The Himba, Namibia, & the Birth Song

22 04 2013

Alicia recently shared a link with me about an African “birth song”. She thought I might enjoy it since I talked about having dreamt all my children. I really loved it and shared the link on my page. An excerpt from the story goes:

[T]here is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.

Kristyn pointed out that some of these stories that get passed around aren’t authentic, even though this one in particular was very nice. I decided to look into it a little more and here’s what I found. The link is pretty much word for word of the last link, and credits the source as being from Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community New World Library, from Sobonfu Some.

Elizabeth commented on the interesting red-brown skin color of the woman in the picture (the first one pictured in this post). It’s actually not natural, but comes from a paste applied. This is done by the Himba of Namibia.

More about their distinct appearance, in an excerpt from New African Frontiers:

The characteristic ‘look’ of the Himba comes from intricate hairstyles, traditional clothing, the use of personal adornments in the form of jewellery, as well as the use of a mixture of red ochre, butter and resin from the Omuzumba shrub. This paste is known as ‘otjize’ used as protection against the weather and a skin lotion. It is rubbed on the skin, into hair and onto traditional clothing.

And more from that site, this time about birth:

When a woman is ready to give birth, she will be accompanied by a group of women outside the homestead. They will assist her during her labour. Immediately after the child is born, the women return to the homestead. The mother and child then spend a week at a special shelter built to the side of the headman’s hut, near the sacred fire, under special protection of the ancestral spirits. After the week has passed, the child is brought to the sacred fire and introduced to the spirits of the ancestors by the headman. The child is given names from the patrilineal and matrilineal lines, ensuring that the origins of the child are known.

Were the people of Namibia the same people with the “birth song”? The retellings of the story are so ambiguous with their whole “somewhere in Africa” lore.

This blogger reports of hearing the same sort of story told, and yes, specifically about the Himba people of Namibia. One of her links goes back to this post, which says the tale comes from the Ubuntu tribe while showing a picture of a Himba woman. Yet, Ubuntu is a philosophy, not a tribe (as far as I know). The ultimate source here is quoted as being from Tolba Phanem, African poet. I can’t find anything else about this poet, except for this story being circulated. An excerpt of the blogger’s retelling goes:

When a woman of the Himba African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes to the jungle with other women, and together they pray and meditate until they find The Song of the Child. When a child is born, the community gets together and they sing the child’s song. When the child begins it’s education, people get together and the child sings their own song. When they become an adult, the community gets together again to sing it. When it comes to your wedding, you hear your song. Finally, when their soul is going from this world, family and friends are approaching and, like at their birth, sing their song to accompany it in the journey.

I’m still not sure about the Birth Song story, but it’s going around a lot, and is often credited to the Himba (when it even specifies). It might be accurate.

Buy Elizabeth McKeown’s radical book about her birth journeys, In Search of the Perfect Birth, on Kindle or with Amazon in paperback.



39 responses

24 04 2013

If only these romanticized myths about Africans were true. While it sounds nice, I had a feeling they weren’t and were just being used (as always) in a way that exploited peoples’ ignorance of Africa. I just spent some time looking into it. Not one shred of evidence. These pics are of the Himba tribe from Namibia. Nothing in Himba tradition or lore which suggests this is true. The person who supposedly told the story is Dagare, from Burkina Faso (the distance between Burkina and Namibia is like going from NY to Paris). But also nothing within that culture. There’s nothing about Tolba Phanam either. Nice story, but only a story. It’s more than due time to stop exploiting Africa for a person’s personal benefit.

22 06 2013

Thank you for posting that. I find it very disturbing that people repost these pics on social media along with the tag of ‘some tribe’, as if (with any ‘ethnic people’) the people are just interchangeable.

It’s as offensive as posting about ‘some Native American tribe’ who does this, that or the other (usually some hunting justification), when some tribes were vegetarian. But posting a pic they think shows a ‘generic’ Indian.

I also notice, that most of these pics show bare-breasted women… not men. Not hard to figure out why that is.

Exploitative? Definitely. And, racist and sexist as well.

