The Ovambo People


The Ovambo inhabit the far southwest of Angola and northern Namibia; they are among the smallest of Angolan populations, but represent a full 50 percent of the population of Namibia. In Angola, the Ovambo number only around 150,000, while in Namibia, they number close to 1 million. The Ovambo are a Bantu-speaking people, and their language is called Oshivambo. Collectively, they make up eight closely related groups who formed separate chiefdoms and whose economies were based on raising cattle, fishing, and farming. The Ovambo have a close historical tie with the Herero,who live further south in Namibia. The Herero andOvamboclaimtheydescendfrom brothers.

TheOvamboarrivedintheir current homeland sometime in the 16th century, being the spearhead of the great movement of Bantu peoples into areas where Khoisan peoples had lived for over 20,000 years. The Ovambo and the related Herero moved from the headwaters of the Zambezi, spreading the mixed economy of raising cat-tle and grain cultivation into the Cunene River valley. The Ovambo settled along the Cunene/Kunene River, which today forms part of the border between Angola and Namibia, entering the Atlantic at the small town of Foz do Cunene. The region the Europeans called Ovamboland stretched between the Cunene and the Kavango rivers.

The region where they settled has around 431 millimeters (17 inches) of rain each year, which floods the land, filling shallow pans called oshana that are explo-ited for fishing and for farming. The Ovambo kingdoms that emerged recognized Humbe overlordship: the Humbe being the ruling lineage of the Mataman kingdom that held sway over much of the area north of Ovamboland until the middle of the 17th century, when it fell to the Ovimbundu. The Ovambo lived far from European interests and escaped the worst of the Atlantic slave trade.

They were not really in contact with Europeans until the Germans attempted to control Namibia, then called South West Africa, in 1884. The Germans had a difficult time trying to conquer the indigenous peoples and did not eventually bring an end to Ovambo resistance until 1917.Diamonds were discovered in South West Africa in 1908, and German efforts concentrated on securing access to interior rivers. The Ovambo did not acquiesce to German control easily, but during World War I, the region was seized by South Africa and, in 1920, South African control was recognized by the League of Nations.

The Ovambo are matrilineal, and only the akwanekamba families produced the political leadership roles. Political leader-ship came through daughters and sons of political leaders, but they were treated no differently than any other male member of the group. Christian missions have made great strides in converting the Ovambo, and the Finnish Missionary Society has had a station in Ovamboland since 1870. Today, most Ovambo belong to the Lutheran Ovambokavango Church. Nonetheless, many still believe in their traditional religion, which centers on the creator god Kalunga.

Cultivationismainlyawoman’sprov-ince, and they grow millet, maize, beans, sweet potatoes, peanuts, melons, and pumpkins. Millet is pounded and made into flour that is cooked as a dry porridge—much the way maize is prepared in South Africa, Botswana, or Lesotho—and maize is made into beer. Men tend livestock, but due to flooding, grazing is not as good as it is further south among the Herero. Ovambo who live in the western part of their homeland have developed skills such as copper and iron working. Since there are no deposits of either mineral in Ovam-boland, it is assumed they knew the art of metalworking before they came to the area.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Ovambo resisted the South Africans in a number of local uprisings. In 1948, South Africa introduced apartheid laws, which provoked a number of independence movements. In 1960, the South West People’s Organiza-tion or SWAPO was formed, and from the beginning it was dominated by Ovambo. In 1973, an independent Ovamboland was declared by South Africa. Similar to “inde-pendent” native homelands (usually called Bantustans by the international commu-nity) in South Africa, and, again similar to the others South Africa tried to set up at that time, Ovamboland was not inter-nationally recognized.

Ovamboland’s gov-ernment was cruel and harsh and existed only because it was backed by the South African government; again, not unlike the experience in South Africa. In 1990, SWAPO was able to gain Namibia’s independence and, though heavily domi-nated by Ovambo, it has tried to be nonra-cial and not favor any one ethnicity. Unlike many other independent states on the African continent, the Namibian government remains open to full white par-ticipation in politics as well as in the economy. There is no talk of land confisca-tions or other forms of revenge or retalia-tions for what Ovambo and other Namibians suffered under the Germans or the South Africans.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Olson, James. The Peoples of Africa: An Eth- nohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Stokes, Jamie. “Ovambo.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 2009.