The Namibian People
Namibia’s population in 2016 was estimated at 2,436,469 people, with an annual population growth rate of 1.98%. At approximately two people per square kilometre, Namibia has one of Africa’s lowest population densities, while nearly 60% of the population is aged under 25.
The population of Namibia comprises 12 major ethnic groups. Half the people come from the Owambo tribe (50%), with other ethnic groups making up a relatively small percentage of the population: Kavango (9%), Herero/Himba (7%), Damara (7%), Afrikaner and German (6%), Nama (5%), Caprivian (4%), San (3%), Baster (2%) and Tswana (0.5%).
Like nearly all other sub-Saharan nations, Namibia is struggling to contain its HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is impacting heavily on average life expectancy and population growth rates. HIV/AIDS became the leading cause of death in Namibia in 1996, and in 2015 just under 9% of the population was HIV positive. Life expectancy in Namibia has dropped to 63.6, although that figure is again climbing. By 2021 it is estimated that up to a third of Namibia’s children under the age of 15 could be orphaned.
The word San is a collective term referring to the traditional groups of hunter-gatherers that occupy sub-Saharan Africa, and whose languages belong to the Khoisan family of languages. According to archaeological evidence, San communities were present in Namibia as early as 20,000 years ago, and left behind written records in the form of rock art. By AD 1000, however, the southward Bantu migration pushed the San into inhospitable areas, including the Kalahari. Regardless, anthropologists have dubbed the San our ‘genetic Adam’, stating that all living humans can ultimately trace back their lineage to this population group.
One of the most striking findings based on anthropological research is that traditional San communities were nonhierarchical and egalitarian, and grouped together based on kinship and tribal membership. Since groups were never able to build up a surplus of food, full-time leaders and bureaucrats never emerged.
Although village elders did wield a measure of influence over the mobile group, the sharpest division in status was between the sexes. Men provided for their families by hunting game, while women supplemented this diet by foraging for wild fruits, vegetables and nuts. While this was a tough and tenuous life by modern standards, more recent ethnographic data has shown that hunter-gatherers worked fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure time than members of industrial societies.
As a sort of loose confederation, the Owambo have always been strong enough to deter outsiders, including the slavers of yore and the German invaders of the last century. They were historically an aggressive culture, which made them the obvious candidates to fight the war of independence. They also make up Namibia’s largest ethnic group (about 50% of the population) and, not surprisingly, most of the ruling Swapo party.
The Owambo traditionally inhabited the north of the country, and are subdivided into 12 distinct groups. Four of these occupy the Kunene region of southern Angola, while the other eight comprise the Owambo groups in Namibia. The most numerous group is the Kwanyama, which makes up 35% of Namibia’s Owambo population and dominates the government.
Recently, large numbers of Owambo have migrated southward to Windhoek, or to the larger towns in the north, to work as professionals, craftspeople and labourers. They have enjoyed considerable favour from the government over the years and, with the exception of white Namibians of European descent, are among the most successful of the tribal groups.
The Kavango originated from the Wambo tribe of East Africa, who first settled on the Kwando River in Angola before moving south in the late 18th century to the northern edges of the Okavango. Since the outbreak of civil war in Angola in the 1970s, however, many Kavango have emigrated further south, swelling the local Namibian population and making them Namibia’s second-largest ethnic group. They are divided into five distinct subgroups: the Mbukushu, the Sambiyu, the Kwangari, the Mbunza and the Geiriku.
The Kavango are famous for their highly skilled woodcarvers. However, as with other groups in northern Namibia, large numbers of Kavango are now migrating southward in search of employment on farms, in mines and around urban areas.
Herero & Himba
Namibia’s 120,000 Herero occupy a few regions of the country, and are divided into several subgroups. The largest groups include the Tjimba and Ndamuranda in Kaokoveld, the Maherero around Okahandja, and the Zeraua, who are centred on Omaruru. The Himba of the Kaokoveld are also a Herero subgroup, as are the Mbandero, who occupy the colonially demarcated territory formerly known as Hereroland, around Gobabis in eastern Namibia.
The Herero were originally part of the early Bantu migrations south from central Africa. They arrived in present-day Namibia in the mid-16th century and, after a 200-year sojourn in the Kaokoveld, they moved southward to occupy the Swakop Valley and the central plateau. Until the colonial period, they remained as seminomadic pastoralists in this relatively rich grassland, herding and grazing cattle and sheep.
However, bloody clashes with the northward-migrating Nama, as well as with German colonial troops and settlers, led to a violent uprising in the late 19th century, which culminated in the devastating Battle of Waterberg in August 1904. In the aftermath, 80% of the country’s Herero population was wiped out, and the remainder were dispersed around the country, terrified and demoralised. Large numbers fled into neighbouring Botswana, where they settled down to a life of subsistence agriculture (although they have since prospered to become the country’s richest herders).
The characteristic Herero women’s dress is derived from Victorian-era German missionaries. It consists of an enormous crinoline worn over a series of petticoats, with a horn-shaped hat or headdress. If you happen to be in Okahandja on the nearest weekend to 23 August, you can witness the gathering of thousands of Hereros immaculately turned out in their traditional dress, come to honour their fallen chiefs on Maherero Day.
The Himba, a tribal group numbering not more than 50,000 people, are a seminomadic pastoral people who are closely related to the Herero, yet continue to live much as they have for generations. The women in particular are famous for smearing themselves with a fragrant mixture of ochre, butter and bush herbs, which dyes their skin a burnt-orange hue and serves as a natural sunblock and insect repellent. As if this wasn’t striking enough, they also use the mixture to cover their braided hair, which has an effect similar to dreadlocking. Instead of wearing Western clothes, they prefer to dress traditionally, bare-breasted, with little more than a pleated animal-skin skirt in the way of clothing.
Similar to the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, the Himba breed and care for herds of cattle in addition to goats and sheep. Unlike the East African savannah, Himba homelands are among the most extreme environments in the world, and their survival is ultimately dependent on maintaining strong community alliances. It was this very climatic harshness and resulting seclusion from outside influences that enabled the Himba to maintain their cultural heritage over the centuries.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Himba were severely threatened by war and drought, though they have experienced a tremendous resurgence in recent years. At present, the population as a whole has succeeded in gaining control of their homelands, and in exerting real political power on the national stage.
