Namibia - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Namibia: the Bradt Travel Guide.

The 20th century

Namibian war of resistance 1904–07

As land was progressively bought up, or sometimes simply taken from the local inhabitants by colonists, various skirmishes and small uprisings developed. The largest started in October 1903 with the Bondelswarts near Warmbad, which distracted most of the German Schutztruppe in the south.

The Herero nation had become increasingly unhappy about its loss of land, and in January 1904 Samuel Maherero ordered a Herero uprising against the German colonial forces. Initially he was clear to exclude as targets Boer and English settlers and German women and children. Simultaneously he appealed to Hendrik Witbooi, and other Nama leaders, to join the battle – they, however, stayed out of the fight.

At first the Hereros had success in taking many German farms and smaller outposts, and in severing the railway line between Swakopmund and Windhoek. However, later in 1904, the German General Leutwein was replaced by von Trotha – who had a reputation for brutal oppression after his time in east Africa. Backed by domestic German opinion demanding a swift resolution, von Trotha led a large German force including heavy artillery against the Hereros.

By August 1904 the Hereros were pushed back to their stronghold of Waterberg, with its permanent waterholes, and von Trotha proposed that the only solution to the problem was to eliminate or expel the Hereros as a nation. On 11 August, over 3,500 Herero warriors and their families assembled expecting peace negotiations, but instead were attacked by 1,500 German soldiers. It’s estimated that 3,000–5,000 Hereros were killed in the battle. Those who remained fled east into the desert, and von Trotha set up guard to prevent their return. Immediately following the battle, any Herero that the German troops caught up with was put to death, including women and children. In October 1904, von Trotha stated that the Hereros were no longer German subjects, ordering them to leave Namibia or face death on their capture. This is cited in the UN Whitaker Report on Genocide as one of the earliest examples of genocide in the 20th century. However, in late 1904, following a change of orders, Herero prisoners were sent to concentration camps. Shark Island in Lüderitz is a notorious example, where they were made to work as slave labour. Conditions at these camps were very poor, and death rates were high

Thereafter, somewhat too late to be effective, Hendrik Witbooi’s people also revolted against the Germans, and wrote encouraging the other Nama groups to do the same. The Red Nation, Topnaar, Swartbooi and Bondelswarts joined in attacking the Germans, though the last were largely incapacitated after their battles the previous year. The Basters stayed out of the fight.

For several years these Nama groups waged an effective guerrilla campaign against the colonial forces, using the waterless sands of the Kalahari as a haven in which the German troops were ineffective. However, in 1905 Hendrik Witbooi was killed, and January 1907 saw the last fighters sue for peace.

German consolidation

With South West Africa under stable German control, there was an influx of German settler families and the colony began to develop rapidly. The settlers were given large plots of the country’s most productive lands, the railway network was expanded, and many of the towns began to grow. The non- European Namibians were increasingly marginalised, and simply used as a source of labour.

The building of the railway to Lüderitz led to the discovery of diamonds around there in 1908, and the resulting boom encouraged an influx of prospectors and German opportunists. By that time the mine at Tsumeb was already thriving, and moving its copper produce south on the newly built railway.

The German settlers thrived until the declaration of World War I. Between 1907 and 1914 they were granted self-rule from Germany, a number of the main towns were declared municipalities, and many of Namibia’s existing civic buildings were constructed.

World War I

At the onset of World War I, Britain encouraged South Africa to push north and wrest South West Africa from the Germans. In July 1915, the German colonial troops surrendered to South African forces at Khorab, where a memorial now marks the spot. At the end of the war, Namibia became a League of Nations ‘trust territory’, assigned to the Union of South Africa as ‘a sacred trust in the name of civilisation’ to ‘promote to the utmost the material and moral well-being of its inhabitants’. At the same time, the Caprivi Strip was incorporated back into Bechuanaland (now Botswana) – only to be returned 20 years later.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Namibia: the Bradt Travel Guide.

Despite its aridity, Namibia is full of fascinating wildlife. Its national parks and concession areas have protected their flora and fauna effectively and offer some superb big game, far from the tourist hordes of more conventional safari countries. Namibia has been the most successful country in the world at protecting its black rhino population, and has Africa’s largest population of cheetahs.

Because the Namib is one of the world’s oldest deserts, the extraordinary way that plants, animals and even human populations have adapted and evolved in order to survive here is fascinating. There are many endemic species: animals and plants not found anywhere else. From beetles and birds to big game like the famous ‘desert elephants’ and strange welwitschia plants – Namibia has unique and varied wildlife.


