views updated May 14 2018


ETHNONYMS: Dama, Damara


Identification and Location. In Otjiherero, the Herero language, "Ovaherero" means the "Herero people," and Omuherero" refers to a single Herero person. The Herero are a Bantu group living today in Namibia (formerly South-West Africa) and in the Republic of Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) in southern Africa. Those in Botswana are located in and around the Kalahari Desert and are descended from a group of Herero who escaped from South-West Africa after an unsuccessful war against German colonialiste in 1904. The majority of Herero, numbering over 30,000, remained behind, were incarcerated, and were subjected to forced cultural assimilation. This description treats the Herero in general before the 1904 war, together with the Herero of Botswana after that time, as an ethnographic unit. The Herero of Namibia, who have been dominated by and incorporated into a European-based tradition, are not discussed here.

Demography. The government of the Republic of Botswana discourages "tribalism" and does not identify the "ethnicity" of its citizens, rendering an accurate count of the Herero impossible. Modern estimates range between 7,000 and 8,000 persons, the greatest percentage of whom live in western Botswana on the northern fringe of the Kalahari, in Ghansi District and in Ngamiland District. Makakun, the first Herero settlement in Botswana after the flight from Namibia and still the largest Herero area, is located west of Lake Ngami, in Ngamiland.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Herero speak a form of southwestern Bantu that is shared most closely by two other major groups, the Ovambo (or Ambo) and the Ovimbandu (or Umbandu), both of which are found in Angola, north of Namibia. The Herero Branch of southwestern Bantu consists of four major groups of speakers: the Mbanderu, the Himba, the Tjimba, and the Herero proper.

History and Cultural Relations

The Herero are thought to have migrated westward from the lacustrine area of eastern and central Africa and then southward, entering the Kaokoveld, in what is now northern Namibia, around 1550. After some years in the Kaokoveld, they began a gradual push south, spreading as far as present-day Windhoek by about 1750. In their diffusion throughout Namibia, Herero came into conflict with other native occupants of the territory, most notably the Hottentots. Beginning about 1825, a state of war existed off and on between the Herero and the Hottentots; by 1870 the Herero had established their supremacy, and a relative peace prevailed in Namibia during the next decade, followed by war again in 1880. In 1884, when the land became a German territory known as South-West Africa, the Germans used these intertribal conflicts to help establish their authority. They sided with the Herero, providing them arms and advice, while planning to use them to subjugate the Hottentots and other local groups, and then to disarm the Herero. In return for German help, some Herero leaders ceded the mineral rights in their pastureland. Simultaneously, European farmers and traders were moving into South-West Africa in increasing numbers and settling the land, thus restricting Herero access to water and pasturage for their herds. By the 1890s, when the Hottentots had by and large been subjugated and the Germans had adequately established themselves in the territory, they turned their efforts more directly to domination of the Herero. During the next several years, the Herero were gradually deprived of their livelihood and their nomadic freedom, prompting the Herero uprising in January 1904. At the battle of Waterberg in August, the Herero were decisively defeated. About 2,000, in a number of small groups, escaped eastward across the Kalahari into what was then the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, arriving with few or no cattle. In a strange land and without an economic base, Herero went to work for the Tswana, the numerically dominant tribal group in the country. Because the territory was a British protectorate (1885-1966) under "indirect rule," the incoming Herero applied to the local hereditary Tswana chief for permission to settle, and it was in the chief's jurisdiction that they resided. Herero entered the employ of Tswana (who, although horticulturists, kept some cattle), selling their labor and expertise as herders. In return, they received milk, crops, and an occasional calf. From the milk they made butter, which they sold back to Tswana. Herero ate sparingly, selling the extra food. With the proceeds, they bought additional cattle or acquired the stud services of bulls from Tswana herdsand undoubtedly they stole an animal here and there. The result of these activities was that in the 1930s, after about a generation in Botswana, Herero had amassed herds of sufficient size to assert economic independence from their former Tswana employers and reestablish pastoralism as their way of life. Today, despite their small population, the Herero are economically successful, and their contribution to Botswana's beef industry is indispensable to the national economy. Their transition from traditional pastoral nomads, with what has been called in East Africa the "cattle complex," to participants in a European-influenced economy, in which cattle are primarily market commodities, has produced profound changes in Herero society.