The Damara resemblance to some Bantu of West Africa has led some anthropologists to believe they were among the first people to migrate into Namibia from the north, and that perhaps early trade with the Nama and San caused them to adopt Khoisan as a lingua franca.
What is known is that prior to the 1870s, the Damara occupied much of central Namibia from around the site of Rehoboth, westward to the Swakop and Kuiseb Rivers, and north to present-day Outjo and Khorixas. When the Herero and Nama began expanding their domains into traditional Damara lands, large numbers of Damara were displaced, killed or captured and enslaved. The enmity between them resulted in Damara support for the Germans against the Herero during the colonial period. As a reward, the Damara were granted an enlarged homeland, now the southern half of Kunene province.
When Europeans first arrived in the region, the Damara were described as seminomadic pastoralists, who also maintained small-scale mining, smelting and trading operations. However, during the colonial period, they settled down to relatively sedentary subsistence herding and agriculture. In the 1960s the South African administration purchased for the Damara more than 45,000 sq km of marginal European-owned ranch land in the desolate expanses of present-day Damaraland.
It has not done them much good – the soil in this region is generally poor, most of the land is communally owned, and it lacks the good grazing that prevails in central and southern Namibia. Nowadays, most of Namibia’s 80,000 Damara work in urban areas and on European farms, and only about a quarter of them actually occupy Damaraland.
Namibians of European Descent
There were no European settlers in Namibia until 1884, when the Germans set up a trading depot at Lüderitz Bay. By the late 1890s, Namibia was a German colony and settlers began to arrive in ever-greater numbers. At the same time, Boers (white South Africans of Dutch origins) were migrating north from the Cape. Their numbers continued to increase after Namibia came under South African control following WWI.
Nowadays there are around 85,000 white Namibians, most of whom are of Afrikaans descent. They are concentrated in the urban, central and southern parts of the country, and are involved mainly in ranching, commerce, manufacturing and administration. Furthermore, white Namibians almost exclusively manage and control the tourism industry.
In the extreme northeast, along the fertile Zambezi and Kwando riverbanks, live the 80,000 Caprivians, comprising five main tribal groups: the Lozi, Mafwe, Subia, Yei and Mbukushu. Most Caprivians derive their livelihood from fishing, subsistence farming and herding cattle.
Until the late 19th century, the Caprivi Strip was under the control of the Lozi kings. Today, the lingua franca of the various Caprivian tribes is known as Rotse, which is a derivative of the Lozi language still spoken in parts of Zambia and Angola.
Sharing a similar language to the San of Botswana and South Africa, the Nama are another Khoisan group, and one of Namibia’s oldest indigenous peoples.
The Nama’s origins are in the southern Cape. However, during the early days of European settlement, they were either exterminated or pushed northwards by colonial farmers. They eventually came to rest in Namaqualand, around the Orange River, where they lived as seminomadic pastoralists until the mid-19th century, when their leader, Jan Jonker Afrikaner, led them to the area of present-day Windhoek.
On Namibia’s central plateau, they came into conflict with the Herero, who had already occupied that area, and the two groups fought a series of bloody wars. Eventually the German government enforced the peace by confining both groups to separate reserves.
Today there are around 60,000 Nama in Namibia, and they occupy the region colonially designated as Namaqualand, which stretches from Mariental southward to Keetmanshoop. They’re known especially for their traditional music, folk tales, proverbs and praise poetry, which have been handed down through the generations to form a basis for their culture today.
The Topnaar (or Aonin), who are technically a branch of the Nama, mainly occupy the western central Namib Desert, in and around Walvis Bay. However, unlike the Nama, who historically had a tradition of communal land ownership, the Topnaar passed their lands down through family lines.
Today the Topnaar are arguably the most marginalised group in Namibia. Historically they were dependent upon the !nara melon, which was supplemented by hunting. Now their hunting grounds are tied up in Namib-Naukluft Park. Those Topnaar that remain in the desert eke out a living growing !nara melons and raising stock (mainly goats).
Most Topnaar have migrated to Walvis Bay and settled in the township of Narraville, from where they commute to fish-canning factories. Others live around the perimeter in shanty towns. In the Topnaar community, southeast of Walvis Bay, a primary school and hostel have been provided, although only a minority of students come from the Topnaar community.
After the transfer of German South West Africa (as Namibia used to be known) to South African control after WWI, the South African administration began to introduce the racial laws of apartheid. Thus, at the beginning of the 1950s, cohabitation of mixed-race couples became illegal, although marriage was still allowed. On Afrikaans and German farms all over the territory, farmers married Damara and Herero women, but a few years later marriage, too, was forbidden.
This left the children of these unions in an unenviable position, shunned by black and white communities alike. There are now around 52,000 coloureds in Namibia, living mainly in Windhoek, Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz.
Although distinct from coloureds, Basters are also the result of mixed unions, specifically between the Nama and Dutch farmers in the Cape Colony. In the late 1860s, after coming under pressure from the Boer settlers in the Cape, they moved north of the Orange River and established the settlement of Rehoboth in 1871. There they established their own system of government with a headman (Kaptein) and legislative council (Volksraad). They also benefited from supporting the Germans during the colonial period, with increased privileges and recognition of their land rights.
Most of Namibia’s 35,000 Basters still live around Rehoboth and either follow an urban lifestyle or raise livestock.
Namibia’s 8000 Tswana make up the country’s smallest ethnic group. They are related to the Tswana of South Africa and Botswana, the Batswana, and live mainly in the eastern areas of the country, around Aminuis and Epukiro.
The Namibian Way of Life
On the whole, Namibians are a conservative and God-fearing people – an estimated 80% to 90% of the country is Christian – so modesty in dress and behaviour is considered important. Education is a crucial pillar to advancement in the country, but Namibians (especially women) still struggle to enjoy the benefits of an economy that is, for the most part, performing well.
