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PEOPLE OF THE DESERT

29/05/2011


Namibia’s Himba take tourists beyond the usual safari circuit.

“Tjike!”

It’s my first attempt at a Himba greeting, and my accent and intonation are probably totally wrong. But Mbinge, who I’ve just met, gives me a broad, gap-toothed grin and beckons me inside her house.

Mbinge constructed this shelter herself, house-building being the exclusive responsibility of women in these parts. It’s a small, brown, igloo-shaped hut made from flexible mopane branches, supported by a central pole. The outside is rendered with cattle dung and earth, baked hard in the heat. The open doorway is tiny. As I stoop to enter, my eyes, full of the glare of the morning sun, see nothing but darkness. Instead, I take in the jangle of Mbinge’s heavy beads and the soft rustle of her goatskin skirts. Finding myself a perch, I feel coarse hide under my palms and my nose detects a sweet, pungent aroma I can’t quite place.

Gradually, my eyes adjust. Mbinge is sitting opposite me, her strong, thoughtful-looking face lit by the doorway. Hanging behind her are a few possessions: ochre-dusted amulets, beaded belts and goatskins stitched with cowrie shells. She’s tending a burner which is emitting puffs of smoke, the source of that intriguing aroma. It’s a little like church incense, heady and delicious.

“She’s burning commiphora,” explains Boas, who’s here to translate. “Himba women use it to perfume their clothes, because it’s taboo to wash them with water.” Mbinge demonstrates by flapping a goatskin over the burner. Waves of smoke lap against it.

I’m fascinated. It’s a process the Himba of remote northwest Namibia have shared with other desert peoples – the Egyptians, the Ethiopians, the Omanis and Yemenis – since ancient times. Commiphora, I discover, comes from a drought-resistant tree: score the bark and the sap seeps out. This hardens to an aromatic resin, directly related to frankincense and myrrh.

It’s hardly surprising that in the Namib desert, where every drop of rain is precious, wasting water on something as mundane as laundry would be unthinkable. Bathing is out, too. Instead, the Himba rub their skin and heavily plaited hair with otjize, a fragrant blend of ochre dust and butter. Outside her house, Mbinge shows me how she produces ochre by rubbing a russet-coloured block of clay against a stone.

The daily ritual of burning commiphora and preparing and applying otjize can take several hours. But the results are effective, protecting the women against insects and sunburn. They’re beautiful, too: the glowing, ochre-daubed Himba are among the most striking-looking people in southern Africa.

Published May 24, 2011
By Emma Gregg

Read the rest of this story in the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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