World Cultures | Namibia

Culture Name



Identification. Namibia was colonized by Germany and South Africa and was named Südwestafrika or South West Africa. Those who opposed colonial rule preferred Namibia, from a Nama/Damara word meaning "shield" used for the coastal desert, the Namib, which long protected the interior from access by sea. During the colonial period, many indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands and relegated to reserves established for each ethnic group. The emphasis on ethnicity was opposed by growing nationalist sentiment, and Namibia became a unitary nation-state when it gained independence in 1990.

Location and Geography. Covering 318,500 square miles (825,000 square kilometers) on the southwest coast of Africa, Namibia is bordered by Angola and Zambia (north), Botswana (east), South Africa (south), and the Atlantic Ocean (west). The coast, with its productive fishing grounds and the deep water harbor of Walvis Bay, is edged by the dunes and gravel plains of the Namib desert. Inland, the hills and plains of the central plateau are predominantly scrub savannah, gradually transforming into the Kalahari semi-desert to the east. The flat north-central and northeastern regions have extensive flood plains and areas of dense vegetation. The driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia only has permanent rivers on its northern and southern borders.

Demography. With large expanses of arid and semi-arid land, Namibia has a small population— about 1.7 million—for its size. The population is youthful, with 44 percent aged fourteen and under and only 4 percent older than 65. About 60 percent live in the far north, where rainfall is sufficient for grain farming. In 1996 Namibia's capital city, Windhoek, had a population of 183,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Despite the small population, there is great linguistic variety. Most Namibians speak Bantu languages like Oshiwambo and Otjiherero as their first language. Others speak Khoisan languages (Nama/Damara and various Bushman languages), while a smaller percentage are native speakers of Indo-European languages like Afrikaans and English. Afrikaans was promoted as a language of wider communication before independence and is still widely spoken in southern and central Namibia. At independence, English was chosen as the primary language for government and education because it was not associated with any particular ethnicity and could facilitate interaction with the outside world. Urban dwellers, young people, and northerners are more likely to have learned it.

Symbolism. The colors on the national flag symbolize important natural and human characteristics of Namibia: sunlight and the desert (yellow), rain and the ocean (blue), crops and vegetation (green), the blood shed in war (red), and peace and reconciliation (white). Schoolchildren sing the national anthem daily; it is also heard on the radio and at national celebrations.

History and Ethnic Relations

Namibia was originally inhabited by nomadic hunters, gatherers, and pastoralists (livestock herders), the ancestors of today's Bushman and Khoispeaking people. Agriculturalists and pastoralists speaking Bantu languages, such as the Owambo and Herero, arrived in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries and settled throughout northern and central Namibia. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nama- and Afrikaans-speaking pastoralists, under pressure from white settlers in South Africa, moved into southern and central



Namibia. The different groups came into conflict over access to land and other resources, but they were linked by trade relationships.


European traders, missionaries, and settlers began arriving in significant numbers in the mid-1800s. Increasing expropriations of land and cattle by German settlers led Herero and Nama communities to rebel. In a series of genocidal wars from 1904 to 1907, the German military killed three-quarters of the Herero population and nearly one-half the Namas. The survivors were settled on barren reserves and forced to work in mines and on commercial farms. Since labor was short, large numbers of men from the far north, a densely-populated area not subject to white settlement, were brought south as contract laborers. This pattern of eviction from the land and migrant labor continued when South Africa assumed control after World War I. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa formally extended its apartheid system to Namibia, creating ethnic homelands with their own administrations for each ethnic group. Movement outside one's own homeland was strictly controlled.

Emergence of the Nation. The boundaries defining present-day Namibia were European creations, and there was no prior sense of common identity among the many different groups inhabiting the area. Their common experience of oppression under colonialism, however, led to shared nationalist sentiment, first expressed in the 1940s during a letter-writing campaign by traditional leaders to the United Nations protesting South African rule. Initiated by the Herero Chiefs Council, the campaign grew throughout the 1950s to include leaders from other ethnic groups. In 1959, thirteen protestors were killed in Windhoek by South African forces as they demonstrated against the planned relocation of their community. The Windhoek Massacre and ensuing government repression stimulated the rise of new nationalist organizations. The most successful of these, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), was initially based among Owambo contract workers, but soon attracted broader support, took up armed struggle, and gained UN recognition as the "sole and authentic" representative of the Namibian people. The strongest and most enduring element of SWAPO ideology has been nationalism, seen as a necessary counter to the ethnic divisions perpetuated by apartheid. At independence on 21 March 1990, SWAPO became the first democratically elected ruling party of the new nation, a position it has held through two subsequent elections. The country was divided into thirteen new administrative regions, cross-cutting the boundaries of the former ethnic homelands.

