Experience the people and cultures of Namibia
Namibian Cultural Background
When you travel to Namibia you will immediately see there is a diverse amount of culture in the country. Some 1.8 million people live in Namibia. They form a fairly diverse population, sparse in much of the country, with only 2.1 people per square kilometre. Over 70% of Namibians belong to dark skinned, Bantu speaking peoples such as the Ovambo and Herero.The population of Khoisan, although small in comparison, is the largest in Africa. Other cultural minorities include the Damara, Caucasians (mainly Afrikaners and ethnic Germans), and people of mixed blood known as Coloured people.
The People and Tribes of Namibia
The San People are direct descendants of Stone Age Foragers, indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa and East Africa, who continued to use stone arrowheads and implements into the 19th Century. Much of the prehistoric art in Namibia is attributed to the San People, although they no longer paint or engrave images on rock.
San nomads once roamed the land in small groups. They kept ancestral territories where they found shelter in caves or under rock overhangs near a of source of water, or alternatively they made make shift shelters from bits and pieces of vegetation. Over time the San were driven from their hunting grounds, until the current day where the only land left for the San people to practise their culture and beliefs is in the Northern Kalahari.
The Nama are pastoralists. They look a lot like San, just lighter in colour and generally somewhat taller. The two tribes also speak similar tongues, widely considered to be part of the same phylum or group of language families, full of clicked consonants and slurred vowels.
The Nama are fighters and in precolonial times, the Nama intermittently fought the Herero for control of grazing grounds in central Namibia. The feud dragged on for a good part of the 19th Century. Subsequently the Nama twice rose in armed rebellion against German Rule. It was during the second uprising in 1904 – 07 that a mass genocide occurred and over half the Nama people perished. The greatest chief was among the dead. As punishment for the revolt the colonial government confiscated their land.
The Damara People share the same language with the Nama People but little else. They are taller, sturdier and darker skinned. Their culture and beliefs are also markedly different. It is believed their ancestors were ‘pure’ or true blacks who accompanied the Khoisan people into Namibia. The majority of Damara people no longer live in Damaraland and the Skeleton Coast . They are found in most walks of life in modern Namibia. The first prime minister of Namibia and his immediate successor were both Damara.
The Ovambo people established a number of kingdoms on the floodplains north of Etosha where the majority still live. The population is the densest in the country, about five times the national average, mainly engaged in subsistence agriculture.
The Ovambo are strong supporters of the ruling party and they were at the forefront of the struggle for independence from South Africa. The founding President of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, was born and raised in an Ovambo villages. He retired in 2005 after a period of three terms in office, his successor as President, Hifikepunye Pohamba, comes from a similar cultural background.
The Herero are arguably the most culturally recognisable in Namibia. The Herero women are often seen in ankle length dresses with high neck lines, tight bodices and long puffed sleeves. Adapted from European fashion in the Victorian period, the style of the dress is now regarded as a cultural tradition to them. It is worn with a cloth headdress that is pointed on either side in a shape meant to symbolise cattle horns. Like the Masai in East Africa they were nomadic herders, with cattle at the centre of their culture. They regarded their cattle as ancestral legacy which had been husbanded for future generations. Cattle were only slaughtered on ceremonial occasions. Historically the Herero were persistently cheated out of cattle and land, and they rose in rebellion against the colonialists in 1904. In the war that followed the Herero people were massacred. They fell to enemy fire both on and off the battlefield or died from thirst as they fled to the Kalahari, to compound the carnage their waterholes were poisoned. In modern times Herero activists like Chief Hosea Kutako (after whom the international airport in Windhoek is named) figured prominently in the quest for support from the international community for Namibian independence.
Visitors to Namibia are often surprised by the strong German culture. Historical architecture in Luderitz and Swakopmund is redolent of 19th Century Germany. The inner towns are full of buildings with domes, towers, turrets, steep roof with oriel windows, embellished gables and bay windows. Out in the desert, not far from Luderitz is a ghost town called Kolmanskip. An entire town built to mine diamonds after German South West Africa struck it rich in 1908. Nowadays the town is engulfed in the dunes. In Windhoek there are many German Restaurants and of course ‘Windhoek’ Beer is brewed from malted barley, hops and water in strict compliance with the Reinheitsegebot, the German Purity Law of 1516.