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People of Namibia


Namibians are a heterogeneous society of many cultures. The oldest inhabitants, the San, are great storytellers and love music, mimicry and dance. The Nama of the south also have a great oral tradition of poetry and prose and a natural talent for music. Eight Owambo sub-tribes live in Namibia, the largest being the Kwanyama. The most striking feature of the traditional Owambo social system is that of matrilineal descent. The Herero are a pastoral cattle-breeding people, whose women wear Victorian-style dresses adapted from the wives of Rhenish missionaries. The Himba women (of Herero descent) rub their bodies with a mixture of red ochre and fat, wear traditional body ornaments and garments, and have hairstyles that correspond to their age, sex and social status.


English is the official language, but Namibia's relatively small population is extraordinarily diverse in language and culture. More than 11 languages are indigenous to Namibia but with its cosmopolitan society, languages from around the world are spoken in Namibia. People commonly speak two or three languages and more than 50% of the population speak Oshiwambo. Due to the country's colonial history Afrikaans, the language of the previous South African occupiers is still widely spoken and functions as the lingua franca in Namibia. Namibia has a small number of Khoisan speaking people, known as the Bushmen or San.
Indigenous languages are included in the school syllabus at primary level. From secondary level English is the medium of instruction. Among European languages spoken in Namibia are German, Portuguese, Spanish and French. According to the 2001 census figures the main indigenous languages are:

  • Oshiwambo spoken by 48% of households
  • Nama/Damara spoken by 11% of households
  • Afrikaans spoken by 11 % of households
  • RuKwangali spoken by 10% of households; and
  • Otjiherero spoken by 8% of households.


The Bushmen (San) There are approximately 35 000 Bushmen in Namibia. Also referred to as the San, these hunter-gatherers are the earliest known inhabitants of Namibia. The Bushmen occupy only remote areas in eastern Namibia and the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. The wealth of Bushmen rock paintings and engravings found in mountains and hills throughout Namibia are proof of their former habitation of many parts of the country. The oldest of these date back 28 000 years. Examples are the famous White Lady painting of the Brandberg and the rich treasure house of rock engravings at Twyfelfontein.
(Visit the San People on our gallery)

The Caprivian's
Approximately 86 000 people live in the Caprivi (known as Caprivian's), on the north-eastern extension of Namibia which borders on Angola, Zambia and Botswana. Most Caprivian's are subsistence farmers who make their living on the banks of the Zambezi, Kwando, Linyanti and Chobe rivers. In addition to fishing and hunting, they keep cattle and cultivate the land. When the Zambezi and Chobe rivers come down in flood, more than half of Eastern Caprivi may be under water. During this period the Caprivian's use their mokoro (dugout canoes) to traverse the routes normally utilised by trucks and pedestrians.

The Coloureds
Like the Basters, Namibia's Coloured community has its origins in the Cape Province of South Africa, although a large percentage is descendants from local intermixing. The Coloureds are genetically very similar to the Basters and they also speak Afrikaans as a home language. While a small group of Coloureds practise stock farming in the south of the country, most of them live in towns such as Windhoek, Keetmanshoop, Lüderitz, Kalkveld and Karasburg. A fairly large community lives in Walvis Bay, where they are fishermen. The Coloureds are relatively well educated and are found in a wide range of professions such as the civil service, education and the building trade.

The Damara
While there are only about 117 000 Damara in Namibia, they belong to one of the oldest cultural groups in the country. Today many Damara work on farms, in mines and in urban centres as teachers, clerics and officials. Some of Namibia's most eloquent politicians are Damara. In 1973 an area of approximately 4.7 million hectares was proclaimed as Damaraland, with Khorixas as the administrative capital. Today only a quarter of the total Damara population lives within the boundaries of this region, which became part of the Erongo Region after independence.

The Herero
The Herero are a pastoral cattle-breeding people who migrated to Namibia several centuries ago.
According to oral tradition, they moved southwards from the great lakes of East Africa, crossed into present day Zambia and southern Angola, and arrived at the Kunene River in about 1550. After inhabiting Kaokoland for some 200 years, a large splinter group migrated further south. During the 19th century they moved eastwards, eventually establishing themselves in the northern-central areas of the country.
The colonial wars and Herero-German War of 1904-1907 resulted in a drastic decrease of the Herero population. Left without land and cattle, the survivors practically disintegrated as a group.
Despite the suppression of their traditional culture, confiscation of tribal lands and the restrictions of labour laws, the remaining Herero managed to keep their bonds of family life, tribal solidarity and national consciousness alive.
In the nineteenth century, under the influence of the wives of the missionaries, Herero women developed the voluminous Victorian-style dresses that the more traditional of them wear to this day. The distinctive headdress with its two points symbolizes cattle horns.
Today Herero speakers number of 130 000 with their language belonging to the Bantu group of languages.  

