Namibia — History and Culture
Namibia’s history is characterized by the different groups that have migrated to the country throughout the years, creating a cultural melting pot. From the original Bushmen, otherwise known as the San people, to immigrants from the rest of Africa and Europe, Namibia is truly a land of diversity.
The early history of Namibia began with the migration of different groups from Africa. It was the nomadic hunter-gatherer Bushmen or the San people who first came. Eventually, two groups of Bantu people, the Ovambo and the Kavango, settled in the northern region. In the south, it was the Namaqua and the Damara people who made Namibia their home. These two groups are related to the San people, as all three belong under a larger ethno linguistic umbrella known as Khoisan. By the 17th century, the Herero arrived from the northwest and these groups can still be found in the area to this day.
By the 19th century, white Afrikaans-speaking farmers called the Oorlams came in from the south, causing conflict as they chose to settle in the lands of the Namaqua, Herero and Damara people. The Oorlams, with their guns and superior weapons, dominated the others and settled in the area that was to become Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It was the Baster people, descendants of European men and African women, who last migrated to Namibia before European colonization.
Europeans had been in south and southwest Africa for many years, but because rough terrain dominated the inhospitable Namib Desert, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries when formal European occupation began. The Portuguese, Germans, Swedes, and British explored the area, and by 1884, Germany formally declared the territory its colony in order to halt further expansion of the British from the south. The territory was named Sudwestafrika and the deep-water harbor of Walvis Bay was annexed to British South Africa. Southwest Africa remained under German rule, quelling native uprisings and enforcing racial segregation, which became the institution of apartheid.
When WWI broke out, the South Africans drove out the Germans and gained control over Southwest Africa. The country was only administered as a League of Nations mandate territory, even after the League of Nations became the United Nations following the end of WWII. Southwest Africa’s white minority had representation in the white-only parliament, disenfranchising the native African majority. Even with the petitions, armed struggles led by the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), pressure from the international community, and the fact that many European powers in Africa had already granted independence to their former colonies, South Africa refused to surrender Southwest Africa.
In 1988, South Africa finally agreed to cede Namibia to Namibians in accordance with UN Resolution 435, which laid out a decolonization program for the country. The following year, elections for the constituent assembly took place and were won by the SWAPO. By March 21, 1990, Namibia’s freedom was solidified when Sam Nujoma was sworn in as president.
Namibia is a land of great ethnic diversity and cultural traditions are often specific to each of the different ethnic groups. Around 50 percent of Namibians belong to the Ovambos, most of whom live in the northern regions of the country. Although Finnish missionaries turned most of the Ovambo into practicing Christians, specifically Lutherans, many still follow traditional customs. Families still live in homesteads, groups of huts enclosed by wooden fence poles. Each hut serves a particular purpose as a bedroom, kitchen or storage room.
In central and southern Namibia, the major ethnic group is the Herero. This is not to say, however, that they are homogenous in their traditions. The main group living in central Namibia has been largely influenced by the Europeans who they came into contact with during the colonial era making them more Western in culture. The women don Victorian-style dresses, albeit with a very loud and colorful African flare, while large horn-shaped headgear completes the apparel.
The descendants of Southern African migrants also call Namibia their home. They are the Khoisan people, a mixture of the Namaqua and San cultures. The Namaqua put great importance on music, dance and story-telling, all of which have been passed down orally from generation to generation. They are also known for their crafts such as sheepskin cloaks, clay pots, leatherwork, jewelry and musical instruments, specifically reed flutes. The San, on the other hand, are the original people of Namibia. They are one of the 14 ancestral population clusters from which all modern humans are thought to have evolved. What unites the Khoisan is their language, which comprises of clicking sounds, distinct from any other African language.