National Identity. Despite significant cultural differences and considerable ethnic stereotyping, there is a widely shared orientation to the nation, particularly among young people, who are more likely to travel through the country for economic and educational reasons. Urban areas, large workplaces such as mines and fisheries, and secondary and tertiary schools are multi-ethnic sites where people are creating new ways of interacting across ethnic boundaries. Soccer is extremely popular among men of all ethnicities, and the national team is followed closely and is widely discussed.

Ethnic Relations. Despite the emphasis on nationalism, ethnicity is still a force in Namibian society. Some groups have restored kings to power and made land claims since independence, and the official opposition party, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), is an alliance of ethnically-based organizations. Some members of smaller groups fear domination by the Owambos, who comprise about half the population of the country and provide most of SWAPO's electoral support.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Most of central and southern Namibia, an area formerly known as the Police Zone, was appropriated for white settlement. Today it consists of large commercial farms and widely scattered towns with Western-style buildings, some distinctly German. In the rural communal areas (former ethnic homelands), there are a variety of architectural styles in addition to Western buildings. Construction materials include sticks and logs, earth, and thatch. Houses may be round, square, or beehive-shaped; in some areas, clusters of huts are enclosed in wooden palisades. Some dwellings and shops are also made of metal sheets or concrete blocks with metal roofs, a style also seen in some urban neighborhoods.

In urban areas under apartheid, whites lived in the town centers, while blacks and mixed-race people were clustered in outlying "locations," sometimes divided into sections by ethnicity. Although legislation enforcing this racial segregation was abolished in the late 1970s and 1980s, attitudes and economic barriers have changed more slowly and this pattern has persisted. Urbanization increased greatly after independence, especially in Windhoek, as the last restrictions on population movement were removed and exiles returned from abroad. The rapidity of urban growth has led to problems in the provision of basic services as well as higher unemployment and increased crime.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. For agriculturalists, the staple foods are millet and sorghum; for pastoralists, dairy products. Beans and greens are eaten with millet in the north, but otherwise few vegetables are grown or consumed. Hunting and gathering, more important in the past, still provides a dietary supplement for some. Meat is highly desired and eaten

Himba woman next to a mud hut at a Nomadic People Camp in the Skeleton Coast. Namibia was originally inhabited by nomadic hunters, gatherers, and pastoralists.

as often as it is feasible—daily for some, on special occasions for others. Fish consumption is slowly increasing with government promotion of Namibian fish products.


Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Important occasions are marked by the slaughter of cattle or goats, and the consumption of meat, home-brewed beer, purchased beverages, and other foods. In some cultures, leftover meat is sent home with the guests.

Basic Economy. The Namibian economy is divided between capital-intensive industry, which accounts for most of the gross domestic product, and labor-intensive subsistence agriculture, which employs over half of the population. With little access to financial or technical assistance, most subsistence farmers rely on small-scale commercial activity and/or family members who earn wages or pensions to make ends meet.

Land Tenure and Property. Land tenure in central and southern Namibia is based on private property. In the rural communal areas, land is not bought or sold; families have heritable rights to use specific plots or pay fees to traditional leaders for use rights. In pastoral communities, all members generally have access to grazing and water in the community's area. Recent sources of controversy include the illegal fencing of communal land for private use by the wealthy and the extensive ownership of land by whites.

Commercial Activities. Alongside Namibian retail stores and South African chains, informal, small-scale commercial activity is widespread. Home-brewed alcohol, freshly butchered meat, prepared foods, and crafts are the major products sold. Others buy small quantities of soap, fruit, watches, and other goods to resell along the roadside or in small shops.

