Marriage is a loose affair in Namibia, and for that matter many other parts of Africa. Polygamy is still practised in many tribes. It is a common custom that after years of marriage the husband will select a new wife to join his household. The number of wives depends on his wealth. A wealthy man owns a large herd of cows, goats and sheep that will enable him to pay the bride price. He will also need stamina to service multiple wives as there is an expectation that everyone will share his bed. Hence, families are large, complex and extend over many locations and tribes.
Family succession is an important issue that has to be resolved. The family always looks to the headman for leadership and to make decisions that will affect them all. These decisions can be trivial day-to-day issues such as family arguments, or important matters such as marriage and property disputes.
When the husband decides it is time to select his successor as head of his family, he elects the eldest son of his sister. He asks his nephew to come to his home and stay with his wife or wives for a couple of weeks so they can “get to know each other”. During this period, the husband leaves the village and goes off hunting or visiting distant friends and relatives. Meanwhile the nephew is taken into the family and is given all the rights and respect of the husband.
On the husband’s return, the nephew moves out of his uncle’s house and the uncle resumes his position as head of the household. On the death of the husband, the nephew comes to his house and takes his uncle’s wife or wives to his own house and they then join his family. Hence, in a tribe, everyone is related by blood or by adoption. There is a shared responsibility for the caring and nurturing of all children. No child is ever left homeless should something happen to his parents.
Another important issue is inheritance. This importantly determines the person’s status and ability to pay a larger bride price to attract more desirable women into the family. If inheritance is determined after death, should the man not have selected his nephew by the time he dies, the tribe believes that the dead person was “witched”. To determine who will then take the dead man’s wives, family and possessions, six eligible men of the tribe are nominated to carry the “witched coffin” until one of them feels that the dead man inside the coffin moves. This signifies that the ancestors have chosen his successor and the person who “felt the coffin move” inherits the wife or wives, house, cattle, possessions and children.
Many people have conveniently blended their traditional beliefs and values into Christianity. I met Jonas’ uncle Nicky. He and Jonas are like brothers as only a few years separate them in age – they went to school together and now both are guides at neighbouring camps in southern Namibia.
Nicky is devilishly handsome, with a wide warm smile that showcases his perfect white teeth. He is wearing a large gold cross around his neck and when I asked him how all these tribal customs rest with his Christianity, he replies,”he is very comfortable”. He can reside in the belief that both can co-exist. It seems that the people “cherry pick” what they like from both belief systems and blend them into a framework which dictates their current social and spiritual norms.
For example, when Jonas was born he was given two names. Those being: Jonas from his grandfather, who was a Christian and a tribal name of “Kakumbire”, which translate to “he didn’t pray when he passed away”. The name Kakumbire came about when Jonas mother was pregnant with Jonas, his grandfather was very ill and everyday it was his custom was to offer a Christian prayer. However, the day he died he did not pray and hence this sentiment was captured in Jonas’ Himba’s name, “Kakumbire” -“he didn’t pray when he passed away”.
Traditional spiritual customs are not the only things that co-exist with modern practices. Male circumcision is still widely practised. When the village has a number of children to be circumcised they call in the “specialist”. Each family has to buy a new blade and pay the specialist $100 Namibian (AUD20.00) each. After the deed is done, they apply a paste of paraffin and roasted herbs, which is then applied to the wound. This is slowly worn off as the cut heals.
However – the most painful tribal practise is the knocking out of the four bottom teeth in the females and males. Luckily this is not commonly practised by modern Himba but is still widespread in the tribal areas. The headman is designated to carry out this ritual by taking a nail and hammer or two stones and knocking them against the gums where the roots of the teeth are. This sounds horrifyingly painful, and no doubt it is. This practise occurs at puberty and is important part of the Himba culture that easily identifies them as Himba apart from wearing the distinctive traditional Himba clothing.
The traditional costume and grooming includes dressing the hair, particularly for the women. They braid their hair thickly with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat. These braids are finished off with large fluffy pompoms of hair at the ends. The women “bathe” their bodies all over with the red ochre/fat mixture, which makes their skin very soft and it becomes like a burnished brown colour. Their necks, ankles and arms are ornamented with a variety of jewellery, belts and metal work. They wear around their waist a small skirt of goat hide which covers their bottom and in front a small cloth for modesty.