4 02 2014
Ray S.

I agree that skepticism is healthy…I still don’t understand though why many people feel that this is a racist story. As for the photos of women: if people want to be aroused they don’t need to look at these types of pictures, there is plenty of porn available and I myself have yet to become sexually excited from looking at these photos. I do, however, think that these women are very beautiful and healthy looking.
The author you mention is Sobonfu Some, the story is from her book “Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community”. She is described as “born and raised in Burkina Faso, the former Upper Volta, and is an initiated member of the Dagara tribe in West Africa” according to the “About the Author” blurb. I sourced this as the origin of the story while I was researching it. I have written to her and asked her about it, while informing her that people are questioning her credibility, lets see if I hear back! Her website is at, there is a contact information page available there.
I think that the information below should give people enough leads that if they are interested someone can learn more about the Himba people and possible veracity of the birth song legend:

-Sobonfu Some’s book on

-CNN article about the Himba

-A brief article by a professor of anthropology at UCLA

-A rare and very expensive CD containing some of the Himba people’s music

-Wiki article (yes I know wikipedia is not the most reliable source)


4 02 2014
Ray S.

Upon further examination I was able to find the an excerpt from the book that appears suspiciously close to this story without mention of the Himba or this song story. It now appears to me that, everything has been hopelessly garbled as it spread throughout the internet. I hope that it wasn’t an intentional fabrication. I still await Ms. Some’s reply.

13 09 2016

Exploitative, racist & sexist, Bare breasted women but no bare breasted men. Perhaps that’s in the eye of the reader. To those of you taking umbrage about which tribe & going on to complain of the generalization of tribes and the interchangeability. By interchangeability’ I assume you are referring to the line which reads:”…which says the tale comes from the Ubuntu tribe while showing a picture of a Himba woman”. 
This is not incongruous as the author states “Yet, Ubuntu is a philosophy, not a tribe (as far as I know). She is correct. Hence one may be both. A person of the Himba tribe may also be Ubunto.
From Wikipedia: Ubuntu (/ʊˈbuːntʊ/ uu-boon-tuu; Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼú])[1][2] is a Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to “human kindness”.[dubious – discuss] It is an idea from the Southern African region which means literally “human-ness”, and is often translated as “humanity towards others”, but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.[3]

I was not as confused or outraged in reading the article as some of you seem to be.The author openly does her best to verify the source of The Birth Song, but also says that’s basically it’s hard to be certain as many of these stories get passed about & may not all be accurate as to origin, or may even be erroneous. That wasn’t really the point of the telling.
The point of the telling of it along with the pictures of bare breasted in as opposed to men was because as she say’s ‘ this time about birth”. This statement came after a sourced description of the Himba overall. And before another section (same source) about birthing traditions.
Since the article was about women & birth it seems to me that pictures of the women would is quite appropriate. The fact that their breasts are uncovered is their cultural norm (big deal, grow up).
I do believe that this is an article for and of the tribe of Women as a whole.

13 01 2014

Will, yes, usually good to hold a skeptical view until there is a reputable source, I commend you for that. I reposted the story with a disclaimer saying that I found no sources supporting the story.

However, a friend who is familiar with the story gave a pretty reputable source, a West African author who writes on African culture.

His name: Patrice Malidoma. A page that refers to the contents in one of his books and mentions “… tribe honors that gift before birth…” See:


14 01 2014

Hello, I was doing research also of the Article and came across this posting … I was initially disappointed that the article may not be true … but am hoping that this link may be legitimate. Please feel free to do more research … hoping this link is legitimate!

