Namibian bodily appearance and handmade objects : the meanings of appearance culture and handmade objects from the perspective of the craft persons

Inkeri Huhtamaa

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


This dissertation describes the handmade articles of four ethnic groups in two different areas in northern Namibia. The goals of the research were to discover the significance of objects and to document the handmade articles and the making of them. The subjects and materials of the research were the handmade items of the Himba and Dhimba ethnic groups in the Kaoko region in the mountains of northwest Namibia as well as the handmade items of the Mafwe and Masubia in Caprivi in the northeastern part of the country. The research focused on such objects that are made at home and used in everyday life in the home villages. This research was based on interviews conducted with the village people. The research is ethnographic describing people’s behavior. The used theory was Grounded Theory Methodology: therefore there was no theory or presumptions when going to the villages among the interviewees to do the fieldwork. Semi-structured questionnaires were used in the interviews. During the fieldwork the documentation was done by interviewing, photographing and participatory observation. The photographs promote the stories that the narratives have formed, and the narratives lend support to the understanding that the photographs have drawn out. The main photograph albums are on the Internet and are divided into subtitles. The Internet pages ‘Northern Namibian Handmade Items’ are connected inseparably to the research and thus form an extremely central part of the present doctoral thesis. By analyzing the research material the following findings have been determined: between the handmade articles of the ethnic groups there are distinct differences. In this sense the characteristic features of individual groups form the main achievements of the research. There are regulations or customs that all people are not allowed to make the same kinds of articles. Furthermore the customs separate the works of men from those of women in making objects. All the local handicraft people appear to follow the customs inherently. The research shows that local people make handicraft because they are used to making it. They make objects for their own use and nowadays also increasingly in order to be sold. The tradition to make objects by hand using local materials is inseparable from the people’s life and daily activities. The skills are transmitted to the following generations by the local habit that mothers and children work together. Making handicraft in groups can be considered as a life style. One of the central findings is that people do not usually regard themselves as designing the objects, but rather the objects are made following tradition. They are made because it is important to make them ant because they are needed in everyday life. In fact in the rural areas people need nothing but a few items in their household, and these items are made for work purposes as well as to decorate the bodily appearance with them. As a further finding it can be stated that the contemporary way of life demands money for services that have not always existed previously. Local people use a bartering system: if someone is not able to make craft items, these objects will be given to him or her and in return he or she will give e.g. one or several animals as a ‘return present’. In these kinds of situations people do not think that they are ‘selling’ of ‘buying’ handmade articles. In traditional rituals the handmade articles are a means to honour someone or they are used as dishes from which to serve food and drink. The custom to sell the handmade articles has improved the people’s lives because then they earn money for their many needs. In the future different kinds of up-to-date varieties of items will be produced, but people will still look back to the origin of the handmade articles. Making articles with one’s own hands is important, and belonging to a social unit where the mothers and children work together serves as a significant event for the northern Namibian village people.
Translated title of the contributionNamibian bodily appearance and handmade objects : the meanings of appearance culture and handmade objects from the perspective of the craft persons
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Rusanen, Soile, Thesis Advisor
Print ISBNs978-952-60-0016-9
Publication statusPublished - 2010
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


  • material culture
  • handmade objects
  • handicraft
  • ethnicity
  • ethnography
  • aboriginal people

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