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Ethnology of the Ovahimba

The Ovahimba (or Himba) are a Bantu group living in the so-called Kaokoveld, in the north-western part of Namibia and across the Kunene River in Angola. They speak Otjhimba, a dialect of Otjiherero, which is a Bantu language. Around 20,000 Ovahimba are currently living in the Kaokoveld. There pastoral lifestyle was and is still semi-nomadic.

Ovahimba History

The Ovahimba are the original traditional Herero who crossed the Kunene and came from Angola to Namibia in the middle of the 16th century. They settled in the Kaokoveld, the north-western part of Namibia and lived a semi-nomadic, pastoral lifestyle.  

The early history of the Herero was fraught with severe droughts and other disasters. Large groups of the Herero people left the Kaokoveld and looked for better grazing grounds for their herds in the south-east.
The remaining Herero in the Kaokoveld came under attack from the Swartbooi and Topnaar Nama in the 19th century. The Nama entered the Kaokoveld from the south, also looking for better grazing grounds. In 1850 the Nama established a base in Sesfontein from where they organized raids against the Herero of the Kaokoveld. Due to the fact that the Herero were widely scattered and the Nama had much better weapons, large cattle herds were raided from the Herero in the next 20 years.

As the situation deteriorated and the loss of their material and social wealth increase the Herero of the Kaokoveld fled over the Kunene River into Angola and took shelter with the Ngambwe, which granted support to the refugees. They called the Herero “Ovahimba”, which means “beggar” in the language spoken by the Ngambwe. Over the years the Herero took over this name still use it until today.

Most of the Ovahimba followed a popular warrior named Vito back to Namibia in 1920. Ever since and up to the Namibian independence in 1990 the Himba were able to live their traditional lifestyle. During the recent years the Ovahimba have been more exposed to the influences of the modern world, although this mainly refers to the consumption of unhealthy foods, cool drinks and alcohol. The positive achievements of modern society like a proper health system, modern schools, pension funds etc. did not yet reach the majority of Ovahimba.

The Ovahimba (Herero) came to Namibia in the 16th centuryThe Ovahimba (Herero) came to Namibia in the 16th century

Religion

The Ovahimba are a monotheistic people who believe in Mukuru, the creator of the world, a god who is a vague and distant entity. The belief in ancestral spirits is much more essential and present. The ancestral spirits are believed to have received supernatural qualities by Mukuru and thus have the power to influence the life of the living. The ancestral spirits are the representative of Mukuru and thus communicate between the Ovahimba (or the human being in general) and the god.

The place where most of the religious conversation takes place is the holy fire (okuruwo), a sacred place which is kept by the fire keeper. The holy fire should always smolder, because it is the sacred connection between the ancestors and the living. Every family (every homestead) has an own holy fire which is placed in the middle between the main hut of the homestead and the kraal.

Holy fire of the OvahimbaHoly fire of the Ovahimba

Social structure and rites

The Ovahimba live in large homesteads together with their extended families. They still practice polygamy; an average Ovahimba husband has two wives. Each of the wives has her own hut, the main wife resides in the main hut opposite the entrance of the kraal. Marriages are often arranged by kin. It happens that even infants are betrothed to adult man in a wedding ceremony. The marriage is never consummated until the girl reaches menarche and becomes an adult.

The Ovahimba have both, maternal and paternal systems, that means that every person in the Ovahimba community is a member of both their maternal and paternal clans. There is a complex inheritance system with mainly material wealth inherited from the maternal line (often from uncle to nephew) and social status inherited from the paternal line.

It is a traditional custom to knock out the four lower incisors at the age between ten and twelve. This has a big social and religious meaning in the life of an Ovahimba. There are also several initiation rites for boys and girls. Boys are circumcised, girls undergo a ritual where they have to leave the homestead during their menarche and are allowed to return back later in company of experienced older women, followed by a little celebration among friends.

Homestead and womenHomestead and women

Nomadism, subsistence economy and daily life

Traditionally the Ovahimba are a so-called “zero-income cultures”. They define wealth solely based upon the number of cattle the family owns. Besides having large cattle herds the Ovahimba breed goats and sheep, grow crops such as maize and millet. However their main diet is milk and milk products like sour milk as well as wild herbs, chicken eggs and meat.

During the dry season some members of the extended family leave the homestead with their herds to find water and grazing grounds in remote areas. Part of the family stays at the homestead.
The Ovahimba are known as the “red nomads” of Namibia. Especially the women, but also some men are famous for covering themselves with a perfumed mixture of ochre pigment and butterfat which has cosmetic characteristics. In fact Ovahimba women never wash themselves with water but are very neat when it comes to personal hygiene. The ochre fat protects the Ovahimba against the sun and the climate of the extremely hot Kaokoveld and is also an effective mosquito repellant.