23 09 2013
The Connection | Insight

[…] in Namibia that connects with an unborn child through conceptualization of a “Birth Song” ( or the 2009 movie Avatar that depicts the inhabitants of Pandora Na’vi’ connect with nature […]

28 09 2013

I agree with Will when he states yes its just a story, but a nice one at that. I honestly think people obsesses too much on whether the facts of the story is true, like finding the proper origin and tribe, trying to pinpoint every small detail to cut the line between fact and fiction. Although yes some of this matters and many people take ethnicity to heart, with this time of story I think it misses the mark by a mile. Its just another story made up by someone who thought to place it in Africa and perhaps a pic or two as an illustration not as offensive ignorance. The whole point of these types of stories that circulate the web or from mouth to mouth is not to be town academically apart but to perhaps reach someone and move them and perhaps set them back on their right path. My country is full of these stories and with 22 ethic groups in it there is a lot of room for “discrimination, racism and sexism”to be screamed out, yet it rarely happens since they are recognized as stories to inspire, nothing else. If it where meant as anything else than that, it would be on a scientific or academic article or magazine not being passed from post to post to blog to blog. So in the end, take what good you can from small stories instead of feeding anger into them by over-thinking too much. 🙂

13 11 2013

i agree whole-heartedly. people miss the beauty of the story when they look for the flaws. (as is the same with many aspects of life….. )

11 01 2014

Hold on though. I’m sure a Himba person would rather misinformation about their culture were not perpetuated even if it is a nice story. I’m sure their culture is equally as interesting.

You could just start the “perfect birth” tale with something like “wouldn’t it be nice if parents did this …..” No need to misinform anyone.

25 06 2014
Tina Ngata

Thankyou Joao – unless it’s your culture, and you are directly affected by people appropriating your culture to make their own points, then you have no place arguing for it’s worth because of how “beautiful” it seems to you. This type of practice is completely lacking in authenticity and integrity, and smacks of indigenous exploitation. That’s not beautiful at all.

3 09 2015
Kevin T

i also agree with creating inspirational stories as a necessity of learning, however, get some facts to help support such falicies and ensure the photos relate to the story. PS Did I see a pamper protruding from an
infants pants..?

28 10 2013
The Restorative Power of Recalling Who We Really Are | Restorative Revolution

[…] seem to be rooted in any real African tribe or tradition, according to my own searches and those of others, the legendary practice resonated with me when I first heard it years ago, and I adopted it as part […]

5 11 2013
1 12 2013
2 12 2013

In a review on the same site you found, of Sobonfu’s book, it identifies her as a member of the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, a tiny land-locked country in Western Africa. Namibia is in Southern Africa, hundreds of miles away. Looks like someone just took an interesting photo for an interesting story without attribution.

3 12 2013
ASLEF shrugged

The Himba live in northern Namibia and southern Angola, they might sit under a tree to find the song but they they’d have to walk a bloody long way to find the jungle, by the time they got back the kid would have been born.

22 12 2013

I am from Namibia and I tell you now,the story is NOT accurate!! Its not part of the ovahimba people ritual of childbirth!

13 01 2014

A source: Patrice Malidoma. A page that refers to the contents in one of his books and mentions “… tribe honors that gift before birth…” See:


18 01 2014
Music is Love is Music (The power of music) « Classically Caffeinated Compositions

[…] A song for every man, woman, and child […]

21 01 2014
Jephta Nguherimo

I am a Herero, a sub-group of the Ovahimba people of Namibia. We are very similar in culture and language but of course distinct or unique in our stress code. What I know in the Ovahimba culture is the majority of the people don’t count years of birth. Meaning the concept of age counting years is alien to them. In our language if you ask how old are you, the direct translation of that is how many rains do you have. The years are counted by life events, stages in life and so on. I remember when I started school my mom didn’t even know my exact date of birth but she knew the time of the year which was around end of October or beginning of November. The point is that story is nice but I doubt it is from ovahimba tribe.

22 01 2014

Also, the two sources cited above were husband and wife, and essentially the same anecdotal source. Malidoma Patrice Some and Sobonfu Some were married, now divorced. So, while above is a beautiful story, but not necessarily true by virtue of cited texts.

