Namibia is a relatively small country, averaging just three people per square kilometer and totaling barely over two million people, but has an incredibly diverse culture. There are 12 different major ethnic groups with a large range of tribes among them, and about 30 unique languages are spoken throughout the country. The largest of these ethnic groups is The Ovambo people.
The Aawambo, or Ovambo, people are one of Namibia’s most vibrant tribes. They have retained many aspects of their cultural practices, despite concerted efforts – especially those of Christian missionaries – to wipe out what was believed to be ‘pagan practices’.
The Ovambo people (pronounced [ovambo], also called Aawambo, Ambo, Aawambo (Ndonga, Nghandjera, Kwambi, Mbalantu) or Ovawambo (Kwanyama), are a Southern African tribal ethnic group. They are found in Namibia’s northern regions and more often called Ovambo. They are also found in southern Angolan province of Cunene where the name Ambo is more common. The Ovambo consist of a number of kindred Bantu ethnic tribes who inhabit what was formerly called Owamboland. Accounting for about fifty percent of the Namibian population, the Ovambo are its largest ethnic group. In Angola, they are a minority, accounting for about two percent of the total Angolan population.[
The Ambo people migrated south from the upper regions of Zambezi in the period around the 14th century. The contemporary total Ambo population is about 1.6 million, and they are predominantly Christians (97%).The Ambo are an ethnolinguist group and speak Ovambo language, also called Oshiwambo, Ambo, Kwanyama, or Oshiwambo, a language that belongs to the southern branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages.[
The Ovambo people are an amalgamation of diverse agricultural Bantu-speaking people occupying international border regions of southern Angola and northern Namibia, popularly known as Ovamboland. The Ovambo people are by far the largest ethnic group in Namibia and make up just over half the population.
The Ovambo is actively involved in the politics of Namibia. SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation), the current ruling party started as non-violent pressure group in Ovamboland and was led by tow great Ovambo people, Herman Toivo ya Toivo and Samuel Shafiishuna Nujoma (the first elected president). The current President Hifikepunye Pohamba is also an Ovambo.
Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba who served as the second President of Namibia from 21 March 2005 to 21 March 2015 is also an Ovambo. He won the 2004 election overwhelmingly as the candidate of SWAPO, the ruling party, and he was re-elected in the 2009 election.
A good opportunity to learn about Owambo culture firsthand is by visiting the Uukwaluudhi Traditional Homestead at Tsandi in the Omusati Region. Uukwaluudhi, one of very few traditional kingdoms still in existence, is occupied by the King of the Tsandi area, which falls within the Uukwaluudhi Conservancy. Trained local guides take visitors through the homestead, pointing out the customs and history of these complex family homes.
The Nakambale Museum and Restcamp is a community-based tourism institution established at Olukonda in 1995 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN). It offers exhibitions on the premises of the National Monument, where the Nakambale Church was built in 1870 when the first Finnish missionaries settled in Owambo. The church is flanked by the Nakambale Cemetery, where Finnish missionary Martti Rautanen, some of his family members, and a number of traditional leaders were laid to rest.
Guided excursions to sites of interest such as the Oponono Lake, Omandongo mission station, Onoolongo cattle post and Ombagu grass plains are also offered. Visitors are treated to traditional Owambo food, music and dancing. A visit can be arranged to the historical Omuguluwombase, where the guerrilla warfare waged by SWAPO forces for Namibia’s independence was launched.
The Owambo people today
Today only three of the Owambo clans – the Ndonga, Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi – still recognise their kings and are ruled by chiefs-in-council. The rest have a system of senior headmen forming a council and administering their tribes by joint action. An important function of these officials is the regulation of the system of land ownership. About a quarter of the Owambo regions has been claimed by individual landowners, each occupying farms of several thousand hectares.
Aawambo are easily recognisable by what they wear. Their most popular clothing item, the odelela cloth, is used to make long dresses with puffy short sleeves, skirts, and even shirts for men. The cloth has been widely modernised and is also used on the traditional garments of other tribes like the Ovaherero and the Namas. When it comes to weddings, traditional ceremonies like olufuko, the odelela skirt is adorned with waist beads, shells and animal hide belts that are all worn differently depending on a woman’s age and marital status.
The correct way of wearing traditional attire is something that some are starting to forget, with elders stressing the need to not only relearn but also preserve all cultural practices. Lucina Kangete, a retired woman based in Windhoek but originally from the Okongo village in the Ohangwena, is of the opinion that culture is at risk of dying due to some people’s lack of interest in preserving it. She says, “You’ll find people telling you that they don’t do certain things in their families, but it often turns out that they are just not aware of how things are done. Many families do things differently, but the traditions are mostly uniform.”
Fortunately, various events, such as the Olufuko and Omagongo festivals, are used as opportunities to expose the young and old from this rich tribe about its cultural practices. These traditions were and still are at risk of dying out due to western influence.