Namibia Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What does ethnic diversity mean to a nation? It's a tricky question, and even more complicated when your nation is very young. In this lesson, we'll look at ethnicity in Namibia, and see what it means in this nation today.


In the United States, we sometimes forget that colonialism didn't end in 1776. Actually, colonialism nearly persisted almost into the 21st century in many parts of the world. For example, in Southern Africa, the nation of Namibia didn't become independent until 1990. As with many nations, independence has not been without its struggles, but Namibia's struggles are bit unique due to their distinct demographics.

The nation is home to just over 2 million people, despite being about half the size of Alaska, giving it a population density of just 1.5 people per square kilometer. That's one of the lowest in the world. On top of that, almost all of these people live within the northern half of the nation, while the south is practically uninhabited. So, Namibia is a unique place, and unsurprisingly, full of some unique people.


Ovambo Ethnicity

By formal estimations, there are 11 ethnic groups in Namibia, although realistically each of these is actually a collection of smaller ethnic groups that share similar languages and customs.

The biggest of these overarching groups is the Ovambo, sometimes spelled Owambo or Aawambo. Over 50% of Namibia's population belongs to one of the Ovambo ethnic groups, so this is a major portion of society. The Ovambo belong to the Bantu ethno-linguistic family, the predominate family of Southern Africa, and have a major role in most of Namibia's politics, economy and culture.

Traditionally, the Ovambo lived in smaller villages, each led by a hereditary chief who formally owns the land worked by the people of that community. Today, more and more Ovambo are moving to urban centers in search of greater economic opportunities and have adopted many European practices.

Lutheran Christianity has been the de facto Ovambo religion since missionaries arrived in the 19th century and, like many parts of Ovambo culture, is interpreted as a blend of European and Ovambo traditions and rituals. While Ovambo society was traditionally matrilineal, passing heritage through the mother's side, this has been changing as mainstream Namibian society adopts a more European patrilineal focus.

Ethnic Minorities in Namibia

After the Ovambo people, the rest of Namibian society is composed of a variety of other ethnic groups. The Kavango people are one major group, making up about 9% of the population. The Kavango still mostly live in traditional villages, led by local chieftains, and sustained by farming, ranching, and fishing. They have developed a reputation in Namibia as excellent woodcarvers, and in general the Kavango make the traditional Namibian woodcarvings you'll find in the nation. This gives them a degree of power in controlling something that is seen as part of the national culture.

The Kavango are known for their woodcarvings

In terms of size, just behind the Kavango are the Herero people, who make up about 7% of the total population. The Herero are cattle ranchers, historically and today, who measure wealth and status in heads of cattle. They are recognizable by a unique style of dress, derived from the fashions of Victorian England but with a distinctly African splash of color. The Herero were one of the major resistors of colonial power, leading a rebellion against the German Empire in the early 20th century, which resulted in a genocidal retaliation killing up nearly 100,000 people.

Herero women in traditional outfits
Herero women

While there are many other ethnic groups in Namibia, they can mostly be categorized into a few larger groups. About 7% are Damara, 4% are Caprivian, 3% are San, and 0.5% are Tswana. On top of these, another 6% is white, being mostly descendants of European colonists from Germany or neighboring South Africa, and 6.5% are mixed, claiming both African and European ancestry.

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