The people of Namibia: Information on ethnic groups

More information on diversity of population groups of our country.
Inhabitants of the Republic of Namibia vary from hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers to an urban population consisting of traders, civil servants, industrialists and individuals in a wide diversity of professions, belonging to many different cultural and ethnic groups.

The Owambo

This is collective name for a group of tribes in northern Namibia and southern  part of Angola. In the middle of 16 century these tribes which belonged to Bantu group moved southwards from the great lakes area in the East Africa and settled between Kunene and Okavango rivers.There are eight tribes of this group in northern Namibia at present with a total population of around 700 000 which represents almost half of the population of the country (45%). As agriculturists producing mostly millet and pastoralists, they supplemented their subsistence economy with hunting, fishing and gathering wild foods.
Kwanyama and Ndongo are the largest tribes (approx. 36 and 27% respectively) while Kwambi, Ngandjera, Mbalanhu, Kwaluudhi, Eunda and Nkolonkadhi are the smaller tribes. They have own dialects. The Owambo social organization is matrilineal (children belong to the mother's clan) although they are changing it towards patrilineal system. The chief's position and a man's health are inherited by his younger brother or sister's son, and not by his own children, since they belong to the mother's family. The tribe is traditionally headed by a hereditary chief, although more and more councils of senior headmen make the decisions.

An Owambo homestead (kraal or ''eumbo'') has a circular arrangement of homes with the labyrinth-like passages which may confuse a stranger or an evil spirit, but they all lead to the central meeting place, the ''olupale''. The sacred fire is located here (''omulilo gwoshilongo'').

The Owambo's Supreme being is Kalunga. He is not actively worshipped since he is seen as being largely uninvolved in everyday affairs. The ancestral spirits are most significant, those from the east, where the sun and moon rise, being helpful, and those from the west being dangerous and evil. These are appeased by observing tribal traditions and by acknowledging the spirits through the intervention of the ''onganga'', or diviner. The most qualified ''onganga'' are the ''ovapuliki'' who are experts in herbal medicines, religious practices, divination and communicating with good and bad spirits. During the last century, many Owambo were converted to Christianity.
The Owambo's Supreme being is Kalunga. He is not actively worshipped since he is seen as being largely uninvolved in everyday affairs. The ancestral spirits are most significant, those from the east, where the sun and moon rise, being helpful, and those from the west being dangerous and evil. These are appeased by observing tribal traditions and by acknowledging the spirits through the intervention of the ''onganga'', or diviner. The most qualified ''onganga'' are the ''ovapuliki'' who are experts in herbal medicines, religious practices, divination and communicating with good and bad spirits. During the last century, many Owambo were converted to Christianity.

The Herero

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Herero women in their traditional dresses

Herero festival in Okahandja

Its Past on Its Sleeve

Migrated to Namibia several centuries ago, the Herero are a pastoral cattle - breeding people. They moved to the country at about the same period as Owambo from East Africa. Today the number of Herero people in the country is around 100 000.
According to the legend the Herero came from ''a country of mountains''. The two Herero leaders, Kathu, and his brother Nangombe decided to split. Kathu trekked north, while Nangombe stayed in what is present Namibia to establish the Herero nation. The word Herero may be derived from ''okuhera'', meaning ''to throw an assegai''. They were a fearless and war loving nation. In 1904 they uprised against the German empire with a disastrous consequences - around 75% of Herero's population were destroyed.
The Herero uniquely recognise their descent from both the mother's and father's families unlike other southern Africa's indigenous groups. Religion and authority are taken from the father's line, 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 symbolises life, fertility and prosperity.
The majority of Herero have been converted to Christianity.
The Herero church, the Oruuano, combines Christian dogma with ancestor worship and magical practices. Traditionally Hereros are nomadic pastoralists.
There is no private ownership of cattle, since they belong to the lineage of the mother's tribe. An heir has to share his inheritance with his brother's and the sons of his mother's younger sisters. He must also take care of the wives and children of the deceased. This system is also changing and today more children inherit cattle from their dead father.
Herero chief Hosea Kutako became a national hero when he petitioned to UN protesting illegal presence of South Africa in Namibia.

