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The Himba (singular: Omuhimba, plural: Ovahimba) are an ethnic group of
about 20,000 to 50,000 people living in northern Namibia, in the Kunene
region (formerly Kaokoland). Recently they have built two villages in
Kamanjab which have become tourist destinations. They are mostly a
semi-nomadic, pastoral people, closely related to the Herero, and speak
Otjihimba, a dialect of the Herero language.
The Himba breed cattle and goats. The responsibility for milking the
cows lies with the women. Women take care of the children, and one woman
will take care of another woman's children. Women tend to perform more
labor-intensive work than men do, such as carrying water to the village
and building homes. Men handle the political tasks and legal trials.
Members of an extended family typically dwell in a homestead, “a small,
circular hamlet of huts and work shelters” that surrounds “an okuruwo
(ancestral fire) and a central livestock enclosure”. Both the fire and
the livestock are closely tied to their belief in ancestor worship, the
fire representing ancestral protection and the livestock allowing
“proper relations between human and ancestor”.
Because of the harsh desert climate in the region where they live and
their seclusion from outside influences, the Himba have managed to
maintain much of their traditional lifestyle. Members live under a
tribal structure based on bilateral descent that helps them live in one
of the most extreme environments on earth.
Under bilateral descent, every tribe member belongs to two clans: one
through the father (a patriclan, called oruzo) and another through the
mother (a matriclan, called eanda). Himba clans are led by the eldest
male in the clan. Sons live with their father's clan, and when daughters
marry, they go to live with the clan of their husband. However,
inheritance of wealth does not follow the patriclan but is determined by
the matriclan, that is, a son does not inherit his father's cattle but
his maternal uncle's instead.
Bilateral descent is found among only a few groups in West Africa,
India, Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia, and anthropologists consider
the system advantageous for groups that live in extreme environments
because it allows individuals to rely on two sets of families dispersed
over a wide area”.
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