POPULATION: 2.2 million
LANGUAGE: Afrikaans (most widely used); English (official); Diriku; Herero; Kwangali; Kwanyama; Lozi; Mbukushu; Nama; Ndonga; Tswana; Ju|'hoan; Subiya; Zemba and also German
RELIGION: Christianity (80–90%); indigenous beliefs (10–20%); Muslim and Hindu also occur
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck proclaimed South West Africa (now Namibia) a German protectorate in 1884. The conquest of German South West Africa by South African forces during World War I resulted in its subsequent administration by that country, from 1917 to 1990, under a League of Nations mandate. A war (1966–1989) between the occupying South African forces and the SWAPO (South-West African People's Organization) liberation movement finally led to the implementation of United Nations Resolution 435 on 1 April 1989. This made provision for free and fair elections, which resulted in SWAPO coming to power. On 21 March 1990, Dr. Sam Nujoma was instated as the country's first president. Namibia has been governed by SWAPO since independence and in November 2004 Hifíkepunye Pohamba was elected to replace Nujoma as president.
The last African country to become independent, Namibia is not as well known as some of its neighbors, but is truly a land of remarkable contrasts. Situated along the southwestern coast of the African continent it has a land surface of 824 269 square kilometers, nearly four times the size of Great Britain. Situated south of Angola, north of South Africa, and west of Botswana, Namibia has 1,500 kilometers of Atlantic coastline. The cold waters off this coast ensure that deep-sea fishing represents Namibia's third largest industry and export. The Atlantic also spits diamonds onto the sands of the coastal Namib Desert, which earn Namibia, along with smaller quantities of gold, copper, uranium and other metals, over one billion dollars per year.
Namibia was furthermore the first country in the world to incorporate the protection of the environment into its constitution and some 14% of the land is protected, including virtually the entire Namib Desert coastal strip.
Despite its size, Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Africa with its estimated population of about 2.2 million people. The north-central part of the country is the most densely populated area with an average population density of 26 people per square kilometer, more than 10 times the national average.
Namibia boasts three distinct environments—the Namib Desert in the east, the more populous Central Plateau, and the Kalahari Desert in the west, famous for the San people (known as Bushmen) and majestic wildlife. The defining term for all three regions is dry. Namibia averages less than 28 cm (11 in) of rain per year, and most of that falls on the central Plateau, supporting cattle, goat and sheep herding, and marginal subsistence agriculture. The borders are formed by the Kunene and Okavango rivers in the north and by the Orange in the south. Interior rivers become dry washes, called oshana, in the dry season, and most irrigation is provided by bore-holes. A severe drought in 1992 turned a precarious situation into a disaster, sending 30,000 farmers to live as squatters in the cities as their crops and animals died.
To the west, the icy Atlantic Ocean pounds the Namib desert shore with relentless fury, throwing up all manner of flotsam, including numerous shipwrecks. It is called the Skeleton Coast for obvious reasons.
In many ways Namibia is a startling country. It contains the world's second largest canyon, the highest dunes, the oldest desert, the largest existing meteorite, and the smallest antelope. Vast areas of the country are true wilderness, which is home to an array of wild animals.
For nearly two decades since independence, Namibia has enjoyed peace and stability. Economic development has recently been due to its productive mining, fishing, tourism, and agricultural industries.
Though for such a vast country, the population is small, yet it is home to a rich diversity of people. The ancestors of the San (Bushmen) arrived in Namibia 2,000 years ago as hunter-gatherers. They were followed by Bantu-speakers after AD 1500 and several other groups joined them subsequently.
The largest population group, the Ovambo, comprise some 50% of Namibians. Other significant communities are: the Kavango (9%); Herero (7%); Damara (7%); Whites (6.6%); Nama (5%); Caprivian (4%); Bushmen (3%); Baster (2%); Tswana (0.5%); and so-called Coloreds.
The Ovambo are mainly found in the northern-most area of Namibia, previously known as Ovamboland. They comprise subgroups with different dialects: the Kwanyama (divided by an indiscriminate international border drawn by the colonial Portuguese and Germans between Angola and Namibia); the Ndonga; Kwambi; Ngandjera; Kwaluudhi; Mbalanthu; Nkohonkadhi; and the Eunda. The Ovambo are agriculturalists and cattle breeders and plant mahango, a kind of millet, their preferred staple diet.
