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People and the River



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Namibia since European Settlement  

The Europeans made their way into the area of today’s Namibia after a relatively long time in the area. In the 15th century Portuguese sailors discovered the Namibian coastline, but it was only in the 19th century that a considerable immigration of German-speaking, English and Portuguese settlers began.

At that time, Herero-speaking pastoral nomads were already settled in the Lower Kunene River basin. In the second half of the 19th century, however, they began to flee from raids carried out by Oorlam and Nama groups advancing from the south. The fleeing Herero-speaking pastoralists left behind an almost deserted area south of the Kunene. The refugees entered the Portuguese sphere of influence (today Angola), where they found work as plantation workers, hunters and mercenaries of the Portuguese colonial army. According to the oral tradition the refugees were called “Ovahimbe”, meaning “beggars”, because they had to beg for food and pasture in their new surroundings. Nowadays it is suggested that the ethnonym Himba came into use only then (Bollig 2002, Bollig 1997).

Preparing independence: The first constitutional conference took place in the Turnhalle.
Source: Flickr / Only Point Five 2007
( click to enlarge )

German South-West Africa and the Declaration of Kaokoland as Wildlife Reserve

At the Berlin Conference in 1884 -1885, the German Empire proclaimed the colony of South-West Africa in the territory of present-day Namibia. The intervention of the German colonial administration in Kaokoland (former administrative unit in north-western Namibia), however, remained limited to a few expeditions. In 1907, when the Germans waged their devastating wars against Herero and Nama insurgents, Kaokoland was declared a wildlife reserve. Meanwhile, the still largely unmanaged Kaokoland on the southern "German" side of the Kunene River offered the pastoral nomads new options for trade, commercial hunting and pastoral economy. From 1910 onwards many of the Herero-speaking groups returned to their "old" territories south of the Kunene (Bollig 2002).

Isolation of Kaokoland during South African Mandate

During World War I, former South-West Africa was occupied by British-South African troops and in 1920 the area was finally put under South African administration by the League of Nations. The South African administration established strictly controlled boundaries delimiting Kaokoland and proclaimed cross-border movements and trading as a criminal offence. In particular, the international border with the Portuguese colony (Angola) - marked by the Kunene River - was guarded by police patrols. Cattle and sheep were not allowed under any circumstances to cross Kaokoland’s borders. The restriction of spatial mobility had a dramatic impact on the local population - especially in times of drought when the pastoral nomads migrated in their search for water, fodder and food (Bollig 2002).

Establishment of Ethnic Boundaries

In addition to regulating the borders, the South African administration divided Kaokoland internally along ethnic lines. The northern parts of Kaokoland were subdivided into three different reserves: a Himba, a Herero, and a Tjimba reserve. Chiefs with no genealogical legitimisation were established. The members of a chief's group were allowed to migrate only within their own reserve. By instituting chiefs the South African government hoped to lay the foundation for indirect rule. Through these new ethnic policies a previously non-existing hierarchy and ethnic organisational structure was suddenly anchored in the region. While in 1920 there were no clearly discernable boundaries between different social groups in Kaokoland, by 1940 such boundaries had been established.

Although there were very few cultural differences amongst Kaokoland´s population, the colonial administration designed the new ethnic boundaries based on property and economic patterns. The concept “Himba” was created to classify the richer cattle herders without direct family ties to the Herero families from central Namibia and Angola. Poorer pastoralists, however, working for the Himba and Herero as cattle herders were classified as the “Tjimba”. These ethnological classifications did not consider the close links and constantly changing relationships among the region's population.

In 1938 a so-called “Tribal Council” of Chiefs and Headmen was set up to adjudicate cases and to enforce government programmes. In the 1960s (under South Africa's apartheid regime), this Council was expanded with the appointment of further chiefs and in naming councilmen assisting the chiefs. The new local elite enabled the South African administration to run their programmes more smoothly (Bollig 1997, Bollig 2002).


SWAPO (the South West Africa People's Organisation) founded in 1960, fought against the occupation of Namibia by the South African Union, with independence being won on the 21st March 1990. Since then Namibia has been an independent republic after more than 100 years of foreign rule. The country is governed by the ruling party SWAPO. Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba is the current president of the country.

In 1992 the administrative system was restructured, introducing newly defined "regions" as administrative units. The former ethnic communal reserve of Kaokoland, together with the former Damaraland and parts of the commercial farming areas have been combined into the Kunene Region. The capital of the new region is Opuwo, located in Khorixas Constituency, just outside of the Kunene basin.




Explore the sub-basins of the Kunene River

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View a historical timeline of the Kunene basin countries, including water agreements & infrastructure

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