People of Namibia: Damara, Herero, Himba

People of Namibia: Damara

Widely believed to be the oldest inhabitants of Namibia after the Bushmen and the Nama, and sharing a similar language and customs with the Nama, the precise origins of the Damara remain something of a mystery. Two conflicting theories suggest first that the Damara migrated from West Africa to Namibia, where they were subjected by the Nama people, and in this way acquired similar language and customs. An alternative theory suggests that the Damara evolved alongside the Nama in Botswana thousands of years ago, thereby explaining the similarities in language and culture, and simply migrated at a later date into Namibia.

By the beginning of the 19th century Damara communities were established throughout the central parts of Namibia, living by a mixture of hunting, livestock farming and limited crop cultivation. The Damara are also known to have been skilled smelters and workers of copper and it seems likely that they were engaged in trade with the Owambo to the north and the Nama to the south.

However, as tension over land issues grew during the 19th century, in particular between the Nama and the Herero, the Damara were squeezed out of many of the areas in which they were settled. Some became servants to the Herero and the Nama, others fled to the remote mountainous areas, earning them the name Berg or 'mountain' Damara.

Following the establishment of German colonial rule over Namibia, the first Damara 'reserve' was created in 1906 around the Okombahe area. This original area was enlarged upon the recommendations of the Odendaal Commission of Inquiry in the 1960s, when so-called tribal homelands were created for the different ethnic groups in Namibia. The Damara 'homeland' was established in the northwest of the country, from Uis in the south to Sesfontein in the north, and this remains a predominantly Damara area today.

Today the majority of the estimated 107,000 Damara community actually lives outside of this area, working in the towns of the central part of the country, such as Windhoek, Okahandja, Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, Otavi and Tsumeb. Many Damara are today active in public life, notably the Prime Minister Hage Geingob and Labour Minister Moses Garoeb.

People of Namibia: Herero

Like the other Bantu-speaking tribes in Namibia, it is believed that the Herero originated in the great lakes region of East Africa, before migrating west and south. Initially settled in Kaokoland in the northwest of Namibia, the majority of Herero started a southward migration from the middle of the 18th century. By the time the first Europeans arrived in Namibia in the early part of the 19th century, the Herero were well established in the central areas of the country.

The second half of the 19th century saw virtual constant low-level warfare between the Herero and the Nama over the question of land and grazing rights for their cattle. Following the German occupation of Namibia late in the 19th century, more and more Herero land passed into the hands of the colonizers, leading to increasing discontent amongst the people.

Finally in 1904 the Herero rose up against the Germans in an attempt to claim back their tribal land. The final battle was fought at the Waterberg Plateau in August 1904 and in itself was not decisive. However, the subsequent retreat of the Herero into the Omaheke sandveld, in the east of the country, saw the deaths of thousands due to hunger and starvation. Defeat also brought about the further loss of traditional grazing lands and the displacement of the survivors into so-called homelands.

Traditionally, the Herero followed a semi-nomadic pastoral way of life, keeping large herds of cattle and following their cattle around in search of good grazing. However, unlike commercial farmers, the Herero have traditionally seen their cattle as an indication of wealth and status, not to be sold or slaughtered arbitrarily for food. Until relatively recently, in fact, the Herero have largely remained outside of the formal labour market, preferring to focus on their livestock.

During the 20th century there was a resurgence of Herero culture and former paramount Chief Hosea Kutako was a key figure in carrying the case for Namibian independence to the United Nations. One important expression of Herero identity is the annual 26 August Heroes' Day parade in Okahandja, when the people march to the grave of their former leaders in order to pay respect to those fallen in battle. Some Herero women are also easily identified by the huge, colourful dresses and hats which they wear. These Victorian remnants of the influence of the 19th-century German missionaries' wives are nevertheless a symbol of pride to their wearers.

People of Namibia: Himba

During the Herero-Nama conflict of the second half of the 19th century, the Herero still living in Kaokoland lost much of their cattle to marauding Nama bands. Those dispossessed of their cattle were forced into a hunter-gatherer way of life, considered an inferior way of existence to the pastoral Herero. This led to the branding of such people as Tjimba derived from ondjimba-ndjimba meaning an aardvark or digger of roots.  During the early years of this century groups of Tjimba-Herero who had fled into Angola, and other Hereros who had joined them there following the defeat at the hands of the Germans, united behind a Herero leader, Vita. Under his leadership, an effective fighting force operated in southern Angola, building up substantial herds of cattle. Following the German withdrawal from Southwest Africa after the First World War, Vita and many of his followers crossed back over the Kunene River into Namibia. Today their descendants form the bulk of the Himba and Herero population in Kaokoland.

Elevated to almost legendary status in Namibia, the Himba still live a more or less traditional existence, with their cattle as the centre of their lives. Largely eschewing westernization, they have managed to successfully live in balance with nature in the fragile Kaokoland, pursuing their old customs such as ancestor worship and the keeping of the sacred fire at the homestead.

Today, however, the Himba's independent way of life is being seriously challenged on a number of fronts. Like many traditional peoples the Himba are susceptible to the effects of alcohol; unscrupulous traders from both Namibia and Angola are currently spreading this curse to even the remotest Himba communities, while enriching themselves with Himba livestock in exchange for the alcohol. Until a few years ago, it was also feared that their peaceful existence would be shattered by the proposed Epupa Dam scheme. In 1996, the scheme to dam the Epupa Falls was proposed for the intention of meeting Namibia's energy needs for the following 25 years, and thus reducing the country's dependency on importing energy from South Africa. Much of the Himba community opposed the scheme, and feared that the dam would destroy their way of life as pastures and ancestral graves would have been flooded and an influx of thousands of construction workers would have perhaps overwhelmed this semi-nomadic community. This plan seems to have disappeared for the time being, and at present the biggest threat to the Himba appears to be people-spotting western tourists desperate for a glimpse of the nomadic past that all human beings share.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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