A preferred perfume used by the strikingly beautiful Himba women since time immemorial, Namib myrrh has an alluring scent that is fresh and alive, yet holds a deep and ancient soulfulness redolent of the Namib Desert. The fragrant oil, distilled from the golden resin, has a lively citrus note and earthy, sensual undertones.
Namib Myrrh has been the preferred perfume of the semi-nomadic desert-dwelling Himba women since time immemorial.
The Himba - one of the last semi-nomadic desert-dwelling peoples in Africa - live in the far-flung areas of north-western Namibia. The women are notable for their distinct appearance and natural beauty. They spend hours on their dress, adornments and beauty rituals. While their dress includes skirts made from animal hide and their jewellery includes necklaces with prominent cone shells treasured over the generations as family heirlooms, their beauty rituals are multiple. They use the sweet-smelling smoke from a selection of herbs to cleanse themselves and their outfits. They also liberally apply a mixture of red ochre and butter fat, scented with their favourite perfume plants. In these arid areas, this combination not only protects the skin but keeps it fresh and fragrant.
The small and unremarkable Commiphora wildii tree exudes a golden resin that falls to the ground in fragrant droplets.
A favourite perfume plant
One of their most important perfume ingredients is the resin from the Commiphora tree. The small corky tree produces a resin, which is similar to the frankincense and myrrh used in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa for thousands of years. Unlike some of the myrrh used in other areas, the resin from the Namibian Commiphora wildii tree - or ‘omumbiri’ as it’s known locally, is wild-harvested. The trees exude the aromatic resin naturally, which falls to the ground. Harvesting is sustainable and the trees are not damaged in any way.
Traditionally, the Himba women place a piece of the golden Namib Myrrh resin at the bottom of their cattle-horn ‘perfume pots’, adding butter fat and ochre. A small coal is sometimes placed on the resin to release the scent and perfume the beauty mixture prior to use.
The gold of the Earth: a handful of Namib Myrrh resin.
The keepers of ancient knowledge
In 2007, a Commiphora project was initiated by the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) in the north-western conservancies. A group of Himba women from various conservancies in the Kunene region was organised into a team of harvesters. During the dry months of the year, the harvesters collect the droplets of resin from the ground and take them to a buying point where they are weighed and recorded before being transported to the processing facility in Opuwo. Here, the aromatic essential oil is extracted by steam distillation. The oil has been recognised in recent years for its extraordinary scent, now used in local cosmetic ranges and European perfume.
(The processing facility and visitors’ centre are owned by the five conservancies who hold the intellectual property, and are managed by a trust with representatives from each.)
In an area where there is little or no opportunity for employment, the work provides the women with a much-needed income, enabling them to access health care, pay school fees and purchase food when the earth is barren and the cattle are thin. Importantly, they are able to harvest the resin while maintaining their traditional lifestyle and household responsibilities.