Country Profile

Situated in south-western Africa, with the Atlantic Ocean as its western border, Namibia straddles the Tropic of Capricorn. It shares borders with Angola and Zambia in the north, Botswana in the east and South Africa in the south. An appendage called the Caprivi Strip juts out of its north-eastern corner into central Africa.

Namibia is 824 269km² in extent, the fifth largest of 19 African countries south of the equator, but the most sparsely populated of all. It ranks 15th in size out of 50 countries in Africa as a whole. Within southern Africa*, only South Africa is bigger.

Namibia is twice the size of Germany and slightly larger than Britain and France together. It is as big again as California, somewhat bigger than Texas and half the size of Alaska, the largest state of the US.

Jackal behind dune = Peter TarrIn addition to the land area, its territorial waters extend 200 nautical miles out to sea from the coastline, over an area of 526 000km².

Physically the main features of Namibia are the Namib Desert in the west and the Kalahari Basin in the east with a highland plateau in between. The three run side by side for almost the entire length of the country. Plains occupy about 60% of Namibia and mountains merely 19%. Dunes cover 14%.

The Namib is a coastal desert that consists of sand seas, gravel plains and bare rock. Between the seaside towns of Walvis Bay and Lüderitz, the Great Sand Sea is nearly the size of Israel, Kuwait and Lebanon combined. It is filled with dunes and virtually impenetrable except along its fringes.

Although the highest mountain in Namibia, the Brandberg, is located in the inner Namib, mountains and hills are mostly found in the highlands, the only part of the country that is predominantly rocky. Mountain chains in the southern half of Namibia form the Great Escarpment that rises like a wall from the desert floor to the interior plateau.

The Kalahari for the most part is flat and sandy with fossil rivers and salt or clay pans that are usually dry. The largest pan in the country, Etosha, is classified as a saline desert.

In contrast the north-eastern reaches of the Namibian Kalahari contain three out of only five rivers in the entire country that flow all year. The Zambezi, Okavango and Kwando with their branches, the Chobe and Linyanti, constitute the largest concentration of freshwater wetlands in Namibia.

They all flow on international borders, as do the other two perennial rivers, the Kunene in the north-west and the Orange in the south. None of them originates inside Namibia.

Rivers within the country -- even the longest, the 600km Fish -- are all ephemeral. They flow only after strong rains in their catchments, not necessarily along their entire length and not for long. Normally they are dry.

* All references to southern Africa or the subcontinent are purely geographical and denote the part of Africa that lies south of the Kunene and Zambezi rivers as well as its coastal waters. It consists of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and southern Mozambique. The land area is some 3,5 million km².


Brandberg. The highest mountain in Namibia, the 2 573m Brandberg stands alone on a peneplain in the inner Namib, a massif of pink granite that originated inside a volcano.

Epupa Falls. In the arid Kaokoveld, the Kunene forms multiple cascades, 1,5km across, as it rushes into a remote ravine.

Leopard in tree = Amy SchoemanEtosha Pan. A salt pan that is so large as to rate as a saline desert in its own right, the Etosha Pan was an inland lake until two million years ago, when the major river that fed it changed course and flowed to the sea instead.

Fish River Canyon. Nearly 60km long, 8km wide and 550m deep, the canyon is reputedly the second largest in the world.

Great Escarpment. Southward from the Gamsberg to the Naukluft range and beyond, mountains rise end-toend on the inland edge of the Namib. The escarpment is best seen from the desert below. Views from the top, notably from the Gamsberg and Spreetshoogte passes, are of the Namib.

Kalahari wetlands. Rivers that never run dry sustain tropical forests and woodlands in the Caprivi Strip. Pure magic in a desert country.

Sossusvlei. Monumental piles of sand, red dunes that reach the height of a 70-storey skyscraper, in the Great Sand Sea. An isolated pan of white clay in their midst, the endpoint of an ephemeral river, fills with floodwaters on rare occasions.


Although the greater part of Namibia lies within the tropics, the climate is typical of a desert country, with warm to hot days and cool to cold nights. Rainfall is low and irregular, while evaporation rates are high. Nine-tenths of the country consists of drylands that change from semi-arid through arid to extremely arid. The rest is subhumid.

A system of classification that takes into account rainfall characteristics, as well as humidity ranges and temperature conditions, characterises 43% of Namibia as desert and all the rest as semidesert. With rainfall of less than 100 mm per year, the Namib is hyperarid, the only "true" desert south of the Sahara. It covers about a fifth of Namibia.

Cheetah on anthill = Johan Jooste / Photos for AfricaThe whole country is permanently subject to water deficits, a condition measured in millimetres per year, being the difference between potential evaporation and average rainfall. Deficits range from 1 300 to 2 500mm, the greatest ones in the south-east.

Normal rainfall is unknown. Dry and wet cycles of unpredictable duration are the norm. Northeast winds bring rain in summer from October to April, except in the southernmost quarter of the Namib, where rain mostly falls in winter and comes from the south-west. Rainfall decreases from north to south and east to west.

The north-east gets the most rain, with 500-700mm per year, while the Namib coast gets least, with less than 50mm. In most of the country rainfall varies between 100mm and 500mm. Rain usually takes the form of fugitive thunderstorms in the afternoon. The rainy season, such as it is, is of short duration.

