The Ovambo people (sometimes called Owambo) are an amalgamation of diverse agricultural Bantu-speaking people occupying international border regions of southern Angola and northern Namibia, popularly known as Ovamboland. The Ovambo people are by far the largest ethnic group in Namibia and make up just over half the population.
Ovambo people performing traditional dance
The Ovambo are part of the larger Southwestern Bantu group (Murdock 1959), and consist of 12 culturally related peoples - originally kingdoms. In northern Namibia reside the Ovakwanyama, Ondonga, Ukwambi, Ongandjera, Ombalantu, Ukwaludhi, Uukolonkahdi and Eunda (Hahn 1928:1; Tuupainen 1970:12). The Ovakwanyama, Evale, Dombondola, Kafima and Ombadja (a divided kingdom under two different ruling clans), inhabit the southern Angolan region (Estermann 1976:51, 117).
Of the 12 peoples, the Ovakwanyama and the Ondonga (occupying eastern Ovamboland) are larger
and more prosperous than the smaller Ovambo groups to the west. They are also better documented in the source literature (Loeb 1962:18).
Ovambo children from Namibia
The Owambo is actively involved in the politics of Namibia. SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organisation), the current ruling party started as non-violent pressure group in Ovamboland and was led by tow great Ovambo people, Herman Toivo ya Toivo and Samuel Shafiishuna Nujoma (the first elected president). The current President Hifikepunye Pohamba is also an Ovambo.
Their language, Oshivambo (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.
Elderly Ovambo woman Ruacana - Namibia. www.fotopedia.com
The Name Ovambo (Owambo)/Geography
It is maintained in the source literature that the Ovambo owe their name to their neighbours the Herero. Tuupainen (1970:12) states that the term ‘Ovambo’ is derived from the Herero ovajamba, meaning ‘wealthy-people’, whilst Loeb (1962:9) claims that in Herero dialect ‘ovambo’ means ‘people-with-the-cattle-posts’, because the Ovambo had to graze their cattle north and east of the living area.
Although the two interpretations of the term differ, what is important is that they both contain a reference to Ovambo economic prosperity and relative political power based on ivory trading (jamba: elephant) and pastoralism/cattle raiding.
The Nyaneka-Nkhumbi peoples on the western bank of the Kunene river are closely related to the
Ovambo and have good trading relations with them. The Ovambo also trade with the Damara further south (in Namibia). The Herero and the Ovambo share common ancestral mythology. Both peoples cherish anomborombonga tree in eastern Ovamboland, which they consider marks the place where their founding ancestors (two brothers) parted company to form the now distinct cultural groups. Both peoples migrated from the Zambesi river region, and upon reaching what is now the Ovambo region one brother and his followers decided to remain and settle the area, while the other together with his followers (the Herero) continued westwards in search of better pasture-land (Hahn 1928:1; Williams 1988:90). It has been assumed on the basis of royal genealogies that the above migration took place sometime during the sixteenth century. Aarni (1982:23) and Williams (1988) have attempted to establish the migration routes on the basis of available archaeological, oral historical, linguistic and onomastic data. The Okavango peoples of eastern southern Angola are also culturally related to the Ovambo, and once formed one kingdom ruled by the Hyena clan, sharing common ancestry with the same clan in Ovambo (Williams 1988:23, 89-91).
The Ovambo even claim a distant association with neighbouring hunter-gatherer communities, which may in part account for their good relations with them. A number of Ovambo proverbs refer to the time when Ovambo were Twa (i.e. hunter-gatherers) (Kuusi 1970; Estermann 1976:55-57).
Ovamboland (The Ovambo Region)
Ovamboland is located on an alluvial floodplain about 1,200m above sea level, which slopes gently from
the north (Duparquet 1935:125; Loeb 1948:16). In Namibia the Ovambo area covers 56,000 sq km (Aarni 1982:22), between Latitudes 17.30 S and 18.30 S, and Longtitudes 14.00 E and 17.30 E (Tuupainen 1970:12). The area near the border with Angola is characterised by thick belts of sub-tropical vegetation, while large, open grass plains are found further to the south as the environment assumes a more semi-desert appearance, due to the increased salinity of the soil (Loeb 1948:17). The eastern area is also thickly wooded, unlike the western area which is primarily open savanna fringed with bush.
The Ovambo area in Namibia extends as far north as the international boundary with Angola, and almost as far south as the Etosha Pan (Hahn 1928:1; Loeb 1948:17).
