Cultural Heritage

Namibia is a multicultural country with an eclectic mix of people ranging from the earliest inhabitants, the San, various groups of people who migrated from the Great Lakes of East Africa to the southwestern corner of the continent centuries ago to the descendants of immigrants from Europe. Each of Namibia’s major population groups has its own language and cultural identity which is celebrated with annual festivals and commemorations. There is an almost infinite variety of time-honoured clothing, cuisine, dancing, singing, arts and crafts. Traditional and modern lifestyles mingle in urban areas. 

The Ovaherero women are known for their distinctive style of dress, adopted well over a hundred years ago. Up to seven cotton petticoats worn under the flared skirt. The two lateral points of the elaborate headdress symbolises the horns of cattle – and the important role that cattle plays in this people’s economy, culture and religion.   

 

The heart and soul of Namibia - its people

 

The San, the earliest known inhabitants of Namibia, are divided into five main groups, each with its own history, customs, culture and language. San people are short in stature with a light yellowish brown or black complexion. The language is characterised by numerous click sounds. 

When African immigrants arrived from the south and the north, later followed by white settlers, the San were systematically displaced and dispossessed of their traditional territories. The Ju/’hoansi have retained some access to their ancient land, where they still pursue their original way of life by gathering veld food and hunting with traditional weapons. Bwabwata National Park forms part of the core territory of the Kxoe-speaking San.  

The country’s largest population group, the Aawambo, who account for nearly half of the total population, mainly live in north-central Namibia. The Aawambo consist of eight closely related communities under the administration of traditional authorities. Four communities are headed by a leader with the traditional title of Omukwaniilwa or Ohamba (in the case of the Ovakwanyama) – a title loosely translated as king or queen, while the remaining four are headed by a chief. 

The Aawambo practice a mixed economy of subsistence agriculture and stock farming with cattle and goats. Omahangu (pearl millet), sorghum, and beans are the main dryland crops, while a variety of leafy green vegetables is also harvested. Large numbers of Aawambo are employed in the public and private sectors, as well as the fishing and mining industries. They are renowned for their business acumen, and the informal sector plays an important role in supplementing family incomes. 

They are skilled potters and weavers, known for their basketry made from the fronds of makalani palm trees. The traditionally pink, red and black striped ondhelela worn by women at special occasions are now available in a variety of colours. The etanga shirt for men features spots similar to those of a leopard or cheetah. The eight communities take turns in hosting the annual Omagongo Festival, held during the marula fruiting season.

 

The people of the Kavango Region are often collectively referred to as the Kavango people, but in fact consist of five diverse communities. They originated from the Great Lakes of East Africa and settled along the Okavango River which forms the boundary between Namibia and Angola. Each community inhabits its own traditional area which is ruled by a traditional chieftainship assisted by a council of headmen.

The people of the Kavango are agriculturalist and cultivate maize, sorghum and millet on the fertile floodplains of the Okavango River once the flood water has subsided. They are expert woodcarvers and produce a variety of household items such as spoons and bowls, decorative items such as masks and animals, and exquisitely carved furniture and wooden doors from teak wood.    

Namibia’s far northeastern extremity, the Zambezi Region, is home to four major communities, as well as several smaller ones, which have vastly different origins but are collectively referred to as Zambezians. They practice a mixed economy of crop production, pastoralism and fishing. Maize and millet are the main crops, while a variety of vegetables are also cultivated. The women are skillful basket weavers. Wooden domestic implements, animal carvings, reed mats, pottery and necklaces made from seed are among the handcrafted products.

The Ovaherero and Ovambanderu inhabit the central and eastern parts of the country. They are primarily pastoralists and consist of several groups who migrated from the Great Lakes of East Africa in the 1700s. The Ovaherero women are known for their distinctive style of dress, adopted well over a hundred years ago. Up to seven cotton petticoats worn under the flared skirt. The two lateral points of the elaborate headdress symbolises the horns of cattle – and the important role that cattle plays in this people’s economy, culture and religion.   

The people of the Kavango are agriculturalist and cultivate maize, sorghum and millet on the fertile floodplains of the Okavango River once the flood water has subsided. © Paul van Schalkwyk

The Ovahimba of the Kunene Region in northwestern Namibia are the descendants of Ovaherero who remained behind when the others migrated further south. They are semi-nomadic pastoralists who move around with their cattle and goats in search of grazing and water. They are tall, slender and statuesque people. The women still wear traditional leather aprons, hairstyles and adornments. The red tinge of their skin, the result of a cosmetic mixture containing ochre pigment, is a distinctive feature.   