Women In Namibia
In a culture where male power is mythologised, it’s unsurprising that women’s rights lag behind. Even today, it’s not uncommon for men to have multiple sexual partners and, until recently, in cases where husbands abandoned their wives and their children, there was very little course for redress. Since independence, the Namibian government has been committed to improving women’s rights with bills such as the Married Persons Equality Act (1996), which equalised property rights and gave women rights of custody over their children.
Even the government acknowledges that achieving gender equality is more about changing grass-roots attitudes than passing laws. According to a US Department of State Human Rights Report in 2015, domestic violence was widespread, and endemic social problems such as poverty, alcoholism and the feeling of powerlessness engendered by long-term unemployment only served to increase women's vulnerability to violence. According to the US Department of State, the Namibian government has passed one of the most comprehensive legislative acts against rape in the world. However, women's groups and NGOs point out that many sexual crimes against women are never reported and never reach the authorities.
Namibian women do feature prominently in local and civic life, and many a Namibian woman took a heroic stance in the struggle for independence.
In 2016 women held 43 out of 104 seats in the National Assembly, an impressive 41.35% of all MPs, while women have been increasingly appointed to ministerial roles under the ruling party's much-touted 'zebra policy', whereby every ministry must have a male and a female in the top two positions. In the private sector, however, women remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions.
Women are also undoubtedly the linchpin of the Namibian home. They shoulder a double responsibility in raising children and caring for family members as well as contributing to the family income. This load has only increased with the horrendous effects of HIV/AIDS on the family structure – in 2015 just over 13% of the adult Namibian population was living with HIV/AIDS, down from 18% in 2009.
Female literacy (84.5% in 2015) is actually higher than for men (79.2%), but maternal mortality remains high (265 per 100,000 live births, compared to 129 in Botswana and 138 in South Africa).
About 80% to 90% of Namibians profess Christianity, and German Lutheranism is the dominant sect in most of the country. As a result of early missionary activity and Portuguese influence from Angola, there is also a substantial Roman Catholic population, mainly in the central and northern areas.
Most non-Christian Namibians – mainly Himba, San and some Herero – live in the north and continue to follow animist traditions. In general, their beliefs are characterised by ancestor veneration, and most practitioners believe that deceased ancestors continue to interact with the living, and serve as messengers between their descendants and the gods.
Muslims make up just 1% to 3% of the population.
The country’s economy is dominated by the extraction and processing of minerals for export. Although mining only accounts for 11.5% of the GDP, it provides more than half of foreign-exchange earnings. Most famously, Namibia’s large alluvial diamond deposits have earned it the enviable reputation as one of the world’s primary sources for gem-quality stones. However, the country is also regarded as a prominent producer of uranium, lead, zinc, tin, silver and tungsten.
The Namibian economy continues to perform strongly, with growth rates falling slightly in recent years, but still an extremely healthy 4.5% in 2015. Unemployment, however, remains high, with an official rate of 28.1% in 2014 – unofficially, the figure stands closer to 50%, with close to three-quarters of 15- to 19-year-olds unemployed.
The mining sector employs only about 2% of the population, while about half the population depends on subsistence agriculture for its livelihood. Namibia normally imports about 50% of its cereal requirements, and in drought years, food shortages are a major problem in rural areas. Although the fishing industry is also a large economic force, catches are typically canned and marked for export.
In recent years, tourism has grown considerably throughout the country, though white Namibians still largely control the industry.
The Namibian economy is closely linked to the regional powerhouse of South Africa, and the Namibian dollar is pegged one-to-one to the South African rand.
The motivation to get a good education is high in Namibia. But getting an education is by no means easy for everyone, and for families living in remote rural areas it often means that very young children must be sent to schools far away, where they board in hostels. The literacy rate for Namibians in 2016 was 81.9%.
The Namibia greeting is practically an art form and goes something like this: Did you get up well? Yes. Are you fine? Yes. Did you get up well? Yes. Are you fine? Yes.
This is an example of just the most minimal greeting; in some cases greetings can continue at great length with repeated enquiries about your health, your crops and your family, which will demand great patience if you are in a hurry.
However, it is absolutely essential that you greet everyone you meet, from the most casual encounter in the corner store, to an important first meeting with a business associate. Failure to greet people is considered extremely rude, and it is without a doubt the most common mistake made by outsiders.
Learn the local words for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, and use them unsparingly. If you have the time and inclination, consider broadening your lexicon to include longer and more complex phrases.
Even if you find yourself tongue-tied, handshakes are also a crucial icebreaker. The African handshake consists of three parts: the normal Western handshake, followed by the linking of bent fingers while touching the ends of upward-pointing thumbs, and then a repeat of the conventional handshake.
Feature: Village vs Urban Life
Most Namibians still live in homesteads in rural areas – less than half of the population lives in urban areas, although the figure inches higher with each passing year – and lead typical village lives. Villages tend to be family- and clan-based and are presided over by an elected elenga (headman). The elenga is responsible for local affairs – everything from settling disputes to determining how communal lands are managed. Even those who have moved to the cities often maintain strong ties to their villages.
The sad reality, however, is that life is a struggle for the vast majority of Namibians, particularly in urban areas – on many town fringes you'll see ramshackle settlements without even the most basic services.
With its harsh environment and historically disparate and poor population, Namibia does not have a formal legacy of art and architecture. What it does have in abundance is a wealth of material arts and crafts: carvings, basketry, tapestry, beadwork and textile weaving.
There are some excellent festivals dedicated to the arts – for one of Namibia’s newest, most exciting arts events head to Omaruru in September for the Artist Trail.
Dogged by centuries of oppression, isolation, lack of education and poverty, it is hardly surprising that prior to independence there was a complete absence of written literature in Namibia, though there was a rich tradition of oral literature. What written literature there was boils down to a few German colonial novels – most importantly Gustav Frenssen’s Peter Moor’s Journey to Southwest Africa (original 1905, English translation 1908) – and some Afrikaans writing. The best-known work from the colonial period is undoubtedly Henno Martin’s The Sheltering Desert (1956, English edition 1957), which records two and a half years spent by the geologist author and his friend Hermann Korn avoiding internment as prisoners of war during WWII.
