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A country of many different landscapes, from rusty colored dunes and vast gravel plains, to the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the lush green oasis of the Zambezi region. It is also a country with a turbulent history that resulted in its contemporary cultural diversity. Get to know Namibia.
Namibia, covering a surface of 824,000 square kilometers, is about 20 times the size of The Netherlands, three times the size of the United Kingdom or two times the size of Germany. It is located south of the equator, where it borders Angola and Zambia in the north, Botswana in the east and South Africa in the south and south-east.
Its landscape is versatile and marked by several characteristic regions. A vast coastal desert, the Namib, stretches from north to south over a length of 1,500 kilometers. It is the oldest desert in the world, and its harsh conditions once were the reason that Namibia’s inlands remained undiscovered by explorers.
East of the Namib lies the Great Escarpment, a chain of mountain-ranges that rise to 2,000 meters, and continue in a U-shape along the inlands of the southern part of the African continent. In South Africa, a well-known part of this escarpment are the ‘Drakensbergen’. In Namibia, parts of the Escarpment are the Khomas Highland, the Gamsberg, the Naukluft Mountains and the Tiras Mountains.
On the eastside of the escarpment are the Central Highlands, forming the largest part of Namibia and covering the center of the country. The city of Windhoek is located here at about 1,700 meters above sea level. To the east of the highlands lies the Kalahari desert which, although technically a desert, gets moisture from a subterranean wealth of water and is therefore overgrown with acacia trees.
Like in most parts of Namibia, these water sources are ephemeral rivers that will only flow when the source of the river is fed with rainwater. Both, animals and people make use these water reserves by digging in the dry riverbeds for water.
The Zambezi region, better known as the Caprivi strip, forms a stark contrast to the rest of the country.
The lush green landscape is a result of the Kavango River which runs from Angola to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and is also called the “life blood” of the region. Here, wildlife can be found, that does not dwell elsewhere in Namibia, such as crocodiles, hippos, buffalos and sable antelopes.
Namibia has a population of 2,5 million people (2017 census), and is Africa’s least dense populated country. The population is a mix of many ethnic groups: today, at least twelve different tribes live in the country. The first inhabitants were the San, a tribe of Khoisan hunter-gatherers that have been living in Namibia at least as long as the modern calendar exists. A small number of San still live their nomadic lifestyle in the east of Namibia.
The Orange River in the South became home to the Nama (or Khoikhoi), Khoisan pastoralists, who now live across the whole southern part of Namibia. The Basters, today settled in Rehoboth, descend from Afrikaners and indigenous tribes which formerly resided in the Dutch Cape Colony. Central Namibia is inhabited by the Herero, who are sometimes dressed in Victorian style: a dress with many petticoats and a large hat, as a result of German missionaries that introduced contemporary European fashion. The more remote areas of the country are inhabited by the Himba and Damara.
The Himba distanced themselves from the Herero and continued their more traditional lifestyle. The Damara, also Khoisan people, are characterized by their matrilineal society. The largest ethnic group is that of the Ovambo, Bantu-speaking people from the north, whose roots also stretch into Angola. The Kavango people that live in the Zambezi region also have origin in this Bantu group. Because of their rural lifestyle, they settled in this region for its fertile grounds.
In more recent history, Namibia is also inhabited by a small population of Germans and Afrikaners. Despite their small number they have had great influence on the architecture of major towns. Especially the coastal town Swakopmund has many old buildings in ‘German style’.
The Himba still live a very traditional, nomadic lifestyle revolving around cattle. Cattle are a status symbol, a source of food and are used as dowry. Time seems to bypass these traditions but also the Himba cannot escape modernity completely: education, improved transport methods to towns, and also tourism have resulted in Himbas leaving traditional rural life.
Almost ninety percent of the Namibian population is Christian. Many of them mix this religion with their traditional beliefs, which is characterized by ancestor worship. The official language of the country is English, although Afrikaans is also widely spoken.
Indigenous languages include Bantu languages (including Owambo, Kavango, Herero, Caprivi and Tswana) and Khoisan languages that are spoken by the Nama-Damara and San people, which are characterized by its click-sounds.
Until the arrival of Western hunters, missionaries and colonizers, Namibia was a relatively unknown country. Stories and history were only passed on through word of mouth for generations. Rock paintings and engravings of the San people, such as at Twyfelfontein; and remaining circles of stones of temporary settlements of the Khoi herdsmen, are therefore very important sources of information about ancient life in Namibia.
Ever since the late 18th Century, Nama and Herero tribes had been fighting over fertile land, resulting in serious conflicts with the interference of the better equipped ‘Witbooi-Namas’. However, the Germans occupied the most fertile land and resistance to German colonial rule came in 1903. This led to the ‘Battle of Waterberg’ in 1904 which triggered the annihilation decree by German military of the Herero people. An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people perished during and after this battle which marked the beginning of Germany’s extermination campaign which continued until 1908.
Hendrik Witbooi, leader of the Nama, at that time refused to submit to German occupation and rallied his people to fight for their country. Still today, he is seen as a national hero. In 1915, after a fast defeat to the Union troops of South Africa, Germany surrendered the administration of Namibia to the South African Prime Minister Louis Botha.
The discovery of diamonds in Namibia led to great unrest once more. During the First World War, the Union of South Africa, dominion of Great Britain, gained control of this country as their “fifth province”. In 1948, Apartheid laws were introduced, resulting in the establishment of “Home Lands”. After years of fighting for independence, the SWAPO (South West African People’s Organisation) leads Namibia to independence on 21 March 1990 with it’s first democratically elected president, and ‘founding father’ Sam Nujoma.
Namibia is a Republic, with Hage Geingob as its president (2019). SWAPO is still the largest political party with more than two third of the seats of parliament. Since independence, focus has been on reconciliation efforts of the different ethnic groups. Unlike in many other African countries, large-scale reform programs and nationalizing of industries were put off.
Meat is exported to South Africa and Europe. However, as cattle attract carnivores such as leopards and cheetahs, human-wildlife conflicts occur and pose a threat to nature conservation. Several wildlife sanctuaries, such as the AfriCat Foundation, try to raise awareness amongst farmers in order to prevent these animals from extinction.
Namibia was the first country to include environmental protection in the constitution. Its conservancy approach has been internationally acknowledged, as it assisted rapid growth of wildlife populations. Wildlife and other natural resources within certain areas are managed by local communities. Instead of seeing wildlife as a threat, people are motivated to protect animals as this benefits the country economically through sustainability and tourism.
The cold Benguela Current of the Atlantic Ocean forms an important source for the fishing industry. Once Walvis Bay became part of Namibia (again), this sector gained more traction. But the major contributor to the economy is the mining sector contributing to 75% of all the country’s exports. Near Swakopmund, the world’s largest uranium mine is located and a large part of the Namib Desert is a diamond-rich, inaccessible area, co-owned by the Namdeb Diamond Corporation and the Namibian government.
Since independence in 1990, Namibia has become a popular tourism destination, especially for its national parks and wildlife. Investments into infrastructure also made the remote areas, like Fish River Canyon in the south and Kaokoland in the north, accessible for tourists. In 2015, Namibia had 1.5 million foreign arrivals and tourism contributed 15.4% to GDP.