Africa and its African queens are so unique and beautiful in all of their melanin. It is a land filled with beautiful people and beautiful resources. One who is in tune with nature is in tune with the practice of living, embracing Earth’s beauty. Our bodies are our most sacred spaces, and the vessel for our spirit. Using the body as a canvas has been a vital part of ancient life for many centuries amongst different tribal groups. For generations, cultures have practiced many beauty secrets from natural resources which have demonstrated to have added benefits to our hair and body. Notably, one may come across a specific group, where their hair resembles the continent’s richness and the red clay that is so distinct from Uganda to Namibia. While some see it as red paint on their hair and body, we chose to see the Earth’s beauty under the African sun. This is what we call Otjize.
To the OvaHimba or Himba people of Northern Namibia, otjize signifies beauty.
Covering themselves with the otjize, made of ochre, animal fat and aromatic resin, they find beauty in their bodies and embrace it in all of its creation.
The deep red-orange paste signifies blood, which is the essence of life and the Earth’s rich colour. For centuries applying otjize has become a traditional look. Often exoticized by those on the outside but embraced by others on the inside. Their beauty is rich, decadent, natural and grounded in ancestral knowledge. So in touch with their ancestral land, using the otjize paste makes them one in spirit, and one with Earth. Not just for beauty, but as a sign of connectedness to the spiritual world.
Otjize is sacred to the culture and indexical to social and ethnic identity. Through centuries, droughts and healing archetypes, these ingredients are raw and formed from the royalty of the Earth’s crust. It signifies the beauty of their hair and skin, and a sense of oneness with their surroundings.
From the early hours of the morning, women wake up to lather their bodies in otjize. First, she maintains her hygiene by having a smoke bath in aromatic resin, giving off a warm aroma of myrrh over the skin. Then anoints her body with her individually prepared mixture of herbs and ochre, from her ancestral land. Her ancestral land is life and covering her body twice a day in these products protects her from external conditions. This mixture not only protects her skin from the dry climate, but it also prevents hair growth across her body, while also keeping the mosquitos away. Both scientifically and spiritually, the use in otjize has continued to show the resilience of their community to work with natural resources. Otjize is their trademark. It is the difference between the Himba community and the world, and the difference between a male and a female.
Embracing your body and hair highlights a sense of confidence in being a woman.
Hairstyles and headdresses play a significant role within the Himba community as they spend a considerable amount of time adorning themselves and performing many other beautification rituals.
The way in which they style their hair tells a story and embraces puberty, and the art of life. Creating elaborate and socially symbolic styles is a communal activity with a range of styles across different groups, created and lengthened with woven hay, artificial extensions and goat hair.
Even so, with the hairstyle’s signifying status, age, and social standing, the Himba can easily identify one another. From the front to the back, or short to long, tradition and culture is embraced. To the Himba, hair is seen as a symbol of fertility, with thick strands indicating a Himba woman’s ability to bear healthy children. From the young girl to the married woman, each stage of life is portrayed uniquely through their hair and body.
The young girl
The young girl: They refer to her as still embracing her adolescence and road to puberty, where she starts to add otjize to her hair that is plaited into ozondato (two braids) falling forward, customized to the style of her father’s paternal clan. Covered in otjize, she integrates with the generations behind her.
If she is a twin and has not reached puberty, she wears one braid forward, as her twin wears the other one forward.
The one getting ready for marriage
Once the young one has reached puberty, her hair is constructed in a longer style with the extensions positioned in front of her face, to avoid male attention as she transitions into the one getting ready for marriage.
When she is ready for marriage, it is at that point where she styles her hair away from her face so that she can be seen by possible suitors.
The married one
The married one: Now that she is married, if she has not had a child yet she wears a headdress made of animal skin until she gives birth to her first child, where she then wears an ornate erembe headdress, sculpted from the skin of a goat’s head and other leather parts.
Her hair is sculpted with otjize paste and other beaded accessories on her headdress. She wears a necklace that has a Ohumba (cone shell), which is considered as a symbol of fertility amongst the Himba communities.
Thus, life’s journey—from the young girl to the married one—continues to be embraced from the style of the young one’s hair to the erembe that crowns the married one who has given birth. Through traditions and modernity, or globalization and social trends, the Himba have always found beautification products in things that continuously surrounded them. From their age to social status, otjize continues to be added on through the generations as it continuously enhances their beauty.
Back to Earth
Remarkably, we come from Earth and go back to Earth. Adorning yourself with the Earth, can be both sacred and empowering. All in the cycle of life, the Himba have adorned themselves in all that Earth has created, from the red ochre to aromatic resins. Otjize symbolizes the preservation of ancient customs. Scientifically and spiritually, the use in otjize is not just about beauty, but it is about preserving culture and keeping it alive. Beauty is not just about the face, but it is about how we take care of our bodies as a whole. The use of otjize embraces being one with nature, as well as those who have paved the way before us. Transforming natural resources into traditional knowledge, otjize emphasizes a sense of belonging. It is about embracing a cultural present, while still being in touch with the traditional past. To the Himba, otjize glorifies a past, present and a future re-birth of beauty on Earth.
And so I ask you to remember, the next time you look in the mirror, that everything under the sun is beautiful, for you are Earth’s beauty.