Namibia’s large mammals are typical of the savannah areas of southern Africa, though those that rely on daily water are restricted in their distributions. With modern game capture and relocation techniques, you may well find animals far out of their natural ranges. (Bontebok and black wildebeest, for example, are native to South Africa but are now found on many ranches in Namibia.) Thus what you may see in a given area may be different from what ‘naturally occurs’.

Cheetah Namibia by Tricia HayneNamibia is home to 40% of Africa's cheetah population © Tricia Hayne

The large predators are all here in Namibia. Lion are locally common, but largely confined to the parks and the Caprivi area away from dense habitation. Leopard are exceedingly common throughout the country, and the central highlands provide just the kind of rocky habitat that they love. They are, however, very rarely seen naturally. Cheetah do exceptionally well in Namibia, which is said to have about 40% of Africa’s population. This is mainly because commercial farmers eradicate lion and hyena relatively easily, and allow smaller buck, the cheetah’s natural prey, to coexist with cattle. Hence the cheetahs thrive on large ranches – having problems only if the farmers suspect them of killing stock, and try to eradicate them, too.

Wild dog have a stronghold in the wild areas in and around Khaudum, but are seldom seen elsewhere. They need huge territories in which to roam, and don’t survive well on commercially farmed land. Recent attempts to reintroduce them to Etosha have failed; it is hoped that some may succeed in the future. The social spotted hyena is common in the north and northwest of the country, and even occurs down into the Namib’s central desert areas and the Naukluft mountains – though it is relatively unusual here. Much more common and widespread is the solitary, secretive brown hyena, which scavenges by the coast among the seal colonies, though is rarely seen.

Buffalo occur in protected national parks in the Caprivi, and have been reintroduced to Waterberg from South Africa, but are not found elsewhere in Namibia. Elephant occur widely in the north, in Khaudum, Caprivi and Etosha. A separate population has its stronghold in the Kunene region. Many venture right down the river valleys and live in desert areas: these are the famous ‘desert elephants’. They survive there by knowing exactly where the area’s waterholes are, and where water can be found in the rivers. This ancestral knowledge, probably passed down the generations, is easily lost, although in recent years various conservation/development schemes in the area have been so successful that these ‘desert-adapted’ elephants are now thriving.

Black rhino occur in similar areas, but poaching now effectively limits them to some of the main national parks, and the less accessible areas of the Kunene Region. Their numbers also are doing very well; indeed,those in the Kunene form one of Africa’s only increasing black rhino populations: success indeed for an area outside any national park where only community conservation schemes stand between the poachers and their quarry. White rhino have been re-introduced to Waterberg and Etosha, where they seem to be thriving. Antelope are well represented, with springbok, gemsbok or impala being numerically dominant depending on the area. The rare endemic black-faced impala is a subspecies found only in northwestern Namibia and southern Angola.

Roan antelope are found in the Caprivi, Waterberg and Etosha. Sable occur only in the Caprivi, with excellent numbers often seen on the Okavango’s floodplains on the edge of Mahango. In the Caprivi’s wetter areas there are also red lechwe and the odd sitatunga.

Red hartebeest are widespread in the north and east, though common nowhere. Blue wildebeest are found in Etosha and the north, as are giraffe. Eland occur in Etosha and the Kalahari, whilst kudu seem the most adaptable of the large antelope, occurring everywhere apart from the coastal desert strip – and also eastwards to the Indian Ocean.

Amongst the smaller antelope, duiker are common everywhere apart from the desert, as are steenbok. Klipspringer occur throughout Namibia’s mountains. Namibia’s smallest antelope, the Damara dik-dik, is endemic to the area around the Kunene Region and Etosha.


Much of Namibia is very dry, and thus hasn’t the variation in resident birds that you might find in lusher environments. However, many of those drycountry birds have restricted distributions, and so are endemic, or close to being so. Further, where Namibia’s drier interior borders onto a wetter area, as within Mahango National Park, or along the Kunene and Okavango rivers to the north, the species count shoots up.

In addition to its residents, Namibia receives many migrants. In September and October the Palaearctic migrants appear (ie: those that come from the northern hemisphere – normally Europe), and they remain until around April or May. This is also the peak time to see the intra-African migrants, which come from further north in Africa.

The coastal wetland sites, most notably around Walvis Bay and Sandwich Harbour, receive visits from many migrating species, as well as seabird species that aren’t normally seen in the interior of southern Africa. So trips including the coast, as well as the country’s interior and riverine borders, make Namibia an excellent and varied destination for birders.

Inevitably the rains from December to around April see an explosion in the availability of most birds’ food: seeds, fruits and insects. Hence this is the prime time for birds to nest, even if it is also the most difficult time to visit the more remote areas of the country.

