with their migration to the centre of Namibia. Only a small group decided to settle in hostile Kaokoland. For them, life was to be a constant struggle for several centuries. Kaokoland’s features (which means « remote land » in herero) -a 50 000 km2 area with scattered water points and sources- forced the Himbas to adopt a semi-nomadic life style, travelling between very distant camps. This geographic and social isolation made them easy victims of Nama gangs stealing livestock.

In the middle of the 19th Century, the Himbas were attacked and deprived of their herds and, as a result, were forced to withdraw to Angola. They lived as hunters gatherers to survive. Nothing could have been more humiliating for a people of pastors! It’s just in that difficult time that they were given their name: the Ngambwe named them « Himba », the beggars. Subsequently, the Himbas became pretty well integrated in the Portuguese colonial economy. They worked as rangers or professional hunters in the plantations and some of them even became sailors. They were also hired by the Portuguese as mercenaries to fight « native rebellions ». With the money earned on the occasion of their armed expeditions, they could buy cattle again and restore part of their livestock. 

In the early 20th Century, the German colonization took the country into bloodshed. More refugees joined the Himbas in Angola. Only in the twenties, during the South-African colonization, could the Himbas –led by the Herero war leader Vita- cross the Kunene River again to eventually return to their lands.

With an aim to protect white farmers’ economy, the South-African government prohibited the Himbas to take their cattle outside their region, thus depriving them of their primary medium of exchange. Any breach of the law was severely sanctioned. In these conditions, the Himbas were forced to live in near autarky virtually until the independence… 

In 1970, the Himbas were the wealthiest pastors of Africa with more than 130 000 heads of cattle, dozens of thousands of sheeps and goats. But since then, the inhabitants of Kaokoland have been through a series of disasters. The terrible drought of the 80s and the seven years of war between the South-African army and the SWAPO breakaways decimated their livestock once again. After surviving several years on food relief, they managed to partly rebuild their herds and live their nomadic life again. 

In 1990, Namibia gained its independence. However, the following decade proved to be studded of threats for the Himbas. In the first place, a dam project threatened to flood pastures and ancestor’s graves. Perhaps even more concerning was the sudden wave of tourists to the region. In 1997, they amounted to 20 000, i.e. twice the number of Himbas. The wild beauty of the « ochre people » may as well lead them to disappear. Because of the appeal of those cars filled with tourists, the Himbas become more and more reluctant to settle away from the tracks and to live a nomadic life. They track tourists to sell them their ancestors’ jewels or exchange them against cheap alcohol. Though in constant evolution, the Himba society has difficulty adjusting to such fast transformations. 

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