The hair style and the jewelry are very important in the traditions of the Ovahimba. Hair styles indicate social status and age.

Herd of goatsHerd of goats

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Do you have a question about the Ovahimba Living Museum?

 

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Manager of the Ovahimba Living Museum

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Juhoansi

The Living Museum of the Ju/'Hoansi is Namibias first Living Museum

  • Opening: 2004
  • Culture: Hunter-Gatherer Culture of the San
  • Highlights: "Action Day" - 4 hours interesting introduction into the culture of the San
  • Setup: Many gras huts in great nature, campsite and craftshop
Grashoek Apollo

"... Our Living Museums has 76 actors at the moment. All actors are very happy with the work they are doing. The aim of our Living Museum is to develop the Grashoek community. Its is also a school where the elders teach the young people about culture..."

Apollo, Manager of the Ju/'Hoansi-San Living Museum

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Mafwe

The Living Museum of the Mafwe in the Caprivi, situated under huge Baobab trees

  • Opening: 2008
  • Culture: Bantu culture of the Mafwe, influenced especially by fishing and farming
  • Highlights: "A day together with the Mafwe" - 4 hours of interactive program
  • Setup: Kraal, several clay huts, traditional kitchen, bush campsite & craftshop
Mafwe Elizabeth

"... The Mafwe Living Museum has 38 permanent workers and 12 students at the moment. We realized that we must share our culture and the Living Museum is the right tool to do that because the Mafwe people are happy and proud about their culture! ..."

Elizabeth Madima, Manager of the Mafwe Living Museum

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Damara

The Living Museum of the Damara close to Twyfelfontein, reconstruction of the "lost" culture of the Damara

  • Opening: 2010
  • Culture: Traditional culture of the Damara
  • Highlights: "Traditional Life" - 1 hour entertaining program
  • Setup: Kraal, several wooden huts, pharmacy, blacksmith, craftshop
Damara Hans

"... The Damara Living Museum has 30 actors and is called "Taotatide" in our language which means "we are proud of our culture". The actors are happy and very proud of their job. In the future we want to start a campsite and further improve our Living Museum..."

Hans-Bernhard, Manager of the Damara Living Museum

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LittleHunters

The Hunter's Living Museum - the only museum offering a real traditional hunt in the wilderness together with the San

  • Opening: 2010
  • Culture: Hunter-gatherer culture of the Ju/'Hoansi
  • Highlights: "3 Days in the wild" - several days intensive educational program
  • Setup: Several gras huts, campsite, craftshop
Hunters Ksamkxao

"... We have 25 actors in our museum. When the visitors come to see and understand our culture, the guests but also our children learn about the old traditions which is very important for our community. ..."

Tsamkxao, Manager of the Living Hunter's Museum

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Mbunza

The Living Museum of the Mbunza at Lake Samsitu, reconstructing the "old Africa"

  • Opening: 2012
  • Culture: Bantu culture with main focus on fishing
  • Highlights: "A Day together with the Mbunza" - 4 hours cultural program
  • Setup: Several traditional huts inside a large traditional village, kitchen, blacksmith, craft shop
Mbunza Sebron

"... Our Living Museum which has 25 people is a good tool to let people understand the value of our culture, where we come from and where we can go. We are proud of our culture and are happy to learn about people from all over the world who are visiting us. ..."

Sebron Ruben, Manager of the Mbunza Living Museum

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Ovahimba

The Living Museum of the Ovahimba north of Opuwo in the Kaokoveld

  • Opening: 2016
  • Culture: Unique semi-nomadic Bantu culture
  • Highlights: 5 hours "Spend a day with us" program
  • Setup: Large homestead including main hut, holy fire, life stock kraal
Ovahimba John

"... We have 32 actors in our museum. We were able to discover the old and lost traditional Ovahimba culture. The Living Museum is very succesful and the actors are benefitting from it directly and indirectly thorugh the selling of crafts very much ..."

John, Manager of the Ovahimba Living Museum

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Juhoansi

Das Lebende Museum der Ju/'Hoansi - Namibias erstes Lebendes Museum

  • Eröffnung: 2004
  • Kultur: Jäger- und Sammler-Kultur der San
  • Höhepunkte: "Action Day" - 4 Stunden intensives Kennenlernen der faszinierenden Kultur
  • Setup: Mehrere Grashütten, Campingplatz, Craftshop
Grashoek Apollo

"... Unser Lebendes Museum hat 76 Akteure im Moment. Alle Leute sind zufrieden mit der Arbeit im Museum. Das Ziel unseres Museums ist es, die Gemeinschaft in Grashoek zu entwickeln. Daneben ist es eine Schule, wo die Ältesten die Jungen unterrichten..."

