MYRRH : BETWEEN HISTORY, MYTHOLOGY AND RELIGION
O myrrh, a formidable fragrant resin full of symbols and history ! It was first used in Egypt with its solid perfume Kyphi, a kind of sacred incense that was burned in honor of the god Ra. When a Greek legend tells that Myrrha, daughter of Cinyras, king of Cyprus, was transformed into a tree by the gods for an incestuous relationship ; the gum-resin being none other than the tears of the princess. Finally, myrrh is also an offering made by the magician king Balthazar for the birth of Jesus.
MORE THAN 37 SPECIES OF MYRRH FOUND IN AFRICA
So when we talk about Myrrh, there is necessarily a heavy symbol. The first thing that comes to mind is the Commiphora Myrrha, which is found mainly in the Arabian Peninsula or in Somalia. But at the time of writing, there are 37 species of commiphora listed in Africa, the vast majority of which come from the south of the continent (29 in Namibia alone). Most of these commiphora species exude resins that have the potential to be used in the manufacture of aromatic extracts.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF NAMIBIAN MYRRH
This is the case of Namibian myrrh, or Omumbiri myrrh (Commiphora wildii) recently discovered and harvested for the perfumery world since 2004. It is endemic to the country and is found more precisely in the heart of the Kunene region in northwestern Namibia. A kind of small thorny shrub dried, the omumbiri cracks during periods of high heat (from October to January) and oozes myrrh resin harvested with bare hands by the women of the Himba tribe.
THE HARVESTING OF NAMIBIAN MYRRH
There is no cultivation of myrrh in Namibia. We are content to pick each year what nature offers us, no more and no less. No question of cutting the shrub to increase its yields (which would inexorably reduce them for years to come). And since 2004, and the creation of a development channel by the association IRDNC to provide financial support to the Himba Tribe, they are the only ones authorized to harvest the material.
AN ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY FEMALE WORK
The Himbas are semi-nomadic pastoralists who provide for the needs of the community by raising livestock, mainly red cows and goats. But during the very hot periods between November and January, the Kaokoland desert is very poor in nutrients and the animals cannot be fed properly to be sold. Also, the myrrh harvest brings in the income neededto buy food for the animals and provide for the other needs of the community. It is almost exclusively a female job, since traditionally the men take care of the herd. They leave early in the morning, often accompanied by their babies, to collect the myrrh resin drops from the Commiphora.
THE SALE OF MYRRH
Once the day’s harvest is over, the women sort the myrrh (they keep some pieces for their body care) and bring the rest to the cooperative created for this purpose to sell it. The myrrh is weighed, the harvest area and the name of the harvester are noted, and the latter recovers the market value of her omumbiri myrrh (the selling price is fixed with and in the interest of the Himbas).
USE AMONG THE HIMBAS
In the Himba tribe, Namibian myrrh is an essential ingredient in making a fragrant beauty cream, a DIY lotion that every woman learns to master. The myrrh is mixed with the cream of their cows’ milk (kept in a horn) and powdered hematite (a beautiful red stone that the women go to quarry every month). The women of the tribe as well as the children smear this cream on their body and hair every day. To repel the many insects, to protect themselves from the sun but also and especially as a beauty cream. This beautiful red color,it is especially to resemble their cows, and it is besides the most beautiful compliment that one can make to a Himba woman. Not to be reproduced at home.
USE IN PERFUMERY
Namibian myrrh has only recently been discovered and, to our knowledge, there are no records of older uses of the material. Also, since 2004, the material has been transformed into essential oil for the production of perfumes, especially because its fragrance is reminiscent of the characteristic smell of turpentine.
USE IN AROMATHERAPY
For the moment, there is no other common use of Namibian myrrh. Transformed into essential oil, Namibian myrrh is particularly rich in alpha and beta-pinene. Both molecules being known for their antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties, it would have a very big potential in aromatherapy.
AFTER SANDALWOOD COMES MYRRH
The story begins in 2007. At the time, we were the only ones marketing only one material (Sandalwood Spicatum). Perfumers started to submit to us the idea of expanding our range. We were not yet a source, but rather representatives of a sector. And we hadn’t really thought about the opportunity to become one. But an encounter was to change our lives forever.
THE NAMIBIAN MYRRH INDUSTRY
In April 2007, we went to the cosmetics fair. When we arrived, we met Karen, a wonderful and endearing Namibian woman, in charge of the protection of the biodiversity and the ethnic groups living in the Kaokoland region, in the northwest of Namibia. We immediately sympathized. She told us about the Himba tribe and the program she had just set up with her association Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC). In collaboration with the government, the mission aims to offer them opportunities to cultivate a species of Myrrh endemic to the region and coming from a small shrub called Omumbiri (or Commiphora Wildii). We were overwhelmed by his work. The appointment was made.
In December, we took off for Windhoek where Karen was waiting for us. Without wasting time she took us directly to meet the Himbas who generously welcomed us in the tribe for the week. Known since the 15th century and originating from the banks of the Nile in Egypt, the Himba community has been nomadic for a long time, traveling according to the seasons throughout Southern Africa. An ethnic group of hunter-gatherers, their culture is the antithesis of the Western world and has caused them to be expelled from many countries in recent years, notably Angola, before Namibia agreed to welcome them in Kaokoland, near the Kunene River, in the northwest of the country.
OMUMBIRI MYRRH, THE GOLD OF THE HIMBAS
Since 2007, between November and December (which corresponds to the periods of high heat) more than 600 members of the Himba community earn between 80 and 400€ thanks to the harvesting and transformation of the resin produced by the Omumbiri. It is an almost exclusively feminine job, the men taking care of the unsaleable cattle in these seasons of drought. Due to their remoteness from society, this income is fundamental to feed the community and the livestock while providing care for the village. A wonderful initiative that we have been supporting since our first trip to Namibia and that is not about to stop.