Only with the independence struggle did an indigenous literature begin to take root. One of contemporary Namibia’s most significant writers is Joseph Diescho (b 1955), whose first novel, Born of the Sun, was published in 1988, when he was living in the USA. To date, this refreshingly unpretentious work remains the most renowned Namibian effort. As with most African literature, it’s largely autobiographical, describing the protagonist’s early life in a tribal village, his coming of age and his first contact with Christianity. It then follows his path through the South African mines and his ultimate political awakening. Diescho’s second novel, Troubled Waters (1993), focuses on a white South African protagonist, who is sent to Namibia on military duty and develops a political conscience.
Namibia also has a strong culture of women writers. Literature written by Namibian women after independence deals primarily with their experiences as women during the liberation struggle and in exile, as well as with the social conditions in the country after independence. Thus, the writing of Ellen Namhila (The Price of Freedom; 1998), Kaleni Hiyalwa (Meekulu’s Children; 2000) and Neshani Andreas (The Purple Violet of Oshaantu; 2001) gives us a great insight into the sociopolitical world of postcolonial Namibia.
A New Initiation Song (1994) is a collection of poetry and short fiction published by the Sister Namibia collective. This volume’s seven sections cover memories of girlhood, body image and heterosexual and lesbian relationships. Among the best works are those of Liz Frank and Elizabeth !Khaxas. The most outstanding short stories include ‘Uerieta’ by Jane Katjavivi, which describes a white woman’s coming to terms with African life, and ‘When the Rains Came’ by Marialena van Tonder, in which a farm couple narrowly survives a drought. One contributor, Nepeti Nicanor, along with Marjorie Orford, also edited another volume, Coming on Strong (1996).
Those who read German will appreciate the works of Giselher Hoffmann (b 1958), which address historical and current Namibian issues. His first novel, Im Bunde der Dritte (Three’s Company; 1984), is about poaching. Die Erstgeboren (The Firstborn; 1991) is told from the perspective of a San group that finds itself pitted against German settlers. Similarly, the Nama-Herero conflict of the late 19th century is described from the Nama perspective in Die Schweigenden Feuer (The Silent Fires; 1994). It’s also concerned with the impact of modernisation on indigenous cultures.
Since 2002, the Namibian Film Commission has been encouraging local film production and promoting the country as a film location. In the same year, a little-known film called Beyond Borders, about the Ethiopian famine in 1984, was shot in the country – and the film’s star, Angelina Jolie, returned in 2006 to give birth to her daughter. On a more serious note, the annual Wild Cinema Festival is gaining impressive ground, attracting thousands of theatregoers every autumn.
After a few hiccups, the story of Namibia’s first president, Sam Nujoma, was turned into a film in the form of Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, which received mixed critical acclaim. In July 2011 the filming of the on-again-off-again fourth Mad Max movie was moved to Namibia, after unexpected rain turned the Australian desert into a very un–Mad Max carpet of flowers.
Namibia’s earliest musicians were the San, whose music probably emulated the sounds of animals, and was sung to accompany dances and storytelling. The early Nama, who had a more developed musical technique, used drums, flutes and basic stringed instruments, also to accompany dances. Some of these were adopted and adapted by the later-arriving Bantu, who added marimbas, gourd rattles and animal-horn trumpets to the range. Nowadays drums, marimbas and rattles are still popular, and it isn’t unusual to see dancers wearing belts of soft-drink (soda) cans filled with pebbles to provide rhythmic accompaniment to their steps.
A prominent European contribution to Namibian music is the choir. Early in the colonial period, missionaries established religious choral groups among local people, and both school and church choirs still perform regularly. Namibia’s most renowned ensembles are the Cantare Audire Choir and the Mascato Coastal Youth Choir (www.mascatoyouthchoir.com), the country’s national youth choir. The German colonists also introduced their traditional ‘oompah’ bands, which feature mainly at Oktoberfest and other German-oriented festivals.
If you need some music to keep you company on those long, lonely Namibian roads, check out the soulful tunes of Hishishi Papa, a storyteller musician whose Aantu Aantu album is perfect driving music.
While most visitors to Namibia have already set their sights on the country’s natural wonders, there are a surprising number of architectural attractions to discover as well. Striking German colonial structures continue to stand as testament to the former European occupation of Namibia.
While most of Windhoek has modernised with the chock-a-block concrete structures that typify most African cities, there are a few remaining colonial gems. Towering over the city is the German Lutheran Christuskirche, which masterfully uses local sandstone in its European-leaning neo-Gothic construction. Another notable structure is the Alte Fest (Old Fort), which was constructed in 1890 by Curt von François and his men to serve as the barracks for the German army. It remains the oldest surviving building in the city, and now serves a much more peaceful function as the National Museum.
If you truly want to experience the shining jewels in Namibia’s architectural crown, you’re going to need to head out to the coast. Here, improbably squeezed between the icy waters of the South Atlantic and the overbearing heat of the Namib Desert, are the surreal colonial relics of Swakopmund and Lüderitz. Walking the streets of either town, you’d be easily forgiven for thinking that you were in a Bavarian dorfchen (small village) transplanted onto the shores of southwestern Africa. Somewhat forgotten by time and history, both towns are characterised by a handsome blend of German imperial and art nouveau styles, which become all the more bizarre when viewed against the backdrop of soaring dunes and raging seas.
Each group in Namibia has its own dances, but common threads run through most of them. First, all dances are intended to express social values to some extent, and many dances reflect the environment in which they’re performed.
Dances of the Ju/'hoansi (!Kung) men (a San group in northeastern Namibia) tend to mimic the animals they hunt, or involve other elements that are important to them. For example, the ‘melon dance’ involves tossing and catching a tsama melon according to a fixed rhythm. The Himba dance ondjongo must be performed by a cattle owner, and involves representing care and ownership.
Specific dances are also used for various rituals, including rites of passage, political events, social gatherings and spiritual ceremonies. For example, the Ju/'hoansi male initiation dance, the tcòcmà, may not even be viewed by women. In the Kavango and Caprivi region, dances performed by traditional healers require the dancer to constantly shake rattles held in both hands. Most festive dances, such as the animated Kavango epera and dipera, have roles for both men and women, but are performed in lines with the genders separated.