The average number of rain days in a year -- days with rainfall of 1mm or more -- does not exceed 50 anywhere in Namibia. In most of the country, east of the Namib, the total is 15-40 days. In the desert rain usually falls on only 5-15 days in a year

The interior is blue-sky country, with an average of 9-11 hours of sunshine per day, measured over a full year. Along the coast with its frequent fogs in the winter months the daily average is less than 5 hours.

The hottest months are October in the north, December in the central interior, January in the south and February on the coast. Temperatures are highest in the south, east and far north. The highlands around Windhoek are cooler than the rest of the interior.

The coast is the coolest part of Namibia in high summer. In the hottest month the average maximum temperature is less than 22°C compared with 30-40°C in the rest of the country.

Winter in Namibia lasts no longer than two or three months as a discernible season and even in midwinter wind-still days become pleasantly warm.

The coldest months are August on the coast and July in the interior with the lowest temperatures in east-central Namibia. Temperatures seldom fall below zero. Frost is limited to 10-30 occurrences a year in the coldest part the interior and fewer than 10 everywhere else. It is rare in the north and unknown on the coast. Snow is almost unknown.

The annual average temperature of 16°C on the Namib coast, however, is among the lowest in a tropical latitude anywhere in the world. On the central coast fog forms on 146 days of the year. Surface temperatures of the sea average 13-15°C in winter and 15-17°C in summer.

Onshore winds blow frequently from the south, with calm weather once a week at most. On summer afternoons on the south coast, much the windiest part of Namibia, the average wind speed exceeds 40 km/h.


Some 60% of Namibia consists of savannahs, with the rest divided between deserts and woodlands. Savannahs predominate in the highlands and deserts in the Namib, while both savannahs and woodlands are found In the Kalahari. Woodlands are confined to the north and north-east where rainfall is heavier and to rivercourses in drier parts of the country where they form so-called "linear oases".

Lion in bush = Paul  MartensOn a broad scale Namibia is divided into Desert, Succulent Karoo, Nama Karoo and Savannah biomes, natural regions where given forms of plant life are dominant. With annual plants -- largely grasses -- as the dominant form of plant life, the major part of the Namib constitutes the Desert Biome, the only part of southern Africa designated as such. Its southern end where rain falls mainly in winter, roughly between Lüderitz Bay and the Orange River, forms part of another biome, the Succulent Karoo, with dwarf succulents as the dominant plants.

The greater part of the Succulent Karoo, recognised as one of 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world, lies on the South African side of the Orange. The southern interior mostly lies in the Nama Karoo Biome, an arid ecosystem that also extends southward into South Africa. Dwarf shrubs and stubbly perennial grasses jointly are the dominant forms of plant life.

The northern half of the Namibian escarpment, a narrow ribbon between the Namib and the plateau proper, is regarded as a projection of the Nama Karoo.

The rest of the country is part of the largest biome in southern Africa, the Savannah Biome, that extends over the central and northern highlands, all of the Namibian Kalahari and eastward across Botswana to the other side of the subcontinent. Here woody trees and shrubs share dominance with perennial grasses.

On the basis of annual rainfall and evaporation rates, the Savannah Biome is subdivided into arid and moist parts, roughly to the south and north of the 450mm isohyet.

Easily the larger of the two within Namibia, the Arid Savannah mostly supports fine-leaved, thorny acacia trees and shrubs that are common in southern Africa. It looks like parkland with solitary trees or stands of trees scattered over expanses of grassland.

Vegetation in the Moist Savannah resembles woodland in structure with few tracts of open savannah. Trees and shrubs are taller, grow closer together and form a denser canopy. Broad-leaved species dominate.


Baobab (Adansonia digitata). Although the baobab is rarely taller than 15m, it is grotesquely fat, with a trunk girth of around 30m not unknown. As traditional storytellers relate it, God planted baobabs upside down. The tree is hard to date as it becomes hollow with age, but may live for well over 3 000 years. It grows across the north from the Kaokoveld to the Caprivi.

Camel thorn (Acacia erioloba). The noblest acacia of them all, a shade tree for man and beast in a hot country, with a wide crown and gnarled branches. A dryland tree that thrives in loose sand, it grows almost everywhere in Namibia.

Halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum). Khoekhoe legend tells of fugitives whom a merciful god changed into trees to relieve their suffering. They thus got the name halfmens or "half-human". The halfmens is a succulent tree devoid of branches, with a spiny trunk and a mop of leaves on top, that grows to a height of about 2 m. It is endemic* to a small part of the Namib and north-western South Africa.

Moringa (Moringa ovalifolia). Its trunk is squat and swollen, with short and gnarled branches, bare except for leaves at the tips, rather like a root system in the air. The moringa grows mostly on rocky hillsides. It is endemic to Namibia.

Quiver tree (Aloe dichotoma). A giant aloe endemic to the Namibian south and the South African north-west, the quiver tree was so named because San hunters used to fashion quivers from its branches. Its distribution in Namibia is largely confined to the southern highlands and escarpment.

Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis). A dwarf conifer that grows only in the fog belt in the coastal Namib, northwards from the Kuiseb rivercourse, it is thought to represent an evolutionary link to flowering plants. In its entire lifetime of possibly 2 000 years it sprouts a single pair of leaves that eventually lie tangled in a heap on the ground.