The large Kavango community, a riverine people, lives along the banks of the Kavango River in northeast Namibia. They practice agriculture along the narrow strip of soil along the river. Cattle and goats are kept for their milk, meat, and hides. Funnel-shaped fishing baskets are used in the river and the men are renowned wood carvers.
The Herero people moved south into Namibia during the 16th century, probably from an area west of Lake Tanganyika. Some (the Ovahimba) stayed behind in Kaokoland in north western Namibia, and a large group moved on to settle in the central and southwestern regions but mainly in the district of Okahandja. The Herero are known for their vast herds of cattle. The Himba, who stayed behind, faced long spells of drought, which forced them to live off the land, collecting wild fruit and digging for roots. Because of this the proud southern Herero regarded them as inferior, thus calling them “Tjimba” from “ondjimba-ndjimba,” meaning aardvark, or someone who digs food out of the ground. The Himba are characterized by their traditional loin cloth and the fact that they smear their bodies with red ochre mixed with animal fat.
Most of the Damara people live in the northwestern regions of the country but others are found widely across Namibia working in towns, on commercial farms, in mines, and at the coast. They are unrelated to any of the other communities and are believed to have their origin in northwestern Africa from where they migrated south long before the other migrations of African people to the southern parts of the continent. They were originally hunter-gatherers but due to domination and enslavement by the Nama and Herero, they lost their language and cultural traditions. When pursued by the dominant peoples they used to flee into inhospitable mountains and hence became known as “Bergdamara” or Mountain Damara.
The large white community is the result of the arrival of people of European descent in different stages. Explorers, hunters, adventurers, prospectors, and traders first travelled north from South Africa. The first missionaries from the Berlin Missionary Society settled in 1806. Soldiers (German) and administrative personnel arrived during the Herero Nama conflict and Boers/Afrikaners came to the country particularly as a result of the Anglo-Boer (South African) War of 1899–1902. The discovery of diamonds attracted more Europeans and after the First World War new white settlers increasingly bought property in Namibia.
A Khoekhoen (“Khoi”) people, having initially moved south, and some of the Nama later migrated from South Africa back to Namibia. Originally nomadic pastoralists, the Nama still today keep stock. They are found in scattered communities all over Namibia, e.g. the Topnaars at Sesfontein in Kaokoland, the Bondelswarts at Warmbad, the Fransmanne, Kopers, Veldskoendraers, GootDoden, Swartboois, Witboois, etc. There are 15 distinct such communities.
The Caprivians are hunters and fishermen but they also till the soil, keep stock, and gather food. They live along the rivers of the Caprivi Strip in the far northeastern corner of Namibia. Two communities are distinguished, the Fwe in the west and the Subia in the east.
Essentially gatherers of food who also hunt for game, the Bushmen (San) are some of the earliest inhabitants of Namibia. One of the smallest communities in the country, they have become increasingly sedentary. Thus, the largest of their communities, the !Kung, are found in Okavango; the Mbarakwengo, or River Bushmen, are found along the eastern Kavango River region, the Heikom around the Etosha National Park, the Naro east of the towns of Grootfontein and Gobabis and in neighboring Botswana, and the very small, near-extinct Auni, in the lower Nossob district.
The progenitors of the Baster (“Bastard”) people were the early Dutch and other European men, who intermarried at the Cape in South Africa with local Khoekhoen and San (Bush-men), and later also Malays, brought there by the Dutch from the East Indies. Having first gathered around mission stations in South Africa, some eventually moved north to Namibia in 1868 and reached Rehoboth in 1870 where they settled. They adopted the language, Afrikaans, and culture of their forefathers and this included particularly the observance of Christian beliefs.
A relatively small community of Tswana people lives on the Namibian side of the border of Botswana (“Land of the Tswana”) to the east. Botswana is however where most of the Tswana live and the Namibian Tswana share affinities, including kinship relations, with them.