Although nomadic in precontact times, the Herero today are sedentary, and their primary residential unit is the "homestead" (onganda; pl. ozonganda), consisting of a number of sunhardened clay huts (ozondjuo; sing. ondjuo ) arranged formerly in a closed circle but nowadays in a line or an arc. At the center of the traditional onganda were animal corrals, constructed of thornbushes. Just to the east of the cattle corrals was the "sacred hearth" (okuruo), consisting of an upturned bush and a small fire that burned continually in honor of the ancestors. To the east of the okuruo was the hut of the "great wife" of the homestead head, the senior male, who was referred to as omuini, or "owner" of the homestead. A series of huts extended in northwesterly and southwesterly arcs from the senior wife's hut to form a circle around the corrals; all huts opened to face the corrals. The entire homestead was surrounded by dead thornbush branches as protection from raiders and predators. This circular pattern also emphasized the cultural focus of Herero society. Cattle were considered sacred gifts from the ancestors, and all ritual activities were conducted at the okuruo, which symbolized the coherence of Herero society and the direct connection with the Herero then had with their forebears. Today, however, cattle are considered secular commodities to be sold at market for profit, belief in the ancestors no longer plays a large role in Herero life, traditional rituals have given way to secular ceremonies, and, consequently, the "sacred hearth" has disappeared. Huts are no longer arranged in any special pattern, although their openings still face the corrals, given that cattle remain the bedrock of Herero economy. The Herero also maintain cattle posts, extensions of the permanent homesteads, to help distribute cattle over wide areas and thus exploit large tracts of pasturage in an arid habitat.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Cattle herding remains the primary subsistence activity, but Herero are also engaged, in decreasing order of importance, in trading, hunting, and cultivation. Cattle management may be characterized as laissez-faire. Except for the rainy season (October or November through early or mid-April), adult cattle are not penned up at night. They graze freely on their own, returning every three or four days to a well near the homestead for water. When grass becomes too thin in a given area, a herdsman leads the animals to another unoccupied area. During the rainy season, however, the herd must be watched more closely. In the dry season the herd tends to stay together because good pasturage occurs in relatively isolated and well-delineated areas, but during the rainy season more good grass is found over a wider area, and individual animals may wander and become separated from the herd. With few naturally occurring watering spots in the Kalahari, the Herero must dig wells. One well provides drinking water for the people of a single homestead; another, larger well provides water for the animals that are kept by a cluster of three to five homesteads, located within several kilometers of each other. Horses and donkeys are watered with the cattle, but sheep and goats usually do not approach the well until after most of the larger animals have left. Tubs of water are also filled each day by women and children and are kept at the homestead for the animals that remain there. The Herero keep dogs, for hunting, and chickens, whose eggs are eaten (as are the chickens themselves when they die, although they are not killed for consumption). Cattle, goats, and sheep are also eaten, as is some wild game, whereas horses, donkeys, and dogs are not. Although of minor importance to the Herero economy and diet, hunting is considered an exciting and psychologically satisfying pursuit by these formerly nomadic warriors and raiders. Winter (May to August) is the most active hunting season; the weather is cooler, and meat can be kept longer without spoiling. In addition to meat for consumption, the Herero hunt to acquire commodities (meat, hides, horns) to barter for such staples as sugar, tea, salt, and tobacco. The Herero engage in this activity only if early rains indicate a lengthy wet season. On average, only one homestead in a cluster has a field. Both horticulture and agriculture are practiced; planting is in November and December and harvesting in April. Crops, chief among which is maize, are grown mainly for consumption by the cultivators themselves, but any surplus is sold or traded to neighbors.

Industrial Arts. Nowadays the Herero manufacture little, either for their own use or for sale or trade, except for an occasional three-legged, triangular chair, for which they were once well known.

