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Enduring Himba

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By Karen E. Lange
Photographs by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher

Romanticized by tourists, Namibia's Himba struggle to maintain control of their life and lands.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

When drought and war struck Namibia in the 1980s, it looked as if the culture of the indigenous Himba people might disintegrate. Ninety percent of Himba cattle, the center of their economy and identity, died. Some families left for Angola. Lacking any other means of survival and desperate for cash, a number of men joined South Africa's army in its fight against guerrillas seeking Namibian independence. Unable to feed themselves, Himba flowed into the town of Opuwo for relief food, settling in slums of cardboard and plastic sacks.
But the estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Himba, long among Africa's most prosperous herders, are resilient. In the 19th century those in Namibia survived cattle raids by marauding ethnic groups from the south. Most fled into Angola, joining with the Portuguese military and forming their own armies of raiders. Eventually many returned to Namibia. Starting in the 1920s, South African rulers confined them to a prescribed "homeland," officially forbidding them to trade, graze livestock freely, or garden and gather wild plants along the Kunene River. Yet they endured—even if at times it meant eating the hides they slept on.
With the peace and good rains that came to Namibia in the 1990s, the Himba rebuilt their herds and, working with international activists, helped block a proposed hydro-electric dam that would have flooded ancestral lands along the Kunene. They also have benefited from new opportunities provided by the government of independent Namibia—mobile schools where Himba children learn English, and conservancies that give Himba control of wildlife and tourism on their lands. Vengapi Tijvinda, a grandmother in her 50s, lived through this rebirth. In the 1980s she was making baskets for tourists near Purros. Now she has returned to farming and raising goats and cattle: "Life is still the same, but the children can read and write. I am a member of [a] conservancy, and we have tasted game meat again."

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Anthropologist David Crandall is a specialist on the Himba people of Namibia.  Here he narrates a video showing Himba performers demonstrating traditional dancing and customs.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Historically, the Himba and other pastoral peoples have had little interest in sharing their communally managed grazing lands with large populations of wildlife. Because domestic stock had either to compete with wild grazing animals for scarce plant resources or be defended from dangerous wildlife such as lions, a smaller game population meant more profitable herding. In 1996, however, the government of Namibia made it possible for the Himba and others to profit from increased wildlife populations—and the tourists that wildlife brings—through a program that allows them to manage their shared property as a registered conservancy.
This program—officially called the Community Based Natural Resource Management Programme—requires that a group wanting to form a conservancy establish its membership and define the boundaries of the land its members share, write a constitution stating the goals of the group, and elect a governing committee. When the group's application is accepted by Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the conservancy begins to manage the wildlife and other resources on its land according to principles of sustainable use, while continuing with traditional farming or grazing. Because conservancies can also control tourism on their land, they are able to contract with commercial tour operators and establish their own tourist facilities.
By mid-2003, 29 conservancies had been established in Namibia. Together they include more than 28,000 square miles (73,000 square kilometers) and have more than 39,000 members. Management and operation of the conservancies and the services provided to growing numbers of tourists are creating new jobs that keep conservancy members in their communities. Profits from conservancy-managed businesses stay in the community and can be distributed directly to the members, used for local social programs, or returned to the conservancy to expand operations. Because a healthy wildlife population is a big tourist attraction, poaching is down, animal numbers are increasing, and efforts are going into maintaining the natural environment that supports wildlife. And perhaps most important, indigenous people like the Himba, whose lives were for generations largely controlled by outside governments, are regaining local control over the future of their communities.
—Patricia Kellogg
Did You Know?

Related Links
Republic of Namibia
Explore Namibia's history, culture, resources, and economy at the country's official website. There are links to everything you'll need to plan a trip to Namibia.
Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation Trust
Learn more about Namibia's conservancies in general and about those in the Kunene region in detail. 
Cheetah Conservation Fund
Namibia has been declared the cheetah capital of the world by the Cheetah Conservation Fund.  At their website, which includes a long list of links, you can learn about cheetahs in Namibia and other places. 
Cultural Survival
This organization's purpose is to "promote the rights, voices, and visions of indigenous peoples the world over." The well-organized website offers links and published material on a wide range of issues and groups.


Campion, David, and Sandra Shields. Where Fire Speaks: A Visit With the Himba. Parallax, 2002.
Crandall, David P. The Place of Stunted Ironwood Trees: A Year in the Lives of the Cattle-herding Himba of Namibia. Continuum, 2000.
Hartmann, Wolfram, Jeremy Silvester, and Patricia Hayes, eds. The Colonising Camera: Photographs in the Making of Namibian History. Ohio University Press, 1999.
Jacobsohn, Margaret. Himba: Nomads of Namibia. Struik, 1990.


NGS Resources
Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. "African Marriage Rituals," National Geographic (November 1999), 80-97.
Hodgson, Bryan. "Namibia: Nearly a Nation?" National Geographic (June 1982), 754-97.


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