The annual Herero Festival demonstrates this on Maharero Day on the 24th of August when various units of paramilitary organisations parade before their leaders in full dress through the streets of Okahandja.

The Kavango
Forming the border between Namibia and Angola for more than 400 km is the Okavango River, lifeline of the Kavango people. An estimated 183 000 Kavango's make a living from fishing, tending their cattle and cultivating sorghum, millet and maize. Closely related to the Owambo, the Kavango also originate from the large lakes of East Africa. The traditional economy in Kavango is based on a combination of horticulture and animal husbandry. Today thousands of young Kavango's work as migratory labourers on farms, in mines and in urban centres.

The Nama
The only true descendants of the Khoikhoi in Namibia are the Nama, whose ancestors originally lived north and south of the Orange River. The Nama have much in common with the Bushmen, sharing their linguistic roots and to some extent their features. Numbering approximately 117 000, the Nama consist of thirteen Nama tribes or groups. Nama have a natural talent for music, poetry and prose. Nama women are highly skilled in sewing. Kaross floor rugs or blankets of sewn skins of domestic animals or antelopes are a speciality.

The Owambo

Owambo is a collective name for a number of tribes living in central northern Namibia and southern Angola. The people referred to collectively as the Aawambo live in central northern Namibia and southern Angola. In about 1550 migrations of these people, who have a common origin and culture, moved southwards from the Great Lakes in East Africa and settled between the Kunene and Okavango Rivers. Today four of the groups live in the Kunene Province in southern Angola and eight in northern Namibia, the latter representing just over half of Namibia's population.
The Owambo languages are Bantu in origin closely related to one another and commonly understood by Oshiwambo speakers.
While the majority of Namibia's Owambo live in the four so-called O regions, many have migrated southwards to other parts of the country.
Since 1870 Christianity has played a major role in the lives of the Owambo people.
Owambo houses are traditionally of the rondavels type, mostly surrounded by palisades and often connected by passages. The Owambo practice a mixed economy of agriculture and animal husbandry supplemented by fishing in shallow pools and watercourses called oshonas.
Traditional land is utilized according to traditional right of occupation usually acquired by payment of cattle to the 'owner' of the ward. Grazing and utilization of veld and bush products are communal but subject to the laws of the people.
Trading runs in the Owambo's blood, as is borne out by the more than 10 000 stalls, cuca shops and numerous locally owned shopping complexes in the region.
Large numbers of Oshiwambo people now work in other parts of the country and today's work forces in the mining industry consist primarily of Owambo people. Most senior civil servants and political leaders are Oshiwambo speakers.
The Owambo have always played an active role in politics, Namibia's ruling party SWAPO (South West African People's Organisation) started as a non-violet pressure group referred to as the Owambo People's Organisation. It was led by Andimba Herman Toivo ya Toivo and Samuel Shafiishuna Nujoma, the man destined to become the first president of an independent Namibia.

The Rehoboth Baster's
The Rehoboth Baster's originate from the first European settlers to the Cape, who came into contact with the indigenous Khoisan people and bore children with mixed blood origins called "coloureds" or "bastards". In 1868 a group of some 90 Baster families moved to Namibia from the Cape, eventually settling at the hot-water springs called Rehoboth. Today the Baster community consists of approximately 72 000 people. Their home language is Afrikaans and at their own request they are registered as Rehoboth Baster's. While they are traditionally stock and crop farmers, today many of them are involved in other sectors of the community, especially the building trade.

The Topnaar's
Described by anthropologists as the modern descendants of the oldest population group in Namibia, the Topnaar's are a hardy group of Nama people who have lived on the banks of the Kuiseb River for many years. Belonging to the Khoikhoi people, they speak the Nama language with its guttural clicks and high musical pitch.

The Tswana's
Numbering approximately 7 800, the Tswana are the smallest cultural group in Namibia. They are related to the Tswana of Botswana and the Northern Cape Province. Namibia's Tswana live in a triangle, with a line between Epukiro and Aminuis in the east as its base and extending to Walvis Bay, its vertex, in the west. Most Tswana, however, live in the Gobabis district, where they are involved in farming, many of them having bought farms north and south of the town.

The Whites
About 98 000 Namibians of European descent currently live in Namibia, of whom approximately two-thirds speak Afrikaans, one quarter German and the rest mostly English and, to a lesser extent, Portuguese. The majority of Whites live in the urban, central and southern parts of the country. English was selected as Namibia's official language and Afrikaans, the common vernacular language, was retired to a secondary position after serving with German as one of three official languages for some 60 years. Most of Namibia's Whites are involved in commerce, manufacturing, farming, and professional services and, to a diminishing extent, the civil service.