Trade. Trade has always been an important element in the Herero economy. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Herero traded animal products with other groups, such as the Ovambo and Bergdama, for axes, iron for weapons and ornaments, and salt. With Europeans, the Herero traded sheep, oxen, butter (which the Herero did not consume, but used as a cosmetic and sunscreen), pelts, and ivory in return for barrels, wagons, metal implements, rifles, salt, and whiskey. Today the Herero are thoroughly dependent on markets. They travel to towns to sell their cattle and the products derived from both domestic and wild animals, and they frequent general stores to purchase such items as canned food and fresh produce, tobacco, clothes and material for clothes, furniture, tools, gasoline, paraffin, soap, matches, and machine parts for well pumps. Some Herero even own motor vehicles, and nearly every homestead has at least one portable radio. Gone are the leather aprons and white-plumed headdresses of former times. Men wear contemporary Western clothes, and women make their own brightly colored versions of the high-necked, long-sleeved, long-hemmed "Mother Hubbards" that were worn by the wives of colonial missionaries. Weekly visits by a goods-laden truck from a general store provide occasions for the residents of an area, both Herero and non-Herero, to gather, gossip, haggle, and flirt.

Division of Labor. Herding remains today primarily a male activity, the only cattle-related female chore being the daily milking. Women and children see to the daily watering of sheep and goats at the homestead, and women are responsible for domestic activities, care of young children, and tending and harvesting the small fields of crops when these are present. Men conduct trading activities regarding cattle and the products of the hunt, but women do most of the bartering of other goods. Cooperative activities that involve large numbers of people (such as watering herds, care of livestock wells, and hunting) are undertaken by the men of a homestead cluster and other neighbors. Formerly, according to the Herero, large-order cooperation occurred only between agnatic (patrilineal) relatives; thus, they say, kin tended to live near each other to facilitate joint activity. Nowadays those who live near each other, regardless of their relationships or the absence thereof, are those who cooperate. Research conducted during the 1970s indicated that, contrary to Herero claims, this may have largely been the case even in the past (Vivelo 1977).

Land Tenure. In precontact times, the land upon which Herero cattle grazed at any given time was Herero land. After the arrival of Europeans in South-West Africa, Herero access to open territory became increasingly restricted as the settlers staked out exclusive claims to the land. By the time of the 1904 war, the Herero were confined by the growing European population to the areas around a few permanent or semipermanent waterholes. Today all land is owned by the state but is leased to local residents, through the offices of district land boards, for ninety-nine-year terms. Inheritance of rights in land is determined by civil law, according to which the land passes from elder to younger brother or from father to son.


The Herero practice double descent; that is, descent is reckoned both patrilineally and matrilineally. Every Herero is linked to a series of male ancestors through his or her father and to a series of females through his or her mother. Herero descent-ordered units consist of otuzo (sing. oruzo), or patrisibs, and omaanda (sing. eanda), or matrisibs, which are internally differentiated into patrilineages and matrilineages, respectively. (Patrisibs are classified into six phratries, and matrisibs into two.) In Otjiherero, the term for patrilineage and homestead is the same (onganda), as is the term for matrilineage and hut or household (ondjuo), which reinforces the view that Herero kin relations are connected to, and possibly derived from, coresidence.

Kinship Terminology. Herero kinship terminology is of the Iroquois, or bifurcate-merging, type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Today ethnic endogamy is giving way to intertribal marriage, and children of such unions suffer no social stigma. A Herero man may also keep concubines, women to whom he is not formally married, who live either in his homestead or in their natal homesteads. The children of such a union belong to the man's patrisib if he pays child-wealth to the mother's father, or to the mother's patrisib if he does not. Wives live in their husbands' homesteads, and a married couple usually lives in the man's father's homestead, although sometimes poor matrilineal relatives may also be found in a homestead. Because formal marriages are not validated by civil ceremony as opposed to tribal ritual, divorce is similarly conferred by the Botswana courts and is not difficult to obtain.

