Namibia has an estimated population of 2.55 million people, comprising 13 ethnic groups. They are: the Herero, the Damara, the Nama, the San (Bushmen), the Rehoboth Basters, the Coloureds, Whites, the Caprivian, the Kavango, the Topnaars, the Tswana, the Himba and the Owambo.
The Owambo people (sometimes called Ovambo) are by far the largest group in Namibia and make up just over half the population. Their language, Oshiwambo (sometimes known as Ambo or Vambo in Namibia), is Bantu based. The great majority live in their traditional areas – Owamboland – away from the main transport arteries in the remote far north of the country, straddled on the border with Angola. The area receives one of the highest rainfalls in the country, and supports a range of traditional crops as well as allowing good grazing for the extensive cattle herds.
Before independence, the existence of half a million indigenous Namibians on the border with (socialist) Angola seriously perturbed the South African administration. By investing money into the region, the administration hoped to establish a protective buffer against Angola to protect the areas in the interior. The policy backfired – Owamboland became the heartland of SWAPO during the struggle for independence. The consequent harassment by the South African Defence Force, and a rapid population increase (exacerbated by a large influx of refugees from Angola), have left the area over-pressurised and undeveloped. The SWAPO government has long pledged to redress this imbalance.
Most of the Owambo belong to one of eight tribes: the Kwanyama, Ndongo, Kwambi, Ngandjera, Mbalantu, Kwaluudhi, Nkolokadhi and Eunda. Most still live in Owamboland, and have traditionally been traders and businessmen.
Traditional Owambo craftwork includes basketry, pottery, jewellery, wooden combs, wood and iron spears, arrows and richly decorated daggers, musical instruments, fertility dolls, and ivory buttons (ekipa) – worn by women and conveying their status and indicating their husband's/family's wealth.
In 1904, the Herero and the Hottentots staged a massive uprising against the German colonial troops in South West Africa (Now Namibia). It ended in the bloody massacre of over half the total Herero population at the battle of Waterberg. The few Herero that survived fled into the Kalahari, some crossing into what is now Botswana.
Today the Herero constitute the third largest ethnic group in Namibia after the Owambo and Kavango – about 8% of the total population. Their language is Bantu based. In Botswana, they are a minority group inhabiting Ngamiland, south and west of the Okavango Delta.
Traditionally pastoralists, the Herero prefer raising cattle to growing crops. Cattle are symbolic of wealth and the number of cattle possessed influences status in the community. Today the majority of Namibian Heroros use their cattle-handling skills on commercial farms.
Herero women wear very distinctive long, flowing Victorian gowns and head-dresses. Multiple layers of petticoats made from over 12 m of material gives a voluminous look. Missionaries, who were appalled by the Hereros’ semi-nakedness, introduced this style of dress in the 1800s. Now the Herero women continue to wear these heavy garments and it has become their traditional dress.
Traditional Herero crafts include skin and leather products, basketry, jewellery, ornaments and dolls in traditional Victorian-style dress. These are very popular curio items for visitors.
The Himba people share a common ethnic origin with the Herero, having split from the main Herero group on the Namibia/Botswana border and moved west to present day Kaokaland in search of available land. The place they found is mountainous, sparsely vegetated and very arid. Cattle are central to their way of life, with the size of the herd an indication of wealth and prestige but overgrazing of the poor soil is a major problem. The Himba are a minority group in Namibia (less than 1% of the population) and live almost entirely in their traditional areas in remote Kaokaland.
Traditional Himba crafts include work in skin and leather (head-dresses, girdles and aprons), jewellery(copper-wire neck-bands and bracelets), musical instruments, wooden neck-rests, basketry and pottery.
The total population of Bushmen in Namibia is about 27 000 people. These hunter-gatherers occupy remote areas in the east of the country and Kalahari desert in Botswana. San (Bushmen) constitute about 3% of Namibians. They belong to the Naro, Kxie/Mbarakwengo, Heikom/Auni and /Nu-ken tribes. Most live in Bushmanland and very few live as they once did.