The majority of Namibia’s established modern painters and photographers are of European origin, and concentrate largely on the country’s colourful landscapes, bewitching light, native wildlife and, more recently, its diverse peoples. Well-known names include François de Necker, Axel Eriksson, Fritz Krampe and Adolph Jentsch. The well-known colonial landscape artists Carl Ossman and Ernst Vollbehr are exhibited in Germany. The work of many of these artists is exhibited in the permanent collection of the National Art Gallery in Windhoek, which also hosts changing exhibitions of local and international artists.
Non-European Namibians who have concentrated on three-dimensional and material arts have been developing their own traditions. Township art – largely sculpture made out of reclaimed materials such as drink cans and galvanised wire – develops sober themes in an expressive and colourful manner. It first appeared in the townships of South Africa during the apartheid years. Over the past decade or two, it has taken hold in Namibia, and is developing into a popular art form.
In an effort to raise the standard and awareness of the visual arts in Namibia, a working group of artists, including Joseph Madesia and François Necker, established the Tulipamwe International Artists’ Workshop in 1994. Since then they have held a long list of workshops in farms and wildlife lodges around Namibia where Namibian, African and international artists can come together and share ideas and develop their skills base.
Namibia's natural world is a grand epic of extraordinary landforms (from sand-dune deserts that reach the coast to the haunting, barren mountain ranges of the interior) and these shelter a wonderful array of wildlife, especially in the country's north. But this is also one of the driest countries on earth and issues of desertification and water scarcity loom large over the country's future. And unlike neighbouring Botswana, Namibia allows commercial or trophy hunting.
The Namib, the desert of southwestern Africa that so appropriately gives its name to the driest country south of the Sahara, is the oldest desert on the planet. It is a scorched earth of burned and blackened-red basalt that spilled from beneath the earth 130 million years ago, hardening to form what we now know as Namibia. Precious little can grow or thrive in this merciless environment. That anything survives out here owes everything to the sheer ingenuity of the natural world and the resilience of its human population.
Known as the Land of Rivers, northern Namibia is bounded by the Kunene and Okavango Rivers along the Angolan border, and in the east by the Zambezi and the Kwando/Mashe/Linyanti/Chobe river-systems, all of which flow year-round. In the northeast, the gently rolling Kavango region is dominated by the Okavango River. East of Kavango is the spindly Caprivi Strip, a flat, unexceptional landscape that is characterised by expanses of acacia forest. In wild contrast to the bleached-blue skies and vast, open expanses of most of the country, the Kavango and Caprivi regions are a well-watered paradise. Further south, in Namibia's northeastern interior along the border with Botswana, is the Otjozondjupa region, a wild and thinly populated strip of scrub forest that is home to several scattered San villages.
The Skeleton Coast
Northwestern Namibia is synonymous with the Skeleton Coast, a formidable desert coastline engulfed by icy breakers. As you move inland, the sinister fogs give way to the wondrous desert wilderness of Damaraland and the Kaokoveld. The former is known for its unique geological features, including volcanic mounds, petrified forests, red-rock mesas and petroglyph-engraved sandstone slabs. The latter is known as one of the last great wildernesses in Southern Africa. Despite their unimaginably harsh conditions, both regions are also rich in wildlife, which has adapted to the arid environment and subsequently thrived.
The Namib Desert extends along the country’s entire Atlantic coast, and is scored by a number of rivers, which rise in the central plateau, but often run dry. Some, like the ephemeral Tsauchab, once reached the sea, but now end in calcrete pans. Others flow only during the summer rainy season, but at some former stage carried huge volumes of water and carved out dramatic canyons such as Fish River and Kuiseb, where Henno Martin and Hermann Korn struggled to survive WWII. Much of the surface between Walvis Bay and Lüderitz is covered by enormous linear dunes, which roll back from the sea towards the inland gravel plains that are occasionally interrupted by isolated mountain ranges.
Southern Namibia takes in everything from Rehoboth in the north to the Orange River along the South African border, and westward from the Botswana border to the Forbidden Coast. The south's central plateau is characterised by wide open country, and the area’s widely spaced rural towns function mainly as commercial and market centres. Further south, the landscape opens up into seemingly endless plains, ranges and far horizons. In the far south of the region, the Fish River Canyon forms a spectacular gash across the otherwise-flat landscape.
The country's far southeast, along the borders with Botswana and South Africa, is dominated by the Kalahari Desert, the largest expanse of sand on the planet.
If you're here to see wildlife, you'll want to spend most of your time in the north, in the country's three main wildlife areas: Kaokoveld, where elusive desert elephants and black rhinos follow the river courses running to the Skeleton Coast; the Caprivi Strip and Khaudum National Park, where Namibia’s last African wild dogs find refuge and lions are making a comeback; and, best of all, Etosha National Park, one of the world’s finest wildlife reserves.
Further south is one of the largest wildlife reserves in Africa, the Namib-Naukluft Park, which covers an astonishing 6% of Namibian territory. Much of it is true desert, and large mammals occur in extremely low densities, though local species include Hartmann’s mountain zebras as well as more widespread Southern African endemics such as springboks and gemsboks. For aficionados of smaller life, the Namib is an endemism hotspot – on the dunes, desert-adapted birdlife flickers into view, alongside reptiles and desert-specialist insects.
The severe Namibian coast is no place to expect abundant big wildlife, although it’s the only spot in the world where massive fur-seal colonies are patrolled by hunting brown hyenas and black-backed jackals. The coast also hosts flamingos and massive flocks of summer waders, including sanderlings, turnstones and grey plovers, while Heaviside’s and dusky dolphins can often be seen in the shallow offshore waters.
In 2009 the Namibian government opened Sperrgebiet National Park, a vast 16,000 sq km expanse of land home to the threatened desert rain frog, dramatic rock formations and disused diamond mines. The area’s haunting beauty, which is highlighted by shimmering salt pans and saffron-coloured sand dunes, provides one of the world’s most dramatic backdrops for adventurous wildlife watchers. The Sperrgebiet fringe is also home to one of Africa's only populations of wild horses.
Northern Namibia is one of Southern Africa's most rewarding wildlife-watching destinations.
The greatest prizes here are desert elephants, black rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs and, if you're really lucky, African wild dogs. Other unusual sightings include the elusive Hartmann’s mountain zebra.