In Angola, Ovambo territory is situated between the Kunene and Okavango rivers (west and east respectively), and extends roughly 200 km northwards from the Angola-Namibia border, principally along the banks of the Kuvelai river (running through Handa, Evale and Kwanyama country) (Delachaux and Thiebaud 1933:8-9).
Generally speaking, the Ovambo peoples in the north (i.e. southern Angola) enjoy better living conditions as a result of the sub-tropical arboreal environment, which is directly attributable to the greater abundance of water due to the proximity of the permanent Kunene and Okavango rivers and seasonal river Kuvelai. The Ovambo country as a whole is served by a network of broad, shallow water courses and pools known as ooshana, which are tributaries that fan out from the Kuvelai river originating just outside Handa territory.
During the wet season, rain and flood waters from the two permanent rivers in the region enable the oshana network to supply the Ovambo with 6-7 months of water during the dry season in a good year.
Years of abundant rainfall are known as efundja and are much celebrated since they occur infrequently (Tuupainen 1970:16). Hahn (1928:1) states that following a good wet season up to three-fifths of the land may become submerged for quite some time.
As the oshana network progresses southwards, through northern Namibia, its intersecting character
increases in complexity. Wider water channels and pools are replaced by narrower, more numerous streams, which dwindle further before petering out into the Etosha Pan (Estermann 1976:53). The Ovambo are heavily dependent on rain for the provision of good grazing areas, and the success of their millet and sorghum crops. However, rainfall is often poor - even absent - some years, leading to severe water shortage and frequent drought. Two wet seasons are recognised by Ovambo: a short rainy season from October to November (when grain fields are prepared in advance of rain proper), followed by a longer one from December to March. Rain rarely falls during all of these months, the overall amount averaging about 400mm. Water conservation, therefore, becomes a major priority and is largely achieved by the construction and maintainance of wells and reservoirs throughout the region, together with careful regulation of water use. They are built to supplement the ooshana, when the latter begin to dry up. Because the water table is quite close to the surface, the Ovambo rarely have to dig deeper than 3-7 metres to reach water for domestic use. Such wells are normally unlined, and are conical in design due to sandiness of the soil which disturbs easily (Loeb 1948:17; Hahn 1928:1; Aarni 1982:22; Rodin 1985:40).
Despite the irregular character of the region’s water supply, the oshana system nevertheless ensured
the abundance of various types of flora that were widely used by the Ovambo as food, medicines, manufacturing materials and fuel. Estermann (1976:53-54) informs us that the best vegetation was found along the edges of the principle ooshana, in the central area of Ovamboland occupied by the Ovakwanyama, in southern Angola. Away from the water-courses the land assumed forest growth similar to that found west of the Kunene river. Estermann classifies the forest into two main types, distinguishable on the basis of the soil in which each grows. It would seem that he has followed the distinction made by Ovambo themselves, as he provides us with the Ovambo terms for the forest types. Thus we have the forest of the sandy plains, omufitu, in which Burkeas, Pterocarpus and Endandrophragma species predominate. Then there is that thriving in more clayey soil, omuhenye, typical of the southern Angolan bush: Excoecana africana and Colophospermum mopane, with some Terminalia species. Occurring in all soil types are the gigantic
Adansonia digitata (baobab) trees. A number of fruit trees flourish in the region which are regarded as a
valuable food source and much respected by Ovambo. These include: Schlerocarya birrea, Diospyros
mespiliformis, Ficus sycomoros and Berchemia discolor. Fan palms (Hyphaene ventricosa) grace the
area, although most of the mature palms were destroyed during the great famine of 1915, when Ovambo were forced to use the trunks as a major source of food (Estermann 1976:54).
Ovambo people speak Oshiwambo, a Bantu language which belongs the larger Niger-Congo phylum. It include the Oshikwanyama, Oshingandjera, Oshimbadja, Oshindonga and other dialects. Over 2 million people in Namibia and Angola speak Oshiwambo and over half of the people in Namibia speak Oshiwambo, particularly the Ovambo people.
The language is closely related to that of the Hereros and Himba, Otjiherero. An obvious sign of proximity is the prefix used for language and dialect names, Proto-Bantu *ki- (class 7, as in Ki-Swahili), which in Herero has evolved to Otji- and in Ovambo further to Oshi-.
Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba is Owambo man
Linguistically, the Ovambo can be divided broadly into two groups. The first includes the Ovakwanyama and all the southern Angolan peoples, whose dialect is known as Oshikwanyama and distinguished, for example, by the plural prefix ova for ‘people’ - as in ovakulunhu (elders). The second includes the Ondonga and all the remaining Ovambo peoples, the dialect known as Oshindonga with a plural prefix aa for ‘people’, e.g. Aandonga (Loeb 1962:6). Maho (2009) lists the following as distinct languages in the Ovambo cluster: (A) Ovakwayama or Kwanyama group which include Kafima, Evale,
Mbandja, Mbalanhu, Ndongwena, Kwankwa, Dombondola, and Esinga; (B) Ndonga group which also include Kwambi, Ngandjera, Kwaluudhi and Kolonkadhi-Eunda.
There are eight dialects, including the two written standards Kwanyama and Ndonga.
The following table contains the names, areas, dialect names and the locations of the Ovambo tribes according to T. E. Tirronen's Ndonga-English Dictionary. The table also contains information concerning which noun class of the Proto-Bantu language the words belong to.
|Classes 9 (*ny > on-), 11 (uu-/ou-)||Class 2 (*wa-, a-)||Class 7 (*ki > oshi-)|
|Ou-kwanyama||Ova-kwanyama||Oshi-kwanyama||Northern and Eastern Ovamboland, Angola|
|O-mbadja||Ova-mbadja||Oshi-mbadja||Angola, Shangalala vicinity|
Sam Nujomah the first president of Namibia is Owambo man
Ovambo people are part of the Great Bantu Migration from West Africa and Central Africa through Great Lake area and further down to Upper Zambezi and to later migrated gradually to their present locations in Namibia and Angola. Ovambo people met San and Khoikhoi people of Southern Africa. Ovambo people like all the Bantu people brought iron technology to Southern Africa and used it as a superior weapon to pushed away the aboriginal tribes making to possible for them to occupy their land.
Ovambo men. Circa 1914
The Ovambo were subject to colonial invasion from more than one European country at once. The Portuguese extended their colony in Angola as far south as northern Ovamboland, whilst the Germans, and later the South Africans, extended their influence over Namibia (formerly South West Africa) as far as southern Ovamboland. The borderline between the two colonies thus ran directly through the heart of the Ovambo region, disrupting the lives of the people there. Thus the Ovakwanyama were subject to different and often conflicting administrative policies and law. The problem was compounded by the fact that the precise location of the border could not initially be agreed by the European powers.
Ovambo old man smoking pipe. Circa 1910
According to Estermann (1976:52), Portugal and Germany drew the southern Angola border in 1886,
thus locating the Ovakwanyama, Ombadja, Dombondola, Kafima and Evale on the Portuguese side, and
leaving other Ovambo in northern Namibia. In 1890, however, the international boundary was adjusted, the new line dividing the Kwanyama kingdom in two and leaving just one third of their number in northern Namibia. The border has seen a further three adjustments, each time involving major movement of refugees to and fro, fleeing one or other of the colonial administrations (Totemeyer 1978:6, 35, 100, cited in Aarni 1982:23).
Group of Ovambo men in traditional dress. Circa 1910
Loeb (1962:37) informs us that in 1926 the status of the neutral zone between Angola and Ovamboland
was submitted to arbitration and the zone awarded to Angola. The Assistant Native Commissioner’s
H.Q. for the South African government was moved from Namakunde to Oshikango (see Maps) just over the border. Loeb maintains that 40,000 Ovakwanyama, wishing to remain under Union rule, moved south to join the 20,000 already in Namibia, leaving 20,000 behind in Angola. Three quarters of the population were thus living in the smaller of the two Ovakwanyama regions, which moreover was characterised by poorer grazing and forest areas. Border and colonial controls became increasingly restrictive, which further hampered the indigenous economy and culture - the Portuguese, for example, refusing to allow the Namibian Kwanyama over the border to visit their usual cattle grazing out-posts (Loeb 1962:43).
Ovamboland. Oshikango August 1935. Kwanyama "Tribal" meeting with Chief Native Commissioner and visitors
Ovamboland. Oshikango August 1935. Kwanyama "Tribal" meeting with Chief Native Commissioner and visitors
Traders, explorers and missionaries were the mainstay of early European penetration, with the Portuguese and the Dutch visiting as early as the 1400s and 1700s respectively. It was not until the 1880s, however, that colonial rule in Namibia was formally established under the Germans. At this time the Ovambo were little affected, being so far north; unlike the Nama and the Herero who waged a bitter war of resistance against the Germans from 1904-7, suffering devastating blows to their population and economy (Katjavivi 1988:5, 7-11).
