Bringing the Gospel to the Himba
Village leaders gathered around the fire and pleaded with their ancestors' spirits. The drought seemed endless, families were falling deeper into poverty, and the witch doctor's promises of healing had failed time and time again.
The Himba people in Namibia call it the holy fire—it's how they communicate with and worship their ancestors, whom they view as gods. In a culture defined by traditions, the holy fire is one of the most important.
But the answers that they longed to hear from their ancestors would never come. Their desperate cries for peace fizzled out as the fire smoldered and the smoke drifted into the nighttime sky.
The Himba are nomadic livestock farmers who live in small mud huts without electricity or running water. They don't have a written language, so the Himba are oral storytellers who often fill their days with singing and chanting.
Their physical appearance is distinctive, from the red clay mixture that women spread over their skin to elaborate headdresses resembling cattle horns, from skirts made of calfskin to sandals pieced together from old car tires.
Reaching the nearest town from a Himba village may require several hours of walking across dusty paths. And sometimes after a heavy rain, even four-wheel drive vehicles can't tackle an arduous trek across muddy river beds.
Himba families are often plagued by poverty to the point that it's not uncommon for children to eat only one meal a day. If children attend school, they may wear traditional tribal clothing instead of a school uniform because there’s no money for it.
The Himba have been a largely forgotten people for many years.
That is, until God burdened the heart of a pastor to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ where it had never been…
to the Himba in Namibia.
Pastor Rizera Hipakua has done some hard things. He endured ridicule from his family after becoming a Christian. He obeyed God’s call to devote his life to the pastorate, even though it meant financial uncertainty.
But taking the Gospel to people who had never heard the Name of Jesus would be his hardest challenge yet. How would the Himba respond? Would they allow him into their villages? How would he explain the Gospel to people who worshipped the spirit of their ancestors? To people who wouldn't be able to read the Bible—even if one existed in their language?
Pastor Rizera and his church members were in the middle of a week of prayer and fasting, asking God how to begin outreach among the Himba, when an individual came to the church to share about a Samaritan's Purse project called Operation Christmas Child.
The first Himba village that Pastor Rizera visited with Operation Christmas Child was a few hours away in Ombaka. He invited church members and other local believers to help him with the outreach event. They distributed shoebox gifts, presented the Gospel, and enjoyed getting to know the Himba families.
“It became the answer from God. Operation Christmas Child opened a door and helped us to become friends with the Himba.” Pastor Rizera
This first Gospel outreach among the Himba was more successful than Pastor Rizera ever expected, but he had no intention of stopping there. He asked Alma, a Sunday school teacher and local school teacher, to lead the Ombaka children through The Greatest Journey, the Samaritan's Purse follow-up discipleship program for shoebox recipients.
“I love Jesus and I have given my life to Him,” Alma said. “We want the Himba children to know Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to tell others about Jesus.”
A number of children and adults in Ombaka came to saving faith in Jesus Christ as a result of this initial shoebox outreach event and The Greatest Journey. They were so eager to continue learning that they started gathering regularly under a large tree in the village for worship and prayer. Over time, Pastor Rizera saw God transform the lives of people who were once without spiritual hope.
They no longer met at the holy fire to pray to their ancestors. Alcoholism slowly faded away. The children, now more respectful and obedient to their parents, sang Scripture praise songs created from traditional tribal tunes.
“God breathed new life into them. They are a new creation,” Pastor Rizera said.
A few years after the outreach event, Samaritan's Purse partnered with both the Seed Company, an affiliate of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Christians in Ombaka to build a sanctuary on land donated by the village chief.
“A borehole of Living Water—this is the church,” Pastor Rizera said. “They will never find it anywhere else. People were in darkness—now they are living in the Light of Christ.”
After the Ombaka Operation Christmas Child outreach, Pastor Rizera began praying about where to go next, and God led him to the Himba in Otutati.
Like in the Ombaka village, the Himba in Otutati eagerly received the Good News through Operation Christmas Child and The Greatest Journey. They also started meeting regularly for worship and prayer.