More commonly sighted species include ostriches, zebras, warthogs, greater kudus, giraffes, gemsboks, springboks, steenboks, mongoose, ground squirrels and small numbers of other animals, such as black-backed jackals and bat-eared foxes. If you're really lucky, you might encounter caracals, aardwolfs, pangolins (go on, dream a little…) and brown hyenas.
Along the country's desert coasts you can see jackass penguins, flamingos and Cape fur seals.
The dry lands of Namibia boast more than 70 species of snake, including three species of spitting cobra. It is actually the African puff adder that causes the most problems for humans, since it inhabits dry, sandy riverbeds. Horned adders and sand snakes inhabit the gravel plains of the Namib, and the sidewinder adder lives in the Namib dune sea. Other venomous snakes include the slender green vine snake, both the green and black mamba, the dangerous zebra snake and the boomslang (Afrikaans for ‘tree snake’), a slender 2m aquamarine affair with black-tipped scales. Despite such a formidable list, few travellers even see any of the country's snake species, let alone encounter any difficulties with them.
Lizards, too, are ubiquitous. The largest of these is the leguaan (water monitor), a docile creature that reaches over 2m in length, swims and spends a lot of time laying around water holes, probably dreaming of becoming a crocodile. A smaller version, the savannah leguaan, inhabits kopjes (small hills) and drier areas. Also present in large numbers are geckos, chameleons, legless lizards, rock-plated lizards and a host of others.
The Namib Desert supports a wide range of lizards, including a large vegetarian species, Angolosaurus skoogi, and the sand-diving lizard, Aprosaura achietae, known for its ‘thermal dance’. The unusual bug-eyed palmato gecko inhabits the high dunes and there’s a species of chameleon.
In the watery marshes and rivers of the north of the country, you’ll find Namibia’s reptile extraordinaire, the Nile crocodile. It is one of the largest species of crocodile on the planet, and can reach 5m to 6m in length. It has a reputation as a man eater, but this is probably because it lives in close proximity to human populations – just in case, always seek local advice before going for a swim in a Namibian river. In the past there have been concerns over excessive hunting of the crocodile, but these days numbers are well up, and it’s more at risk from pollution and accidental entanglement in fishing nets.
Insects & Spiders
Although Namibia doesn’t enjoy the profusion of bug life found in countries further north, a few interesting specimens buzz, creep and crawl around the place. Over 500 species of colourful butterfly, including the African monarch, the commodore and the citrus swallowtail, are resident, as well as many fly-by-night moths.
Interesting buggy types include the large and rarely noticed stick insects and the ubiquitous and leggy shongololo (millipede), which can be up to 30cm long. The dunes are also known for their extraordinary variety of tenebrionid (known as toktokkie) beetles.
The Namib Desert has several wonderful species of spider. One to avoid is the poisonous, large (and frighteningly hairy) baboon spider. The tarantula-like ‘white lady of the dunes’ is a white, hairy affair attracted to light. There’s also a rare 'false' spider known as a solifluge (sun spider). You can see its circulatory system through its light-coloured translucent outer skeleton.
Common insects such as ants, stink bugs, grasshoppers, mopane worms and locusts sometimes find their way into frying pans for snacks. Among travellers, it takes something of a culinary daredevil to dive into a newspaper-wrapped ball of fried bugs, though for locals the practice provides essential protein supplements.
Despite Namibia’s harsh and inhospitable desert landscape, more than 700 bird species have been recorded in the country. The richest pickings for birders are in the lush green Caprivi Strip, which borders the Okavango Delta. Here, particularly in the Mahango Game Reserve, you’ll find the same exotic range of species as in Botswana's Okavango Panhandle, Okavango Delta and Linyanti regions. Wetland species include the African jacana, snakebird, ibis, stork, egret, shrike, kingfisher, great white heron and purple and green-backed heron. Birds of prey include Pel’s fishing owl (which is much prized among birders), goshawk, several species of vulture, and both the bateleur and African fish eagle.
The coastal wildfowl reserves support an especially wide range of birdlife: white pelicans, flamingos, cormorants and hundreds of other wetland birds. Further south, around Walvis Bay and Lüderitz, flamingos and jackass penguins share the same desert shoreline.
Situated on a key migration route, Namibia also hosts a range of migratory birds, especially raptors, which arrive around September and October and remain until April. The canyons and riverbeds slicing across the central Namib Desert are home to nine species of raptor. Throughout the desert regions, you’ll also see the intriguing social weaver, which builds an enormous nest that’s the avian equivalent of a 10-storey block of flats. Central Namibia also boasts bird species found nowhere else, such as the Namaqua sand-grouse and Grey’s lark.
Other iconic species that birders may want to build their trips around include Hartlaub’s francolin (in the rocky uplands of central and northern Namibia), Rüppell’s bustard (on the Namib Desert fringe), Barlow’s lark (the far south, around Sperrgebiet), Rüppell’s parrot (acacia woodlands and dry riverbeds), Monteiro’s hornbill (arid woodlands in the interior), dune lark (dry riverbeds of the Namib), Herero chat (arid interior in the centre and north), rockrunner (arid interior in the centre and north) and Carp’s tit (northern woodlands).
The Namibian coastal waters are considered some of the world’s richest, mainly thanks to the cold Benguela Current, which flows northward from the Antarctic. It’s exceptionally rich in plankton, which accounts for the abundance of anchovies, pilchards, mackerel and other whitefish. But the limited offshore fishing rights have caused problems, and there is resentment that such countries as Spain and Russia have legal access to offshore fish stocks. Namibia has now declared a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone to make Namibian fisheries competitive.
Fishing is an extremely popular activity for visitors, particularly along the Skeleton Coast north of Swakopmund.
Which Field Guide?
Field guides can be invaluable tools for identifying animals while on safari, apart from being damned interesting to read. Our favourites:
- A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World (Luke Hunter; 2011) Wonderfully illustrated, up to date and filled with fascinating detail.
- The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (Jonathon Kingdon; 2015) The latest (2nd) edition of the classic field guide, covering more than 1150 species.
- The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Richard Despard Estes; 1991) Classic study of the behaviour of mammal species. Estes' follow-up guide The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals (1993) is an excellent, slightly more accessible alternative.