Domestic Unit. The primary domestic unit is the individual household within a homestead, in which a woman and her children reside. In a monogamous marriage, the husband lives in the same house; in a polygynous union, the man has no house of his own, but rotates among those of his wives.

Inheritance. In former times, when "sacred" cattle were distinguished from "secular" cattle, the former were inherited patrilineally, first from elder brother to younger and then from father to son, and the latter were inherited matrilineally from mother's brother to sister's son. Today, under the influence of Botswana's legal system, inheritance of all property is largely from parent to child.

Socialization. Care of children is chiefly a female responsibility. Girls remain with their mothers, often looking after younger siblings, until they are married and move away. Boys assist with chores around the homestead under the direction of any resident adult, but most of their day is spent in leisurely play. Girls are considered marriageable at about age 16, and premarital sex is permitted among young people of marriageable age. Most Herero children acquire only enough formal schooling to learn basic reading and writing.

Sociopolitical Organization

Previously, leadership among the Herero depended on a combination of descent, wealth in cattle, success in warfare, and personality characteristics, and it carried little real authority. In precontact times, Herero society consisted of autonomous herding units, each headed by an elder male, or omuini, each ranging over large tracts of land in search of pasturage and water. At the end of their migratory period, these units set up homesteads around major water sources, and although they still practiced nomadism, their movement tended to be more regular and less far-ranging. They gathered in neighborhoods or clusters of homesteads around a dependable water supply and formed alliances for military and economic purposes. In each cluster, an omuhona, or headman, emerged, one of the homestead heads who had distinguished himself as a military leader and who was respected for his fairness and good judgment. An omuhona's authority was limited, however; he led only because others saw an advantage in following him. When the Herero settled in the new land, they lived under the political jurisdiction of Tswana chiefs. As they grew in number and economic independence to be recognized as a separate group, with their own settlements, local Herero headmen were designated by the Tswana chiefs. Nowadays headmen are appointed by the Botswana state administration, and they function as the lowest-level bureaucratic authority, serving as spokespersons for the state, rather than for indigenous leaders and constituents. They handle local disputes of a relatively trivial nature; more serious conflicts and social control in general are the purview of the police and district commissioners.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, all important social occasions and all stages in the Herero life cycle were validated by religious ceremonies that invoked the ancestors. Because cattle were a gift from the ancestors and were kept in their honor, all important rituals involved the use, often the sacrifice, of animals. Today the connection with the ancestors has been broken. The most valued legacy of the ancestors has, in the Herero view, been profaned. Cattle are no longer treated as sacred commodities, but as secular property. When cattle were the exclusive property of a group of people with common descent (i.e., persons who shared the same ancestors), their sacred nature was preserved. Now that cattle are sold to nonrelatives, the ancestors' gift has been rejected, which means that the ancestors and the way of life they bequeathed to their descendants have also been rejected. Decreased reference to the ancestors has led to the disappearance of religious ritual. Without ritual, the place where ritual was conducted (the okuruo) became superfluous. Today Herero society may be justifiably characterized as secular. Although some Herero are nominally Christian, most disavow any religious belief.

Ceremonies. The only ceremonies in which Herero engage today are what they call "celebrations." On the occasion of a girl's coming-of-age or a marriage or some other notable happening, and sometimes for no reason at all, Herero will summon their neighbors (including non-Herero), kill a goat, cook the meat, and sit around the fire drinking store-bought beer, eating, and singing songs (some secular, some derived from Christian hymns). Men, women, and children will eat, sing, and chatter long into the night.

Arts. The Herero practice no arts other than occasionally to adorn the exteriors of their huts with individualistic designs (handprints, geometric patterns).

Medicine. The Herero no longer practice any native medicine; they rely on the services of Western physicians and nurses.

Death and Afterlife. The Herero bury their dead, as they always have always done, but today the funeral rites are simple and secular, and interment is in government-approved cemeteries. The Herero believe that a soul survives the body and upon death goes to a place in the sky, but they profess to know nothing about this place or what happens there, and they say that they are content to wait and find out when they die, rather than to speculate.