The small Colored community of Namibia also stems from early mixed marriages at the Cape (hence “colored” or mixed), and their antecedents moved from there due to discrimination denying them full participation in social and economic activities of the then South Africa. Afrikaans is their native language, and they are found centered mainly in the larger Namibian towns.
Although only 7% of the population speaks English as a mother tongue, it is the official language. Afrikaans is the most common language and the languages of Ovambo (Kwanyama, Ndonga, Kwambi, Ngandjera, etc.), together referred to as Oshivambo, are the most widely spoken. The languages of the San (Bushmen) and Khoekhoen (Nama) are characterized by click sounds. The other Namibian languages were earlier referred to in Section 2. “Hello” in some of these languages is: Hallo—Afrikaans; Nawa—Ovambo; Matisa—Damara; Koree—Herero; and Mazwara—Okavango.
Through oral tradition most of the Namibian communities have their legends and beliefs handed down over generations. Likewise certain customs are still practiced by people in rural areas, given that Namibia is a country with a population that is still 68% rural.
Many Namibian folk heroes achieved their status through stories of more recent battles. One 19th century Ovambo sub chief, named Madume Ndemufayo, fought the Angolan Portuguese from the north and the Germans from the south, only to be captured and killed by the Germans. His exploits were passed on through oral tradition, as indigenous languages had never been written. The Herero, too, have their stories of resistance and military exploits. Many Herero feel, in fact, that they are not given the same recognition in national lore and policy as the earliest victims and resisters of the Germans. The 1904 German-Herero War ultimately resulted in genocide: over 75% of the Herero population was massacred or banished to die in the Kalahari.
Namibians describe themselves as very spiritual. European missionaries saw early success here, and today 90% are Christians, mostly Lutheran. While it is common for Africans to incorporate traditional beliefs and practices into their religious life, less than 20% of Namibians claim to do so. Western churches hold great influence in Namibia, which may account for some traditional practices like polygyny (marrying more than one wife) not being accommodated in the country's legal code.
Two important Namibian holidays fall on August 26. This day was first established in the 19th century as Red Day by the Herero in remembrance of their fallen chiefs and is still marked by the wearing of dark red costumes. After independence, August 26 also became Heroes Day, an official holiday celebrating SWAPO's first armed battle with the South African military. Many Herero feel that the honor of Red Day is being challenged by Namibia's ruling party government. Independence Day, March 21, bears the characteristics of Independence Days celebrated throughout the world: military parades, speeches by politicians, plenty of food, alcohol, and reverie.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Much of Namibian ritual life involves cattle. Cattle have provided the economic cornerstone for most of Namibia's ethnic groups for centuries. A gift is presented by a man to his future father-in-law before marriage can be sanctioned, in the case of the Ovambo this is an ox or oýonda. Cows in general play a particularly important role in funerary ritual. The passage from life to death for a man of an Ovambo household is a case in point: His body must remain in the house for at least one day before burial, during which time all his pets must be killed. Traditional Ovambo compounds, called kraals, have gates that regulate the comings and goings of both cattle and humans. But at death, the owner may not pass through this gate, or the cattle will die and the kraal will come to ruin. A new hole is cut for him to pass through. A bull is slaughtered, cooked without oil or flavoring of any kind, and a portion is eaten by everyone in the village. Then the kraal and all its contents must be moved at least 15 meters (50 feet). The cattle are not permitted to rest on the same earth that witnessed the death of their owner.
Namibia is one of the most peaceful nations in Africa. Due both to its increasing prosperity and the friendly demeanor of its inhabitants, the people generally go about their ways.
Namibia is ruled by a multiparty parliament with a democratic constitution. The government's policy of national reconciliation and unity embraces the concepts of tolerance and respect for each other.
The friendly way people, even strangers, greet each other seems to bear witness to this. The sparsely populated and rural nature of much of the country probably has much to do with this and also with the various ways different communities show respect. Among some groups, women and youth bend at the knees as a sign of respect to older men. When greeting or agreeing, Caprivians clap their hands. Basters may kiss close friends and relatives on the lips. But, the handshake is the most common form of personal introduction.