- Stuarts' Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa (Chris & Mathilde Stuart; 2014) Another excellent guide with easy identification clues and information on tracking.
- Birds of Southern Africa (Ian Sinclair et al, 4th ed; 2011) Easily the best field guide to the country’s birds.
- Watching Wildlife: Southern Africa (Matthew Firestone and Nana Luckham, 2nd ed; 2009) Lonely Planet’s very own field guide, complete with colour photographs.
Namibia has a number of endangered species, among them the black rhino, desert elephant, lion and African wild dog. It is also considered a key battleground in the fight to save the cheetah. Poaching continues to take its toll on a number of flagship species, especially the rhino.
In the eastern reaches of the Caprivi Strip, and across the border in Botswana's Chobe National Park, a small population of puku antelope survives, the last of its kind in Southern Africa (although healthy, if declining, populations survive in Tanzania and northern Zambia).
Overfishing and the 1993–94 outbreak of ‘red tide’ along the Skeleton Coast have decimated the sea-lion population, both through starvation and commercially inspired culling.
The stability of some bird and plant species, such as the lichen fields, the welwitschia plant, the Damara tern, the Cape vulture and numerous lesser-known species, has been undoubtedly compromised by human activities (including tourism and recreation) in formerly remote areas. However, awareness of the perils faced by these species is increasing among operators and tourists alike, which adds a glimmer of hope to the prospects of their future survival.
Because Namibia is mostly arid, much of the flora is typical African dryland vegetation: scrub brush and succulents, such as euphorbia. Along the coastal plain around Swakopmund are the world’s most extensive and diverse fields of lichen. They remain dormant during dry periods, but with the addition of water they burst into colourful bloom.
Most of the country is covered by tree-dotted, scrub-savannah grasses of the genera Stipagrostis, Eragrostis and Aristida. In the south, the grass is interrupted by ephemeral watercourses lined with tamarisks, buffalo thorn and camelthorn. Unique floral oddities here include the kokerboom (quiver tree), a species of aloe that grows only in southern Namibia.
In the sandy plains of southeastern Namibia, raisin bushes (Grewia) and candlethorn grow among the scrubby trees, while hillsides are blanketed with green-flowered Aloe viridiflora and camphor bush.
The eastern fringes of Namib-Naukluft Park are dominated by semidesert scrub-savannah vegetation, including some rare aloe species (Aloe karasbergensis and Aloe sladeniana). On the gravel plains east of the Skeleton Coast grows the bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis, a slow-growing, ground-hugging conifer that lives for more than 1000 years.
In areas with higher rainfall, the characteristic grass savannah gives way to acacia woodlands, and Etosha National Park enjoys two distinct environments: the wooded savannah in the east and thorn-scrub savannah in the west. The higher rainfall of Caprivi and Kavango sustains extensive mopane woodland, and the riverine areas support scattered wetland vegetation, grasslands and stands of acacias. The area around Katima Mulilo is dominated by mixed subtropical woodland containing copalwood, Zambezi teak and leadwood, among other hardwood species.
As you might expect in a country that is the driest in sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia faces some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.
According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), 99% of Namibia's land mass is at risk of desertification. Cattle outnumber people in Namibia and overgrazing is considered a driving force behind the desertification process, which can result in soil erosion, declining groundwater reserves, reduced soil fertility and deforestation. The related issue of water scarcity is another massive concern, both in terms of the country's agricultural output and in the provision of drinking water to a growing population.
Unlike in neighbouring Botswana, hunting is legal in Namibia, although it is strictly regulated and licensed. The Ministry of the Environment and Tourism along with the Namibia Professional Hunting Association (www.napha-namibia.com) regulate hunting, which accounts for 5% of the country’s revenue from wildlife.
The Namibian government views its hunting laws as a practical form of wildlife management and conservation. Many foreign hunters are willing to pay handsomely for big wildlife trophies, and farmers and ranchers frequently complain about the ravages of wildlife on their stock. The idea is to provide farmers with financial incentives to protect free-ranging wildlife. Management strategies include encouraging hunting of older animals, evaluating the condition of trophies and setting bag limits in accordance with population fluctuations.
In addition, quite a few private farms are set aside for hunting. The owners stock these farms with wildlife bred by suppliers – mainly in South Africa – and turn them loose into the farm environment. Although community-based hunting concessions have appeared in the Otjozondjupa area, these still aren’t widespread.
Feature: Where to Watch Wildlife
Undoubtedly Namibia’s most prolific wildlife populations are in Etosha National Park, one of Africa's premier wildlife reserves. Its name means ‘Place of Mirages’, for the dusty salt pan that sits at its centre. During the dry season, huge herds of elephants, zebras, antelope and giraffes, as well as rare black rhinos, congregate here against an eerie, bleached-white backdrop. Predators, too, are commonly sighted here.
Along the coast, penguins and seals thrive in the chilly Atlantic currents; the colony of Cape fur seals at Cape Cross Seal Reserve is one of the country's premier wildlife-watching attractions.
Not all of Namibia’s wildlife is confined to national parks. Unprotected Damaraland, in the northwest, is home to numerous antelope species and other ungulates, and is also a haven for desert rhinos, elephants, lions, spotted hyenas and other specially adapted subspecies.
Feature: Conservation Organisations
Anyone with a genuine interest in a specific ecological issue should contact one or more of the following organisations. These organisations do not, however, provide tourist information or offer organised tours (unless stated otherwise). Some do, however, have centres where you can visit and learn more.
Afri-Cat Foundation (www.africat.org) A nonprofit organisation focusing on research and the reintroduction of large cats into the wild. There’s also an on-site education centre and a specialist veterinary clinic.
Cheetah Conservation Fund (www.cheetah.org) A centre of research and education on cheetah populations and how they are conserved. It’s possible to volunteer with this organisation.
Integrated Rural Development & Nature Conservation (www.irdnc.org.na) IRDNC aims to improve the lives of rural people by diversifying their economic opportunities to include wildlife management and other valuable natural resources. Its two main projects are in the Kunene region and the Caprivi Strip.