* The definition of endemism differs from science to science. A plant species is considered to be endemic to a particular country, natural region or locality if it grows nowhere else. In the case of a bird at least 90% of its world population must be present. The requirement for mammals and reptiles is at least 75%.

Land animals


Black-faced impala (Aepyceros melampus petersi). A race or subspecies endemic to Namibia* that evolved in the Kaokoveld and southern Angola in isolation from common impala (A. m. melampus). The majority are now found in the Etosha National Park. A black blaze on the face distinguishes them from common impala. They are also bigger.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). With an estimated population of 2 500 cheetah, probably the largest number in any country, Namibia is described in some quarters as "the cheetah capital of the world". The great majority live free on cattle ranches in north-central Namibia, with small populations in Etosha, the Kalahari and the Kaokoveld. Cheetah are an endangered species. Only 10 000-15 000 survive worldwide in the wild.

Damara dik-dik (Madoqua kirkii dama-rensis). The only dik-dik in southern Africa, they are an endemic subspecies of a dwarf antelope, about the size of a fox terrier. Adult males weigh about 5 kg and stand about 400 mm tall at the shoulder. Damara dik-dik live in distant isolation from their closest kin in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. Look for them particularly in thickets near the Namutoni restcamp in Etosha.

"Desert" (or desert-adapted) elephant (Loxodonta africana). Not a separate species or even a subspecies, they are an ecotype unique to Namibia in Africa south of the equator, behaviourally adapted to hyper-arid conditions. Their range extends deep into the northern Namib, along and between ephemeral rivers, from catchments in the western Kaokoveld. Elephant in Mali on the southwestern fringe of the Sahara Desert are the only others known to survive in similar conditions.

"Desert" rhinoceros. Physically the larger of two subspecies in the subcontinent, the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis bicornis) found in Namibia are an endemic race, with an unfenced population that -- like the "desert" elephant -- ranges into the northern Namib from the Kaokoveld. They also live in game parks. The other subspecies in southern Africa, D. b. minor, is largely confined to South Africa and Zimbabwe. Black rhinoceros are an endangered species.

Namibian (or Hartmann's) mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae). A race of mountain zebra endemic to Namibia, found in the Naukluft mountains and other parts of the Great Escarpment, the Khomas Hochland and western Etosha. They and Cape mountain zebra (E. z. zebra) in South Africa are the only mountain zebra in Africa.


Unspoilt nature forms a large part of the Namibian experience. Public land set aside for conservation purposes covers about 106 000km² or 13% of the country. In addition the environment is protected in other parts of Namibia -- over an even bigger area -- in the form of private nature reserves, game farms, conservancies and the Sperrgebiet, a restricted wilderness adjacent to the diamond fields.

Of 18 parks and reserves under government control, the 22 270km² Etosha National Park holds far and away the biggest concentrations of large herbivores, along with large carnivores in fair numbers.

Some 250 mammal species, terrestrial and marine, are indigenous to the country. While the few endemic species are generally small and inconspicuous, Namibia provides a haven for large mammals that belong to endemic subspecies, as well as hot species that are classified as threatened elsewhere.

Indigenous antelope come in 20-odd species, with Damara dik-dik the smallest and eland (Taurotragus oryx) the biggest in Africa. Namibia is the only country in southern Africa with two kinds of impala, the common and the black-faced.

The wildlife includes both species of zebra indigenous to southern Africa, the mountain and the plains or Burchell's (Equus burchelli), and both species of rhinoceros, the black or hook-lipped and the white or square-lipped (Ceratotherium simum).

In addition to desert-adapted elephant, two other populations of elephant roam Etosha and the Kalahari woodlands respectively, with a total of some 9 000 animals overall.

Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) and springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), the latter the only gazelle in southern Africa, are probably the most abundant antelope in Namibia. They are distributed throughout the central interior and south, both in reserves and on farms, with the highest densities on open plains on the edge of the inner Namib.

Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) are common in Etosha, while kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) are mostly found outside reserves in bush and woodland on private farms.

Lion (Panthera leo) number 500-1000 altogether, divided into three broad populations. Their respective ranges are between Etosha and the Kaokoveld, in the eastern Caprivi Strip and between Kavango and Nyae-Nyae.

Leopard (P. pardus) are secretive and hard to count, but they are thought to be fairly abundant.

Nile crocodile = Johan JoosteWildlife changes in character in the northeastern Kalahari as woodlands and wetlands replace savannah. Typical of central Africa rather than southern Africa, the large herbivores include roan (Hippotragus equinus), sable (Hippotragus niger), tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus), red lechwe (Kobus leche), sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei) and African buffalo (Syncerus caffer).

In pursuit of prey come wild dog (Lycaon pictus), endangered in Africa as a whole and critically so in Namibia, where only a few packs survive in the north-east.

The only hippopotamus in Namibia (H. amphibius) are found in the Zambezi, Kwando and Okavango rivers and their offshoots. Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) in substantial numbers inhabit all the rivers in the north-east as well as the Kunene in the north-west.

