Himba smoke shower

The Himba women continue to practice traditional methods of personal hygiene. This includes using a smoke shower and a mixture of red ochre and butter-fat paste. These indigenous people are properly referred to as the ‘OvaHimba’ when plural and are mainly semi-nomadic, residing in the northeastern region of Namibia. Unlike the closely related OvaTwa, who still depend on hunting and gathering for sustenance, the OvaHimba are pastoralists.

How are OvaHimba women holding up their private hygiene?

OvaHimba women only take a shower with water once in their lifetime, on the day of their wedding. Instead, they apply a mixture of ground red ochre and liquid butter fat to their hair and body daily for hygiene purposes. This mixture gives their skin and hair a deep, earthy red color and has a pleasant scent, while also providing antibacterial benefits and blocking sweat glands. In addition, they take a daily smoke shower.

It’s worth noting that OvaHimba men do not use ochre-fat pastes on their hair or skin and only take smoke showers occasionally.

The smoke shower is taken inside the woman’s hut, as OvaHimba society is polygamous, with each man having an average of two wives. As a result, each wife has her hut for herself and her children.

Before taking a smoke shower, the OvaHimba mix ground ochre with liquid butter fat. Thereafter they apply the paste to their entire body and hair. They then proceed to place glowing coals on a flat stone or other refractory base. Next, they place a small piece of plant resin, dried plant matter, or wood shavings on top of the embers. The remaining embers are arranged around the plant material so that it produces smoke, but does not burn. This process creates the smoke that the OvaHimba use to cleanse themselves.

Incense materials used for smoke showering

For thousands of years, the OvaHimba have primarily used resin from the Namibian myrrh tree (Commiphora wildii) for their smoke showers. This resin is known as Omumbiri. More information on this can be found here.

If resin from the Commiphora wildii tree is unavailable, the OvaHimba will use a similar resin from another species of Corkwood tree. This one is also known as Commiphora africana, or Poison-grub corkwood. It is so named because San bushmen would dig beneath its shrubs for larvae, which they used to poison their arrows. The process of digging for these larvae is quite laborious. They live approximately two meters (6.6 feet) underground, but fortunately in sandy soil.

In case Commiphora resins can not be obtained, or if the OvaHimba women desire a different fragrance, they will use Wild Sage (Syncolostemon canescens) for their smoke showers. This perennial plant is described as follows, see link here.

If neither Commiphora resins nor Wild Sage are available, the OvaHimba may use shavings of Mopane wood (Colophospermum mopane) for their smoke showers and other rituals. This wood is also known for its pleasant fragrance.

How is smoke showering done?

During a smoke shower, the base holding the embers is lifted, and the upper body is smoked first. Special attention is paid to areas where bacteria tend to grow easily, such as the armpits, underneath the breasts and chin. The smoking basin is then placed back on the ground, and a conical wicker basket is positioned over the embers. This basket will be put between the OvaHimba’s outstretched legs and close to their body. A blanket is then draped over the smoking cone basket. Thereafter the fabric covering the private parts is lifted, allowing the smoke to reach the entire lower body.

Lessons learned about the Himba smoke shower:

  • To prevent bacterial growth on their hair and body, OvaHimba women use a mixture of red ochre and butter fat as a daily paste.
  • The primary incense used for smoke showering by the OvaHimba is Namibian myrrh, also known as Omumbiri.
  • Other resin used is from Commiphora africana, or shavings from Wilde sage or Mopane wood.
  • Ochre embalming and smoke showering are part of the daily routine for OvaHimba women.
  • In contrast, OvaHimba men do not use ochre paste and only take smoke showers occasionally.

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