Major Industries. Mining (diamonds and other gemstones, uranium), fishing and fish processing, and commercial agriculture (cattle and sheep) have long been the economic mainstays in terms of value produced. Earnings fluctuate greatly depending on world market prices and weather conditions. The manufacturing sector is growing with government promotion and incentives, although the small size of the skilled labor force and domestic market are limiting factors. Tourism has grown substantially since independence.

Trade. Diamonds and other minerals are the most important exports, followed by processed and unprocessed fish, other food products, and live animals. The main export destinations include the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Spain. Most imports are purchased from South Africa, and include food and beverages as well as a wide variety of manufactured goods. Imports slightly exceed exports.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Namibia is characterized by great economic inequality; the wealthiest 1 percent consume more than the poorest half of the population combined. Segregation has continued since the end of apartheid, although more non-whites have joined the upper classes. Whites, only 7 percent of the population, own and manage most large businesses and commercial farms; in the civil service, the races are on more equal terms. In the rural communal areas, teachers, health care workers, government employees, and successful business people form a local elite, though they are still closely integrated into their communities through kinship ties and obligations.

Symbols of Social Stratification. The wealthier classes of all races are distinguished by expensive cars, large homes in exclusive neighborhoods, a command of English, attendance at private schools, and extensive travel.

Political Life

Government. Namibia has a parliamentary government with two houses (National Assembly and National Council), a president, prime minister, and cabinet. There is a clear separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers, and the constitution is internationally acclaimed for its guarantees of fundamental rights and freedoms. Elections since independence have been judged "free and fair" by outside observers.

Leadership and Political Officials. Voters elect parties, rather than candidates, and the parties select representatives to fill the seats they win.

Social Problems and Control. Although crime levels are relatively low, recent years have seen an increase in violent crime and theft, along with complaints that the police lack the manpower and equipment to combat crime properly.

Military Activity. The major post-independence military accomplishment was merging the previously opposed People's Liberation Army of Namibia and the South West Africa Territorial Force into a single national army. Namibia's recent involvement in a civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been controversial.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

During a wave of grassroots organizing in the 1980s, dozens of community-based organizations (CBOs) were formed to deal with worsening social problems and to complement the political struggle for independence. Today numerous CBOs, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), cooperatives, and religious groups provide housing assistance, legal advice, education, community media outlets, and self-help projects. The government has created a favorable climate for these groups, seeing them as valuable partners in the task of developing Namibia.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. In the rural communal areas, men and boys generally care for livestock, build and maintain homesteads, plow fields, and contribute some agricultural labor, while women and girls do most of the agricultural labor, food preparation, childcare, and household work.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women married to migrant laborers have taken on some traditionally male responsibilities, and women who fled the country to participate in the liberation struggle took on new roles as combatants, students, and refugee camp workers. They pushed SWAPO to support gender equality and helped ensure that the Constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women, however the process of changing discriminatory legislation is slow and ongoing. Women still have fewer economic opportunities than men, and the incidence of rape and domestic violence is extremely high.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Weddings are extremely important social events in Namibia, bringing family and friends together to sing, dance, and feast. Most weddings combine old and new elements. Many Owambo couples, for example, say their vows in a church ceremony accompanied by identically-dressed bridesmaids and groomsmen, then exit to a crowd of guests shouting praises, dancing, and waving horsetail whisks.

Domestic Unit. Most households are not nuclear families, but contain other kin as well. The head of the household manages domestic finances, makes important decisions, and organizes productive activities.

Kin Groups. Corporate kin groups are formed by ties traced through women (matrilineal), men (patrilineal), or both (bilateral), depending on ethnicity. These kin groups provide a support network for their members and control joint property, especially livestock; in the past, they also played significant roles in political and religious affairs. There has been a general shift from matrilinealism to patrilinealism. For example, wives and children in matrilineal communities can now assert rights to the property of deceased husbands and fathers, which has been traditionally inherited by the man's matrilineal relatives (his siblings and sisters' children).


Infant Care. Babies are breast-fed and carried on the mother's back until about the age of two. Most sleep with their mothers, and children usually share a bed or room with siblings.


