Ethnic Tribes in Namibia
San people Namibia

THE CAPRIVIAN
The Caprivi people live in the fertile, swampy land between the Chobe and Zambezi rivers at the eastern end of the Caprivi strip. Their language is of the Bantu family. Like the Kavango and the Owambo, they farm a variety of crops, raise livestock and they fish for substance. The agricultural potential of the area is one of the highest in Namibia but, despite that, the potential has been largely unrealised. Before the war with Angola and the heavy involvement of South African troops (which brought roads and infrastructure), the whole of the Kavango and Caprivi  region was one of the least developed in Namibia.
Caprivians make up about 4% of Namibia’s population and most can be considered members of one of five main groups – the Masubia and Mafwe, and the smaller Mayeyi, Matotela and Mbukushu. Their traditional crafts include extensive use of baskets (used as fish traps and for the carrying of grain), wooden masks and stools, drums, pottery, leather goods and stone carvings.

DAMARA
Along with the Nama and the Bushmen (San), the Damara are presumed to be the original inhabitants of Namibia, speaking a similar Khoi `click’ language. Like the Nama, the Damara were primarily hunting people who owned few cattle or goats. Traditionally enemies of the Nama and the Herero, they supported the German colonial forces at Waterberg against the Herero uprisings. In gratitude for their loyalty, the German authorities awarded them an enlarged homeland appropriately named Damaraland. The area is adjacent to the Skeleton Coast, now the southern part of the Kunene province.

Of the 80 000 Damara today, only a quarter manage to survive in the area. The rest work on commercial farms, in mines or as labourers in the towns. Damara women share the same Victorian style of dress as the Herero and Nama women. They make up 7.5% of Namibia’s population and they share their language with the Nama people. Until the end of the 19th century, Damara people worked as miners, smelters, copper traders, stock farmers and tobacco growers. Their subsequent relocation to Damaraland precipitated a move towards agriculture.

Their traditional crafts include leather goods, glass and metal beadwork, wooden bowls and buckets, clay pipes and bowls and, more recently, `township art’ such as wire cars.

HERERO
In 1904, the Herero and the Hottentots staged a massive uprising against the German colonial troops in South West Africa (Now Namibia). It ended in the bloody massacre of over half the total Herero population at the battle of Waterberg. The few Herero that survived fled into the Kalahari, some crossing into what is now Botswana.

Today the Herero constitute the third largest ethnic group in Namibia after the Owambo and Kavango – about 8% of the total population. Their language is Bantu based. In Botswana, they are a minority group inhabiting Ngamiland, south and west of the Okavango Delta.

Traditionally pastoralists, the Herero prefer raising cattle to growing crops. Cattle are symbolic of wealth and the number of cattle possessed influences status in the community. Today the majority of Namibian Heroros use their cattle-handling skills on commercial farms.

Herero women wear very distinctive long, flowing Victorian gowns and head-dresses. Multiple layers of petticoats made from over 12 m of material gives a voluminous look. Missionaries, who were appalled by the Hereros’ semi-nakedness, introduced this style of dress in the 1800s. Now the Herero women continue to wear these heavy garments and it has become their traditional dress.

Traditional Herero crafts include skin and leather products, basketry, jewellery, ornaments and dolls in traditional Victorian-style dress. These are very popular curio items for visitors.

HIMBA
The Himba people share a common ethnic origin with the Herero, having split from the main Herero group on the Namibia/Botswana border and moved west to present day Kaokaland in search of available land. The place they found is mountainous, sparsely vegetated and very arid. Cattle are central to their way of life, with the size of the herd an indication of wealth and prestige but overgrazing of the poor soil is a major problem. The Himba are a minority group in Namibia (less than 1% of the population) and live almost entirely in their traditional areas in remote Kaokaland.

Traditional Himba crafts include work in skin and leather (head-dresses, girdles and aprons), jewellery (copper-wire neck-bands and bracelets), musical instruments, wooden neck-rests, basketry and pottery.

KAVANGO
The Kavango people share their name with the Okavango river, which forms the northern border of Namibia with Angola. Not surprisingly, they have based their traditional agriculture and fishing existence on the fertile land and good weather supply afforded them by the environment.

Many of the Kavango, who used to live on the northern side of the Okavango river in Angola, came south of the river into Namibia during the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. They fled from the civil war raging between South Africa backed UNITA rebels and the Soviet/Cuban backed MPLA regime. As a consequence, the Kavango population in Namibia more than doubled in size during the 1970s and now forms the second largest ethnic group in the country, making up almost 10% of the population.

Closely related to the Owambos, the Kavanga people are traditionally fishermen and crop and stock farmers. Their craftwork includes woodcarving (bowls, spoons, mortars, masks, boxes and furniture), basketry, pottery, jewellery (grass bracelets and copper-bead necklaces), mats, spears, daggers, pipes, musical instruments and head-dresses.

NAMA
The Nama people are perhaps the closest in origin to the Bushmen, traditionally sharing a similar type of `click’ as in the Khoisan language, the same light-coloured yellow skin and a hunter-gatherer way of life. One of the first peoples in Namibia, their tribal areas were traditionally communal property, as indeed was any item unless it was actually made by an individual. Basic differences in the perception of ownership of land and hunting grounds led in the past to frequent conflicts with the Herero people. Today, 50 000 or so Nama live mostly in the area that was Namaland, north of Keetmanshoop in the south of Namibia, and they generally work on commercial farms. Nama women share the same Victorian traditional dress as the Herero and Damara women.

The Nama people make up about 5% of Namibia’s population and are traditionally stock farmers. Their crafts include leatherwork (aprons and collecting bags), karosses made of animal skins, mats, musical instruments (eg. reed flutes), jewellery, clay pots and tortoise-shell powder containers.

OWAMBO
The Owambo people (sometimes called Ovambo) are by far the largest group in Namibia and make up just over half the population. Their language, Oshiwambo (sometimes known as Ambo or Vambo in Namibia), is Bantu based. The great majority live in their traditional areas – Owamboland – away from the main transport arteries in the remote far north of the country, straddled on the border with Angola. The area receives one of the highest rainfalls in the country, and supports a range of traditional crops as well as allowing good grazing for the extensive cattle herds.

Before independence, the existence of half a million indigenous Namibians on the border with (socialist) Angola seriously perturbed the South African administration. By investing money into the region, the administration hoped to establish a protective buffer against Angola to protect the areas in the interior. The policy backfired – Owamboland became the heartland of SWAPO during the struggle for independence. The consequent harassment by the South African Defence Force, and a rapid population increase (exacerbated by a large influx of refugees from Angola), have left the area over-pressurised and undeveloped. The SWAPO government has long pledged to redress this imbalance.

Most of the Owambo belong to one of eight tribes: the Kwanyama, Ndongo, Kwambi, Ngandjera, Mbalantu, Kwaluudhi, Nkolokadhi and Eunda. Most still live in Owamboland, and have traditionally been traders and businessmen.

Traditional Owambo craftwork includes basketry, pottery, jewellery, wooden combs, wood and iron spears, arrows and richly decorated daggers, musical instruments, fertility dolls, and ivory buttons (ekipa) – worn by women and conveying their status and indicating their husband’s/family’s wealth.