The Ovaherero people, a Bantu ethnic group inhabiting parts of Southern Africa, speak Otjiherero, a Bantu language. Though the Ovaherero primarily reside in Namibia, because of a genocidal campaign perpetrated against them by Germany (through an extermination order issued on October 2nd 1904 buy a Commander of the armed forces and servant of Kaiser Wilhelm II), survivors fled to neighboring countries. Descendants of these war survivors today constitute significant Ovaherero populations in Botswana, South Africa and Angola.
In Botswana, the Hereros or Ovaherero are mostly found in Maun and some villages surrounding Maun. These villages among others are Sepopa, Toromuja, Karee and Etsha. Some of them are at Mahalapye. In the South eastern part of Botswana they are at Pilane. There are also a few of them in the Kgalagadi South, that is Tsabong, Omawaneni, Draaihoek and Makopong Villages.
Ovaherero are known as bold culture keepers. The big ball gown dress and the head gear (otjikaiva) are the main wear for women while men are mostly seen with leather hats (ekori) and walking sticks (okati/onguya).
Unlike most Bantu, who are primarily subsistence farmers, the Ovaherero are traditionally pastoralists. They make a living tending livestock. Cattle terminology in use among many Bantu pastoralist groups testifies that Bantu herders originally acquired cattle from Cushitic pastoralists inhabiting Eastern Africa. After the Bantu settled in Eastern Africa, some Bantu nations spread south. Linguistic evidence also suggests that the Bantu borrowed the custom of milking cattle from Cushitic peoples; either through direct contact with them or indirectly via Khoisan intermediaries who had acquired both domesticated animals and pastoral techniques from Cushitic migrants.
The Ovaherero people comprise of several sub-divisions, including the Himba, Tjimba (Cimba), Mbanderu, and Kwandu. Groups in Angola include the Mucubal, Kuvale, Zemba, Hakawona, Tjavikwa, Tjimba and Himba, who regularly cross the Namibia/Angola border when migrating with their herds. However, the Tjimba, though they speak Herero, are physically distinct indigenous hunter-gatherers.
Prior to the German Genocidal campaign, the Ovaherero sovereign polities of Hereroland comprised a federation of Otjiherero-speaking Bantu peoples, whose ancestral lands cover the central highlands of modern-day Namibia, who were governed by regional/districts Chiefs and, largely owing to conflicts with the Nama people in the 1860s which necessitated Ovaherero unity, the Ovaherero are centrally led by a Paramount Chief (the Ombara Otjitambi) who assumed overall leadership of all Ovaherero people in Hereroland. The first two Paramount Chiefs (Maharero and Samuel) respectively hailed from the Tjamuaha/Maharero dynasty and ruled pre and during the genocidal war between 1904-1908.
As a survivor of that war himself and thus transitional figure between the early phase of colonial resistance and the rise of Namibian nationalism and struggle for statehood, Paramount Chief Komombumbi Hosea Kutako became the third paramount Chief and led Ovaherero people during the years transitioning from early colonial resistance to the later pursuit for statehood and self-determination as championed by largely political parties( Swanu, Swapo, Nudo) he either inspired or directed inspired those who went to form them. On his death in 1970, Kutako was succeeded by Paramount Chiefs Kapuuo (who was assassinated in 1978) and Riruako who most personifies the modern restorative justice struggle.
Following Riruako’s passing in 2014 he was succeeded by the current Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro who more than anyone alive leads the genuine effort of Ovaherero people for justice still denied a 100 years later.
In the 15th century, the Herero migrated to what is now Namibia from the east and established themselves as herdsmen. In the beginning of the 19th century, the Nama from South Africa, who already possessed some firearms, entered the land and were followed, in turn, by white merchants and German missionaries. At first, the Nama began displacing the Herero, leading to bitter warfare between the two groups, which lasted the greater part of the 19th century.
Following a truce most symbolized by the 1958 Hoachanas Treaty and 1870 Peace Treaty of Okahandja, the Ovaherero and Nama people built a formidable friendship and bond that lasts to this day and particularly moreso in their joint-quest for restorative justice.
German South West Africa
During the late 18th century, the first Europeans began entering to permanently settle the land. Primarily in Ovahereroland, German settlers, through deceit and manipulation, acquired land from the Ovaherero in order to establish farms. In 1883, the merchant Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz entered into a contract, ingeniously crafted as a protection arrangement, with the people of the Great Namaqualand and Hereroland. The exchange later became the basis of German colonial rule. The territory became a German colony under the name of German South West Africa.
Soon after, conflicts between the German colonists and the Ovaherero herdsmen began. Controversies frequently arose because of disputes about access to land and water, but also the legal discrimination against the native population by the white immigrants.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, imperialism and colonialism in Africa peaked, affecting especially Ovagerero and the Nama people in their then respective sovereign states of Hereroland and the Great Namaqualand. European powers were seeking trade routes and railways, as well as more colonies. Germany officially claimed their stake in a South West African colony in 1884, calling it German South West Africa until it was taken over in 1915.