* Black-faced impala, Damara dik-dik, Hartmann's mountain zebra and desert-adapted black rhinoceros, described here as subspecies that are endemic to Namibia, were once shared with south-western Angola. It is assumed that their Angolan populations were decimated in the course of protracted warfare in that country and that Namibia is now their primary range.

Marine mammals


Benguela (or Heaviside's) dolphin (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii). The only dolphin endemic to southern Africa and the smallest species, it inhabits inshore waters along the Atlantic coast with the highest density off southern Namibia. Benguela dolphins are wont to accompany boats that ply across Lüderitz Bay.

Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus). The only seal resident in southern Africa, it is also endemic to the subcontinent, with about 60% of its total population in Namibia. The largest colony in southern Africa inhabits Cape Cross to the north of Swakopmund. It consists of some 270 000 seals.


Some 660 species of bird, equivalent to 30% of African and 72% of southern African species, are to be seen in Namibia. The great majority are residents that breed within the country. About an eighth of the species are Palaearctic and intra- African migrants, shorebirds and seabirds on seasonal visits to the Namibian coast.

Southern African endemics and near-endemics constitute 14% of the Namibian total. In particular they include species in the so-called "southwest arid" group, with substantial percentages of their world populations resident in the western parts of the country.

Namibia claims 16 endemic and near-endemic birds of its own, mostly concentrated in the Namib Desert and in arid highlands along the escarpment, northwards from the Naukluft mountains to the Kunene River on the Angola border. A quarter of them are larks.

The richest diversity of birds is found in woodlands and wetlands in the north-eastern Kalahari. Wetland habitats in the Caprivi Strip attract both waterbirds and tropical birds from further north in Africa that are rare or unusual elsewhere in the subcontinent.

In the Kaokoveld at the opposite end of the northern border, gallery woodlands downriver from the Ruacana Falls, on the Kunene River, harbour two species from Angola that are never seen anywhere else in southern Africa, the Cinderella waxbill (Estrilda thomensis) and rufoustailed palm thrush (Cichladusaru ficauda).

Pure-bred southern African ostriches (Struthio camelus australis), once widely distributed and abundant in the subcontinent, are now found only in northern Namibia and Botswana. Wild ostriches everywhere else are descended from hybrids crossbred with subspecies from Syria and Arabia for the feather trade.


Hobatere. A 32 000 ha private nature reserve on the western border of Etosha, between the southern and northern Kaokoveld, Hobatere is the best site in Namibia for endemic and near-endemic birds. Raptors are also fairly numerous, with 33 species recorded.

Kalahari wetlands. Perennial rivers and floodplains in the Caprivi Strip attract prolific birdlife with over 400 species recorded. The diversity arises from a combination of wetland and passerine species. The protected areas, the Mudumu and Mamili parks in the east and the Mahango reserve in the west, are particularly rich. Mahango supports the highest diversity of birds in Namibia.

Sandwich Harbour. Wedged between Atlantic surf and Namib dunes, the lagoon and associated mudflats regularly support over 50 000 birds in summer. Migrant shorebirds from the Palaearctic and the African interior gather at times in densities of over 7 000 birds/km². Sandwich Harbour is recognised under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.

Walvis Bay. Another Ramsar site that is the foremost wetland on the coast of southern Africa, the lagoon and adjacent areas support some 150 000 shorebirds and seabirds in summer. Migrant flamingos and terns form the largest concentrations. Resident birds include the Damara tern (Sterna balaenarum), the only tern endemic to the subcontinent and the smallest species, as well as one of the largest waterbirds, the eastern white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus).

The people

San in Grashoek Historic Vilage teach visitor to make fire = Werner Pfeifer

Some 1,8 million people live in Namibia. They form a fairly diverse population, sparse in much of the country, with only 2,1 people/km².

Over 70% of Namibians belong to darkskinned, Bantu-speaking peoples such as the Ovambo and Herero, the former the largest ethnic group with about half of the total inhabitants. The population of Khoesan (or Khoisan) peoples, although small in comparison, is the largest in Africa. It consists primarily of Nama Khoekhoe (or Khoikhoi) and San (or Bushmen) like the !Kung.*

Other minorities are the Damara, the only Blacks in southern Africa to speak Khoekhoe as their mother tongue, the Whites (mainly Afrikaners and ethnic Germans) and people of mixed blood, known as Coloureds and Basters.

English is recognised as the official language, but indigenous languages are widely spoken. As a legacy of South African colonialism, the lingua franca is Afrikaans, a southern African language derived mainly from Dutch.

The great majority of Namibians are Christians, with the Lutheran Church as the main denomination. Their mode of dress is generally western, except among the Himba in the Kaokoveld and the San in parts of Nyae-Nyae (formerly Bushmanland) in the Kalahari, remote places where traditional dress is still worn.

Herero women are often seen in ankle-length dresses with high necklines, tight bodices and long puffed sleeves. Adapted from European fashion in the Victorian period, the style of dress is now regarded as traditional to them. It is worn with a cloth headdress that is pointed on either side in a shape meant to symbolise cattle horns.

The San are direct descendants of Stone Age hunter-foragers, aboriginal inhabitants of southern Africa and East Africa, who continued to use stone arrowheads and implements into the 19th century. Prehistoric art in Namibia is mostly of their creation, but they no longer paint or engrave images on rock.