Apollo, Manager des Lebenden Museums

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Mafwe

Das Lebende Museum der Mafwe im Caprivi unter Baobabbäumen

  • Eröffnung: 2008
  • Kultur: Fischerei- und Farmerkultur der Mafwe
  • Höhepunkte: "Ein Tag zusammen mit den Mafwe " - 4 Stunden interaktives Programm
  • Setup: Kraal, Mehrere traditionelle Lehmhütten, traditionelle Küche, Busch-Campingplatz, Craftshop
Mafwe Elizabeth

"... Das Mafwe Museum hat 38 permanent angestellte Aktuere und 12 Studenten im Moment. Wir haben verstanden, dass wir unsere traditionalle Kultur teilen müssen und das Lebende Museum ist der richtige Ansatz dafür, weil die Mafwe stolz auf ihre Kultur sind!..."

Elizabeth Madima, Manager des Mafwe Living Museum

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Damara

Das Lebende Museum der Damara bei Twyfelfontein - Rekonstruktion der "verlorenen" Damara Kultur

  • Eröffnung: 2010
  • Kultur: Jäger- und Sammlerkultur der Damara
  • Höhepunkte: "Traditionelles Leben" - 1 Stunde kurzweiliges Programm
  • Setup: Kraal, Mehrere traditionelle Hütten, Apotheke, Schmiede, Craftshop
Damara Hans

"... Das Damara Museum hat 30 Akteure. Wir nennen es "Taotatide" in unserer Sprache, was soviel bedeutet wie "Wir sind stolz auf unsere Kultur". Die Akteure sind glücklich und stolz auf ihre Arbeit. Für die Zukunft planen wir einen Campingplatz und weitere Verbesserungen im Museum..."

Hans-Bernhard, Manager des Damara Living Museum

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LittleHunters

Als einziges Museum bietet das Little Hunter's Museum die Möglichkeit zu einer traditionellen Jagd

  • Eröffnung: 2010
  • Kultur: Jäger- und Sammlerkultur der San
  • Höhepunkte: "3 Tage in der Wildnis" - mehrtägiges, intensives Kennenlern-Programm
  • Setup: Mehrere Grashütten, Campingplatz, Craftshop
Hunters Ksamkxao

"... Wir haben 25 Akteure in unserem Museum. Wenn die Besucher kommen, um unsere Kultur zu sehen und zu verstehen, lernen die Gäste über unsere alten Traditionen, aber auch unsere Kinder, was sehr wichtig für unsere Gemeinschaft ist. ..."

Tsamkxao, Manager des Living Hunter's Museum

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Mbunza

Das Lebende Museum der Mbunza am Samsitu See, das alte Afrika am Okavango rekonstruiert

  • Eröffnung: 2012
  • Kultur: Bantukultur mit Schwerpunkt Fischerei
  • Höhepunkte: "Ein Tag mit den Mbunza" - 4 Stunden Intensiv-Programm
  • Setup: Mehrere traditionelle Hütten im Kraal, Küche, Werkstätten, Schmiede, Craftshop
Mbunza Sebron

"... Unser Lebendes Museum, bei welchem 25 Leute arbeiten, ist eine gute Möglichkeit, den Besuchern den Wert unserer Kultur zu verdeutlichen, woher die Mbunza kommen und wohin sie gehen. Wir sind stolz auf unsere Kultur und auch glücklich etwas über die Besucher aus aller Welt zu lernen..."

Sebron Ruben, Manager des Mbunza Living Museum

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Ovahimba

Das Lebende Museum der Ovahimba nördlich von Opuwo

  • Eröffnung: 2016
  • Kultur: Einzigartige halbnomadische Bantukultur
  • Höhepunkte: 5 Stunden Ganztagsprogramm
  • Setup: Großes Gehöft inklusive Hauptfrauenhütte, Heiliges Feuer, Viehkraal
Ovahimba John

"... Wir haben 32 Akteure in unserem Museum. Wir haben es geschafft, die alte Ovahimbakultur wiederzubeleben. Das Lebende Museum ist sehr erfolgreich und die Akteure profitieren direkt und indirekt, zum Beispiel durch Schmuckverkauf..."

John, Manager des Ovahimba Living Museum

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