The Scent of the Women

In north-western Namibia the striking Himba women are the keepers of the desert garden. And from the resin of the omumbiri trees they make myrrh

Words and Pictures Ron Swilling

Journeys, if given a chance, gain a life of their own, often going off on tangents and adopting a momentum you didn’t anticipate at the start. On one such trip in north-western Namibia, I found myself peering into the muddy Hoanib River that was rushing down in torrents through the usually arid landscape, barring our route to the opposite bank.

Herb-sellers on the streets of Opuwo sell a variety for those unable to find the ingredients for their favourite perfume near their home ground. Ochre is also sold.
Herb-sellers on the streets of Opuwo sell a variety for those unable to find the ingredients for their favourite perfume near their home ground. Ochre is also sold.


I was forced to shrug off my early morning stupor, lack of sleep and need for a strong cup of coffee, and climb out of the bakkie; my feet immediately sank into the slushy mud. Around us, two vehicles and their occupants waited for the water to subside, and I had the feeling it was going to be a long day.

Eventually, one of the drivers felt it time to risk his vehicle in the water and motored across. The next one followed, only to bog down mid-stream. The Himba women waiting on the bank rushed into the water to push. Finally, it was our turn. I exchanged my muddy boots and jeans for a pair of shorts and sloshed through the mud ready to run into the river and manhandle the vehicle, should it hesitate. I looked around at the gloomy, grey day and had to remind myself why I was here. What was it for again? Perfume, of course.

The Himba women’s beauty (and hygiene) ritual involves smoking blankets with a fragrant herb blend and applying a herb mix around their necks and a lotion made of ochre, butterfat and commiphora resin over their bodies.
The Himba women’s beauty (and hygiene) ritual involves smoking blankets with a fragrant herb blend and applying a herb mix around their necks and a lotion made of ochre, butterfat and commiphora resin over their bodies.


It was an unlikely errand but this was Namibia, after all, where the extraordinary and out-of-the-ordinary are commonplace. I was in Opuwo, in north-western Namibia, for the opening of the Opuwo Processing Facility and Visitors Centre. This translates into ‘the perfume factory’, where the Commiphora wildii tree, or omumbiri in the local Otjiherero language, is distilled and processed to extract a fragrant oil.

Commiphora (as it is commonly called), synonymous with the myrrh of ancient times, has been the Himba women’s preferred perfume since time immemorial. The women collect the golden droplets of resin from the ground and add it to their beauty cream of butterfat and ochre that gives their skin a glistening red sheen.

Beauty comes naturally to these strong and self-assured women, regardless of age.
Beauty comes naturally to these strong and self-assured women, regardless of age.

But the opening of the small centre was still two days away and I was beginning to doubt we would be able to collect the honoured guests from their remote villages and make it back in time for the opening. We still had an odyssey ahead of us, fording rivers, getting stuck in the mud, negotiating slippery tracks and rocky roads, and changing overworked tyres before even reaching their villages. It was important that we made it, and in time. This would be an opening with a difference.

In acknowledgement of the Himba women as custodians of traditional knowledge, two of the harvesters from each of the five conservancies involved in the project had been invited to the ceremony. But with no transport in the furthest reaches of remote Kaokoland, it was up to the staff at the centre (ably supported by the intrepid writer) to give the ladies a ride.

 

 

Featured-380-*The complete story of the Himba women and their fascinating tradition of making perfume appears in Country Life, August 2014.

 

 

 

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