Himba women in traditional attire have graced many a magazine cover and featured in documentaries galore with their distinctive reddish-brown body “paint” and goatskin “miniskirts”. And while the Himba’s physical appearance often brings out the worst voyeuristic tendencies in tourists, appearance is, nevertheless, very important to Himba culture; women spend several hours on their toilette each day. Their body “paint”otjize – is actually a mix of ground red ochre and animal butter or fat, scented with resin, and used to cover their skin, hair, clothing and jewellery. It has functional, symbolic and aesthetic value, protecting their skin from the burning sun while keeping insects at bay; its reddish-brown hue evokes both the earth and life-giving blood. Since water is scarce, women often have a smoke “bath”, and similarly “wash” their leather clothing by smoking it over incense.

Hair is similarly important: various styles indicate different life stages for both males and females. Toddlers often have shaven heads but as they grow, girls have two plaits, pulled over their face once they hit puberty (to show modesty) while boys maintain one plait at the back, which becomes two at puberty. The style of the plaits indicates the oruzo, or patrilineal descent, of the wearer.

Once married, men bundle their hair into a head-wrap, which is only removed for funerals, or when they are widowed. Puberty for young women entails sporting numerous plaits, smeared with otjize, and once married, women incorporate a tanned sheep or goatskin headpiece, which is replaced by a different headpiece (erembe) after they have been married a year, or given birth to their first child.

Traditionally attired women and men are heavily adorned with a collection of jewellery – necklaces, collars, bracelets and anklets, which also serve as a protection against snakebites. The jewellery is fashioned from metal, shell, beads, leather and woven grass, and sometimes weighs several kilos. Inevitably, as westernization encroaches and traditions become eroded, Himba apparel is becoming more hybrid, or abandoned altogether.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Namibia features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

In pictures: the otherworldly landscapes of Namibia

In pictures: the otherworldly landscapes of Namibia

From the spectacular dunes of the Namib Desert to the serpentine chasm of the Fish River Canyon, the rugged mountains of the Great Escarpment to the acacia-stud…

15 Feb 2018 • Sara Humphreys camera_alt Gallery
19 places to get utterly lost

19 places to get utterly lost

One of the great joys of travelling is stumbling across unexpected places, wandering without a single destination in mind and embracing the journey. These place…

12 Sep 2017 • Keith Drew camera_alt Gallery
Namibia from above: the world's most extreme landscape

Namibia from above: the world's most extreme landscape

The Namib desert is one of the world’s most extreme environments. Covering 81,000 square kilometres, its vastness can only truly be appreciated from above. He…

17 Jul 2017 • Lottie Gross local_activity Special feature
View more featureschevron_right