The Namibian economy is heavily dependent on the extraction and processing of mineral for export, yet this sector only employs about 3% of the population while nearly half of the population depends on subsistence agriculture for its livelihood. Namibia normally imports about 50% of its cereal requirements and in times of drought food shortages are a major problem in the rural areas. A high per capita gross domestic product (GDP—estimated at $5,200 in 2007), relative to the region, hides one of the world's most unequal income distributions. The United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) 2005 Human Development Report for example, indicated that 34.9% of the population lives on $1.00 per day and 55.8% lives on $2.00 per day.
Life expectancy is 43.1 years (2007 estimate); the infant mortality rate is 47 deaths per 1,000 live births (birth rate: 34.17/1,000 population—or 23.19/1,000, 2008 estimate); and the literacy rate has been variously put at 65% (Namibia Tourism Board, 2008) and 85.4% (Namibia Facts and Figures, 2001 census, counting literacy as those aged 15 and over being able to read and write). Some of the estimates are now beginning to take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS. The adult prevalence rate for HIV/AIDS was 21.3% in 2003, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS was 210,000 in 2001, and HIV/AIDS deaths totaled 16,000 in 2003.
Although medical services in Namibia are of a relatively high standard, the availability of most services is restricted to the main towns.
Africa has been thrust into modern life more suddenly than any other continent, and Namibia is no exception. As a result, family life has changed drastically and sometimes painfully. One of the most obvious changes regards the role of women in society. Polygyny had been the traditional ideal for men in many ethnic groups and the practice is still significant, although not accommodated in legislation. Virginity before marriage had been the traditional ideal for women and errant women could even be banished. Today, one-third of all girls by the age of 18 have had at least one child, while 21 is the average age for first conception, and 25 is the average age for marriage among women. A related trend is the number of households run by women. In Ovamboland, a matrilineal society where men had always been the heads of households and the only owners of property, 45% of all households are headed by women, many of whom are single parents to their children. Namibian women have legal access to birth control, as well as rights to demand child support for their children. More and more women are exercising these rights. Modern birth control is used by 25% of all women, far more than in most of Africa.
Despite women's gains in reproductive choice, their rights to family property are still precarious. In most Namibian cultures, when a man dies his property often accrues to his parents and siblings.
Most Namibian city-dwellers dress in modern fashions, as in the West. Several examples of customary dress stand out, however. Herero women, both rural and urban, have adopted the German Victorian fashions of the 19th century colonists, wearing long petticoated gowns, shawls, and adding extravagant headdresses. The Himba, as was mentioned, a cattle-herding people from the extreme northwest, whose traditional culture has not changed extensively, typically wear leather thongs or skirts, smearing their bodies with ochre—a reddish pigment extracted from iron ore. The women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making them appear elongated.
Fish is Namibia's largest non-mineral export, yet Namibians do not eat much fish as most of them are not a coastal people. Canned pilchards and dried horse mackerel are available in the towns, but are not a traditional staple. Ostrich farming has become big business in Namibia, but nearly all ostrich meat is exported to northern Europe. Beef, mutton, milk products, millet, sorghum, peanuts, pumpkins, and melons are common subsistence crops. Mealie, a dish similar to hominy grits, is the most common and inexpensive staple grain. While game hunting was traditionally practiced all over Namibia, it tended to take a back seat to livestock raising, and often marked special occasions. Today, private game parks abound to serve the Western tourist interested in hunting.
Namibia's adult literacy rate has been improving rapidly over the last number of years (see Section 9: Living Conditions, above). Namibia also has one of the most highly skilled bureaucratic classes on the continent. One reason for this is the policy of reconciliation that the SWAPO government adopted in order to keep the white, educated business owners and civil servants in the country after independence. As of 1993, 20% of the population had never been to school, and only 1% went on to university. Those that do get a higher education can go to the university in Windhoek, though some go to South Africa or Germany. In addition, several ministries have internal training colleges to better prepare their new class of African civil servants for work.
