The ideas and thoughts expressed within this blog are not the views or opinions of WorldTeach nor the Namibia Ministry of Education, but rather my personal views.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Tribe Called Quest

“Um…? America?...United...States…of America?....,” I say unsuredly and hesitantly when (often) asked, “What tribe are you from?” Surprisingly, the response I get from the inquisitor is, “Oh! U.S.A.?! Obama!” Apparently, the question is genuine and suggests that my looks (color, hair, facial features, dress) are not clear indicators of my ethnicity or my nationality here. I’ve been mistaken for Ovambo….in Ovamboland (far North). Some guess that I am from “Zim,” Zimbabwe. Others simply assume I’m Namibian, that is, until I open my mouth.

There are a number of racial and ethnic groups in Namibia. In fact, during apartheid, there were over a dozen separate schooling systems for learners, one for each racial group. After independence in 1990, the education system was consolidated into one. There is now a scattering of people across the country; however, the various ethnic groups still predominantly live in the regions where they were sent during colonial times. The ethnic groups were distinct and lived apart even before Germany took Namibia as a colony; but, the current regions now look as they do in regards to ethnic group because of the forced relocations that took place under German rule. Most blacks were sent to areas in the North, in less fertile and arable regions. There is still a quasi-border, called the “red line,” that separates the North from the South. This “red line” is now simply considered the animal disease control checkpoint, livestock bred north of this boundary may not be sold to the south or exported to overseas markets.

The various ethnic groups in Namibia come in all hues and colors; they speak different languages; and have different traditions. I am still trying to find ways to distinguish some of them. The Ovambo, the Herero, the Ovahimba “Himba,” Damara, the Nama, the San, the Kavango, and the Caprivians (though the name refers to a German lieutenant who seized that land – the Caprivi strip – to make it a part of Namibia, and as such, does not have universal acceptance among the members of that group), are among the different tribes. All of the groups have proud and rich traditions; although, I think the Himba and the San (also sometimes referred to as “Bushmen”) are the groups with the most distinctive traditions, as compared to Western norms.

Both the Himba and the San are still fairly nomadic and pastoral. Both also still dress minimally and live minimally off the land. Ovahimba women wear their hair locked and in a somewhat ornamental design; cover their bodies in a red ochre mixture, in part to protect from the sun; and go topless, save for full body wraps used in the mornings and evenings. The bare breasts of Himba women are seen everywhere the Himba are seen, in council meetings (in which others are wearing three-piece suits), in markets, on the streets of cities, villages, and towns. Common sights they may be, one of my Caprivian colleagues still has trouble figuring out where to look when Himba women are around. He thinks he should be looking anywhere but at their breasts. The Himba primarily live in Opuwo (Kunene Region); although, some travel to other areas, like Windhoek, to sell crafts.

The San are rarely seen in towns and cities. They live in villages and in the desert. As conservancies and national parks increase in popularity, some of the San people have been forced to relocate, in apparent efforts to reduce the hunting of the now-protected animal species that once sustained the dietary habits and needs of the San.

At each opportunity, I am reading about Namibia’s history and talking to locals hearing their-stories. I think I have my facts straight above, but I’m humble and ready to stand corrected (and not by Wikipedia, but by more official or primary sources).


  1. Hey Tamara, I just sent this to your email too:

    The NUF mid-year capstone presentation was a big success. I got lots of hugs afterwards. Thank you for getting back to me.

    I love your blog. It's great.

    Miguel just called me and asked me to work on the survey for the fellows and mentors for this year. He said you did a great job last year, but that of course he can't ask you again since you're in Namibia. I have a few questions, which I'll try to make brief since I know internet time is precious:

    * Do you have any electronic versions of the survey questions (for mentors and fellows); the survey data; and the 3 reports?

    * Are there any questions you wished you had added?

    * Any advice or lessons learned that I should keep in mind? Anything you would have done differently?

    * Were you paid? Hourly or contractual? Anything else I should know?

    Thanks for all your help.



  2. Hey Tamara! Just happened upon your blog through your facebook page (through Denise's page). It looks like you're having a good trip. This post was very informative.

    So a bad question (b/c I can look it up): are all the different tribes unified? For instance do folks learn a national language in addition to their tribal langauge?
    Take care

  3. Hi Cornelius. English is currently the national language of Namibia (since around independence). It is the language of instruction in schools for those in grades 4-12; although, many of the home languages are required to be taught and studies in addition to English. Prior to independence, Afrikaans was the main national language, so many people speak and understand Afrikaans as well.