People and culture

Ethnic groups

When the colonial powers carved up Africa, the divisions between the countries bore virtually no resemblance to the traditional areas of the various ethnic groups, many of which therefore ended up split between two or more countries. As you will see, there are cultural differences between the groups in different parts of Namibia, but they are only a little more pronounced than those between the states of the USA, or the regions of the (relatively tiny) UK.

There continues to be a great deal of inter-marriage and mixing of these various peoples and cultures – perhaps more so than there has ever been, because of the efficiency of modern transport systems. Generally, there is very little friction between these communities (whose boundaries, as we have said, are indistinct) and Namibia’s various peoples live peacefully together.

Ovambo people Namibia by Tricia HayneMany Ovambo people still live in the north in their homeland, making traditional thatched roofs © Tricia Hayne


Namibia boasts some of the world’s oldest rock paintings and engravings, which have been attributed to ancestors of the Bushmen. The scenes are naturalistic depictions of animals, people, hunting, battles and social rituals. Local geology determined the colour usage in the paintings. Some are monochrome pictures in red, but many are multi-coloured, using ground-up earth pigments mixed with animal fat to produce ‘paints’ of red, brown, yellow, blue, violet, grey, black and white. Rock engravings have also been found, often in areas where there is an absence of smooth, sheltered rock surfaces to paint on. Some of the best examples of paintings and engravings are in the Brandberg, Twyfelfontein and Erongo areas.

However, there is more to Namibian creativity than rock paintings and engravings. Traditional arts and crafts include basketry, woodcarving, leatherwork, beadwork, pottery, music-making and dancing. More contemporary arts and crafts encompass textile weaving and embroidery, sculptures, print-making and theatre. The annual Bank Windhoek Arts Festival ( draws together every aspect of the arts, from music, dance and drama to the visual arts and even creative writing. Events are held primarily in Windhoek, but participants are selected from across the country.


Baskets are typically woven by women and are part of the crafts tradition of the northern Namibian peoples – Caprivi, Himba, Herero, Kavango and Ovambo. Most baskets are made from strips of makalani palm leaves coiled into a shape that is determined by its purpose: flat, plate shapes for winnowing baskets, large bowl-shaped baskets for carrying things, small closed baskets with lids and bottle shapes for storing liquids. Symbolic geometric patterns are woven into a basket as it is being made, using strips of palm leaves dyed in dark browns, purples and yellows.


The northern Namibian peoples – Bushmen, Caprivians, Damara, Himba, Kavango and Ovambo – have a tradition of woodcarving, which is usually practised by men. Wooden objects are carved using adzes, axes and knives; lathe-turned work is not traditional. Carving, incising and burning techniques are used to decorate the wood. A wide range of woodcarving is produced: sculptural headrests, musical instruments such as drums and thumb pianos; masks, walking-sticks, toys, animal figurines, bows, arrows and quivers; domestic utensils including oval and round bowls and buckets as well as household furniture.


Beadwork is traditionally the domain of the Bushman and Himba peoples. The Bushmen make beads from ostrich-egg shells, porcupine quills, seeds, nuts and branches, and also use commercially produced glass beads. The Himba people use iron beads and shells. In both peoples, men tend to make the beads and the women weave and string them into artefacts. These include necklaces, bracelets, armlets, anklets and headbands. The Bushmen also use beadwork to decorate their leatherwork bags, pouches and clothing – a particularly striking traditional design being the multi-coloured circular ‘owl’s-eye’. In addition to beadwork, the Himba people make a traditional iron-bead and leather head ornament (oruvanda) that all women wear, and belts (epanda), worn only by mothers.


Traditional dancing in Namibia is a participatory activity at community gatherings and events like weddings. Hence, a visitor is unlikely to witness any, unless invited by a Namibian. Occasionally, public performances of traditional dancing are to be seen at local arts festivals, or even in traditional villages such as Lizauli. In Bushmanland, in villages surrounding Tsumkwe, traditional Bushmen dances are performed for tourists – usually for a fee. This is generally a relaxed, uncontrived affair. Performances of European dance, including ballet, take place at either the National Theatre of Namibia or at the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre.


Most of the Namibian peoples have a music-making tradition – singing, and playing drums, bows, thumb pianos and harps. The Namas also have a tradition of religious singing in four-part harmony, a cappella. One group that has taken this to a wider audience is the University of Namibia Choir, which has gained an enviablereputation for performing a range of traditional music in both Namibian and European languages.

Pre-independence colonial influences have resulted in many Namibian musicians performing in the Western tradition. Concerts are regularly performed in Windhoek by the Namibia National Symphony Orchestra, National Youth Choir and touring foreign musicians in the main auditorium of the National Theatre of Namibia. Out of Windhoek, the national tour circuit includes large venues in Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and Okahandja.

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