The Namibian government has established a team of cultural preservationists to encourage the continuation or resuscitation of cultural traditions and heritage. The job of this group of performers, artists, historians, and researchers is to record and then bring to life the cultural heritage of Namibia's people before it is irrevocably lost. Given the largely rural population of Namibia and the remote dispersal of many communities, there is still a significant adherence to such practices.
Namibians have a strong work ethic. While the state provides pension and social security plans, many elderly people expect to feed themselves from their own agricultural labor until they are physically unable to do so. Urban government workers can invest in savings plans or the local stock market. Still, two-thirds of all Namibians are rural dwellers, and most of them describe themselves as subsistence farmers or herders. The government is currently trying to convince some communities to abandon their conception of cattle as the highest form of saved wealth and to turn their skills toward commercial ranching and beef export. Among some traditionalists this is inconceivable, because selling off the herd for mere cash is like selling the legacy of the ancestors. Namibians consider themselves very self-reliant and in many of the outlying areas this is what they became accustomed to over generations.
As everywhere in Africa, soccer, or football as it is known in Namibia, is the national sport with the most passionate followers. Even Himba children grow up playing it, maybe making do with a ball made of twine. Track and field, called “athletics” locally, is becoming more popular, especially with the silver medal win of compatriot Frankie Fredricks in the 100-and 200-meter dash at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Schools and clubs in towns have well-supported rugby teams and Namibia has fielded a national team at the Rugby World Cup. Most Namibians get their physical exercise through daily chores. Many rural children must walk or run five kilometers a day to school and hoeing and harvesting is the lot of most adults.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
American popular culture is so pervasive globally, it is almost unavoidable. Most popular music tends to come from South Africa, with its rich history of local performers. Namibia has produced a number of popular performers but more often than not they seek the more lucrative market to the south, in South Africa. Pockets of more traditional music are found in the more remote rural areas.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Traditional arts and crafts in Namibia cater to daily living. Wood carving, despite the relative dearth of trees, has a long history, and beautiful utensils, knife handles and sheaths, masks, musical drums, beer strainers, and sleeping mats continue to be made and sold. Baskets for holding everything from fish to grain to water are made out of the palm leaf, or out of reeds along the northern rivers.
Unemployment reached 35% in urban areas after the 1992 drought but by 2006 the unemployment rate was 5.3%. After independence, the government did not nationalize all industries nor did it confiscate land and equipment from the white ruling class. As a result the economy remained stable by 2008. The international investment community has more confidence in Namibia than it does in many African countries that have experienced undisciplined governments and crumbling infrastructures. Interpersonal and intergroup relations are positive, and the Namibian economy is growing steadily and significantly—which all augers well for the future.
The constitution of Namibia, underpinned by appropriate legislation, provides for the protection of individual rights. In the urban centers and other public domains there is also an increasing awareness and recognition of the position of women and their rights as citizens of Namibia. However, in many of the rural areas (see Section 2: Homeland and Section 10: Family Life, above) women still function in patriarchal societies where the males as husbands or leaders hold sway in terms of authority and privilege. This even applies to the matrilineal Ovambo, bilineal Herero, and the bilateral/cognatic San-Bushmen—all kinship systems where a certain acknowledgement or emphasis is accorded to females.
Bruwer, J.P. van S. Bruwer. South West Africa: The Disputed Land. Bloemfontein: Nasionale Boekhandel, 1966.
De Jongh, M. ed. “S.W.A. or Namibia? An Anthropological Survey.” An Ethnos Publication, Vol. VI, 1975.
———. “South West Africa. An Anthropological Survey.” An Ethnos Publication Vol. VII, 1977.
Hahn, C.H.L. and Vedder, H. The Native Tribes of South West Africa. Cape Town: Cape Times Ltd, 1928.
Kaela, Laurent C.W. The Question of Namibia. Houndmills: UK: Macmillan Press; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Leys, Colin. Namibia's Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword. London: J. Curry; Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.
Malan, J.S. Peoples of Namibia. Wingate Park: Rhino Publishers, 1995.
Pendleton, Wade C. Katutura: A Place Where We Stay. Life in a Post-Apartheid Township in Namibia. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1996.
—revised by M. de Jongh
"Namibians." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/namibians
"Namibians." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Retrieved February 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/namibians
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.