The Himba Tribe


(Visit the Himba People in our gallery)

An ancient tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists
, many of whom still live and dress according to ancient traditions, the Himba live in scattered settlements throughout the Kunene Region. They are a tall, slender and statuesque people, characterised especially by their proud yet friendly bearing. The homes of the Himba are simple, cone-shaped structures of saplings, bound together with palm leaves and plastered with mud and dung.

The characteristic looks of the Himba people, an offshoot of the Herero people, are widely known and admired. These tall, graceful semi-nomadic herders regularly feature in fashion shoots, documentaries on vanishing Africa and make the front covers of tourism brochures.

The characteristic ‘look’ of the Himba comes from intricate hairstyles, traditional clothing, the use of personal adornments in the form of jewellery, as well as the use of a mixture of red ochre, butter and resin from the Omuzumba shrub. This paste is known as ‘otjize’ used as protection against the weather and a skin lotion. It is rubbed on the skin, into hair and onto traditional clothing.

But the Himba are a people in transition and travellers are more likely to pass them without a second glance as today they are likely to wear western garb. Although traditional life in the homestead or ‘kraal’ continues, use of traditional garb is declining, and is more often practiced for cultural encounters or in the inaccessible areas of Kaokoland where towns and settlements with western influences are few and far between.

The western way of life offers many benefits to the Himba, aside from clothing. For instance, canvas and other western building materials are used in the construction of huts, making them more able to withstand the elements. Western medicine is now used alongside traditional medicines. Most Himba children now attend schools. Radio brings news, music and entertainment from further a field. Kin lotion is added to otjize. And faced with a life of hardship, particularly in times of drought and hunger, many young Himba men choose to work in towns and villages.

But development also brings challenges, threats and controversy. Although many of the Himba elders insist on tradition, modern garb and lifestyles causes conflict in communities. A proposed ‘mega dam’ in Namibia’s Kunene region would bring much needed hydroelectric power and water security to Namibia, but would submerge a large part of the Himba’s traditional range as well as ancestral graves.
Yet traditions endure, and women and children particularly, are expected to adhere to customs in their communities.

Aside from their traditional appearance, the second phenomenon with which the Himba's are associated is the sacred fire, the ‘okuruwo’. The sacred fire represents the ancestors of the Himba’s, and is kept burning 24 hours a day. The Himba believe in a god who created everything, but this god is very remote, and communication with this god only takes place through the spirits of male ancestors. The male leader, the headman, of the Himba clan sits by the fire during the day and talks to the ancestors about problems facing the family.

While he sits by the okuruwo, he ensures that it carries on burning. At night, his wife takes an ember from the fire inside the hut. In the morning this ember will be used to rekindle the sacred fire. Although it may be little more than a smouldering log the fire is sacred, and the entire area in which the fire burns must be treated with extreme respect. Strangers are not allowed to pass between the sacred fire and the headman’s hut, nor may they pass between the cattle kraal at the centre of the village and the sacred fire. If need be, guests must walk around the back of the hut.

The headman’s hut is the only hut in the homestead which has an opening facing the fire. All other huts and openings face away from the fire. The homestead, called the ‘onganda’, is surrounded by a circular fence constructed from large branches, normally from the Mopane tree. In many homesteads there is only one opening. The headman’s hut is located furthest from the opening with the sacred fire in front of it. At the centre of the homestead, there is a second circular fence of branches, a kraal for the cattle and goats.

The huts for the rest of the clan are built towards the edges of the homestead with their doors facing away from the sacred fire. Himba huts are circular and constructed of branches and dried mud, though modern material such as canvas and zinc plate may be used to provide additional protection from the weather.
Storage areas are constructed in trees, where small animals cannot get at them. Small plots for growing maize are placed away from the village and are also surrounded by fences made of sticks.

The Himba day starts early. Women arise before or at dawn and apply otjize. Before the cattle are herded to the grazing areas, they are milked by the women, often on one side only leaving the other side free for the calves. Each homestead has two fires, a small one inside the hut for warmth and a larger one outside, for cooking. Once the cattle are milked, the men herd cattle to the grazing area. If the grazing is poor, the entire village will move to a place where there is better grazing. Young men often set up separate, temporary villages and move around with the cattle, leaving the women, children and older men at the main homestead.

Women spend the day close to the homestead. They occupy themselves with cooking, gardening, milking cattle, looking after children, caring for livestock in the kraal and making clothes, jewellery and the traditional ochre and butter paste, otjize. Flour is made from maize and butter is churned. Wood has to be collected, and water has to be carried from wells. The children help with the tasks.