San girl = Werner PfeiferShort in stature and slight in build, with a brownish yellow skin, San nomads once roamed the land in small bands. They kept to ancestral territories where they found shelter in caves or under rock overhangs near a source of water. Or they built makeshift shelters from bits and pieces of vegetation.

Over time agricultural peoples and colonists drove the San from their hunting grounds. The only San in Namibia with a bit of their own land left are the Ju/'hoan in the northern Kalahari. They form part of the larger !Kung group, which extends southward within Namibia, eastward into Botswana and northward into Angola.

Everywhere else in the country the San live as hired hands on Whiteowned farms or as parttime servants of Black families on communal land. Without land of their own, their future is uncertain, as they are slow to adapt to change. Their numbers are now relatively small in southern Africa, concentrated largely in Botswana and Namibia.

San as a name is derived from a word that the Khoekhoe used for people without livestock. Europeans called them Bushmen, a name still in general use in Namibia. Divided as they were into many groups and subgroups, each with their own language or dialect, the San never had a common name for themselves as a race or nation. Moreover in their isolation they did not even know that their kind lived throughout the subcontinent. They had names only for their own group and others in proximity to them.

The Nama. Khoekhoe nomads with sheep were present in Namibia about 2 000 years ago, but did not settle in appreciable numbers until the 1700s and 1800s, when Nama and Oorlam tribes migrated northward across the Orange River. The settlers brought cattle with them in addition to sheep.

The distinction between Nama and Oorlam eventually disappeared. They are all known as Nama nowadays, seldom referred to even as Khoekhoe, although they are obviously recognised as such. The Nama in Namibia are the only Khoekhoe left in Africa who are likely to survive as a coherent population.

Himba girl = Helge DenkerThey look a lot like the San, just as light in colour, but are generally somewhat taller. The two also speak similar tongues, widely considered to be part of the same phylum or group of language families, full of clicked consonants and slurred vowels. The differences between them in early times were primarily economic and social.

As pastoralists the Nama recognised personal ownership of livestock, whereas San hunters shared the kill among band members. The Nama were not fully nomadic as they gathered in settlements where they erected portable huts. Moreover the Nama had a social hierarchy, while in the past the San seldom had proper chiefs.

Nama people in Namibian towns retain ties with kinfolk in the countryside. They are loosely divided into 14 communities, some still with a traditional chief or headman and council, mostly located in the south where their forefathers settled.

In precolonial times the Nama intermittently fought the Herero for control of grazing grounds in central Namibia. The feud dragged on for a good part of the 19th century.

Subsequently the Nama twice rose in armed rebellion against German rule (1891-94 and 1904-07). In the latter war about half of the Nama people perished. Their greatest chief, Hendrik Witbooi, was among the dead. As punishment for the revolt the colonial government confiscated their lands.

The Damara share the Khoekhoe language but little else with the Nama. They are taller, sturdier and black. Their customs and beliefs are also different. It is conjectured that their ancestors were "pure" or "true" Black Africans who accompanied the first Khoekhoe into Namibia before the arrival of Bantu-speaking peoples. Nobody knows for sure.

Originally hunter-foragers like the San, they were long subjected to Nama domination, with large numbers of them kept in servitude. Damara is a variant of Daman, or Dama people, as the Nama named them. They called themselves =/Nu-khoin (Black People).

A part of their population was historically known as the Bergdama (Mountain Dama), people who found refuge in mountainous tracts of wilderness, where family groups foraged, hunted and kept a few goats to stay alive.

Under colonial rule the Damara were allocated marginal farmland in the southern Kaokoveld as a "homeland" or reserve of their own. It came to be known as Damaraland, but is no longer reserved for their exclusive occupation, although the inhabitants are still mostly Damara. They farm with cattle and goats.

The majority of the Damara live outside the former Damaraland. They are found in most walks of life in modern Namibia from menial labour to high office. The first Prime Minister of Namibia and his immediate successor were both Damara. Before the latter took office, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, the first incumbent of the post.

Bantu-speaking peoples from further north in Africa settled in Namibia from the 1500s onwards. The introduction of crop cultivation (millet and sorghum) and animal husbandry (cattle and goats) is generally attributed to them. They were also able to make pottery and work metal, skills which previously were almost unknown in Namibia.

In the 16th century the Ovambo established a number of kingdoms on the floodplains north of the Etosha Pan where the majority of them still live. They are primarily an agrarian people, with eight tribes** in Namibia, the largest being the Kwanyama and Ndonga. Another four tribes live across the northern border in Angola.

The lands of the Ovambo in Namibia form an island of cultivation amid wide expanses of semi-arid shrubland. The population is the densest in the country, about five times the national average, mainly engaged in subsistence agriculture.

Nearly all able-bodied men regularly earn money as migrant workers in other parts of Namibia. Their families continue to work on the land in their absence. Notwithstanding the trials of separation, the Ovambo generally show little inclination to leave their heartland permanently, except for those in white-collar jobs.

Nonetheless they are highly visible almost everywhere, given the weight of their numbers as the ethnic majority. In the capital they hold important positions in the public service, parliament and the cabinet, while as migrants they predominate in workforces on mines and in fishprocessing factories.

On the whole they are a church-going people, converted to Christianity since 1870, when Finnish missionaries began work among them.

