Despite being the most densely populated part of Namibia, the central northern region doesn’t often feature in tourist itineraries. Geographically and historically isolated from the rest of the country by the huge Etosha National Park, it is often forgotten. But overgrown with beautiful makalani palms, marula and mopane trees and the odd baobab make this landscape picturesque. It is also home to the Owambo people, who represent almost half of Namibia’s total population.
In around 1550, the people referred to collectively as the Aawambo moved southwards from the Great Lakes in East Africa and settled between the Kunene and Okavango rivers.
In the pre-colonial structure of Owambo society there was a king and his headmen in each of the seven Owambo groups, and the king always had the last say! Today only three of the Owambo clans – the Ndonga, Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi – still recognise their kings and are ruled by chiefs-in-council.
Learning to speak Kwanyama
Good morning: Wa lele po?
Good afternoon: Wa uhlala po?
Good evening: Wa tokelwa po?
Thank you: Tangi
Where is the toilet: Okandjuwo oke li peni?
The Kwanyama constitute the largest of the eight Owambo tribes. The others are the Ndonga, Kwambi, Ngandyela, Kwaluudhi and Mbalanhu, and the smaller Nkolonkadhi and Unda.
The Owambo languages are Bantu in origin, closely related to one another and commonly understood by Oshiwambo speakers. The Kwenyama and Ndonga languages have been developed into written languages.
- A traditional Owambo homestead
Many traditional villages still exist and demonstrate the orderliness of their social structure. Their villages are hidden behind wooden fences. At the entrance visitors are welcomed before being allowed to enter the village. Inside, each area is separated with wooden poles and is dedicated to a particular group of people.
Owambo houses are traditionally of the rondavel type, mostly surrounded by palisades and often connected by passages.
Cattle kraals usually form part of the complex. The Nguni cattle are contained within walls of dried thorn bush, and often used to help carry water and supplies to and from the villages.
- Keeping the cattle at bay with a makeshift fence
The villages are surrounded by cultivated lands. The Owambo practise a mixed economy of agriculture, mainly mahangu (pearl millet), sorghum and beans, and animal husbandry (cattle) supplemented by fishing in shallow pools and watercourses called oshanas.
- An Owambo woman prepares Mahangu
About a quarter of the Owambo region has been claimed by individual landowners, each occupying farms of several thousand hectares. Grazing and farming are communal but subject to the laws of the people.
Traditional land is used according to traditional right of occupation, which they get by paying cattle to the ‘owner’ of the ward (omkunda).
One of the best-known ornamental artefacts developed by the Owambo people is the ekipa, a button shaped like a beehive made from ivory or bone, which was traditionally worn by women on leather belts down their backs. According to experts, when an Owambo king hunted an elephant at the opening of a hunting season, the royal family had the right to the ivory. A woman wore the ekipa as a sign of esteem and royalty. The number of ekipas displayed conveyed her status in the community and gave an indication of the wealth of her family. The artefacts were worn on special occasions such as fertility feasts, weddings and funerals. There is also evidence the ekipa was used as money.
- Small bream are a tasty source of protein for the locals
Trading is strongly encouraged in the Owambo community, as is evidenced by the more than 10 000 stalls, cuca shops and numerous locally owned shopping complexes in the region. Large numbers of Oshiwambo people now work in other parts of the country and today’s workforces in the mining and fishing industries consist primarily of Owambo people.
- Local bars (shebeens) line the main road and are a popular party spot for the locals
The Owambo people have always played an active role in politics. Namibia’s ruling party, SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation), started as a non-violent pressure group referred to as the Owambo People’s Organisation. It was led by Andimba Herman Toivo ya Toivo and Samuel Shafiishuna Nujoma, the man destined to become the first president of an independent Namibia.
Home industries such as dressmaking, wood carving, pottery and basketry provide an income for many Owambo women, who traditionally cultivated the land and raised the children. Today Owambo women are increasingly entering the labour market as nurses, clerks, shop assistants and teachers.
Since 1870, following the advent of the Finnish Mission in Owambo, and subsequently the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, Christianity has played a major role in the lives of the Owambo people. Today more than half of the population has some link with these denominations. The Finnish Mission Church developed into an independent Owambo/Kavango Church, which also has adherents among the Kavango people of the north-east.
The Owambo regions of Omusati, Oshana, Ohangwena and Oshikoto were referred to in former years as Owamboland – the ‘homeland’ established during the sixties for the Owambo people by the South African Government – nowadays the area is referred to informally as the Four O regions. While the majority of Namibia’s Owambo live in these O regions, many have migrated southwards to other parts of the country.
The major portion of these four regions, which have a total surface area of just over 56 100 km2, consists of communal farming land, that is land where there is no individual ownership or demarcation, and where the majority of the inhabitants live from subsistence farming.
- Plains flood and lillies flower
Life on the vast plains depends on the seasonal efundja, the floods that feed the rivers and oshanas, flat shallow depressions, many of which light up with copious growths of white lilies soon after they have filled with water in the rainy season. It provides drinking water to humans and animals, protein in the form of fish and a habitat for large numbers of aquatic birds.
- Makalani palms close to a traditional village
The makalani palms (Hyphaene petersiana) tower over the landscape. Sap is tapped from the growing tip of the stems of these palms and left to ferment into a potent drink called Ombike (palm wine). The fruit of the makalani palm takes two years to mature and has a white, bony kernel. Referred to as vegetable ivory, the hard kernel is suitable for carving small ornaments, jewellery and curios.
- Cattle help with the daily chores
The best time of the year to visit these regions is April or May, after the rains. By this time the roads are suitable for driving on, the heat of the summer has abated and the wetlands still host many water birds, such as cranes, storks, ducks, herons and small waders.
From Olukonda, the nearby attractions include the Ombuga Grasslands & Lake Oponono (1-2 hours drive away, accompanied by a local guide), the markets at Ondangwa and Oshakati (15–45 minutes) and the Etosha National Park (2-3 hours).
Farther north west, the Tsandi Royal Homestead is home to the king of one of the seven tribes in Owambo. Since time immemorial it has been the centre for traditional values, customs and cultural practices to be passed down from generation to generation. Visitors will find themselves enchanted by the Uukwaluudhi tribe. Here they can take a step closer and meet the people of Owambo, gain insight into the local culture and way of life, learn more about the traditions of the Uukwaluudhi Kingdom and have the opportunity to meet the King in person. Craft outlets with traditional artifacts on display provide the opportunity to buy local handmade crafts including woven baskets, wooden cups and clay pots. A guided tour to the monument at Ongulumbashe (a historical place where the beginning of the liberation struggle in 1966 is commemorated) can be organised on request. The Tsandi Royal Homestead is located in Tsandi, the main town of Uukwaluudhi in the Omusati region, approximately 100 km from Oshakati.
To gain a real insight into the north-central region, visitors are advised to drive right up to the north-western corner where they will be rewarded with the stunning sight of the Ruacana Falls in the mighty Kunene, one of the two rivers on the border between Namibia and Angola.
Find out more about how you can visit and meet the people of the Okahandja Cultural Village
Find campsites in the north-central regions
Get a take on Owambo from a local artist, Alpheus Mvula: share my Owambo
Interested in the different cultures of Namibia? From Owambo to Himba, read about them here
This text has been adapted from Namibia Holiday & Travel – for more great information, download it from the appstore