The diet of the Himba consists mainly of a porridge made from maize and milk. Milk left over after making the porridge is used to make butter which is churned in gourds. Although meat is a part of the Himba diet, beef is consumed sparingly as cattle represent the wealth of a clan. Meat from small stock such as goats is more likely to be found in the Himba meal.

When cattle are slaughtered, it is usually done at a ceremony. Married men eat meat which is kept apart for them. The Himba homestead is a family unit, overseen by the headman who is normally a grandfather and the oldest male in the village. Most social systems either follow the lineage of the father (the patrilineal aspect, the ‘oruzo’) or the mother (the matrilineal aspect, the ‘eanda’). The Himba social system uses both and a Himba person belongs to the oruzo and the eanda.

The headman is responsible for residence, religious aspects of life embodied by the sacred fire and ensuring that the rules of tradition and the specific rules of the clan are obeyed. The matrilineal aspect is responsible for movable property and economic matters such as handling of money and property. The Himba headman’s authority is identified by an erenge bracelet. He oversees births, marriages and coming of age ceremonies. He performs the various ceremonies at the sacred fire, involving the spirits of the ancestors in the daily life of the village. He is also responsible for the rules of the tribe. If a crime is committed or a property dispute arises, he will be called to give judgement. If his judgement is not accepted, a number of headmen will meet to discuss the matter.

Marriages are arranged with a view to spreading wealth. Once married, the women leave their villages and move to the villages of their husbands where they adopt the rules of the new clan. Himba men are not monogamous and may have a number of wives and children in different homesteads. Women are not monogamous either and may have a number of partners. However courtship and relationships are bound by strict rules and modes of behaviour.

When a woman is ready to give birth, she will be accompanied by a group of women outside the homestead. They will assist her during her labour. Immediately after the child is born, the women return to the homestead. The mother and child then spend a week at a special shelter built to the side of the headman’s hut, near the sacred fire, under special protection of the ancestral spirits. After the week has passed, the child is brought to the sacred fire and introduced to the spirits of the ancestors by the headman. The child is given names from the patrilineal and matrilineal lines, ensuring that the origins of the child are known. The child remains with its mother until the age of three, after which it lives with its siblings. Although Himba children are very independent, they are cared for by all the members of the family in the homestead. Between the ages of 10 and 12, the bottom four incisor teeth of the child are knocked out in a ceremony that is believed to protect the child from dangerous influences and ensure the protection of the ancestors. Young males are circumcised and have a coming of age rituals. Young girls also have a coming of age ceremony.

Many of the children receive western education from mobile schools that travel around the homesteads; however some of the children board at formal schools. These schools are a problem as many of the young men who attend these schools don’t return permanently to their homesteads, but instead seek work in towns. This leaves many of the homesteads with a population of women, children, young boys and old men.

When a Himba dies, the body is wrapped and bound in the skin of cattle and placed next to the sacred fire. The first period of mourning lasts 24 hours or more, during which time cattle are slaughtered. The person is buried far from the village, and the horns of the slaughtered cattle are placed on the grave. In the case of a man, the
horns are placed upright, but when a woman is buried, the horns point downwards. The greater the number of horns on the grave, the greater the wealth and status of the individual.

In the case of a headman, the main hut is dismantled and parts of it are burned. The sacred fire is scattered, to be rekindled later from a new Mopane branches. The headman is bound wrapped in the skin of his favourite ox and buried facing the rising sun in the east. His walking stick is broken in two and placed on the grave
along with his sandals and the horn that he used for calling cattle. The elder is believed to enter the afterlife accompanied by the cattle that are slaughtered during the mourning period. After the person is buried, the clan returns to the homestead and a second period of mourning begins, lasting about a month. More cattle are slaughtered and their horns will be added to those already on the grave. The ancestors are contacted by burning the root of the Omuhe shrub, and a purification ritual takes place.

Cattle owned by deceased males will often be inherited by the family of the deceased male’s sister, normally the male son. In the case of the death of a woman, the homestead will be inherited by a brother, or if the woman has no surviving brother, by the eldest child of a sister. In this way cattle rights and property rights are continuously redistributed through families.

When visiting the Himba People - Although the Himba’s are generally hospitable, due to cultural differences and language differences, it is advisable to visit the Himba’s on an organised activity with an activity operator who understands and respects their customs and heritage. The following should be remembered at all times:

  • Do not walk between the sacred fire and the headman’s hut and the / or the kraal under any circumstances. Ask for guidance if unsure.
  • Ask permission before entering the homestead.
  • Ask permission before taking photos.
  • Do not wash hands or face or even utensils with clean water, as clean water is regarded as a precious resource, best used for cooking, drinking and for animals.


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