POPULATION: 1.7 million
LANGUAGE: Afrikaans; English; indigenous languages (Oshivambo, Khoisan languages)
RELIGION: Christianity; animism
Namibia sits in the extreme southwest corner of Africa, just north of the Republic of South Africa. Namibians lived under South African apartheid (separation of the races) for over forty years.
Namibia, known as South West Africa until 1966, fought a war for independence for twenty-two years. Over 50,000 Namibians are living in exile. Namibia's indigenous (native) population was first hunted, then herded into reserves, then forced to serve as soldiers for apartheid. Namibia has no year-round interior rivers and suffered a devastating drought in 1992. Its people suffer from extreme poverty. In spite of these terrible hardships, Namibia is one of the most starkly beautiful, peaceful, and progressive countries on the continent of Africa.
Namibia was the last of the African countries colonized by Europe to achieve independence. In 1966, the United Nations removed South Africa's authority over Namibia. It declared the South West African People's Organization, the liberation movement known as SWAPO, as the only legitimate representatives of the South West African peoples' interests.
Namibia is about half the size of Alaska. It is comprised of three distinct environments—the Namib Desert in the east; the more populous Central Plateau; and the Kalahari Desert in the west, famous for the Khoisan people (known as Bushmen) and majestic wildlife. All three regions are extremely dry. Most of Namibia's limited precipitation falls on the Central Plateau, supporting cattle, goat and sheep herding, and marginal farming. A severe drought in 1992 sent 30,000 farmers to live as squatters (people occupying land without permission or rent) in the cities as their crops and animals died. In the late 1990s, the government was considering damming the Okavango River to provide a reliable water source.
The ancestors of the Khoisan people arrived in Namibia 2,000 years ago, followed by Bantu tribes from the north and east after AD 1500. The largest of these groups today is the Ovambo, who comprise half the population. Germans and South African Afrikaners, arriving in the nineteenth century, make up most of the 6 percent of the population that is white. As in South Africa, there is a large mixed-race population, known as "coloureds" or "Basters." Most Namibians live in the north or on the plains surrounding the capital, where water is more plentiful.
Namibia's most common language is Afrikaans, imported from white South Africa. Considered the language of the oppressor, Afrikaans was replaced by English as the country's official language following independence. However, only 7 percent of the population speaks English. Oshivambo, spoken in the north, is the most widely used language. Some translations of "hello" follow:
Not surprisingly, many Namibian folk heroes achieved their status through courageous battles with oppressors. One nineteenth-century Ovambo subchief, named Madume Ndemufayo, fought the Angolan Portuguese from the north and the Germans from the south, only to be captured and killed by the Germans. His exploits were passed on through oral tradition (storytelling), since native languages had never been written.
Namibians describe themselves as very spiritual. European missionaries found success here, and today 90 percent of Namibians are Christian, mostly Lutheran. Traditional religion was animistic, atttributing souls and spiritual powers to natural objects and phenomena. While it is typical for Africans to incorporate traditional beliefs and practices into their religious life, less than 20 percent of Namibians claim to do so. Western churches hold great influence in Namibia.
Two important Namibian holidays fall on August 26. This day was first established in the nineteenth century as Red Day by the Herero in remembrance of their fallen chiefs. (The Herero is a group that depended on herding cattle in the region of Namibia around the mid-sixteenth century. They lost ground to other groups over rights to grazing lands.) It is still marked by the wearing of dark red costumes. After independence, August 26 also became Heroes Day. This is an official holiday celebrating SWAPO's first armed battle with the South African military. Independence Day, March 31, bears the characteristics of independence days celebrated throughout the world: military parades, speeches by politicians, and plenty of food and festivities.
Much of Namibian ritual life involves cattle. Cattle have provided the economic cornerstone for most of Namibia's ethnic groups for centuries. Lobola (or bride-price) is a payment made by a man to the father of the woman he wants to marry before the marriage is approved. Lobola always includes cows.
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.
Namibians feel strong dislike for the racial hatred of apartheid and the ethnic distrust common in many other African countries. They vow to greet each other as brothers and sisters. Many northern groups traditionally greeted one another with hugs. During the years before independence, the hug became a political symbol of secret camaraderie (loyalty and friendship) among those opposed to South African domination. Since independence, hugging has been making a comeback as a simple, friendly gesture.
Among some groups, women and youth bend at the knees as a sign of respect to older men. Basters (mixed-race Namibians) may kiss close friends and relatives on the lips. But the handshake is the most common form of personal introduction.
Living conditions vary widely among Namibians. The average annual salary for whites is $15,000, while the poorest blacks survive on $100 per year. However, some black Namibians count most of their wealth in cattle and are not deeply involved in the modern cash economy.
Housing has been a controversial issue during Namibia's short history. Under apart-heid, blacks were only allowed to live in reservations called bantustans, or in single-sex dormitories if they worked in the cities or mines. Under such conditions, ten people typically shared one room. After independence, the government attempted to persuade black city dwellers and squatters to settle in and farm rural areas. Namibians rejected the plan as limiting their freedom of movement. Consequently, housing continues to be tight in urban areas.
