Himba: Hair is Power

Although there are many native tribes in Namibia, the Himba capture the iconic image with the women’s red plated hair.

A Himba women’s hair is everything. It is unique and awesome. Each woman’s hair, both the style and the adornments, convey information about her age, her status (marriageability, married, widowed), and wealth.

Note the different style of headpieces between these two ladies.

This explained in part why so many women were warm and friendly, but more importantly, eager to pose and show off their hair. 

A full view of their costume with the silhouetted hairpiece looking like an eagle in flight.

Lunchtime – porridge for the kids

Posing, inside the hut where the light was less harsh

At maturity, a women’s hair goes from simple plating to a full head of red plates.  Ground ochre (hematite) and butter fat are combined to create “otjize” a paste used to coat the hair and body giving it the notable glowing red color.

The headpiece is also symbolic. It is created and sculpted from dried goat or sheep skin. 

Yesterday a baby goat, today a fashionable headpiece


A headpiece in the works, after being dried, but before being coated with ash

Fascinated with the hair, I asked how they slept with their hair style. I should have realized they don’t have a bed with white sheets on it. They politely told me that they take the headpiece off for sleeping, and only for sleeping.

I also didn’t realize that they don’t bathe with water. So no need to worry about accidentally rinsing out all that red dye. I was then introduced to their bathing technique. 

The Chief’s wife  demonstrating the “sauna” bathing in her hut. Herbs have been added to the coals for fragrant smoke.

I followed the chief’s wife into a small dung covered hut. The Himba women do not use water due to limited resources, after all, it is a desert. Instead, they place coals and herbs in a small urn, and then move the smoking urn about their body to “steam it fresh”. They often use a blanket to cover their bodies with the smoking urn underneath for a better effect (aka sauna). Our spokesperson indicated that  it was a privilege to watch this woman bathe and a key part of tribal ritual. Personally, I can’t say it was on my list as of top 10 things to watch. Less than 10 minutes inside this stuffy, very warm incensed filled hut, I thought I was going to pass out. My photo shoot was over.

All the power to the Himba women, their hair and their rituals.