The first German colonists/setlers arrived in 1892, and conflict with the indigenous Herero and Nama people began.
As in many cases of colonization, Germany behaved particularly badly and the indigenous people were abused daily. This exploded into a full out war between 1904 and 1908 wherein Imperial Germany executed a genocidal campaign against Ovaherero and Nama people and thereby decimating Ovaherero by a whopping 80% and 50% for Namas respectively, causing massive dislocation, displacement to neighboring countries and dispossession with Ovaherero and Nama peoples’ ancestral land and other wealth lost to the sole custody and benefit of descendants of German and Afrikaner settlers in present day Namibia.
The Herero are traditionally cattle-herding pastoralists who rate status on the number of cattle owned. Cattle raids occurred between Herero groups, but Herero land (Ehi Rovaherero) belongs to the community and has no fixed boundaries.
The Herero have a bilateral descent system. A person traces their heritage through both their father’s lineage, or oruzo (plural: otuzo), and their mother’s lineage, or eanda (plural: omaanda). The maternal lineage (eanda) though is most defining of all Ovaherero people.
Despite sharing a language and pastoral traditions, the Herero are not a homogeneous people. Traditional leather garments are worn by northwestern groups, such as the Himba, Kuvale, and Tjimba, who also conserve pre-colonial traditions in other aspects: for example, they do not buy bedding, but rather sleep in bedding made of cow skin. The Kaokoland Herero and those in Angola have remained isolated and are still pastoral nomads, practicing limited horticulture.
However, the main Herero group in central Namibia (sometimes called Herero proper) was heavily influenced by Western culture during the colonial period, creating a whole new identity. The dress of the Herero proper incorporates and appropriates the styles of clothing worn by their German colonizers. Though the attire was initially forced upon the Ovaherero, in a modified form built around the headgear (otjikaiva) symbolizing the horns of the cattle, it now operates as a new tradition and a point of pride.
During the 1904-07 war, Herero warriors would steal and wear the uniforms of German soldiers they had killed, believing that this transferred the dead soldiers’ power to them. Today, on ceremonial occasions, Herero men wear military-style garb 9 ozombanda zo trupa), including peaked caps, berets, epaulettes, aiguillettes and gaiters, “to honour the fallen ancestors and to keep their memories alive.”
Ovaherero women adopted the floor-length gowns worn by German missionaries in the late 19th century, but now make them in vivid colors and prints. Married and older Herero women wear the dresses, locally known as ohorokova, every day, while younger and unmarried women wear them mainly for special occasions. Ohorokova dresses are high-necked and have voluminous skirts lavishly gathered from a high waist or below the bust, incorporating multiple petticoats and up to ten metres of fabric. The long sleeves display sculptural volume: puffed from the shoulders or frilled at the wrists. Coordinating neckerchiefs are knotted around the neck. For everyday wear, dresses are ingeniously patchworked together from smaller pieces of fabric, which may be salvaged from older garments. Dresses made from a single material are reserved for special occasions.
The most distinctive feature of Herero women’s dress is their horizontal horned headdress, the otjikaiva, which is a symbol of respect, worn to pay homage to the cows that have historically sustained the Herero. The headdresses can be formed from rolled-up newspaper covered in fabric. They are made to match or coordinate with dresses, and decorative brooches and pins attached to the center front. The overall intended effect is for the woman to resemble a plump, slow-moving cow. In photographs, Herero women adopt the ‘cow pose’, with their arms raised, palms upwards.
The Herero language (Otjiherero) is the main unifying link among the Herero peoples. It is a Bantu language, part of the Niger–Congo family. Within the Otjiherero umbrella, there are many dialects, including Oluthimba or Otjizemba—which is the most common dialect in Angola—Otjihimba, and Otjikuvale. These differ mainly in phonology, and are largely mutually intelligible, though Kuvale, Zemba, and Hakaona have been classified as separate languages. Standard Otjiherero is used in the Namibian media and is taught in schools throughout the country. It was recently introduced in some schools in specific areas of Botswana where Ovaherero people reside.
The Ovaherero people are a spiritual people who believes in God to whom they connect through their ancestors. The Okuruo, which is a sacred fire lit permanently between the homestead and the cowshed, with the eldest clan-man as its keeper and officiator, is a sacrosanct point of convergence for exercising spirituality.
Cattle are the most valued domestic animals in the Herero culture, therefore cattle herding is the most significant and substantial activity for the Herero people. In the Herero culture the cattle herding and cattle trading activities are only conducted by males while females are responsible for milking cows, household chores, harvesting small field crops and taking care of the young children. As women are responsible for milking cows, there are also responsible for preparing the delicious sour milk called “Omaere”. Although males are responsible for the cattle trading activities the females do most of the trading such as bartering for other goods.
The Herero people take pride in their cattle, hence the culture of Herero requires women to wear their iconic fabric hats shaped like cow horns. They believe that the more cattle one has, the richer one is, making cattle a symbol of wealth. In celebrations such as marriages, cattle is normally eaten, whereas religious or ancestral veneration ceremonies involve the sacrifice of cows or other animals.