The Herero (together with the Himba) moved into present-day Namibia and Botswana as part of a larger migration of Bantu-speaking peoples from east Africa several hundred years ago. About 150 years ago, the group began to split and a large group that we know today as the Herero moved southward, while the ancestors of the present-day Himba remained in the north.
While the Himba today continue to live the nomadic life they have for centuries, the Herero settled down and prospered as cattle ranchers in the central grasslands of Namibia. Eventually, they came into conflict with the northward migrating Nama people and later the German colonial armies. After the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904, the Herero sought peace with the colonists, but German attempts to exterminate the Herero continued in what historians have labeled as one of the bloodiest colonial wars. It is estimated that within three years, Herero population was reduced from 80,000 to 15,000. After South Africa took control of Namibia in 1915 (Germany lost the colony during World War I), the Herero were pushed into a South Africa-style "homeland" area. Today, the Herero population is estimated at 100,000, about 7% of Namibia's total population.
During the 19th century, the Herero came under the influence of German missionaries who took exception to what they considered to be the immodesty of the traditional Herero dress, or lack of dress (it was similar to the what we see with the Himba today). Herero women eventually adopted the style of dress that makes them so distinctive today. The dress itself falls to the ankles and includes long sleeves and a bodice that buttons up close to the neck. Over this, many women also wear a shawl. Under the dress (so I was told) the women wear six to eight petticoats to add fullness to the skirts. As a hat, Herero women wear a uniquely shaped headpiece that is said to resemble (and pay homage to) the horns of their cattle. Although the influence of the missionaries is certainly diminished in modern day Namibia, Herero women are still seen proudly wearing this elaborate costume in rural parts of the country as well as downtown Windhoek, the capital. Even though I visited Namibia during June and July, the southern winter, temperatures still reached well into the 80s during the day. Despite the sheer volume of material they wore from neck to wrist to ankle, the Herero women never looked the least bit overheated.
Although I met several Herero men while in Namibia (including Festus, our excellent guide in the Wilderness Safaris Skeleton Coast camp), those that I met could not be distinguished by their manner of dress. I was told, however, that for special occasions Herero men wear an elaborate suit that is reminiscent of 19th century German military uniforms.
From the missionaries, the Herero also learned their current style of homebuilding. Unlike the Himba, which maintain their ancestral style of domed or conical huts, the Herero build larger structures with a peaked roof and a rectangular door.