The colonial situation changed dramatically during the First World War, when the British requested
South African forces to invade Namibia and oust the Germans. This directly affected the Ovambo, as from 1915 the ‘Northern Sector’ (Ovamboland, the Kaokoveld, Okavango and Caprivi) became more firmly administered by the Union government than it ever had been under German rule. Germany lost Namibia in 1919 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, and in 1921 the League of Nations entrusted Namibia as a Mandate to the Union of South Africa, to be administered as an integral part of it. The League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations in 1946, and there then began a long dispute between this organisation and the South African government over the Mandate for Namibia. South Africa refused to recognise UN authority and insisted that the Mandate had lapsed with the dissolution of the League of Nations, thus allowing them to proceed with a constitutional development of Namibia (Tuupainen 1970:11; Katjavivi 1988:13). All intervening efforts of the International Court of Justice, the UN, and the indigenous peoples (e.g. SWAPO4) of the country proved relatively unsuccessful until the recent events leading to Namibia’s Independence in 1989.
North of the Namibian border, the Portuguese entered Kwanyama land around the end of the seventeenth century (Lima 1977:31), and from 1844 long distance trade networks based on exchange of ivory and slaves for firearms were established. The establishment of more formal colonial influence was achieved much more slowly. From 1859 the Portuguese occupied a fort in Humbe, their regional capital being Mossamedes. They intended to occupy Ovamboland in order to protect southern Angola from German encroachment from the south, and British encroachment from the east, but due to financial crises in both the colony and in Lisbon it was a protracted affair (Hayes 1988:2-3).
Two Owambo women from Namibia in traditional dress. Circa 1910
During the 1890s and 1900s the Portuguese had military brushes with the Ovambo but were not particularly successful. The imminent military confrontation with Germany finally justified the Portuguese government in sending a largely European column to Ovamboland in 1915. They were defeated by the Germans in a border skirmish related to the outbreak of war in Europe, and retreated to the highlands. The Germans were unable to follow up this victory, howev er, as they were attacked and defeated by South African forces - an event which changed the whole nature of the Portuguese expedition, and the opportunity was used to finally subjugate the Ovakwanyama. King Mandume of Ukwanyama strongly resisted the colonising attempts of the Portuguese, and had tried to turn Portugal’s preoccupation with Germany to his political advantage, only to be thwarted by the intervention of South African forces. They forced Mandume to cease hostilities and accept protection against the Portuguese, in return for provisions for his famine stricken nation - also paid for in the form of a migrant labour supply (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1977:108).
Kwanyama (Ovambo) girl in headdress, Oshikuku. circa 1930
King Mandume had lost 5,000 people during battles with the Portuguese, and was forced to flee to
Kwanyama country in northern Namibia - which is when South Africa stepped in. Katjavivi (1988:1719) maintains that South African intervention sprang from their desire to control northern Namibia and fix the national boundary - hence their liason with the Portuguese. Henceforth, Ovamboland was watched closely by the South African administration, because the Ukwambi as well as the Ovakwanyama resisted the authority of Native Commissioner Hahn5. By the 1930s the situation had developed in such a way that the South Africans began to feel undermined, so they bombed the Ukwambi area in order to supress resistance.
Chief Ipumbu was deposed by the Union in 1932 and banished, then the chieftaincy was abolished and
replaced by a council of headmen appointed by the Government.
Ovambo man and his wife. Circa 1910
As pointed out by Clarence-Smith and Moorsom (1977:108), colonial strategy in Ovamboland was
concerned above all with securing an abundant and reliable migrant labour force - especially for central and southern Namibia. The Germans had been very keen on the use of Ovambo as labourers on the extensive White-owned farms, and in the new mines and other industries. The labour force was initially drawn from indigenous communities further south, but with the opening of Tsumeb copper mine in 1906 and the Luderitz diamond mine in 1908, more Ovambo and other northern peoples were recruited on fixed term contracts. By 1910 some 10,000 Ovambo contract workers had come south for the mines, fisheries and railways.
Things were no better under the South African government. White farmers were allocated the best
land and Namibians were relocated by the Native Reserves Commission to the more northern semi-arid
regions, which were unsuitable for sustaining a much increased indigenous population. Moving to the
White areas as migrant labourers was thus presented as the only viable solution to the problem of population pressure and limited natural resources (land shortage and deforestation were an acute problem by the
mid twentieth century) (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1977:108; Katjavivi 1988:12, 14-15).
