Water is scarce in the mountainous Kunene region of northern Namibia where the Himba people live. But as a semi-nomadic, pastoral people group, they understand how to survive in this arid land.
Himba women are known for covering themselves with otjize paste, a mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment that protects their skin from the sun and keeps it clean. Wealth is counted in the number of cattle people own. Ancestor worship is common.
While their region has long been a popular tourist destination in Namibia, for years the Himba people remained unreached by God’s Word in their heart language.
That all changed a few years ago.
Celebrating a New Church and Newly Translated Scripture
In 2018, residents of Ombaka, Namibia, heard God’s Word for the first time in their own language. This long-awaited moment was made possible by strategic partnerships between Namibian Bible Society, Samaritan’s Purse, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Seed Company, a group of local pastors, and many other faithful Christ followers.
During a 3-day celebration that included the dedication of their new church building, Himba speakers received God’s Word in a variety of ways.
Seed Company worked with partners to translate and distribute:
- The Greatest Gift, a gospel booklet
- The Greatest Journey, a discipleship curriculum
- and 40 oral Bible stories from Genesis and Luke
Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical organization that provides physical and spiritual aid to hurting people worldwide, arranged to distribute Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts to Himba children as part of the celebration. Each shoebox contained a priceless addition: The Greatest Gift in Himba.
And finally, to ensure that every Himba speaker had the opportunity to understand God’s Word regardless of age or literacy level, they also received solar-powered MP3 players loaded with the Gospel of Mark, along with 40 audio Bible stories from Genesis and Luke and The Greatest Journey to help believers grow in their faith.
A wave of excitement swept through the surrounding communities as the distribution of gifts and recorded materials spread to five other villages!
How God’s Word Bears Fruit in an Oral Culture
The Himba people are a primarily oral community of 60,000 speakers. Though they were highly open to the gospel, there were few believers among them—primarily because many Himba people thought the Bible was only for people who could read. Oral Bible Translation, which produced the materials on the MP3 players, bridged that gap.
“Mark is a highly oral Gospel,” says Samuel Chiang, former President and CEO of Seed Company and an orality expert. “It is particularly well-suited to people from a storytelling culture.”
Furthermore, oral Bible stories have a way of spreading rapidly throughout the community. Chiang continues, “When a predominantly oral people hear a story once, they already begin to memorize it. They live in the stories, and they are etched into their minds. So, they are eager to talk about the stories.”
In addition to the Scripture and resources, each MP3 player included worship songs in the Himba language. The strategic initiatives manager for Samaritan’s Purse, Michael Cardy, reports:
“We are hearing stories of villages gathering around the campfire, listening and learning, of children tending flocks deep in the [Kaokoveld region of Namibia] and singing the songs to each other.”
The Gift That Keeps Giving
God’s Word continues to have special significance for the hardworking translation team members.
Project coordinator Elton-John Hepundjua serves as assistant pastor in the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. He says:
“One of the benefits of being a part of the translation team is the exegetical work, where we learn Scriptures and have the opportunity to read whole books of the Bible in [the heart language].”
A father of three, he works with youth, leads Bible studies, visits homes, and provides counseling based on biblical principles.
Rizera Hipakua, pastor of the church in Ombaka, is realizing his own personal dream—to reach all the Himba with the gospel. Not long after the church dedication, Rizera held a training session with five believers in the new church building. He now continues to mentor them while they serve as lay pastors.
Pastor Rizera also taught the lay pastors how to apply the Discovery Bible Study Method—listen, repeat, review, and apply—to what they were hearing on the MP3 players. They gathered with villagers, breaking into groups of four to practice.
Transforming Lives & Establishing God’s Kingdom
In Himba culture, men are traditionally polygamous. Young Himba girls may be given to much older men in arranged marriages as early as the age of 13.
But God’s Word is bringing dignity and honor to Himba women.
The Seed Company field project manager writes:
“For a culture that has defined roles for women and men, it is encouraging to see women stepping up, leading churches, and evangelizing others in their community, using their own lives as testimony.”
Recently, Samaritan’s Purse partnered with local leaders to plant another church among the Himba. Bible translators continue using Oral Bible Translation methods to provide more of God’s Word to their people, and they now have the full books of Genesis and Romans in their own language.
The current project aims to distribute oral translations of four more New Testament books on MegaVoice players, which a partner organization called Every Home for Christ will use in their outreach ministry. Meanwhile, another partnership is being pursued with Samaritan’s Purse to produce a LUMO film for the Himba community as soon as the translation team completes the Gospel of Luke.
The Himba people may live in an arid land, but through partnerships, the living water of God’s Word is saturating northern Namibia!