A Brief Historical Perspective
The Otjiherero speaking peoples originate from Okarundu kaMbeti1, a hill north of Ruacana, a village located on the Kunene River. Several generations ago, their ancestors moved down along the river and settled in the hills on both sides of the valley. The memory of these ancestors is kept alive in praise songs, and the location of some of their graves is known. This society was and to a degree still is dominated by the ovahona (rich and powerful men), and Ovahimba elders can still trace their descent back to one of the ovahona of this period.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the neighboring Nama peoples ran successive raids on the Ovahimba, forcing many of them to flee to south-western Angola. At the time, the Portuguese administration had not yet established posts in this area, but exchange with the colonial economy was intense. The refugees worked in the plantations, became guides for professional hunters, or worked in the colonial army combating indigenous rebellions. Certain Ovahimba groups remained in the Kunene Region (Kaokoland) and retrenched into the Northern Mountains where they became foragers.
In 1907, the German administration declared Kaokoland a natural reserve, hence avoiding settlement of white farmers. Toward 1910, pastoral-forager communities had settled anew in the plains from where they developed commerce with the Ovambo kingdoms settled in the east. Between 1910 and 1920, several Ovahimba families returned to the region and settled close to their ancestors’ graves.
The 1915 defeat of the Germans by the South Africans further encouraged their return. After the First World War, the newly mandated South African authorities classified the area a tribal reserve, obliging Settler families to repatriate their cattle to the south. This reinforcement of borders was to create a frontier between the tribal reserves and the commercial cattle farming zone to avoid the spreading of disease, a measure that prohibited any commercial exchange and movement between the Ovahimba and the exterior world.
By 1927, the Ovahimba constituted the dominant group in Kaokoland. Modeled on the ovahona system, the South African administration appointed chiefs to create a system of indirect control. In an inspection report on the Kaokoveld Nature Reserve, dated October 10, 1949, an Ovahimba chief is quoted: “We are in difficulty. We are crying. We are imprisoned. We do not know why we are locked up. We are in a prison. We do not have a place to live…”
In the past, the Ovahimba moved around in Southern Angola and North-Western Namibia according to their grazing needs, indifferently crossing the Kunene River border between the two countries.
Since the beginning of the eighties, the Kaokoveld has known an unprecedented incidence of tourists. This influx in the region has naturally aroused new appetites and aspirations amongst the inhabitants, showing a predilection for Western foodstuffs and also for addictive substances such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and alcohol.
Following the independence of Namibia in 1990, followed by the first free elections in South Africa, in 1994, a new era began in Southern Africa. During the colonial period, the respective administrations did not only control the material resources of the land, they also sought to dominate the minds of the indigenous peoples. The foundation of racial segregation was based on the attribution of an often arbitrary identity in terms of racial or ethnic groups. These identities constituted the basis of a political system and of a spatial ordering. In this context, the word ‘tradition’ meant that a skin color and a specific cultural disposition were attributed to an individual for life.
For the past two decades, a dam project to be constructed at Epupa2 falls on the Kunene River has been under discussion. The purpose of this dam is to avoid future electricity shortages in Namibia. The construction of this dam will lead to the inundation of the natural site of the Epupa Falls and neighboring areas, including Ovahimba grazing fields, sacred land and ancestral graves.
The Ovahimba continue to commemorate the ancestors buried in these graves with precise descriptions in praise songs or legends. The praise songs are land claims in that an individual is buried where he used to live.
In social memory, space is less important physically than in the global historical context.
The “traditional lifestyle” of the Ovahimba will probably change, even if the economy of the Kaokoveld, based on raising cattle, will be maintained for time to come. At present, the number of head of cattle has been restored to what it was before the recent years of drought. In this pastoral society, the cult of the cattle constitutes the dominant cultural discourse. The Ovahimba say that if someone has no cattle, and a member of his family dies, he is not able to sacrifice an animal in the honor of the deceased. The Ovahimba grow maize but they say: “You cannot drive maize,” - as you can drive cattle.
The notion of Ovahimba identity is to a degree at least a result of the colonial racial segregation system. Before independence in 1990, historical writing was controlled by South African government restrictions. However, throughout the colonial period, Namibians continued to transmit the memory of their ancestors in the form of oral legends, praise songs and sung autobiographies. The “myth of Kaoko” has continued to inform discourse on this people, be it anthropological or other. There is a tendency to represent the material culture of these peoples in mere aesthetic terms, especially the Ovahimba whose tangible culture constitutes a dimension of spectacular exoticism.
Where does the future of the Ovahimba lie? Today, the Ovahimba, who have preserved their traditions for many centuries, living retrenched in arid and mountainous regions, have come to a crossroads between their very ancient culture and growing urbanism.
While it is not possible to dissociate the Ovahimba cultural heritage from the historical and current social context, it is however important to document and preserve the legends, stories and myths that constitute their thought system and a trace of their material culture which is being transformed by the inevitable and not always detrimental processes of development, urbanization and Westernization.
Whatever choices they are going to make or whatever choices will be imposed on them by progress and development, their culture will undergo major changes in the years to come.
1Praise of Mbeti Hill symbolizing the mythical origin of Otjiherero speaking peoples: “Okarundu kaMbeti kaHamujemua ku ka umb’ ombunda mezevu rongandu yaMuakapumba. Ku ke rip eke oongungayou.” In English: The hills of Mbeti that throws its behind into the deep water of the crocodile of Muakapumba. That is standing alone like a lonely elephant. From: New Notes on Kaoko: The Northern Kunene Region of Namibia in Texts and Photographs, Editors: Giorgio Miescher; Dag Henrichsen, Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Basel, 2000
2Epupa means noise; he who makes noise or that which makes noise.