The Ovambo survived the first period of colonialism largely untouched as German authority did not extend so far to the north. It was not until South Africa replaced Germany in 1915 that they came fully under the yoke of foreign domination. In time a codified system of migrant labour was imposed on them that was harshly exploitative.

The Ovambo are strong supporters of the ruling party, Swapo, which originated as a movement among migrant workers. They were in the forefront of the struggle for independence from South Africa. In fact armed resistance began in their midst.

The founding President of the country, Sam Nujoma, was born and raised in an Ovambo village. Hailed as the "Father of the Nation", he retired in 2005 after three terms in office. His successor as President, Hifikepunye Pohamba, comes from a similar background.

Herero matron = Johan Jooste / Photos for AfricaHerero pastoralists with large herds of cattle also entered the country from the north in the 1500s. After almost two centuries in the Kaokoveld, the majority of them migrated southward in search of better pastures, which they found in the central highlands.

Only the Himba stayed behind. The most traditional of Herero people, bound to ancient ways and beliefs, they still inhabit the Kaokoveld.

The Herero were seminomadic herders, like the Masai of East Africa, with cattle at the centre of their culture. They regarded their herds as an ancestral legacy which had to be husbanded for future generations. Cattle were slaughtered only on ceremonial occasions.

As the Herero grazed their cattle ever further south, they encountered other pastoralists, Nama headed in the opposite direction. Skirmishes over rangeland combined with cattle raids on the part of both led to bloody if sporadic conflict between them which only petered out towards the end of the 19th century.

Neither side gained permanent ascendancy over the other. Although the Herero were on top at the end, they had at one stage been reduced to "only individuals", as missionaries noted at the time, "who wander about in a state of greatest misery."

Worse was to befall them at the hands of Imperial Germany. Persistently cheated out of cattle and land, they rose in rebellion against the colonists in 1904.

In the war that followed the Herero people were massacred. They fell to enemy fire both on and off the battlefield or died from thirst as they fled into the Kalahari. To compound the carnage, their waterholes were poisoned.

Their paramount chief, Samuel Maharero, escaped into Bechuanaland, now Botswana, with some of his followers. He would die in exile.

The rebellion was finally crushed in 1907. Afterwards the colonial rulers stripped them of their lands and cattle. With their life as herders over, they were no longer independent.

In modern times Herero activists like Chief Hosea Kutako figured prominently in the quest for support from the international community for Namibian independence. They established two of the earliest parties, both with the aim of uniting Namibians behind the demand for independence, but neither managed to gain national support.

The parties are nowadays minor players, albeit representative of the Herero majority, in dogged opposition to the Swapo government. Personalities from the Herero community do, however, form an integral part of the national leadership within Swapo. One of them was the first Speaker of the Namibian National Assembly (1990-2005).

In the 1700s other Black people -- crop farmers, like the Ovambo -- arrived in north-east Namibia. Five tribes settled along the Okavango River, where for the most part they still live. The largest ones are the Kwangali and Mbukushu.

To the east of the Okavango River, the Fwe and Subiya settled and remain on the Caprivi floodplains, between the Kwando and Zambezi rivers.

* Symbols such as ! # / and // denote click sounds in Khoesan languages.

** The use of the word tribe, in contemporary contexts, is now thought to be problematic. Its use here is not meant to imply any sort of inferiority. The word describes distinct communities with a name and supreme leader of their own which form a traditional society, speak the same language or dialect and adhere to a common culture.

Cultural Hotspots


Brandberg. Prehistoric artists painted some 45 000 figures at a thousand sites in the Brandberg massif. Rock paintings in the Tsisab Ravine, among them the legendary "White Lady" frieze, are located along a marked trail. Guided tours available.

Twyfelfontein. Some 2 500 engravings on sandstone boulders depict wild animals, animal spoor and abstract motifs, perhaps the largest collection of prehistoric petroglyphs in Africa. Guided tours available. In southern Kaokoveld, 110 km from Khorixas.


Grashoek. Ju/'hoansi San associated with the Grashoek Historic Village, a living museum situated west of Nyae-Nyae, simulate the life of their ancestors in the Kalahari woodlands. Visitors join them as they hunt with bows, spears and snares; fashion weapons, implements, adornments and musical instruments; gather wild food with digging sticks and cook it on open fires; enact ceremonies, sing and dance. Turn onto a sandy track off route C44, the main road to Tsumkwe, at a signpost about 75 km into the journey. Prior booking unnecessary.
Further Information from or tel +264 (0)81 279 9278.

Nyae-Nyae Conservancy. Join other Ju/'hoansi in the Kalahari as they track game and gather wild food in age-old fashion. Traditional music and dance. South of Tsumkwe near Nyae-Nyae Pan.
Proceed from the conservancy office in Tsumkwe. Tel +264 (0)67 244011.

Omuramba Omatako. Walkabouts with !Kung San from the Omatako Valley Restcamp in the Kalahari. Game tracking and food gathering. Traditional music and dance. 140 km from Grootfontein on route C44. Tel +264 (0)61 24 4909.


Warmbad. Cultural performances and traditional storytelling. Displays of historical and ethnic artefacts. Situated 56 km south of Karasburg in the Namibian south, Warmbad is home to the Bondelswart Nama. Guided tours of the village are available.