Ovambo people in their village. Circa 1910
Ovambo people in their village. Circa 1910
The stagnation of the economy of southern Angola right up to the late 1960s meant the mines of Namibia became the chief centre of emloyment for the population over a wide area of southern Angola (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1977:108). Estermann (1976:130-131) attributes the southward flow of migrant labourers to the fact that young Ovambo men, unoccupied since the prohibition of warfare by the the colonial Administrations after 1915, saw migrant labour as an alternative pursuit. It tended to be the smaller Ovambo kingdoms who first sent men south, but before long all contributed to the work force.
Ovambo woman in traditional dress. Circa 1910
Many who moved south had often begun as voluntary workers at the mission stations. Loeb (1962:38)
writes that only men formed the migrant labour force, women and children being forced to remain in their
home areas and the men ordered to return at least every two years.
The workers from Ovamboland were apparently among the most exploited, as compared with labourers
recruited from areas of south Namibia. Ovambo were recruited by the Northern Labour Organisation
agency (established 1925), and were destined mainly for Tsumeb copper mine and farm work. Recruits
were given a rudimentary medical examination and then divided into three categories of fitness: (a) for
underground work in the mines, (b) for surface work at the mines or heavy farm labour, and (c) for lighter
farm work as sheep and cattle herdsmen. Workers had no choice in the matter at all, and hours, payment
and working conditions were never specified (Katjavivi 1988:15-16).
The domestic economy of the Ovambo is organised principally around agriculture and pastoralism:
the former being the sphere of women, and the latter that of men. The basis of their diet is millet (Pennistetum spicatum) called oilia, which means ‘the principle food’. It withstands drought longer than other cereals, thrives in poor soils and stores for 2-3 years. Sorghum vulgare (oiliavala) is also grown; it is less hardy and requires better growing conditions, but is more highly prized.
Each married woman has her own grain fields and vegetable garden adjoining the ehumbo, and co-wives work together on the grain field of their husband. The husband must clear each of his wives’ fields prior to planting in October or November each year. Every ehumbo is equipped with its’ own communal threshing and pounding areas (Estermann 1976:132-4).
Because of the extensive flooding which can occur during the wet season, crop fields are established
on specially prepared raised mounds and thus fed but not annihilated by the ooshana (Hahn 1928:34). Loeb (1948:16) argues that the use of these raised beds has prevented European introduction of the plough, and in turn handicapped the missionaries in introducing monogamy: agriculture requiring many wiv es to hoe a plot of ground and harvest the crops. In addition to grain, various curcubits and peanuts: osimbutufukwa (Arachis hypogaea) and osifukwa (Voandzeia subterranea) are also grown.
The Owambo engage in herding of cattle (engobe) which is the responsibility of men. The king manages the largest herds and those of other men vary in size depending on socio-economic status. Some men, ovanahambo, are without herds of their own and look after the herds of others. Such a man is entrusted with about 40-50 head of cattle which he takes to established grazing posts during the dry season; he is usually young and unmarried All herdsmen know the grasses preferred by cattle - those that fatten them easily. A number of herbal remedies for cattle and for the herdsmen themselves are also known, and certain herdsmen specialise in castration (Estermann 1976:136-137). Cattle are an extremely prestigious commodity, reflecting the wealth of the lineage (Hahn 1928:35)
Apart from cattle herding, most Owambo households own a few goats and cattle, and occasionally a few pigs” (2). Also, “most houses have chickens” and “when the rains come, the rivers to the north in Angola overflow and flood the area, bringing fish, birds, and frogs.”
They make and sell basketry and pottery.
Sexual Division of Production
Males are responsible for building households and granaries (omaanda), clearing waterholes and fields, iron production, the manufacture of all wooden items and hide goods, salt procurement and hunting. Females are concerned with most child care, all food preparation, the production of baskets and pots, thatching of dwellings, the gathering of wild fruit and vegetables and the collection of water (Hahn 1928:25; Estermann 1976:143-5).
Owambo woman with her child
“It is the job of the young men to attend to the goats and cattle, taking them to find grazing areas during the day, and bringing them back to the home in the evening.”
Beautiful Ovambo girl
Fishing is a joint enterprise, although the methods adopted by men and by women differ. Women actively fish with tall, conical baskets in the oshana pools, whereas men construct traps across the narrower water-courses, consisting of weirs (olua) with conical baskets (omidiva) in the apertures (Estermann 1976:142).