Panthera (www.panthera.org) The world's premier wild-cat-conservation NGO with programs in place to support leopards, cheetahs and lions. Its work in the Caprivi Strip with local lion and human populations has played a significant role in turning things around.
Save the Rhino Trust (www.savetherhino.org) SRT has worked to implement community-based conservation since the early 1980s. By 2030 it hopes that its efforts will have succeeded in reestablishing the black rhino in Namibia in healthy breeding populations.
National Parks & Reserves
Despite its harsh climate, Namibia has some of Southern Africa’s grandest national parks, ranging from the world-famous, wildlife-rich Etosha National Park to the immense Namib-Naukluft Park, which protects vast dune fields, desert plains, wild mountains and unique flora. There are also the smaller (but ecologically significant) reserves of the Caprivi region, the renowned Skeleton Coast and the awe-inspiring Fish River Canyon in |Ai- |Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, which ranks among Africa’s most spectacular natural wonders.
Around 15% of Namibia is designated as national park or conservancy.
Visiting the National Parks in Namibia
Access to most wildlife parks is limited to closed vehicles only. A 2WD is sufficient for most parks, but for Nkasa Rupara National Park, Khaudum National Park and parts of Bwabwata National Park, you need a sturdy 4WD with high clearance.
Entry permits are available on arrival at park entrances. Campsites and resorts should be booked in advance, although it is possible to make a booking on arrival, subject to availability.
|Foreigners||Cost Per Day|
|adult||N$80 (Etosha, Cape Cross, |Ai- |Ais/Fish River, Skeleton Coast, Naukluft Park, Waterberg); N$40 all other parks|
|child (under 16)||free|
Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR)
The semiprivate Namibia Wildlife Resorts in Windhoek manages a large number of rest camps, campsites and resorts within the national parks. If you haven’t prebooked (ie if you’re pulling into a national park area on a whim), there’s a good chance you’ll find something available on the spot, but have a contingency plan in case things don’t work out. This is not advised for Etosha or Sossusvlei, which are perennially busy.
When booking a campsite or resort with NWR, fees must be paid by credit card before the booking will be confirmed. Note that camping fees are good for up to four people; each additional person, up to eight people, will be charged extra.
To reserve a campsite, you need to provide NWR the following:
- Your passport number.
- The name of the campsite/resort within the park, in order of preference.
- The date of your arrival to, and departure from, the park.
- The number of adults and children (including ages) camping.
- The vehicle’s number plates and also the country in which the vehicle is registered.
- Proof of your status if you are not paying ‘foreigner’ rates.
Prebooking is always advised. Bookings may be made up to 12 months in advance. Note that pets aren’t permitted in any wildlife-oriented park.
Camping & Resorts
On average, campsites cost from N$50 for an undeveloped wilderness site, up to N$200 for the rest camps in Etosha, which feature pools, shops, restaurants, kiosks and well-maintained ablutions blocks with hot water. These rates are for one person, and you generally need to pay a bit more for your vehicle and any additional campers.
NWR also offers a range of other possibilities targeted at upmarket travellers. For example, Etosha National Park hosts luxury chalets that range from N$900 to N$2000 per person, and are stacked with modern amenities, including air-con and satellite TV. These properties are also attractively perched around waterholes, offering world-class wildlife viewing from the comfort of your own private balcony.
National park accommodation may be occupied from noon on the day of arrival to 10am on the day of departure. During school holidays, visitors are limited to three nights at each camp in Etosha National Park and Namib-Naukluft Park, and 10 nights at all other camps. Pets aren’t permitted in any of the rest camps.
Conservancies & Private Game Reserves
In Namibia a conservancy is an amalgamation of private farms, or an area of communal land where farmers and/or local residents agree to combine resources for the benefit of wildlife, the local community and tourism. These conservancies and similar set-ups nicely complement the national park system, can create important income for community development, and account for more than 17% of Namibia. They are immense sanctuaries free from fencing, allowing wildlife to roam at will, and are often located in some of the country’s most stunning landscapes. Lodges and community campsites offer great opportunities to experience these wild places and, unlike in national parks, night drives are sometimes possible.
Another sort of protected area is the private game reserve, of which there are now more than 180 in Namibia. The largest of these, by far, are the 2000-sq-km NamibRand Nature Reserve, adjoining the Namib-Naukluft Park, and the 1020-sq-km Gondwana Cañon Park, bordering Fish River Canyon. Another excellent example is Okonjima Nature Reserve. In all three, concessionaires provide accommodation and activities for visitors. Most of the smaller game reserves are either private game farms or hunting farms, which sustain endemic animal species rather than livestock.
Feature: National Parks & Reserves
|Dorob National Park||Stretches from the Ugab River in the north down to Sandwich Harbour in the south (it consumes the old National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area); coastal dune belt; desert plants; sand dunes; vast gravel plains; prolific birdlife; major river systems||Fishing; birdwatching||Jun-Nov|
|Etosha National Park||22,275 sq km; semi-arid savannah surrounding a salt pan; 114 mammal species||Wildlife viewing; birdwatching; night drives||May-Sep|
|Fish River Canyon (part of |Ai- |Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park)||Africa’s longest canyon (161km); hot springs; rock strata of multiple colours||Hiking; bathing||May-Nov|
|Khaudum National Park||3840 sq km; bushveld landscape crossed by fossilised river valleys||Wildlife viewing; hiking; 4WD exploration||Jun-Oct|
|Namib-Naukluft Park||50,000 sq km; Namibia’s largest protected area; rare Hartmann’s zebras||Wildlife watching; walking||year-round|
|Nkasa Rupara National Park||320 sq km; mini-Okavango; 430 bird species; canoe trails through park||Wildlife viewing; birdwatching; canoe trips||Sep-Apr|
|Mudumu National Park||850 sq km; lush riverine environment; 400 bird species||Wildlife watching; birdwatching; guided trails||May-Sep|
|Skeleton Coast National Park||20,000 sq km; wild, foggy wilderness; desert-adapted animals||Wildlife viewing; walking; fly-in safaris||year-round|
|Waterberg Plateau Park||400 sq km; table mountain; refuge for black and white rhinos and rare antelope||Wildlife viewing; rhino tracking; hiking||May-Sep|