Gibson, Gordon D. (1952). "The Social Organization of the Southwestern Bantu." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.

Gibson, Gordon D. (1956). "Double Descent and Its Correlates among the Herero of Ngamiland." American Anthropologist 58:109-139.

Gibson, Gordon D. (1959). "Herero Marriage." The RhodesLivingstone Journal 24:1-37.

Vivelo, Frank Robert (1977). The Herero of Western Botswana: Aspects of Change in a Group of Bantu-Speaking Cattle Herders. American Ethnological Society Monograph 61. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.



views updated May 21 2018


The Herero were traditional occupants of the temperate high plains of central Namibia. A Bantu people, they had moved south into this region from Angola, arriving about 1750. A series of nineteenth-century wars with the Nama, to the south, destabilized the entire region. Herero chiefs were autonomous, presiding over a decentralized tribal government, with extended families and their cattle herds spread over hundreds of miles. Germany first arrived in Africa in 1884, using the dubious private land claims of a businessman, Adolf Luderitz, as the legal basis for establishing a protectorate over a vast desert hinterland, making South West Africa its first African colony.

The first German treaties did not concern the Herero because they lived well-inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Chief Kamaherero negotiated a worthless agreement of protection with the British, who were unwilling to live up to its terms. Germans were everywhere in his country. It is, however, also clear that the Herero did negotiate Schutzvertrags (treaties of protection) in Okahandja and Omaruru in October 1885.

Germany had entered the race for African colonies long after its major European rivals. South West Africa was to be a model colony, showing the world what the new Germany, fresh from its victory in the Franco-Prussian War, was capable of. The brutality of the Herero War can be understood within the context of this need to perfect such a colonial ideal in order to establish modern Germany as the equal of other European powers. Indeed, evidence exists that the virulent racism characterizing the Holocaust was also partially formed there. Germany began experiments with sterilization on Herero prisoners of war in the name of the science of eugenics shortly after the turn of the century.

The Herero War

The Herero War of 1904 and 1905 killed at least 60,000 of the 80,000 Herero and resulted in the seizure of all their lands and cattle. The central region of South West Africa—now Namibia—was swept clean of black occupants, setting the stage for the creation of a white-dominated agricultural economy that has prevailed since. Although one can draw a number of meanings from the war, the central outcome in terms of land is clear: Germany terminated by conquest all Herero land rights in South West Africa. The details of the war are well known. Led by the aging Chief Samuel Maherero, offended by the increasing white occupation of their lands, and subjected to demeaning and inhuman treatment by colonists and traders, the Herero rose in revolt. Once the uprising was under way, the colonial administration refused all attempts to negotiate a resolution, instead adopting a policy of genocide to sweep the Herero off their lands.

German Genocide

Nothing in the origins of the Herero War is in any way unique to colonial practice. Other European powers forced African peoples off their lands in other colonial wars. What distinguishes the Herero War, and makes it an act of genocide, was a clearly announced military policy to destroy the Herero nation by killing all its members. This action seems to have developed in the upper echelons of the colonial hierarchy, born of acute frustration at the inability of troops to quickly win the war. The entire colonial enterprise was, in this group's view, endangered, and Germany's defeat in one of its colonies would be a disgrace in the eyes of its European competitors. Kaiser Willem II dispatched General Lothar von Trotha to take over control of the war from the discredited local administration. In a proclamation, issued at Osombo-Windimbe after church services on Sunday morning, October 2, 1904, he ordered all Herero men killed, and all their lands and cattle seized:


Herero Chief Samuel Maherero was a large, imposing and proud man, often appearing in a military uniform. The Herero were divided into nine tribes with a decentralized structure of leadership, and although no chief ruled above the others, Maherero was regarded as the "paramount" chief by German authorities.