The oldest San paintings testify to the fact that these hunter-gatherers roamed through Southern Africa more than 25 000 years ago. All San paintings across Africa are similar in style, although languages and dialects differ. This common style existed between San people in Namibia, in the Drakensberg in South Africa and in Botswana.
The San lived in complete harmony with nature. With no political or inherited power hierarchy, every member of society shared resources and responsibilities equally. Sharing was, and still is in some areas, the most basic principle of life. Ownership and wealth were unnecessary and harmful concepts. The fact that nothing was ever wasted, ensured San survival as nomads and hunters in the extremely harsh environment of Southern African deserts, such as the Namib and Kalahari.
Their oneness with nature dictated that no part of a hunted animal was wasted. The skin, bones and meat had a purpose and the stomach was used for making waterproof bags. For hunting, they used the poison from the Diamphidia beetle which has a Haemtoxic venom, slowly attacking the animal’s blood corpuscles. In other regions, poison was reaped from Euphorbia bushes and Boehmianum trees, snake venom and the Polyclada beetle.
The Kavango people share their name with the Okavango river, which forms the northern border of Namibia with Angola. Not surprisingly, they have based their traditional agriculture and fishing existence on the fertile land and good weather supply afforded them by the environment.
Many of the Kavango, who used to live on the northern side of the Okavango river in Angola, came south of the river into Namibia during the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. They fled from the civil war raging between South Africa backed UNITA rebels and the Soviet/Cuban backed MPLA regime. As a consequence, the Kavango population in Namibia more than doubled in size during the 1970s and now forms the second largest ethnic group in the country, making up almost 10% of the population.
Closely related to the Owambos, the Kavango people are traditionally fishermen and crop and stock farmers. Their craftwork includes woodcarving (bowls, spoons, mortars, masks, boxes and furniture), basketry, pottery, jewellery (grass bracelets and copper-bead necklaces), mats, spears, daggers, pipes, musical instruments and head-dresses.
These Afrikaans speaking people are descendents of indigenous Hottentot women and the Dutch settlers who first arrived at the Cape in the early 17th century. The original `coloured’ or `bastard’ children found themselves rejected by both the white and black communities in the Cape so, keeping together, they relocated themselves further north and away from the colonialists. Proudly calling themselves `Basters,’ they set up farming communities and developed their own distinct social and cultural structures.
During the 1860s, white settlers began to push into these areas so, to avoid confrontation, the Basters crossed the Orange river in 1868 and moved northward once again. Trying to keep out of the way of the warring Herero and Nama, they founded Rehobath in 1871 and set up their own system of government under a Kaptein (headman) and a Volksraad. (Legislative council) Their support of the German colonial troops during the tribal uprisings brought them later protection and privileges.
Demands for self-rule and independence were repressed throughout the century until the Rehobath Gebiet was granted the status of an independent state in the 1970s. This move by the South African administration was made with the aim of reinforcing racial divisions amongst the non-whites – rather like in the South African `independent’ homelands.
Today, Namibia’s Basters still have a strong sense of identity and make up just under 3% of the population. Most still live and work as stock or crop farmers in the good cattle-grazing land around Rehobath. Their traditional crafts include products like karosses (blankets), rugs, wall-hangings and cushion covers made from cured skins.
Along with the Nama and the Bushmen (San), the Damara are presumed to be the original inhabitants of Namibia, speaking a similar Khoi `click’ language. Like the Nama, the Damara were primarily hunting people who owned few cattle or goats. Traditionally enemies of the Nama and the Herero, they supported the German colonial forces at Waterberg against the Herero uprisings. In gratitude for their loyalty, the German authorities awarded them an enlarged homeland appropriately named Damaraland. The area is adjacent to the Skeleton Coast, now the southern part of the Kunene province.
Of the 80 000 Damara today, only a quarter manage to survive in the area. The rest work on commercial farms, in mines or as labourers in the towns. Damara women share the same Victorian style of dress as the Herero and Nama women. They make up 7.5% of Namibia’s population and they share their language with the Nama people. Until the end of the 19th century, Damara people worked as miners, smelters, copper traders, stock farmers and tobacco growers. Their subsequent relocation to Damaraland precipitated a move towards agriculture.
