Cuepe people are the smallest tribal group in Angola. With just 250 individuals, the tribe almost disappeared in the 1960s.
They are reputed medicine men and this activity gives them the necessary income to survive in the Curoca Desert region.
Notes of the first European explorers (16th Century) describe a cave-dwelling San speaking people living on the coast. They could be talking about the Cuepe, who decided to move inland when Europeans started settling in Bay of Namibe.
Cuepe people call themselves Kwadi.
250 Cuepe live in the arid dry bed of Curoca River Valley, and in the oases of Bomba, Candi and Tyi-Pumbo.
Until the arrival of the European colonizers, the Cuepe had lived on fishing and shellfish harvesting off the Namibe coast. By migrating to the lona Desert oases, they became hunters and gatherers of wild berries.
Today, the Cuepe still hunt and collect but to a lesser extent since livestock and subsistence agriculture have taken center stage. They do not have permanent houses, but each family lives in a 'sambo' (small hut made of branches) throughout the growing season until harvest time. A 'sambo' can change its place three or four times a year, depending on the grass and the water.
Cuepe society is led by a group of elderly men and it is them who decide when to mobilize families in periods of drought. The figure of the healers is very important in the Cuepe culture since they not only heal but they are also the guardians of the group's oral tradition.
Like most nomadic gathering peoples, the Cuepe hardly have craft, just enough to collect food and hunt. When they lived on the coast, they made baskets to fish and collect molluscs. They used sharp cetacean bones to cut the meat of stranded whales and dolphins, which were an important part of the diet of this people. With the ribs and other bones of the large cetaceans they also built their huts, which they covered with sea lion skins and dried algae.
When moving to oases located in the interior of the desert, the Cuepe began to hunt antelopes, rabbits, squirrels, and birds with which they made their clothing. Their huts were transformed, due to the new ecosystem, and they adopted the materials of the area to build hemispherical structures made of branches and covered by thatch and reeds found in the water points of the oases.
Cuepe speak Herero language similar to Mucubal. They appear to have been a remnant population of southwestern African hunter-gatherers. The last speakers of Cuepe language passed away in 2018, but today only a few elderly women still speak the Khoi (click) language.
Cuepe culture is highly influenced by dominant Cubal culture and . Most Cuepe men dress like the neighbouring Cubal or simply in Western clothes brought by missionaries.
Cuepe women also imitate Cubal women, although, only sixty years ago, they used to cover their sex with rabbit skin skirts and to decorate their hair with seashells.
Despite the penetration of Christianity in the community, there is still a strong sense of tribal identity and the old African religion has not completely died away. One of the remaining animistic rituals is that of healing with animal bones and smoke from sacred plants that takes place in the family graveyard.
With just 250 individuals, the great challenge for the Cuepe is to survive as a distinct ethnic group Like most indigenous peoples, they are a minority in their own territory. In the Curoca Oases they live in the most marginal areas, and work as labourers of the lands of the 'Ovimbundu' -also known as "Kimbale"- brought there by the Portuguese colonizers as labor for the construction of the port of Porto Aleixandre (Tombwa).
The loss of their language (in 2019 there were on three women left who spoke the Cuepe language fluently) and marriages with Cubal people are irreparably weakening the Cuepe culture.