Downtown Windhoek, Namibia's capital city, is a rapidly growing urban center.


Child Rearing and Education. Parents receive substantial help with child rearing from other family members. It is not unusual for children to live with other relatives if the parents have work obligations, the child needs to be closer to school, or a relative needs a child's help. Most boys and girls attend primary school, although sometimes they stay at home to help with the livestock or crops.

Higher Education. Education is highly valued, but the limited availability of places in secondary and tertiary schools, as well as the expense involved, hinders many students from continuing beyond primary school.


Extended greetings and handshakes are very important in most Namibian cultures. When food and drink is offered, it is polite to accept. There is a general emphasis on emotional restraint in public, and public displays of affection between spouses or lovers are frowned upon, especially in rural areas.


Although a small percentage of the population practices traditional religions, the vast majority are Christian. The Lutheran Church is the largest; other major denominations include the Catholic, Dutch Reformed, and Anglican churches. Easter and Christmas are public holidays and especially popular times for travel so families can gather together.

Medicine and Health Care

The health care system ranges from state-of-the-art private hospitals in Windhoek to small state- or church-run clinics in the rural areas. Traditional healers are sometimes consulted instead of or in addition to the biomedical system, particularly when biomedicine has been unsuccessful.

Although malaria is fairly common in the north and 10 percent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition, the most serious health problem is HIV-AIDS—20 to 25 percent of the adult population is estimated to be infected, and the number is still rising. Life expectancy has dropped significantly, and analysts predict a major loss of economic productivity as most of those infected are young people. The number of AIDS orphans is already testing the ability of kinship networks to cope.


A Himba village in Kaokoland. In pastoral communities, all members generally have access to grazing and water in the community's area.


Secular Celebrations

Celebrations with national or political significance include Cassinga Day (4 May) which commemorates the deaths of hundreds of Namibian refugees in a 1978 attack, Independence Day (21 May), and Heroes Day (26 August). These occasions are marked by singing, dancing, and speeches by public officials. Other secular holidays include New Year's Day (1 January), Workers' Day (1 May), and Africa Day (25 May).

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Before independence, European-influenced arts were relatively well-funded by private and governmental sources. Since independence, research on and promotion of indigenous music, dance oral literature, and other artistic forms has increased greatly with government support.

Literature. The literary community in Namibia is relatively small. Most literature in the indigenous languages consists of traditional tales, short stories, and novels written for schoolchildren. Published fiction, poetry, and autobiographical writings appear in both the English and Afrikaans languages.

Graphic Arts. Many craftspeople produce objects for local use and the tourist trade; wood carvings (containers, furniture, animals) from the Kavango and basketry from Owambo are the best known examples. Some craftspeople have formed organizations to assist each other with production and marketing.

Performance Arts. The National Theatre of Namibia serves as a venue for both Namibian and foreign musicians and stage actors, in addition to assisting community-based drama groups. School and church groups create and stage less formal productions. Traditional dance troupes representing the various ethnic groups of Namibia perform at local and national festivals and holiday celebrations, and also participate in competitions.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The only university, the University of Namibia (UNAM), was founded in 1992. The largely foreign faculty is slowly being replaced as qualified Namibian candidates become available. Applied sciences are emphasized over theoretical sciences in an effort to meet Namibia's human resource needs. Agricultural, environmental, and health sciences are prominent, and numerous socioeconomic research reports have been produced by UNAM's Social Sciences Division and several independent social science research organizations.


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Becker, Heike. Namibian Women's Movement, 1980 to 1992: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Reconstruction, 1995.

Emmett, Tony. Popular Resistance and the Roots of Nationalism in Namibia, 1915–1966, 1999.

Gordon, Robert J. The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass, 1992.

Hayes, Patricia, Jeremy Silvester, Marion Wallace, and Wolfram Hartmann, eds. Namibia Under South African Rule: Mobility and Containment, 1915–1946, 1998.

Katjavivi, Peter H. A History of Resistance in Namibia, 1988.

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The Namibian.

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Tapscott, Chris. "National Reconciliation, Social Equity and Class Formation in Independent Namibia." Journal of Southern African Studies 19 (1): 29–39, 1993.

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