Their traditional crafts include leather goods, glass and metal beadwork, wooden bowls and buckets, clay pipes and bowls and, more recently, `township art’ such as wire cars.
The Nama people are perhaps the closest in origin to the Bushmen, traditionally sharing a similar type of `click’ as in the Khoisan language, the same light-coloured yellow skin and a hunter-gatherer way of life. One of the first peoples in Namibia, their tribal areas were traditionally communal property, as indeed was any item unless it was actually made by an individual. Basic differences in the perception of ownership of land and hunting grounds led in the past to frequent conflicts with the Herero people. Today, 50 000 or so Nama live mostly in the area that was Namaland, north of Keetmanshoop in the south of Namibia, and they generally work on commercial farms. Nama women share the same Victorian traditional dress as the Herero and Damara women.
The Nama people make up about 5% of Namibia’s population and are traditionally stock farmers. Their crafts include leatherwork (aprons and collecting bags), karosses made of animal skins, mats, musical instruments (eg. reed flutes), jewellery, clay pots and tortoise-shell powder containers.
About 150 000 whites (officially called Caucasian) live in Namibia. 20% of them are of German origin, 20% English and 60% are of Afrikaans extraction. After the First World War they immigrated from South Africa to Namibia. The white minority does not have political power anymore but they still dominate economically - especially in key sectors like agriculture, trade and mining.
German-Namibians (German: Deutschnamibier) are a community of people descended from ethnic German colonists who settled in Namibia. In 1883, a German trader, Adolf Luderitz, bought from a local chief what would become the southern coast of Namibia and founded the town of Luderitz. The German government, eager to gain overseas possessions, annexed the territory soon after and named it South West Africa. (German: Deutsch Sudwesafrika).
Small numbers of Germans subsequently immigrated there, many coming as soldiers (schutztruppe), traders, diamond miners or colonial officials. Later, during World War One, Germany lost South West Africa in 1915 and it became a South African mandate. The German settlers were allowed to remain and, until independence in 1990, German was one of the territory’s official languages.
Today, rather controversially, English is the country’s sole official language. The reality is that there are about 30 000 Namibians of German descent, around 2% of the country’s overall population, and possibly another 15 000 black Namibians who speak German or Namibian Black German respectively, many of whom returned from East Germany after independence.
Most German speakers live in the capital, Windhoek (German: Windhuk) and in smaller towns such as Swakopmund and Luderitz, where German architecture is also highly visible. Many German Namibians are prominent in the business , farming and tourism sectors and some are government officials. For example, the first post-independence mayor of Windhoek was a German-Namibian. The interests of the community are usually voiced through Africa’s only German language daily, the Allgemeine Zeitung. The legacy of German colonisation in Namibia can also be seen in the Lutheran church, place of worship to the largest denomination in the country.
Mixed descent (coloured) Namibians, who number about 5000, are for the most part descendents of immigrants from the old Cape Colony. The majority are urban and Afrikaans speaking.
The Caprivi people live in the fertile, swampy land between the Chobe and Zambezi rivers at the eastern end of the Caprivi strip. Their language is of the Bantu family. Like the Kavango and the Owambo, they farm a variety of crops, raise livestock and they fish for substance. The agricultural potential of the area is one of the highest in Namibia but, despite that, the potential has been largely unrealised. Before the war with Angola and the heavy involvement of South African troops (which brought roads and infrastructure), the whole of the Kavango and Caprivi region was one of the least developed in Namibia.
Caprivians make up about 4% of Namibia’s population and most can be considered members of one of five main groups – the Masubia and Mafwe, and the smaller Mayeyi, Matotela and Mbukushu. Their traditional crafts include extensive use of baskets (used as fish traps and for the carrying of grain), wooden masks and stools, drums, pottery, leather goods and stone carvings.
This is a group of Nama speaking people living on the banks of the Kuiseb river, near Walvis Bay. Some of them work in Walvis Bay and others are farmers.
With a population of around 6000, this is the smallest cultural group in the country. Most Tswana live in the Gobabis region near the Botswana border.
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