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The Maternal Wisdom of Himba Women

The Maternal Wisdom of Himba Women

With great sensitivity I will try and share my experience spending some days with a Himba community in the Kunene Region of northern Namibia. Being married to a travel photographer, I often find myself in awkward situations when it comes to documenting the lives of other people, especially women and children. I often wonder what it would be like if a group of strangers knocked on my door and asked to observe me making breakfast in the morning? 

It’s my intention with this post that I share the art of mothering from a society vastly different than what we know in the West, and acknowledge there is something to learn from all communities on earth. Without exoticizing or fetishizing the lives of these women, I aim to be a conduit of information we can hopefully (re)learn from.

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The Himba are a semi-nomadic, pastoralist tribe in the northwest corner of Namibia bordering Angola. They have managed to preserve their traditional way of life despite the onslaught of colonialism, imperialism and most recently, a globalizing world.

(I had already noticed this convergence with modernity while standing in line at the ATM in downtown Opuwo. Behind me was a Himba woman dressed in goat skins and her unmistakable ochre skin color; in front, a Herero woman in a decadent Victorian petticoat styled from 19th century German missionaries, both checking their texts on cell phones).

We had been in Namibia for some weeks, trailing northward along the Skeleton Coast from the abandoned mining town Kolmanskop, inland through the Namib desert and its tower dunes and eventually landed here, into the ancestral lands, for Michael’s shoot.

The village Michael was photographing was predominantly female, as I had come to read many Himba communities are polygamous, female-centric and largely matriarchal. Men were either in town for work, looking after cattle or with their other partners. With the support of each other, women maintained the homestead and raised their children together.

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Photo by  Michael Runkel .

Photo by Michael Runkel.

In Himba nomenclature, women are celebrated from pregnancy, midwifery, birth and on through puberty. Young girls are distinguished by intricate horn-like braids entwined over their heads, and carry their younger brothers and sisters around goatskin backpacks. When they reach womanhood, their braids are transformed into long plaits and covered with a red paste called Otjize- a mixture of ochre and goat butterfat. Water is extremely scarce, so the red concoction serves equal parts as a skin moisturized and sunscreen.

For incredible images about the birthing practices and rituals of Himba women, I encourage you to check out the work of Alegra Ally and her Wild Born Project:

“Himba women regard birth as a community, social & spiritual act. The opportunity to give birth in a supportive, natural way is a life–enhancing event. Childbirth in many indigenous cultures is preformed in a communal way, where several women gather together to help support and nurture the woman giving birth. Himba women have learned the sacredness of midwifery by their ancestral mothers. Himba midwives have mastered the skill of eliciting natural birth, an art form that is acquired through apprenticeship and intuitive experience. They have the capacity to wait for nature.”
— Alegra Ally, ethnographer & photographer
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The next series of days was exciting and complex as I was initiated, as one can only be as an outsider and for a brief time, to a group of women who embraced me as Michael went about photographing the village and surrounding areas.

One morning, I needed to nurse Sia, and I sat down with in a circle of mothers who were also breastfeeding their babies. We began a conversation of hand signals and laughter, what the babies' names were, how old I was. I signed “37” and the group unleashed a great deluge of chatter. Here in Kakaoland, I would have been at least a grandmother.

Photo by  Michael Runkel .

Photo by Michael Runkel.

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Today, many new mothers feel isolated, alone and misguided by how to raise their babies. We are largely disconnected from the natural world and our biological rhythms. We are often in different cities (or like me, on different continents) than our mothers, grandmothers and sisters, who were the ones to traditionally help teach us how to birth, breastfeed and care for our children.

I get a lot of support living in Germany- an incredible parental leave system, built-in midwives around birth, a big emphasis on community and nature, a doula sister and less attention paid to what is “taboo”in the U.S. like breastfeeding and co-sleeping. Kitas, or daycares, here are closer to big sisters and brothers than paid childcare providers. It is as close to the “village” that one can have living in a metropolitan area.

Still, spending time with the Himba gave me a fleeting yet insightful window into a reality where the intuitive spirit was the only option. Shared care, co-creation and general support for moms (like paid maternity leave) could be so beneficial in the U.S. We have so many things to thank for the technological advancements of today, but let’s not completely erase our 300,000 year old history and the inherent maternal wisdom in all of us.


Please take time to check out the work of:

Primatoligist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy: Mothers and Others
Alegra Ally: the Wild Born Project
The Attachment Parenting Podcast: ”An Exploration of Infant Formula, Breastfeeding & Modern Motherhood with Jennifer Grayson”:

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