For years, the ancient tribe of semi-nomadic herders known as the Himba have attracted photographers to Namibia’s barren northwest. As a result, the striking image of the Himba has become known beyond the remote Kunene region where they make a living tending livestock.
The reason for this attention is the Otjize, a paste of butter, fat and red ochre – sometimes scented with aromatic resin – that Himba women apply each morning to their skin and hair, giving them a distinctive red hue.
The sight of traditional Himba women has become an iconic image of Africa.
There has been much speculation about the origins of this practice, with some claiming it is to protect their skin from the sun, or repel insects. But the Himba say it is an aesthetic consideration, a sort of traditional make-up they apply every morning when they wake.
Men do not apply otjize.
The red ochre cream that the Himba are famous for is made by pounding the ochre stone (Hematite) into small pieces.
Thereafter, the fragments are mixed with butter, slightly heated by means of smoke and applied on the skin.
Historians say that the main reason for the red ochre is to establish a difference between men and women. Moreover, the red layer seems to help against the scorching sun radiation, while keeping the skin clean and moist and to some extent it blocks hair growth on the body.
On top of the women’s head you’ll find the Himba crown locally known as the Erembe. This crown is made of cow or goat leather and is placed on the head when a girl reaches puberty. The red ochre, however, is applied when the girls are old enough to look after themselves hygienically.
Although it is constantly jeopardized by development projects, many Himba lead a traditional lifestyle that has remained unchanged for generations, surviving war and droughts.
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