Anmire Traditional Village. Learn about Damara culture and traditions, among them rituals such as rites of passage. Hear the songs, see the dances. Sample the food. On the Hoanib River, in the Kaokoveld, south of Sesfontein.


Nakambale Museum. Life-size replica of a typical Ndonga homestead. Traditional music, dance and food. Cultural and historic artefacts in museum on site. Guided visits arranged to occupied homesteads in vicinity. Just off route B1, 8 km from Ondangwa.
or tel +264 (0)65 24 5668.

Omagongo Festival. An annual festival in the Ovambo heartland celebrates the first fruits of the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea). The fruit is used to make a potent brew as well as a natural juice richer in vitamin C than orange juice. It is also eaten as a conserve and jelly. Cosmetic oil is extracted from the pips. The venue of the festival, usually held in February, changes from year to year.

Tsandi Royal Homestead. A guided tour of the traditional palace of the King of the Kwaluudhi people. Cultural museum in grounds. Off route C26, between Oshakati and Ruacana, south of Outapi. Tel +264 (0)65 25 8025.


Hippo Pool. Guided visits to Himba settlements depart from the Otjipahuriro Community Campsite on the Kunene below the Ruacana Falls. Tel +264 (0)65 24 1327

Okahandja. Herero men in military uniform and women in traditional finery march through the streets of the town and file past the graves of their chiefs. The parade takes place annually on 26 August.

Opuwo. Himba and Herero guides for hire in the town, at the Kaoko Information Centre, for excursions to Himba homesteads. Tel +264 (0)65 27 3420

Purros Traditional Village. Hut construction, food preparation and craft manufacture. On route D3707, at Hoarusib River crossing, in the Kaokoveld. Only accessible to 4x4s.


Guided visits to Kafuvu and Kasika, real-life villages in the eastern Caprivi. Their inhabitants are Subiya fisherfolk and cultivators. In order to reach either village, a chartered launch from Kasane, across the Chobe River in Botswana, is the recommended means of transport. Visits need to be arranged in advance. Tel +267 625 1775.

Kafuvu. The village cannot be reached by road as it is situated on Impalila Island at the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers. Activities on offer include a village tour, a choir performance, a close encounter with a shaman, an excursion in a dugout canoe, fishing, a nature walk and a bicycle trail. The birdlife is abundant and diverse, while hippopotamus and crocodile are often seen.

Kasika. On the Chobe River upstream from Impalila Island, Kasika can only be reached with difficulty by road. It offers the same activities as Kafuvu, except for the bicycle trail. Elephant, buffalo and hippopotamus roam in the vicinity.

Lizauli Traditional Village. Guided tours of a village built to showcase Fwe traditions. Local people perform songs and dances. Craft manufacture and ironwork on site. In eastern Caprivi, 30 km south of Kongola. Tel +264- (0)66-25 2108


Swakopmund. Guided tours through the Black township of Mondesa. The sights, the sounds, the people. or tel +264 (0)81 273 4361.

Windhoek. Katutura Face-to-Face Tours take you into the largest Black township in Namibia. The sights, the sounds, the people. or tel +264 (0)61 26 5446


Penduka Traditional Village. A multi-ethnic collection of huts as traditionally built in rural villages. Crafts made on site. Tearoom and restaurant. On outskirts of Windhoek in Katutura. or tel +264 (0)61 25 1445.

Tsumeb Cultural Village. Typical homes of major ethnic groups. Residents in traditional dress make crafts on site. On outskirts of Tsumeb. Tel +264 (0)67 22 0787.

Daily life

Two-thirds of Namibians live in the countryside. Windhoek is the only city, with 234 000 inhabitants, or 13% of the population. None of the towns has officially reached a population of 50 000 yet. Few have more than 20 000 people.

Namibian flagNamibian families tend to be large, with an average of four children nationally. The average number rises from three in towns to five in the countryside. Nearly 40% of the population is under the age of 15.

The population is increasing by 2,6% per year, a rate that is declining along with life expectancy, now only 49 years compared with 61 in 1991. Aids is responsible for over one-third of adult deaths from disease. The worst killers after Aids are tuberculosis, malaria, gastroenteritis and respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

Namibia remains a developing or "Third World" country, despite substantial expenditure since independence on social infrastructure such as health services and schools, as well as rural electrification. Development is partly funded from abroad, with Germany as the largest donor. Nevertheless unemployment is still widespread and per capita income low.

For statistical purposes only 54% of the population over the age of 15 is taken to constitute the entire workforce. Students are judged to be "economically inactive" along with the aged and infirm. So are homemakers, actually a large group with little or no prospect of gainful employment, for want of jobs.

Every third person in the official workforce is unemployed. Among the two-thirds in active employment, 17% are unpaid "family workers", mainly occupied in subsistence agriculture. Another 7% practice subsistence agriculture in their own right.

Paid jobs are particularly scarce in communal areas where people depend heavily on smallscale agriculture to keep body and soul together. Menfolk are sometimes absent for months on end while they earn money in the towns and on mines.

Meanwhile in the wetter parts of the country their families tend small plots. Women cultivate millet, maize and sorghum, while small boys herd livestock, mainly cattle and goats kept for milk and occasionally meat. Folk in the north also catch fish in the rivers and seasonal floodwaters.

