Himba fieldsite in Namibia
Primary Site Researcher
Brooke A. Scelza
Dr Brooke Scelza is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her PhD from the University of Washington in 2008. She has worked with the Himba since 2009 and her work there focuses on women's social support networks, reproductive decision-making and maternal and child health.
The Himba are a group of traditional pastoralists living in the northwest corner of Namibia in a part of the Kunene region referred to as Kaokoland. The fieldsite for this project is in the Omuhonga Basin, about 150km from the main district town of Opuwo.
Kaokoland has an arid climate, with a rainy season that typically runs from November to May. Droughts are not uncommon and can last several years. The area is very sparsely populated, with a density of only about one person per 2km².
History and population
The Himba are ancestors of the Herero, a Bantu group who arrived in Namibia in the middle of the 16th century. In the mid 1800s, the Herero came under attack from neighboring Nama bands, who raided most of their cattle and caused a substantial group of Herero to flee across the Angolan border. There, these Herero were re-named 'ovahimba' which means 'beggar' in the local Ngambwe language, due to their lack of material wealth and refugee status.
The Himba left Angola around 1920 when a prominent warrior named Vita led the group back to Kaokoland and reclaimed many of their cattle. Since that time, the Himba have lived largely unaffected by modern technology and market systems. Cattle continue to be favoured as a means of currency, and daily life continues to revolve around tending to stock and other household duties.
There are an estimated 20,000 Himba currently living in Kaokoland.
The Himba speak Otjihimba, a dialect of Herero. Herero is a Bantu language. Although English is now the national language of Namibia, almost no Himba speak it, and very little English is taught in Omuhonga schools.
The Himba continue to rely mainly on pastoral production for majority of their calories. They herd cattle, goats and sheep. During the rainy season women also have gardens where they grow maize and sorghum. Some foraging still occurs, mainly for nuts and honey. Hunting is now prohibited in Kaokoland.
Social structure and organisation
The Himba practice bilateral descent, with wealth being inherited mainly through the materal line (typically from the maternal uncle to a nephew) while status is passed patrilineally. Every person is a member of both their maternal (eanda) and paternal (oruzo) clans. This is a relatively rare system of social structure, found most commonly in severe environments.
The Himba live in extended family households. Polygyny is common and women tend to co-reside within the same household, though each wife has her own hut. Women go to live with their husband's family upon marriage, although they frequently visit their kin and will go back to reside in their natal homestead when a marriage dissolves.
During the dry season cattle posts are established and the household will often be split between the main compound and the cattle post. This means that husbands and wives are often separated for long periods. Men who are married polygynously may have one wife live at the cattle post and the other at the main compound.
All Himba marriages are arranged by kin and a small brideprice is paid (typically one cow and two sheep). However, in some cases couples fall in love and then go to their families for permission to marry. These 'love matches' are more typical in second and third marriages than in primary ones. Child marriage is practiced, where a very young girl (sometimes an infant) is betrothed to an adult man. Although a marriage ceremony takes place, the child rarely goes to live with her husband and the marriage is never consummated until the girl reaches menarche.
Fertility is still relatively high among the Himba and a large family size is preferred. Contraceptive knowledge is scarce, so this is still considered a 'natural fertility' population. Women frequently have children out of wedlock and marital affairs are also common. Women have a fairly high degree of autonomy, particularly when it comes to partner choice and the ability to leave a marriage if she desires.
Education and schooling
There are several small, community schools in Omuhonga. However, few adult Himba have ever attended school, and the current generation of children also has only sporadic attendance. The dry season often leads families to move to cattle posts with better grazing and water access, and these are typically further away from schools, disrupting what education Himba children currently have. Additionally, Himba children are important sources of labour.
Healthcare in the Kunene region is some of the poorest in the country. Statistics on the Himba are not well recorded, but regional statistics provide some indication of health status and indicators. The Namibian Ministry of Health and Social Services reports fertility and mortality statistics only by directorate, where the Northwest directorate includes all of Kaokoland (Govt. of the Republic of Namibia 2003). The total fertility rate for this region is 4.7 and women in this area have the fastest birth rate in the country, with a mean interbirth interval of 37 months.
Thirty-nine percent of women report using modern contraception, but this number may be particularly inaccurate for Himba as most women surveyed were living in or near towns. Infant and child mortality rates are also the worst in the country, with 49.9 infant deaths per 1,000 births and 71.2 deaths per 1,000 for children under five.
The most significant health problems for Himba are malaria and tuberculosis (TB) (Bollig, personal communication) although to date, there are no published studies on malnutrition or childhood diseases among the Himba.
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Brooke Scelza (forthcoming). Father's presence speeds the social and reproductive careers of sons. Current Anthropology.