“ If someone wanted to leave some of his property to his wife or children, he could sell it to them
for a nominal price. After he had informed his maternal kin of the transaction, they could no longer claim that particular part of the husband’s property after his death. Today, the Namibian constitution protects the window and the children from such inheritance mistreatments. When a woman died, her property was inherited by her children, mother or other more distant matrilineal relatives”
Ovambo Settlement and Social Structure
Each Ovambo group (kingdom) occupies its’ own area within the Ovambo region as a whole. Estermann (1976:51) writes that tracts of no-man’s-land, several kilometres in depth, used to separate one kingdom from another. The establishment of homes was traditionally prohibited within these zones of forest or bush, which were quite discernible in the 1920s. By the 1950s (Estermann’s time of writing), however, people were starting to occupy the buffer zones, leading to their virtual obscurity.
The area occupied by one group is known as oshilongo (country) falling traditionally under the jurisdiction of the king (ohamba) or paramount chief. However, in order to render it more manageable, the oshilongo is sub-divided into districts - omikunda (omukunda sing.) - which are governed by omalenga, district heads and counsellors of the king. They are appointed by the king and are responsible to him. Women as well as men could be district-heads, for example the king’s mother always had her own large district some distance from the king. About 15-20 households were established within an omukunda, with distances between them ranging from 500 m up to 3 km or more (Loeb 1962:42; Tuupainen 1970:16; Williams 1988:460).
The Ovambo household (ehumbo) is a self-contained economic unit, although cooperation between
them during weeding and harvesting is common, as is the sharing of cattle herding between morning and evening milking (Williams 1988:48). It is a large, roughly circular, structure composed of several huts and living areas separated from one another by tall wooden or millet stalk palisades. Palisades also form intricate connecting passageways which allow access to the various areas. In the centre is a large meeting area (olupale), and around the outside are fenced areas for the cattle.
The entire structure is enclosed within a thick wooden palisade about 6-10 ft in height (Hahn 1928:10; Williams 1988:45). It is occupied by a polygamous family unit comprising usually a husband, 2-4 wives and all their children. It was not uncommon, however, for other kin members to reside there as well - particularly newly married couples with no ehumbo of their own. Each wife has her own cooking facilities and food storage area in her living quarters, and her children live with her until old enough to marry (girls) or move into the cattle pens with other adolescent boys. Ovambo marriage is preferentially based on clan exogamy and kingdom endogamy, although marriages between members of two different Ovambo kingdoms are not uncommon. The system of descent is matrilineal.
dancing Owambo people
Each tribe has a chief that is responsible for the tribe, although many have converted to running tribal affairs with a council of headmen. Members of the royal family of the Owamboland are known as aakwanekamba and only those who belong to this family by birth have a claim to chieftainship. Because descent is matrilineal, these relations must fall on the mother's side. The chief's own sons have no claim in the royal family. They grow up as regular members of the tribe.”
The importance of the king as guardian and benefactor of his country is reflected in the symbolism of
the nations sacred fire, omilo guoshilongo, built only of omufyati (Colophospermum mopane) wood and which permanently smouldered in the royal residence. It was believed that terrible misfortune would befall the whole country if this fire were allowed to die out during the king’s lifetime, and so two specially appointed elders, atonateli yomilo, were charged with constantly tending it. The fire symbolised the life of the king, which in turn symbolised the life of the nation; only when the king died was the fire allowed to extinguish naturally and a new one kindled for his successor. All royal subjects established their own domestic fires with embers taken from the sacred fire, the order in which they were received depending on status (e.g. the omalenga received theirs before other householders) (Hahn 1928:17-18).
The king and his omalenga aimed to ensure economic and social stability throughout the kingdom:
settling disputes, for example. The king also managed the kingdom’s economic year, by ritually inaugurating the agricultural and herding seasons, fruit picking and fishing seasons, the annual expeditions for salt or iron, and the national big game hunts. Dates for house-moving and for major ceremonies like the efundula female transition rites, are also given by the king (Loeb 1948:71-75; A. & D. Powell-Cotton 1937a).
Not all kings, however, proved to be benefactors of their people, and there are reports of autocratic, despotic kings who ignored the advice of their elders and terrorised their subjects (e.g. see Hahn 1928:8). Such kings were often eventually displaced by rival candidates with popular support (Clarence-Smith 1979:79). Though, to claim, as many missionary and colonial administrative sources have, that all Ovambo kings were cruel despots, is both slanderous and misleading. The catholic missionary Estermann, for example, writes: "There is no doubt that the most perfect and absolute despotism prevailed almost everywhere" (1976:124), yet this opinion is based on the memoirs of South African soldiers like W.B. de Witt, who clearly had a vested interest in denouncing the indigenous system of government in order to justify imposition of colonial rule.