Where conditions are too dry to make cultivation worth the effort, as they are in the Kaokoveld, central Kalahari and southern Namibia, families on communal land subsist almost entirely on livestock. They also gather wild plants for food.

With men absent as migrant workers, the ratio of females to males in rural areas, at the time of the 2001 census, was 52:48 compared with 50:50 in the towns. On the populous floodplains north of the Etosha Pan, the ratio among people aged 15 and older was no less than 57:42.

In other respects as well rural life is very different to town life. Houses are likely to be built in traditional fashion out of poles, sticks and mud rather than cement and bricks. They are usually roofed with thatch rather than iron, asbestos or tile. The floors are made of sand or clay, mixed with cow dung for binding, rather than concrete or wood.

Nine out of 10 rural families still cook outside their houses on wood fires. Nearly the same number burn candles, wood or paraffin to light their homes at night.

Only 36% of them have piped water in their houses or yards. Fewer than 10% have or share a flush toilet. One family in three depends on a public pipe for household water. One in four has to walk further than 500m to fetch water, half of them to a source that is over a kilometre from home.

Namibian coat of armsIn the towns a large majority of people enjoy the benefits of modern conveniences such as piped water, electricity, sewerage and garbage collection.

While town dwellers are able to ride on public transport or in taxis and private vehicles as they go about their lives, their country cousins walk, try to cadge a ride or -- if they are so fortunate as to own a bicycle -- pedal to schools, clinics and shops.

Government is the biggest employer in Namibia, with one in five of all employed persons on its payroll, inclusive of teachers and nurses. In the private sector agriculture, mining and fishing provide the most jobs.

A quarter of all jobs nation-wide are unskilled. One-sixth of people above the age of the 15 never went to school. Nearly three out of five in active employment either dropped out of primary school or got no further. Only 16% of people had a secondary education and 8% a tertiary education.

Future generations are expected to fare better as some 82% of children aged 6-14 and 68% of the youth aged 15-19 now attend school. Where practicable children are taught in their mother tongue, usually an indigenous language, until the fourth year when they change to English.

The University of Namibia and the Polytechnic of Namibia offer tertiary education, while vocational colleges train agriculturists, nurses, teachers and police officers.

Republic of Namibia. 2003. National Report of the 2001 Population and Housing Census: Basic Analysis with Highlights. Windhoek: Central Bureau of Statistics.

The German connection

Ninety years after Imperial Germany ceased to rule the erstwhile South West Africa as a protectorate, the official euphemism for a colony (1884-1915), ethnic Germans still form a cohesive and visible minority in the independent Republic of Namibia.

They are prominent in agriculture and business, especially in the tourism and hospitality sectors, where the German language is widely spoken.

With the same rights as other citizens, they also take part in public life. From time to time they hold high office. The first Chief Justice, Minister of Finance and Attorney-General appointed in Namibia after independence were all drawn from their ranks.

German Namibians still worship in their own language in beautiful churches in Windhoek and the larger towns as adherents of the Deutsche Evangelische-Lutherische Kirche in Namibia (German Evangelical Lutheran Church). Weihnachten (Christmas) and Ostern (Easter) remain special occasions for the family.

German-medium education is available in private schools and German is offered as an optional subject in some state schools.

On the social front the horsey fraternity -- mostly of German extraction -- travel to gymkhanas around the country, while Bavarianstyle carnivals in Windhoek and the main towns are always jam-packed with multicultural revellers.

The annual Windhoek Karneval or "Wika" carries on, with much beer and jollity, for all of nine days from about the end of April. True to Old World tradition, a carnival prince and princess preside over a formal ball, cabaret with a satirical edge, a masked ball and a street procession, among other festivities.

Namibian beer is brewed solely from malted barley, hops and water in strict compliance with the Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law of 1516. German tradition is also perceived to be the benchmark for delicacies like sausages, smoked meats, cakes and pastries. Everyone calls bread rolls Brötchen.

A while after independence some relics of empire began to disappear when street names were changed. Down came the German Kaiser and the colonial governors. Up went the Namibian President and the heroes of the liberation.

History remains intact and is put to contemporary use on a hill in the capital, where the Namibian Parliament occupies the Tintenpalast or Ink Palace, the haunt of successive generations of legislators and bureaucrats since 1913.

Outside the gates of the Parliament Gardens, the Alte Feste or Old Fort, built in 1890 to garrison colonial troops, is now a historical museum. Among other exhibits it contains the symbols of Namibian nationhood.

Beside the fort stands a life-size statue of a mounted soldier, the Reiter Denkmal, a monument to the German dead in colonial wars. It is not the only memorial of this kind left in a country with little statuary of its own as yet.

Historical architecture in Lüderitz and Swakopmund is redolent of 19th century Germany. The inner towns are full of edifices with domes, towers and turrets, steep roofs with oriel windows, embellished gables and bay windows.

Out in the desert, not far from Lüderitz, a ghost town moulders. Kolmanskop or, in its heyday, Kolmanskuppe. An entire town built to mine diamonds after German South West Africa struck it rich in 1908. Kolmanskuppe. Where they once lived the high life.


The Namib ...........

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