People of Namibia: Kavango, Nama, Owambo

People of Namibia: Kavango

The Kavango Region stretching from Owamboland to the west as far as the Caprivi Strip in the east and bordered to the north by the Kavango River is home to five distinct tribal groups totalling around 140,000 people. Traditionally the five Okavango tribes - the Geiriku, Shambiu, Mbunzu, Kwangai and Mbukushu- followed a matrilineal system of leadership and inheritance, however, the growth of livestock farming by men has increased their economic and social status and stimulated a system of patrilineal ties of inheritance.

All of the five tribes live along the banks of the Kavango River and predominantly practise a subsistence economy made up of pastoralism, fishing and hunting. Fishing is a prime source of protein to the Kavango peoples and is practised by both men and women, who specialize in using funnel-shaped baskets to make their catch. Thanks to a rich store of wildlife, hunting has played an important part in the economy of the Kavango communities. However, today no game remains in the inhabited areas of the region and strict control is enforced over hunting in less densely populated areas.

Most Namibian woodcarving originates in the Kavango area and objects such as masks, drums, stools are available in Windhoek curio shops. It is also not uncommon to see the carvers working and selling their products by the side of the road outside towns in the central and southern parts of the country.

As the population grows and more young people become educated, a gradual migration to the urban areas is taking place, although not on the same scale as with the Owambo. At the same time, stimulated by cross-border trade with Angola, the economy of the region is becoming more commodity and cash based, most visible in the regional capital Rundu. Additionally, the population has swelled in the Kavango region in recent years due to immigration from Angola.

People of Namibia: Nama

Ethnically the Nama living in Namibia are descendants of Khoisan groups who have been living in southern Africa for many thousands of years. It is believed that the first Nama groups to arrive in Namibia did so about 2000 years ago, having migrated first from Botswana.

Traditionally the Nama were semi-nomadic pastoralists who also continued to hunt and gather food from the veld. The various different clans shared the available grazing and water in southern and central Namibia, moving with their animals as need dictated. Although little is known of the precise relations between Nama and Bushmen, it is assumed that there must have been contact between the two groups, and even some social movement between them.

At the turn of the 19th century the first groups of Oorlam Namas started to cross the Orange River in search of land. These mixed race newcomers were generally Christians, having had extensive contact with white settlers in the Cape, and in most cases having lost their land to them. The Oorlams' contact with Europeans meant that they had acquired guns and horses and were consequently able to establish themselves in southern Namibia alongside existing Nama groups.

Although the first half of the 19th century saw significant conflict between the Nama and the Oorlams, by the end of the century the old differences had largely disappeared. Intermarriage and common enemies in the form first of the Herero and then the Germans had united the two groups so that today no differentiation is made between them.

In the 1890s, the famous Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi, was the first Namibian leader to see that differences between the various ethnic groups in the country were far less important than the struggle against the Germans. Together with other Nama leaders he led resistance to German rule in the south of Namibia during the 1904-1907 war.

Like the Herero, the Nama suffered heavy losses during this period as a result of war and famine and their numbers declined significantly. In addition the loss of traditional land, a process which had begun during the 19th century, continued under German and then South African rule. During the apartheid era, the majority of the Nama-speaking population was confined to a tribal homeland southwest of Mariental and northwest of Keetmanshoop.

Today the majority of the Nama still live in the south of the country, although small groups live in other parts of the country, such as the Topnaars who are in the Kuiseb Canyon area. Their main source of income is derived from livestock farming, especially cattle and goats, but the struggle for survival in the harsh environment of the semi-desert of the south of Namibia means that most Namas today still live a subsistence existence.

The estimated 117,000 Nama are famous for their poetry and singing, in the form of traditional praise poems and their church choirs, and these are an important form of modern-day Nama cultural expression.

People of Namibia: Owambo

Made up of 12 tribes in all, of whom eight live in Namibia and four in Angola, the Owambo are the single largest ethnic group in Namibia with an estimated population in 2001 of around 455,000 living in the so-called Four-0s region (Oshikoto, Ohangwena, Omusati and Oshana). Traditionally the Owambo live in round, pallisaded homesteads built on raised ground between the oshanas, seasonal lakes which flood during the rainy season.

The few hectares of land surrounding each homestead is farmed with livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep for which the men are traditionally responsible. Crops are also grown, in particular finger millet, omuhango, which is used to make porridge and brew beer; other crops grown are sorghum, maize, beans and pumpkins, and this is traditionally the work of the women.

During the apartheid era tens of thousands of Owambos migrated to the central and southern parts of the country in search of work. In recent years the lack of availability of land and water have forced many more people to abandon subsistence farming as a way of life and instead enter the labour market. This in turn has caused the growth of villages and larger urban centres such as Oshakati, Ongwediva and Ombalantu which function as part of the wider urban cash economy, as attested to by the hundreds of roadside cuca shops (locally owned stalls) that are scattered across the region.

Namibia's governing party SWAPO emerged from the Owamboland People's Organization which was constituted in 1957, and originally dedicated to fighting the hated contract labour system. A breakdown of the traditional leadership system among four of the tribes left a political void which SWAPO stepped in to fill. Offering itself initially as the voice of the Owambo nation, the party eventually took the moral, political and military initiative for the whole country in launching the independence struggle against the South African government. Today SWAPO enjoys overwhelming support in the country as a whole and within the Owambo-speaking areas of the north draws over 90% of the vote.

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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