Tribal cultures and urbanization

Cultural Insights — By on February 6, 2008 at 7:50 am

There is an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the Himba tribe of Namibia and how they are being affected by nearby urbanization. Within the story, there are interesting insights into the tribal culture of the the Himba. Reading something like this, it’s easy to see how indigenous cultures can feel disoriented when confronted by a rapidly encroaching outside world.

It’s a half-hour drive from Opuwo – first along rolling dirt roads, then on an all but unmarked turnoff through a patch of short mopane trees. Soon, family compounds come into sight – fenced areas, each with a kraal for animals, a holy fire for ancestors, and a hut for each of the patriarch’s wives.

In one compound, Kakuindjowe Muharukua introduces herself as the first born. She explains that her father has five wives and says that the dozen or so women working on beaded necklaces and ankle bracelets here are all related. There are no men around – they’re out watching the cattle, the lifeblood of the Himba.

“Everything has a meaning,” she says, when asked why one woman had her hair tied on top of her head with an animal skin, while a younger girl had thick, mud-coated locks falling in front of her face.

Hairstyles symbolize different life stages, she explains. Boys have ponytails, but when they marry, they pull all of their hair up in a cloth. Young girls have their hair plaited at the back of their head. When girls reach puberty they comb their hair over their faces; after they start menstruating they reveal their faces. Then, when a mother decides her daughter is ready to start having babies, she puts her hair up with a skin.

It is acceptable in Himba culture for women to start having babies before marriage – to get started early, she says. “You should have at least six children,” she says. “If you don’t have six children, people wonder what is wrong.”

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