Legend has it that the Herero once left ‘a country of many mountains’. They came to a leadwood tree where the two leaders, Kathu, and his brother Nangombe decided to part ways. Kathu trekked north, while Nangombe stayed in Namibia to establish the Herero nation. The word Herero may be derived from okuhera, meaning ‘to throw an assegai’. Indeed they were a fearless and warlike nation, taking on the might of the German empire in 1904.
The Herero are unique among southern Africa’s indigenous people to recognize their descent from both the mother’s and father’s families. Residence, religion and authority are taken from the father’s line, while the economy and inheritance of wealth is passed on via the mother’s clan.
The Herero believe in a Supreme Being, called Omukuru, the Great One, or Njambi Karunga. Like the Himba they also have a holy, ritual fire which symbolizes life, prosperity and fertility to them. However, the majority have been converted to Christianity, although the Herero church, the Oruuano, combines Christian dogma with ancestor worship and magical practices.
Traditionally, they are nomadic pastoralists. There is no private ownership of cattle, since they belong to the lineage of the mother’s tribe. An heir is expected to share his inheritance with his brother’s and the sons of his mother’s younger sisters. He must also now take care of the wives and children of the deceased. However, like so much else, this system is also changing and today more children inherit cattle from their dead father.
The Himba ethnic group, who have kept their ethnic individuality and culture in the seclusion of Kaokoland. The friendly people are closely related to the Herero. Both ethnic groups speak the same language. The Himba are a pastoral people. They predominantly breed cattle and goats and lead a nomadic life. Depending on the time of year, they move with their herds to different watering places. Clothes, hairstyle and jewellery are all of particular significance to the Himba and are part of their tradition and culture. Even newborn babies are adorned with pearl necklaces.
When the children are a little older, bangles made of beaten copper and shells are added. The proud Himba women take several hours for beauty care every morning. The entire body is rubbed with a cream, which consists of rancid butterfat and ochre powder. The aromatic resin of the Omuzumba bush is added as well. The cream lends the body an intense reddish shine, which corresponds to the Himba ideal of beauty. The ancient tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists occupied Kunene region of the country. The Himbas (who are relatives of Herero) are an extraordinary people who have resisted change and preserved their unique cultural heritage.
The Himbas were impoverished by Nama cattle raiders in the middle of 1800’s and then forced to be hunter-gatherers. Because of these events they were called the Tjimba, derived form the word meaning aardvark, the animal that digs for its food. Many Himbas fled to Angola where they were called Ovahimba, meaning ‘beggars’. They left with their leader called Vita (”war”). After World War 1 he resettled his people in Kaokoland. Since these events the Himbas were living their nomadic pastoralist lives. But now more and more they have to reconcile traditional ways with European values. One of most interesting rituals of these people is that of the ritual fire, the ”okoruwo”. The fire provides contact between the living and the dead, which is necessary for harmonious living and keeping the ancestors happy. It is kept alive until the death of the headman. When this happens, his hut and the fire is destroyed. His family dance in mourning throughout the night. Before his burial everyone says to him: “Karepo nawa” (”keep well”). Later a fresh mopane tree is lit from the embers of the old fire.
Originating from central East Africa, the Kavango first settled at Mashi on the Kwando river before moving further west between 1750 and 1800. numbering about 140 00, they are divided into five tribal groupings speaking four different languages ( RuKwangari, ShiShambyu, RuGciriku and ThiMbukshu ). Some clans trace their descent from a remote ancestries and many take their names from nature and wildlife.
Especially in rural areas, the Kavango are a river people subsisting off agriculture, pastoralism, fishing and licensed hunting. They are famed for their uniquely expressive and finely made wood carvings, many of which now sits in international galleries. As hunters the are ingenious too.
To catch a crocodile a baited hook and line are attached to a heavy plank or branch. Having swallowed the bait the crocodile must carry the large, floating object around. It tires him out soon enough and brings him to the surface more and more for oxygen, where he is now vulnerable to the hunter’s spears. With strict conservation laws this is no longer common practice.
The Kavango have a rich and complex belief system and mythology. Karunga or Nyambi ( Mbukushu tribe ) is the Supreme Being. The sun and moon help Him to guide and protect people. Stars, ntungwedhi, are Nyambi’s fireflies, the tutemwesi, which gather in groups ( Milky Way ) to give more light on moonless bights. Shooting stars are just fireflies changing their regular place in the sky. Nyambi is never directly petitioned and He is trusted to send enough rain. He usually obliges with about 560mm annually in the region. Possibly due to this, only enough food is produced for one year. It is thus a society based on need, not greed. It is also a society still largely believing in magic, witchcraft, ancestor worship and the evil powers of Shadipinyi, the wicked servant of Nyambi. No prayer or offering is made to the evil one since this will only expose a person’s weaknesses.
As with many so-called traditional cultures, the advent of modern medicine, education and missionaries has changed the old way of life.
The Owambo, mainly involved in agriculture and cattle farming, make up more 50 per cent of the Namibia’s population. The Owambo is actually a collection of various tribes with a common culture and origin who moved to this region from East Africa. Today the various groups live in southern Angola and another eight in the northern Namibia, with the largest tribe called the Kwanyama.
They are also known as traders, and shopping complexes, stalls and cuca shops are found all over their region. The women are involved in intricate artwork and crafting like dressmaking, pottery, basketry and woodcarving. Like in many African cultures, the women are also traditionally responsible for cultivating the land and raising children. Many Owambo’s now work on mines or have moved to cities, however, the majority take pride in their heritage and identity and continue to maintain their kraals (a village consisting of traditional houses and a fence around it as protection).
The Owambo is actively involved in the politics of the country. SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation), the current ruling party started as non-violent pressure group who led by Herman Toivo ya Toivo and Samuel Shafiishuna Nujoma (today’s firstly elected president).
The Topnaars – the few remaining descendants of the once-proud Khoikhoi – speak Nama, a click language. These are a slight people with many similarities to the San (Bushmen) and a long history on the African subcontinent. Slender-bodied with apricot-coloured skin and prominent cheekbones, these people resemble the desert they inhabit – beautiful and lean.