The Damara

The total population of Damara people, one of the oldest cultural groups in the country, is approximately 90 000. They cultivate corn and vegetables, with livestock production playing important role as a source of income. The area in the north - east of the coast with an area of about 5 million hectares and  an administrative centre in Khorixas was proclaimed as Damaraland in 1973.
Today it is a part of Erongo region.

The Kavango

The population of the Kavango people, close relatives of Owambo, is approximately 140 000 people. The Kavango consist of five tribes: Kwangali, Shambyu, Gciriku, Mbunza and Mbukushu. Each tribe is lead by a chief, assisted by a headmen. Like most other groups in northern Namibia, southern Angola and Zambia, the social organization of the Kavango is based on the matrilineal system. The economy in the Kavango is based on combination of horticulture and animal husbandry.
Also originating from central East Africa, the Kavango first settled at Mashi on the Kwando river before moving further west at the end of nineteenth century. They are divided into five tribal groupings at present speaking four different languages ( RuKwangari, ShiShambyu, RuGciriku and ThiMbukshu). Some clans 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 wood carvings. The Kavango have a rich and complex belief system and mythology. Karunga or Nyambi (Mbukushu tribe) is the Supreme being (same for Owambos). 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 during moonless nights. Nyambi is never directly petitioned and he is trusted to send enough rain. It is 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.

The Himba (Ovahimba): photo album

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 it's 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.
Himba children

Lodges where Himbas can be seen or operators to Himba: full list
Oase Guest House/Onjowewe House, Gelbingen, Omarunga Camp, Palmwag Lodge, Serra Cafema

The Nama

The Nama have a lot in common with the Bushmen and are the only true relatives of the Khoikhoi group in the country. The population of Nama is approximately 90 000 people.

The Rehoboth Basters

The Basters regard themselves as a separate community from the Coloureds. The population of the Basters is approximately 60 000 people. While they are traditionally stock and crop farmers nowadays many of them are involved in building trade.

The Topnaars

This is a group of Nama people. Mainly they have lived on the banks of Kuiseb river, with some members of community working in Walvis Bay.

The Coloureds

As a Rehoboth Basters, originally this group came to Namibia from Cape Province of South Africa. Most of them live in towns and found in a wide range of professions. They speak Afrikaans as a home language.

The Caprivians

Approximately 66 000 people live in the Caprivi strip. The tribes inhabitate the Caprivi are: Masubia, Mafwe, Mayeyi, Mbukushu and Matotela.

The Bushmen (San)

The Bushmen (San)
The total population of Bushmen in Namibia is about 27 000 people. This hunters - gatherers occupy remote areas in the east of the country and Kalahari desert in Botswana.
San (Bushmen) constitute about 3% of Namibians. They belong to the Naro, Kxoe/Mbarakwengo, Heikom, /Auni and /Nu-ken tribes. Most live in Bushmanland and very few still live as they once did.bushmen.JPG (13077 bytes)
The oldest San paintings testify that these hunter-gatherers roamed through Southern Africa more than 25 000 years ago. All San paintings across Africa are similar in style although languages and dialects differ. This common style existed between San people in Namibia, in the Drakensberg in South Africa and in Botswana.
The San lived in complete harmony with nature. With no political or inherited power hierarchy, every member of society shared resources and responsibilities equally. Sharing was and still is in some areas the most basic principle of life. Ownership and wealth were unnecessary and harmful concepts. The fact that nothing was ever wasted, ensured San survival as nomads and hunters in an extremely harsh environment of Southern African deserts such as Namib and Kalahari. Everything was used from a hunted animal: from skin to bones, from meat to even stomach for making waterproof bags. They used the poison from the diamphidia beetle which has a haemtoxic venom, slowly attacking the animals blood corpuscles. In other regions poison was reaped from Euphorbia bushes and boehmianum trees, snake venom and the polyclada beetle.

The Tswanas

With the population of around 6 000 people this is the smallest cultural group in the country. Most Tswanas live in the Gobabis district of Namibia.

The Whites

There are about 75 000 inhabitants of Namibia with European origin. Around 60% of them are Afrikaans-speaking, 25% are German and the rest are English and Portuguese.

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