Red Ochre: The Himba of Namibia

The Himba (singular: Omuhimba, plural: Ovahimba) are an ancient, semi-nomadic tribe in Namibia who due to their striking appearance, have attracted eyes from different parts of the world.
Himba woman.

The reason for their iconic sight is the Otjize, a paste of butter, and red ochre that the Himba women apply every day to their skin and hair, giving them a characteristic red skin tone.

History of the Red Ochre

Red Ochre

It is quite unclear how and why the red ochre practice came to be. There have been claims that it is to protect the skin from the sun, or repel insects. Some historians say it is to establish a difference between men and women.


The Himba themselves say it is an aesthetic activity, a sort of traditional make-up they apply every morning when they wake. The red mixture is said to symbolize the earth’s rich red color and the blood that symbolizes life. However, it truly helps against the scorching heat of the sun, while keeping the skin clean and moist.

How is the Red Ochre applied?

Himba women applying red ochre on the hair. (Pinterest)

The red ochre cream is made by pounding the ochre stone (Hematite) into small pieces. The resulting tiny fragments are then mixed with butter, slightly heated before applied on the skin.

Himba women.

On top of the women’s head, is the Himba crown also 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 is also applied when the girls are old enough to look after themselves hygienically.

Hairstyles of the Himba

Himba-hairstyle (Pinterest)

Hairstyles reveal age and social status. A young girl usually has two plaits of braided hair known as ozondato. Just before puberty, the girls wear long plaitlets and after puberty, she receives the ekori headdress made from tanned goat’s or sheep’s skin with three leaf-shaped points.

A Young Himba Girl Dancing. (Pinterest)

Once she is married for about a year or has a child, the ekori headdress is replaced by the erembe headdress and will only be worn during ceremonies.

Himba boy.

The Himba males, however, wear different hairstyles. There is the single plait (ondato), worn by young boys down the back of the head. Two plaits (ozondato) are worn by Himba men of marriageable age. They also wear the ombwiya headdress, a scarf made from the fabric covering the hair, and decorated with an ornamental band.

The Women of Himba

Himba women. (

While men handle the political tasks and legal trials, the women tend to perform more labor-intensive work. This involves carrying water to the village, milking cows, and building homes. Their homes are simple, cone-shaped structures of saplings, bound together with palm leaves, mud and dung.

Watch the video below to learn more about the Himba lifestyle:

With a population of less than 50,000 people, their lifestyle has constantly been affected by government development projects. Despite Himba life nearly coming to an end in the eighties, their people, culture, and tradition have persevered for generations.

What did you find most fascinating about the Himba?

Also Read about the Ndebele People of South Africa

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