For years, photographers have been drawn to Namibia‘s northwest – to a community living among the majestic Makalani palms at Palmfontein: the Himba. They invite visitors to see how they live and learn about their proud and ancient culture. From skin care to clothing and perfume, many Himba continue traditional practices that have remained unchanged for generations. Yet, they are becoming familiar with modern lifestyles through the visitors. They are particularly fascinated by looking at themselves on a camera screen, and when I visited the tribe during my Namibia journey I decided to work on a very special photo series and let them capture their life with my camera.

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Due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle the Himba can only be visited at certain times throughout the year. There is a variety of companies organizing these cultural tours; the Namibia Tourism website is a good resource to find a reliable and responsible operator. I would recommend planning an entire day for this experience. I spent a night at the Grootberg, which was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever stayed in and booked the tour straight with them. From there it’s a 4-hour drive to the Himba village.

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The beautiful Himba women and children are instantly recognizable due to their intense red-ochre colored skin, the hairstyles and their bare upper bodies. The women wear otjize on their skin, a mixture of butter fat and ochre, which moisturizes and embellishes. I was welcomed into a small hut where a 16-year-old Himba girl demonstrated the otjize process. Although she didn’t speak English, an interpreter shared her story. She was the chief’s daughter, a strong, beautiful, and stoic person – I got the idea that she didn’t smile much. She explained that the reddish tinge has symbolic meaning as it unites the red color of the earth and blood, which is the symbol of life. The resulting red skin is the Himba’s standard of beauty. She moved the stones rhythmically back and forth and added butter fat to the red dust. It was obvious that she’d performed this process to the point of muscle memory.

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After she rubbed the otjize on herself, she offered to put it on my arm as well. I sat next to her as she turned my skin colour into a bright, beautiful red. It was like an instant, perfect tan. I asked her for a photo together and she nodded her head, “yes.” It was when I showed her the photo on the screen, that I noticed her smile. Shyly, she asked if she could take a photo. She held out the camera and took a selfie of the two of us. I didn’t need to explain the process. She had watched me intently and was prepared. We were worlds apart in many ways, but she understood the language of photography.

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Adding to the cleansing process, every morning the women rise early and have a sauna, slowly burning certain aromatic plants and resins and using the smoke created to perfume and clean themselves. This process was demonstrated for us as well. Like putting on deodorant, the Chief’s daughter moved the smoke under her armpits and around her neck. She wasn’t reserved or hesitant about being almost naked; the Himba’s concept of “private parts” is simply different.

Equally noticeable as their intense red skin, Himba women are clad only in loincloths and goat skin miniskirts, making it difficult not to stare at their exposed breasts. Western style of fashion appears too but only on men. North American culture is reserved in comparison and while I didn’t feel uncomfortable, I found it difficult not to gaze in that direction like a teenage boy. At first, I thought it must be liberating to have such freedom with exposing your skin, but I learned that they too have body parts that are very private. Rather than staring at their boobs, I spent a lot of time looking at jewelry instead.

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The Himba still adorn themselves with traditional jewellery according to ancient customs. Leather jewellery is combined with shells, copper and woven reeds. The women’s ankles are covered with iron bracelets. They are the most private part of their bodies and only the husband can see a married woman’s ankles.

One young girl snapped photos with my camera for more than ten minutes. Her perspective was a great indicator for what was beautiful to the Himba eye. Most of her photos were of jewelry and of other kids’ ankles and feet. I would never have thought to take so many photos of feet but when I looked through the film, her shots were stunning. I wish I had handed my camera to the children as soon as I arrived and allowed them to photograph what was important to them. Ever since, this has become a technique I use on my journeys.

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While so many of their traditions remain intact, the impact of tourists on Namibia’s Himba has obviously taken its toll. The tribe was quick to sell traditional goods to us as visitors and they danced, however beautifully, for us in exchange for tips. The Himba are recognized as the most self-sufficient and independent of all Namibia’s indigenous rural people, yet my visit wasn’t an oddity. As I prepared to say good-bye, I wondered if my invitation into their private lives was harming their strong cultural roots and traditional lifestyle.

In the end I decided to appreciate the fact that I could learn about the Himba and share experiences with the kids and young girls of the tribe. I wish that you could experience the beauty of the Himba for yourself, but until then, photos of their daily life highlight the many traditions and values that they still exhibit today.

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This is a guest post by Lesley Carter, who blogs over at Bucket List Publications.

All photos by Lesley Carter.