With only 2 million people in its 318,246 square miles, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth. During our service in Peace Corps Namibia, we have experienced this small population first-hand throughout our service, as we meet so many people who know us through others, or we have bumped into people we know even when traveling hours away from our hometown. The six degrees of separation theory feels like only two degrees in Namibia.
A very young independent country, what Namibia lacks in population size it makes up for in its diversity of land and people. In Namibia there are deserts, forests, tropics, ocean and rivers. There are 13 major tribes and many other smaller tribes represented. One example of this is in the Kavango Region when people from traditionally Angolan tribes migrated to Namibia during the Angolan civil war.
There are 13 regions (states) in Namibia, and tribes tend to be clustered in one part of the country, except in towns, where you will find all tribes represented. One of the advantages of living in a town is that you get to know learners from many of the different tribes. If you lived in a village, it’s most likely you would only get to know one tribe.
Here are some very short generalizations about the commonly encountered tribes of Namibia. It is impossible to sum up a group of people, their history and their culture in just a few short sentences. Some tribes continue to live a traditional life, while others live in very modern lives in modern housing. (The information below is taken from Culture Smart! Namibia: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Sharri Whiting.)
- Kavango – A Bantu-speaking tribe and the dominant tribe of the region where we live. Most live along the Kavango River, which flows close to our flat. Some Kavangos are word carvers or basket weavers and those crafts have been the source of where much of my American money has gone for souvenirs.
- Herero – A tribe with a sad history of violence by the Germans, this tribe live mostly in the countryside and are primarily cattle farmers, eating meat and not fish, unlike the Kavangos and Caprivians. The Herero are easily recognizable by long Victorian dresses and the women’s hats that are shaped like a cow’s horns.
- Damara – This tribe lives in Damaraland. They were enslaved by the Nama centuries ago and their language today reflects a mix of Nama and the original Damara.
- Ovambo – Another Bantu-speaking tribe, the “Vambos” in Namibia are known as the entrepreneurs, the risk-takers, the movers and shakers. Up until this last election, two Vambos had been president in Namibia.
- Nama– The Nama are lighter-skinned than many other tribes in Namibia. Most Namas live in the south of Namibia.
- Caprivian– The former Caprivian Strip, now known as the Zambezi strip, is surrounded by rivers. Caprivians are fishermen as well as agriculturists.
- San– The people with the longest history in Namibia. There are many government-funded programs to help the San, as many are trying to maintain their nomadic lifestyle while living in an emerging modern world. There are a few San learners at my school. Their appearance is distinctive.
- Himba – Perhaps the most recognizable tribe of Namibia, the Himba mostly live in the Kunene region. Josh and I got to take a tour of a Himba village on our trip to Opuwo. The women spread ochre, spices and fat on their bodies to protect them from the sun. They are one of the last semi-nomadic tribes in Africa living in traditionally.
- Basters – This tribe descended from Afrikaners who fathered children by Nama women. They consider themselves a separate community from Coloureds. Many Baster families left South Africa in the 1800s and relocated to Rehoboth in Namibia. Many Basters still live there today and speak Afrikaans.
- Coloureds – A mixed race tribe, coloreds tend to be well-educated and work in towns and cities in Namibia. They speak Afrikaans.
- Afrikaners – The white population of Namibia includes about 70,000 Afrikaners. They live throughout the country. Their language, Afrikaans, is a Dutch-dialect spoken by early colonists in South Africa. The very popular braai is considered part of Afrikaner cuisine.
Other populations you will encounter in Namibia but not in as high of numbers as the above: Nyemba, German, Angolans, Portuguese, Chokwe, Jews, Indians, Chinese and other Asians, Tswana.