25 01 2014
Christian Counts

Do you know how you can tell someone a story★ >12< ★trying to teach them a principal¿ they missed the whole point looking at the messenger,¤ looking at the windows,□ looking at the doors,■ looking at the couch?♥…

28 01 2014
Planning a baby: 5 Steps to a healthy pregnancy | Parent Avenue

[…] While I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the story, it has been doing the rounds a lot, and I thought I might share it. An African tribe has a tradition wherein they do not use the baby’s entry into the world as their birthdate. In stead, they consider the time when the baby was conceived as a thought in its mother’s mind, as a day of its coming into existence. Which I think is a beautiful way to look at it. The mother then sits under a tree, alone, till she hears the song of the new soul. This song is then repeated at the time of conception, birth, and during every milestone in the child’s life. The song is taught to everyone around, so that when the soul departs its earthly body, the song is sung to him for the last time. I find it an extraordinary method to celebrate life. Read the full article here. […]

31 01 2014

I think the concept about the birth song is a unique traditional way to keep their culture together and be in spirit with one another. The birth song is only meant for one person and I’m sure the songs are beautiful.

26 02 2014

I read that if the child later does wrong, either as child or adult, the community coem together to sing its special song back to the person in order to remind him or her and so that they may be brought to right or goodness, call it what you will.

22 06 2014
Zoe Alpunto

what if…
all smart and discerning people out there simply felt into the story, and,
if found beautiful,
accept the inspiration and apply it in some way in their life today.
it is about a conscious connection and invitation of an unborn soul into your life, about community to support each other and trust in people’s innate goodness.
WHO CARES if that is done, where that is done, and by whom?
I Do, that is why I do it myself, today.

1 03 2015
appropriate my left nut

jumanji! hakuna matata

14 10 2015
Tina Ngata

Gawd. Ok so YOU evidently are not living as a part of a society where your very way of being is under threat of being subsumed by other cultures, in your own land.

The Himba people, who are NOT afforded the same platform as other cultures, to promote their culture, in their own way, with their own truths, care very much about their stories being taken out of their hands, twisted and told by others because first and foremost – it’s THEFT. and it has a very real impact upon the ability for them to maintain and transmit their own culture for future generations.

Indigenous people are not all just one group that can be interchanged and treated with a broad stroke approach, for the fable entertainment of other cultures.

16 08 2014

Let’s just call it a “teaching story” pointing to a time when life was lived in a more sacred manner than today and drop all this political and ideological obsession. After all, it is the loss of the “sacred” that is the real underlying tragedy and victim of “progress”…that is the message…

14 10 2015
Tina Ngata

Unless this is your culture who is affected, politically and in any other sense, by this activity then you don’t really have a place to tell people to drop their concerns.

17 06 2018
Bud weiss

Yes. The story also brings up grief for me about the loss of the sacred. Teachers of mine including Malidoma and Martin Prechtel in particular have spoken eloquently about the need for is to relearn how to grieve and praise. As Martin says from his people, the Tzutujil Mayan people of Santiago Atitlan, “Grief and Praise slerp in the same bed together.”

13 09 2014

I am a Namibian this is misleading, someone without the knowledge of the Himba culture will take it as facts. The author should use a picture of the people where the story is applicable.

13 06 2015
18 06 2015

The birth song is from the dagara tribe,Balinese people also have a birth song.

6 04 2017
Tara LeAnn

I have personally visited the Himba in northern Namibia, and my partner, a true peaceful warrior, made such an impression on the traditional people we stayed with that they gave him a birth song. I can’t imagine this happening if there is no birth song tradition.

17 06 2018
Bud weiss

Sobonfu is a Dagara woman of the Dagara village in Burkina Faso who has a significant gollowing inbthe US where she was sent to be the wife of Dr. Malidoma Patrice Some. Sadly their marriage did not last for many reasons and no chikd was dreamed into existence between them.

16 12 2019

I am from India. All here are looking at whether the “Birth Song” is fact or fiction. One really has to go deeper into the meaning and the essence of connecting to your birth and childhood, when the person is born with a pure heart and soul. The story is fundamental to human nature and this connection to the roots can play a very important route to changing perspectives of people at later points of time in their lives. The community could be your family, friends and neighbourhood. All religious texts also talks about the purity of soul and the purpose of it being embodied in human form is essentially for doing good. I just love the story and will pass it to the next generation to adopt to whatever extent they can in their lives.

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