15 Incredible Photos of a Tribe You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Photographer Susan Portnoy goes inside the fascinating world of Namibia’s Himba people.

(Photo: Susan Portnoy)

Apr 23, 2015· 6 MIN READ
Susan Portnoy is a communications and public relations consultant who writes and photographs for her site, The Insatiable Traveler. She also contributes to Yahoo Travel, Wendy Perrin, and Solo Traveler and is a blogger on The Huffington Post.

In the desert of Namibia’s remote Kunene region live the Himba, a fascinating, semi-nomadic people whose way of life has remained virtually unchanged from that of their ancestors. They live in huts made of sand, wood, and dung, wear loincloths of soft leather, and are best known for spreading a paste of red ochre and butter fat known as otjize on their face, body, and hair. They are a beautiful people: tall and statuesque, with penetrating eyes, high cheekbones, and sculpted lips. And for a couple of days this past March, I had the pleasure of their hospitality.

This is Krocodile, a name given to her by the local community after she survived a crocodile attack 10 years ago. She’s the matriarch of the small Himba village I visited near the banks of the Kunene River, the dividing line between Namibia and Angola. My guide, Gerhardus, estimated she was about 42, although he couldn’t be sure. The Himba care little about age in the Western sense; their lives are marked by milestones such as the onset of puberty, marriage, and the bearing of children. Krocodile is a mother of 10 children; her youngest son is currently crawling.

Himba mothers are loving and attentive, but they don’t hover. Above is Krocodile’s son, crawling across the hot sand toward his mother, who is about 100 or so feet in front of him. Though she saw him coming, she didn’t attempt to pick him up, knowing that he would make it to her eventually. Instead, she sat on a blanket, focusing on arranging the jewelry she’d made. The Namib desert is unforgiving, with its severe landscapes and extreme temperatures—I would imagine moments like these are very important for the emotional growth of a Himba child. They must be strong, self-sufficient, and brave. There’s room for love, but not for coddling.

As a Himba female ages, her development and status is distinguished by a series of unique hairstyles. When she is a young child, her hair will be closely cropped to her head. Prior to puberty, she’ll wear two braids fashioned to fall above the forehead. The young girl in the photo above is approximately 15 years old. Her hair has been braided and then covered with otijize paste and extended with goat hair to give it that pom-pom look. After she’s married for a year or has a child, she will wear an elaborate oval headpiece made from sheepskin called an erembe. Men, on the other hand, have very simple coifs. Their hair is worn close to the head until they are married, at which time they don a large cap. It is never to be removed unless they are widowed.

Above is a view of the village as we approached in our vehicle. In this pastoral and matriarchal community, the Himba men raise goats and herd cattle, but the animals’ ownership is passed down from mother to daughter. The more cattle a woman owns, the greater her status and that of her family. During my visit, the men were miles away, grazing the cattle wherever they could find food and water. Women are responsible for more everyday hard labor, including raising the children, building the modest huts, preparing the food, collecting water—which for this village is miles away—and making the jewelry that they wear and sell to travelers.

While sitting in a circle, the children play a game similar to Jacks. Twelve stones are placed in a shallow impression in the sand. Each child takes a turn throwing a thirteenth stone into the air. While the stone is on the way up, the player uses the same throwing hand to pick up one stone from the sand while making sure to catch the airborne stone before it hits the ground. With every successful throw, the player has to increase the number of stones he picks up. As soon as a player drops a stone or fails to pick up the right number of stones from the ground, the game moves on to the next person. The winning child is the one who picks up all 12 stones from the ground without ever dropping the stone in the air.

I stayed at a camp called Serra Cafema, spending a large amount of time speaking with the women. When they learned that I was single and had no children—an unfathomable scenario from their perspective—they looked at me as if I had three heads. Familial ties are a prerequisite for survival in such a formidable environment. Their tribal structure is based on “bilateral descent,” meaning that each member belongs to two clans, providing them with strong ties to the families of both parents.

The desire to play is universal. It doesn’t take much—a piece of fabric or a plastic ball left behind by a traveler—to inspire the imagination.

Is she pretending to have big-girl hair? Dancing with her imaginary friends? I’ll never know, but she was absolutely adorable—a tiny fireball bursting with unbridled energy.

Who needs video games when you have miles and miles of sand to play in?

Jewelry is an essential component of a Himba woman’s appearance, from braided leather necklaces and small beaded breastplates to the use of shells and other adornments. The women here love embellishment and will spend hours making jewelry to wear and sell. The scarf worn by the woman above is not a typical Himba accessory, however. When I asked why she was the only one not wearing the signature braids, I was told that her scalp “was sick” and that she had to shave her head. She’ll wear the scarf until her hair grows back.

Because water is so scarce in the desert, Himba women rarely, if ever, bathe. Instead, they apply the otjize paste—which is scented with aromatic resins—every morning in a grooming ritual that can take two to three hours. The mixture is a beautiful, deep orange color and symbolizes the earth’s red color and blood—the essence of life. Otjize is considered the ideal of Himba beauty, but it also offers protection from the sun and insect bites.

Ankle cuffs made from leather and metal are not only beautiful—they also protect the wearer from snake and insect bites.

The day-to-day care of the children is a group endeavor, with the older children watching over the younger ones.

In addition to the jewelry they sell, the Himba create dolls in their likeness, complete with braids and an application of otjize paste.

This young boy, and all the children I met, were fascinated by the buttons on my camera. He loved to push them and watch the lights flash and the LCD light up. I took out my iPhone and was amazed to see that he already knew how to swipe to make the screen change. I knew I wasn’t the first traveler to visit, but considering how remote the village is, this still surprised me.

A version of this article previously appeared on One.org.