It is true that Ovambo kingdoms did not always peacefully co-exist and were not always internally
stable, but the disputes over cattle, land and water rights, and refugees seeking assylum, were not the product of internal dynamics alone. Rather, as argued by Katjavivi (1988:3-4), such conflict can be seen as the product of wider socio-economic changes, whereby external stimuli (trade and contact with Europeans) have interacted with internal social dynamics. The result was intensification of social stratification during the late nineteenth century, which saw the strengthening of a dominant ruling elite (chiefly omalenga) who exacted tribute (cattle, grain) from the people, and who encouraged the development of ivory and slave trading. Tribute and slaves were traded with Europeans for prestigious commodities like horses and guns.
Eventually, the traditional Ovambo form of government was replaced by a colonial system of indirect
rule, imposed by the Portuguese in southern Angola and by the South Africans in northern Namibia. Loeb (1948:19) states that under the Mandate of South Africa the Ovambo in Namibia were governed by groups of headmen, or a single chief, who were advised and directed by Government officials. Only half of the kingdoms still had kings in 1948. In Ukwanyama kingship ended in 1917, when King Mandume was shot by Union forces; headmen and sub-headmen replaced the monarchy. Chieftainship was hereditary and continued to be based on matrilineal succession (as among the Ondonga, Ongandjera and Ukwaludhi, for example), whereas headmen were simply appointed by Government administrators (Tuupainen 1970:17).
“Each tribe has a chief that is responsible for the tribe, although many have converted to running tribal affairs with a council of headmen. Members of the royal family of the Owamboland are known as aakwanekamba and only those who belong to this family by birth have a claim to chieftainship. Because descent is matrilineal, these relations must fall on the mother's side. The chief's own sons have no claim in the royal family. They grow up as regular members of the tribe.”
Parent-offspring interactions and conflict:
Conflict not mentioned. Parents seem to be close to their children. “The traditional home is built as a group of huts surrounded by a fence of large vertical poles. Some families also build a Western-style cement block building within the home. Each hut generally has a different purpose, such as a bedroom, storeroom, or kitchen. Most families collect water from a nearby public tap.”
Ovambo elder from Namibia
Traditionally, the Owambo people lived a life that was highly influenced by their mystico-religious influences. They not only believed in good and evil spirits but also they are influenced by great superstitions. Most members of the Owambo tribe believe in a supreme spirit, known as Kalunga. This spirit is known to take the form of a man and move invisibly among the people. This spirit is very important to the tribe.
When the tribe is visited with a famine or pestilence it is the responsibility of the Kalunga to help the people along. Beliefs among the Owambo people centre around their belief in Kalunga. For example, when a tribe member wants to enter the chief's kraal, they must first remove their sandals. It is said that if this person does not remove their sandals it will bring death to one of the royal inmates and throw the kraal into mourning. Another belief deals with burning fire in the chief's kraal. If the fire burns out, the chief and the tribe will disappear. An important ceremony takes place at the end of the harvest, where the entire community has a feast and celebrates.
The Ovambo believed economic success to be closely bound up with the well-being of the king. He
was usually refered to as omwene wosilongo (holder/guardian of the land), and was believed to guarantee fertility and prosperity to the nation because of his lineage connections with the powerful royal ancestral spirits, as well as his association with Kalunga the Creator (Loeb 1962:41). Major calamities, such as drought and pestilence, were usually attributed to the wrath of the royal ancestors who had been made angry by the unsociable behaviour of the living. The king and his royal elders (ovakulunhu) were responsible for communicating with the royal ancestors on the nation’s behalf, and vice versa.
Passage rituals (birth, death, puberty, seasonal)
“Rituals dealt with the transition between girlhood and womanhood in Ovambo societies on the northern floodplain, grappling with issues of sex and death, generation and regeneration, and its implications were understood to embrace the entire social body.” Male circumcision has been present. “Cows play a particularly important role in funeral rituals, too. When an Ovambo man dies, his body must remain in the house for at least one day before burial, during which time all his pets must be killed.
Traditional Ovambo compounds, called kraals, have gates used by both cattle and humans. At death, the Ovambo believe that the owner may not pass through this gate, or the cattle will die and the kraal will come to ruin. A new hole is cut for him to pass through. A bull is slaughtered, cooked without oil or flavoring of any kind, and a portion is eaten by everyone in the village. Then the kraal and all its contents must be moved at least 50 feet (15 meters). The cattle are not permitted to rest on the same earth that witnessed the death of their owner.”