The Nama people, who live mainly in southern and central Namibia, are short in stature and light in complexion. Their language has four distinctive click sounds. Eight groups are the descendants of Khoikhoi pastoralists who migrated from northern Botswana southwards to the Orange River some 3,000 years ago. The increasingly arid environment which they encountered as they moved west eventually forced them to split into two groups. One group settled south of the Orange River in what became known as Little Namaqualand. The other group’s settlement area north of the Orange River became known as Great Namaqualand. The original migrants were joined by five groups of Khoikhoi people, collectively known as Oorlams, who moved from the Northern Cape across the Orange River in the 18th century. Most of the Nama people still live in the arid south of the country where they farm with goats and sheep.

Typical Nama crafts include embroidery, applique and colourful patchwork dresses. Floor rugs and blankets made from small stock and antelope skins, as well as hand-crafted leather shoes are a speciality of the Nama people.

The Nama have a natural talent for music, poetry and prose. They are excellent dancers and the Nama Stap is without doubt one of the best known dances in Namibia. The full-length colourful patchwork dresses worn by the women are typical traditional clothing.   

Ovahimba headman © Paul van Schalkwyk

The Basters, a self-given name meaning half-caste or bastard, trace their origins to intermarriage and extra-marital relations between settlers of European descent and indigenous Khoikhoi women in the northern reaches of the Cape colony in the 18th century. Regarded as inferior by white farmers, they established several independent settlements in the interior, but as the frontiers of the colony expanded northwards a group under the leadership of Hermanus van Wyk crossed the Orange River in November 1868. They continued further north until they reached the spring of !Anes (later named Rehoboth) where they settled after negotiating with Abraham Swartbooi, leader of one of the Oorlam groups. 

Despite the pejorative meaning of the word Baster, the Basters are proud of their heritage and Afrikaans still is their prevalent home language. Large numbers of Basters commute daily between Rehoboth and Windhoek where they are employed in various trades and industries. Many men are actively involved in the building industry. Small-stock farming is practiced in the rural areas.

Traditional Baster attire in the Cape Dutch style is nowadays only worn at special occasions. Women wear long dresses with a white apron and a distinctive white kappie (bonnet), while men wear khaki trousers and shirts, a leather hat and velskoene (hand-made leather shoes).

Namibia is also home to a small community of people of mixed descent, generally referred to as Coloureds. They are found mostly in the central parts of the country and are not to be confused with the Basters. 

The Damara people are an enigmatic group whose language and culture remains a mystery to anthropologists. It has been suggested that they migrated from West Africa and arrived in Namibia long before the people who migrated from the Great Lakes of East Africa. They have no cultural relationship with these groups, are very dark-skinned and differ physically from the Nama , but also speak the Khoekhoegowab language. 

The long dresses worn by the women, mainly at special occasions, come in a variety of patterns and colours, with a tied head scarf to match. Crafts range from tanned leather products, necklaces made from seeds and beads to traditional dolls. Singing and dancing form an integral part of the Damara culture.

Namibia is also home to the descendants of European immigrants. The colonial-style buildings lining the streets of the coastal towns of Swakopmund and Lüderitz are reminders of the Germans who first came to Namibia in 1884. An increasing number of Afrikaans-speaking, and to a lesser extent English-speaking, South Africans began settling in Namibia after World War I. They are mainly engaged in farming and commerce and industry.     

The Batswana, the smallest population group, live mainly in the east-central parts of Namibia. They are mainly pastoral cattle herders, but also engage in crop farming. 

Namibia’s diversity of people is further enhanced by a large corps of diplomats, as well as employees of international agencies and non-governmental organisations – based mainly in Windhoek. 

FAST FACTS

  • 2,5 Million inhabitants across 14 regions 

  • 13 ethnic cultures and 16 languages and dialects 

  • Official language is English 

  • Oshiwambo (Owambo dialects) is the home language of more than 50 percent of the population and is widely understood. 

  • Khoekhoegowab (Nama-Damara) is the home language of about 10 percent of the population. 

  • Other languages include the Kavango and Caprivian languages, Otjiherero, as well as Afrikaans.

  • The name Namib is of Nama origin and means “vast place” 
  • Many Namibians speak two or more indigenous languages and at least a little of either English, Afrikaans and German
  • About half of the population lives in the central north 
  • More than one-third of the total population lives in urban areas 

  • The San people believed to be Southern Africa’s first inhabitants. Namibia has the the largest population of San who is largely concentrated around the northern Kalahari. 

  • One of the world’s last nomadic tribes, the Himbas live in the northwest of the country and still, follow their traditional customs and way of life.

MINISTRY OF education, arts & culture

Learn more about Namibia’s cultural diversity from the line ministry within government.