“They don't even want to go home; they want to be here at the church,” said Karituu, who is serving as pastor. “They are praying for one another. Their lives have changed.”
Karituu gave her life to Jesus Christ years ago after hearing the Gospel from Pastor Rizera. She is originally from Otutati but only recently returned to her home village. When she did, she was delighted to find that not only had a church been started, but that Samaritan's Purse had helped to construct a building so that the believers could gather even during extreme weather conditions.
“I was telling others in the community to come and gather and worship. I want all the Himba people to give their life to Christ,” Karituu said.
“The church is very important. I know that God is there.” Mariueute
Mariueute, whose brother was the village chief up until he died last year, has lived in Otutati all her life and had never seen anything like what happened after Operation Christmas Child and The Greatest Journey. She is thankful that people are turning to Christ. “I encourage my grandchildren to attend church. I know that God is there,” she said. “It is very important for the little ones to get God's Word so that they can grow up with it until their old age.”
“I pray to God to give me strength to serve Him.” Kapaa
One of Mariueute's neighbors is Kappa, a young mother who came to the Otutati church during a difficult time. Her family had paid the local witch doctor a large sum of money, but she still struggled to walk. There was no answer for the mysterious illness that had plagued her for months.
“The church encouraged me to pray,” Kapaa said. “I started to become stronger and stronger.”
Kapaa began regularly attending church and, after hearing the Gospel and learning about God’s love for her, she gave her life to Jesus Christ. One of her daughters also came to faith in Jesus after attending church with her mother.
By God's grace, the Gospel is still advancing throughout Otutati and Ombaka long after Operation Christmas Child and The Greatest Journey events have wrapped up.
“If I didn’t give my life to Jesus, it would be a huge loss for me.”
Djouje, 20, is a cattle farmer who had never heard about Jesus until he came to the Ombaka church. He saw how lives were changing in the village, and even though no one in his family would join him, Djouje still wanted to go to church.
“My life wouldn't be the same without the church. I came to find peace in God,” he said. “If I didn't give my life to Jesus, it would be a huge loss for me.”
“I was in prison—but now I'm not. I feel like I'm actually having a life now.”
Another villager, Kuyeua, also gave his life to Christ after attending church. He had been desperate to stop drinking alcohol but couldn't find a way out. “My life was changed by hearing the words they were preaching,” he said.
Kuyeua shared the Gospel with his wife, and she became a Christian, too. Kuyeua went from knowing nothing about God to now serving as the church pastor. “I was in prison—but now I'm not,” he said. “I feel like I'm actually having a life now.”
Since the first Gospel outreaches in Ombaka and Otutati, numerous other Himba villages have also heard about the eternal hope of Jesus Christ. More people have joined Pastor Rizera in his efforts to reach the Himba, as he now leads a regional Operation Christmas Child team.
Pastor Rizera and the team continue hosting outreach events and teaching The Greatest Journey in Himba villages, and believers in some of these villages are now gathering regularly for prayer, worship, and teaching from God's Word.
The team's continued commitment has even led to a class of deaf students—many of them Himba—receiving Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts and learning about the Gospel.
Samaritan's Purse is also working with the Seed Company to provide audio resources to help the Himba continue growing in their faith. Through our partnership, the Himba now have several full books of the Bible translated into their language and available on solar-powered MP3 players.
Early in 2022, audio translations of The Greatest Journey discipleship lessons were made available for the first time. This allows more local ministry partners to be trained in teaching the lessons, creating more opportunities for the Good News to be shared among the Himba.
Pastor Rizera prays that more Himba will come to faith in Jesus Christ and that they will boldly go to other Himba villages and tell of God's faithfulness and abounding love.
“God is doing a great work in their hearts. As their lives are changing, they are giving testimonies,” he said. “We pray that the church will grow strong and take the Gospel out. Let God give them courage and eyes to see others who need to hear the Gospel.”