A young Ovanmbo woman in a little viallage near Oshakati, in Namibia. miguel-pereira
According to information provided by a German writer Hermann Tonjes (1949), while Owambo communities historically used to practise circumcision, it was applied to adults, but reserved for nobility, the wealthy and to those in high office serving the King. During those days, traditional circumcisers used to charge substantial fees for their services. There were also some cases of death due to circumcision. Young men who qualified for circumcision (“etanda” in Oshiwambo) were escorted by their fathers to the place where the circumcision was to take place, known as “oshombo” or “ontanda”. Circumcision was seen to be a physical and spiritual intervention. In terms of the latter, circumcision linked the young man to the spiritual world of his ancestors to secure his fertility. Male initiation rituals, “etanda”, or circumcision belonged to the recognised tradition of all Owambo societies of Northern Namibia and it is only from Ongandjera that we have no descriptions of it. At some point in time there does seem to have been circumcision there too, judging from the name of the month of July, “mupita omulumentu”, which translates as “the coming out of men” (elc Nameja, 1385:1934). This was the time of year when circumcision camps were held in other Owambo societies. A number of neighbouring communities of the Owambo also undertook the practice; the Nyaneka-Nkhumbi, the pastoralist groups of the Herero, the Chokwe, the Zimba, the Hakavona, the Kwanyoka, the Himba and the Kuvale (Estermann, 1981:32 and 1979:50). These neighbours were historically linked to the Owambo. The Nyaneka-Nkhumbi are held to be ‘the progenitors’ of certain Owambo kingdoms, including Uukwambi, Ombalantu and Ongandjera (Williams, 1991:30, 31). In 1949, Seppo Teinonen, a Finnish theologian, compiled the available information on circumcision among the Owambo. His résumé, presented below, shows that there had been a great deal of variation in the custom. Male initiation was called “ohango jaalumentu”. According to Tönjes it was abolished in Uukwanyama in the years 1885–1890 and earlier than that in Ondonga. Hans Schinz, who travelled in the area in 1884–1887, said, circumcision was in practice in Ondonga earlier (Teinonen 1949). For several reasons, Teinonen found it difficult to give an exact description of the ritual as very little has been written on subject matter. Most of the information is secondary, and the practices vary from one society to another (Teinonen1949:24).
Body paint: Other tribes in this area use ochre, a reddish pigment extracted from iron ore and smear it all over their bodies.
Piercings: “Women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making their figures appear very elongated.”
Scarification: “Women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making their figures appear very elongated.”
Kwanyama girl in headdress, Oshikuku
Adornment (beads, feathers, lip plates, etc.): “Women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making their figures appear very elongated.”
Owambo braid hairstyle. Circa 1920
Death and afterlife beliefs:
“At death, the Ovambo believe that the owner may not pass through this gate, or the cattle will die and the kraal will come to ruin. A new hole is cut for him to pass through.”
Jen in Ovambo traditional attire holding hand with her friend. http://jeninnamibia.blogspot.com/
Ukuanyama (Ovambo) woman, South West Africa (now Namibia). 1936 | ©A.M Duggan-Cronin
"Ovambo women, Ondonga, South West Africa" | From the publication "The dark continent; Africa, landscape and people" Hugo Adolf Bernatzik, 1931
For centuries the Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi have occupied the western regions of the area formerly known as Ovamboland. In the past the coiffures worn by their girls and women were of such stunning beauty that they were known far beyond their tribal areas.
As a result of the increasing activities of missionaries, migrant labour and the influences of the Administration, the old dress pattern gradually disappeared and already during the 1960s very little was left of it. The oshikoma and iipando headdress of Ngandjera women was still worn during the 1970s in the form of wigs.
ca. 1940s | Photo: A. Schertz, Collection Antje Otto
Ovambo woman. Circa 1910
Two Mbalantu (Wambo group) women whose braids have been lengthened to their ankles through the use of sinew (eefipa) extensions. Namibia, | © M. Schettler, 1940s
Ovambo Woman Enjoys Smoking Pipe
Ovambo native and first president of Namibia, Sam Nujomah
Beautiful Ovambo girl. Circa 1910
Ovambo mother breastfeeding her infant. Circa 1910
Ombolantu (Ovambo) woman, South West Africa (now Namibia). 1936 | ©A.M Duggan-Cronin
Tourists and Owambo chieftain and his wife. http://navigatingnamibia.blogspot.com/