Today, the average Namibian household has five to seven members. One-third of all dwellings have electricity, and slightly fewer have plumbing. Those without plumbing typically have lime-pit outhouses. Roughly 23 percent of Namibians own cars, mostly those in urban centers. In the rural areas, children often walk miles to school, and the donkey is often the best form of transportation.
Family life, particularly the role of women, has changed drastically in Namibia in modern times. Polygyny (more than one wife), once the ideal in many ethnic groups, is now officially forbidden. Virginity before marriage had been the traditional ideal for women in many tribes, and women could even be banished for violating this custom. As of the late 1990s, one-third of all girls aged eighteen have at least one child, even though the average age for women at marriage is twenty-five. A related trend is the increase in households run by women, many of whom are single parents. Namibian women have legal access to birth control, as well as rights to demand child support for their children. Modern birth control is used by 25 percent of all women, far more than in most of Africa. Consequently, women average five children each, slightly lower than for the rest of the continent.
Despite women's gains in reproductive choice, their rights to family property are still not guaranteed. In most Namibian cultures, when a man dies, his parents and siblings often take his property from the widow and her children.
Most Namibian city-dwellers dress in modern fashions, as in the West. Several examples of traditional dress stand out, however. Herero women have adopted the German Victorian fashions of the nineteenth-century colonists. They wear long petticoated gowns with shawls, along with extravagant headdresses. The Himba, the least-Westernized tribe in Namibia, typically wear leather thongs or skirts. They smear their bodies with ochre, a reddish pigment extracted from iron ore. Women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making their figures appear very elongated.
Beef, mutton, milk products, millet, sorghum, peanuts, pumpkins, and melons are common Namibian subsistence (food) products. Mealie (corn) is a staple in the Namibian diet. While game hunting was traditionally practiced all over Namibia, it tended to take a back seat to livestock raising. Today, there are many private game parks to serve Western tourists interested in hunting. While fish and ostrich are both important exports, neither is a staple of the Namibian diet.
Namibia's adult literacy rate (percentage of adults who can read and write) is one of the lowest in Africa south of the Sahel (southern Sahara Desert). As of 1993, 20 percent of Namibians had never been to school, and only 1 percent went on to university. There is a university in Windhoek, and some Namibians go to South Africa or Germany. In addition, several ministries have internal training colleges to better prepare civil servants (government administrators) for work.
Whenever people struggle under a century of colonial rule, fight a long war for independence, live in exile, and concentrate on surviving in conditions of poverty, cultural heritage and valued traditions suffer. It has happened all over Africa. To help reverse this trend, the Namibian government has established a team of cultural preservationists—performers, artists, historians, and researchers. Their job is to record and then bring to life the cultural heritage of Namibia's tribes before it is forever forgotten. The preservationists combine tribal traditions to create traveling performances and exhibitions.
Namibians have a strong work ethic and are extremely self-reliant. Many elderly people expect to feed themselves from their own agricultural labor until they are physically unable to do so. Two-thirds of all Namibians are rural dwellers; most describe themselves as subsistence farmers (producing enough food for their family, with little or none left over) or herders. The government is currently trying to convince some tribes to discontinue the practice of keeping cattle as a "savings account," and to begin commercial ranching and beef export. Traditionalists consider cattle a legacy of their ancestors and object to selling off the herd for cash. Since independence, one of the government's primary goals is for Namibia to become less commercially dependent on South Africa.
As everywhere in Africa, soccer ("football" as it is known in Namibia) is the national sport with the most passionate followers. Children grow up playing it, sometimes using a ball made of twine. Track and field, called "athletics" by Namibians, is becoming more popular. Namibian Frankie Fredricks won a silver medal in the 100-and 200-meter dashes at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Most Namibians get their physical exercise through daily chores. Many rural children must walk or run 3 miles (5 kilometers) a day to school. Most adults hoe and harvest regularly.
American popular culture is known all over the world. In Namibia in the late 1990s, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were popular, and Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan were youth icons (idols). Most popular music, however, tends to come from South Africa, with its rich history of township jive. Performers such as Lucky Dube, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens have captured the Namibian music market. The infectious rhythms of the Congo, farther to the north, are also gaining in popularity in Namibia.
Traditional arts and crafts in Namibia focus on daily living. Woodcarving, despite the relative lack of trees, has a long history.
Beautiful utensils, knife handles and sheaths, and toy cars continue to be made from wood and sold. Baskets for holding everything from fish to grain to water are made out of the palm leaf, or, along the northern rivers, out of reeds.
Unemployment reached 35 percent in urban areas after the 1992 drought, and as of the late 1990s, unemployment remained high. After independence, the government did not nationalize industries (place them under government control). It also did not confiscate land or equipment from the white ruling class. As a result the economy has remained stable, but many black Namibians are impatient with the continued lack of economic justice.
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