Maherero was the son of Kamaharero, a great Herero warrior and cattle raider who maintained headquarters in Okahandja by the late 1860s. Maherero was educated in Lutheran mission schools. Upon his father's death in 1890, complex Herero rules of inheritance distributed most of his wealth and cattle to other relatives, but Maherero inherited the right to live in his father's house and, supported in wealthier relatives and relying on his education and connections with German missionaries, he soon rose to a position that enabled him to mediate between Herero culture and German rule. This enhanced his status and he became wealthy, although German administrators viewed Maherero somewhat derisively, as a cooperative chief fully under German control and, therefore, unlikely to lead a revolt.

Maherero's full role in the Herero War is still unknown, but he clearly came to resent Germany's colonial domination of his country, especially the loss of Native lands and cattle, the basis of the Herero's traditional culture. Acting with other chiefs, Maherero planned a secret uprising against German rule. The initial attacks were successful and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of German farmers; German women, children, and missionaries were spared. Maherero led the Herero forces during the conflict, but he was driven into the desert, together with most of his tribe. He reached Botswana, where he remained in exile until his death in 1923. He is buried with his father and grandfather in Okahanja. There the Herero people visit their former chiefs' graves every August on Herero Day.

I the great General of the German troops send this letter to the Herero people.

The Herero are no longer German subjects. The Herero people must, however, leave the land. If the populace does not do this, I will force them with the cannon.

Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people, or I will let them be shot at.

These are my words to the Herero people.

The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.

There can be no doubt that genocide was the unambiguous intent of this action. Von Trotha personally read the proclamation to Herero prisoners and then proceeded to hang a number of warriors. After distributing copies of the document printed in the Herero language, he drove any remaining women and children into the Kalahari Desert.

Those Herero who fled were denied access to water holes, or their water supply was either poisoned or guarded, and they died. Few casualties of the war—several hundred at most—were due to military actions: Mass starvation over a period of months killed most Herero men, women, and children, and starvation and death occurred for several years afterward as stragglers tried to find their way across the Botswana border. Thousands of prisoners, most previously captured and held under inhuman conditions in prison camps where they were forced to work as slave laborers, also died. Their land was seized by the colonial state. To the extent that Germany needed to win the Herero War at all costs in order to protect its international position as a colonial power, the effort was successful. In the early twenty-first century central Namibia still functions as a model German colony. German colonial architecture remains evident in the cities, and a well-developed colonial infrastructure survived until South West Africa fell to invading British and South African forces in 1915, during World War I.

Herero Claims to Reparations

A few thousand Herero survived both genocide and exile only to face the imposition of apartheid by South Africa, which assumed the British mandate for South West Africa in 1919. Having taken refuge in northern Namibia, Angola, and Botswana, the Herero gradually returned to their traditional lands. Some labored as farmworkers, but others simply occupied unused desert land and rebuilt their herds. Namibian independence, in 1989, set the stage for the assertion of Herero claims for reparations, a legal claim that would have been impossible under apartheid.

In 1995 Herero Paramount Chief Kuaimi Riruako, on behalf of the Herero nation, demanded reparations of $600 million. In a related move, Chief Riruako filed a lawsuit against three German companies in the District of Columbia, asking for $2 billion in reparations, claiming that the companies had engaged in a "brutal alliance" with imperial Germany during the Herero War. Now numbering about 125,000, the Herero have persisted in pursuing their claim. The claim is based expressly on the belief that Herero War was an act of genocide, which links their claims to those of Jews and other European peoples seeking reparations for Nazi genocide later in the same century.

SEE ALSO Namibia (German South West Africa and South West Africa)


Bley, Helmut (1971). South West Africa under German Rule, 1894–1914. London: Hugh Ridley.

Bridgeman, Jon M. (1981). The Revolt of the Hereros. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Drechler, Horst (1980). Let Us Die Fighting: The Struggle of the Herero and Nama against German Imperialism, 1884–1915. London: Zed Press

Gewald, Jan-Bart (1999). Herero Heroes. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Harring, Sidney L. (2002). "German Reparations to the Herero Nation: An Assertion of Herero Nationhood in the Path of Namibian Development." West Virginia Law Review (104):393–417.

Sidney L. Harring