Damara people




The Damara, plural Damaran (Khoekhoegowab: ǂNūkhoen, Black people, German: Bergdamara, referring to their extended stay in hilly and mountainous sites, also called at various times the Daman or the Damaqua) are an ethnic group who make up 8.5% of Namibia's population. They speak the Khoekhoe language (like the Nama people) and the majority live in the northwestern regions of Namibia, however they are also found widely across the rest of the country. They have no known cultural relationship with any of the other ethnicities anywhere else in Africa, and very little is known of their origin. It has been proposed that the Damara are a remnant population of South-Western Africa hunter-gatherers, otherwise only represented by the Cimba, Kwisi, and Kwadi, who adopted the Khoekhoe language of the immigrant Nama people. However, recent genetic studies have found that Damara are closely related to neighbouring Himba and Herero people, consistent with an origin from Bantu speakers who shifted to a different language and culture.

Their name in their own language is the "Daman" (where the "-n" is just the Khoekhoe plural ending). The name "Damaqua" stems from the addition of the Khoekhoe suffix "-qua/khwa" meaning "people" (found in the names of other Southern African peoples like the Namaqua and the Griqua).

Prior to 1870 the hunter-gatherer Damaran occupied most of central Namibia they used to practice pastoralism with sheep and cattle, but were also agriculturalist planting pumpkins, corn, tobacco. The Damaran were also copper-smiths known for their ability to melt copper and used to make ornaments, jewellery, knives and spear heads out of iron. The Damaran just like the Sān believed in communal ownership of land meaning that no individual owned land as God had given land to everyone. Thus, rather than one person owning good grazing land and another seeking out an existence, all would live in harmony.

Damara people

It was for this reason that many were displaced when the Nama and Herero began to occupy this area in search of better grazing. Thereafter the Damara were dominated by the Namaqua and the Herero, most living as servants in their households.

In 1960, the South African government forced the Damara into the bantustan of Damaraland, an area of poor soil and irregular rainfall. About half of their numbers still occupy Damaraland.



The Damara speak Khoekhoe language, like that Nama people. The majority live in the northwestern regions of Namibia, however they are also found widely across the rest of the country. They have no known cultural relationship with any of the other tribes anywhere else in Africa.

Their name in their own language is the "Daman" (where the "-n" is just the Khoekhoe plural ending). The name "Damaqua" stems from the addition of the Khoekhoe suffix "-qua/khwa" meaning "people" (found in the names of other Southern African peoples like the Namaqua and the Griqua).



The Damara are widely believed to be the oldest inhabitants of Namibia after the Bushmen (San) and Nama (Khoekoe/Hottentots). Thought they share similar language and customs with the Nama people, but their historical origins still shrouded in a mystery. There are two schools of thoughts or theories concerning Damara origins.

One theory avers that which their physical Bantu features, the Damara were the first Bantu people to migrate from West Africa to Namibia where they were subjected by Nama people and as a result acquired similar language and customs through acculturation.
The other theory suggests that the Damara evolved alongside the Nama in Botswana thousands of years ago. And that explains the similarities in language and culture between them. The theory states that the Damara later migrated to Namibia.

Dr Theo Ben -Gurirab, former Namibian prime minister and ethnic Damara man. On the 24th of January 2014, Dr Theo Ben-Gurirab announced he was joining the International High Level Committee for the freedom of Marwan Barghouthi and all Palestinian prisoners. Dr Theo Ben-Gurirab is the Former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Namibia and current Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Namibia. He was elected as President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union for a three-year mandate in October 2008. Since October 2011, he is Honorary President of the IPU. During his 35 years in the field of international affairs and diplomacy, notably in the UN, he served as President of the 54th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. He was instrumental in driving the UN reform process forward and presided over the drafting of the historic United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000.

By the beginning of nineteenth century Damara communities were established in the most central parts of Namibia. They were living in a mixture of hunting, livestock farming and limited crop cultivation. They were also skilled smelters and workers of copper. It is suggested that they engaged in trade with Ovambo people of the North and Nama to the South.

However, as tension over land exacerbated in the 19th century, particularly between the Nama and Herero, the Damara became casualties in the ensuing scuffles as their land were squeezed out from them. Some immediately became servants to the Nama and Herero, whilst many fled to the remote mountainous areas, earning them the name "Berg Damara," meaning mountain Damara.

Following the German rule over colonial Namibia, the first Damara reserve was created in 1906 around Okombahe area. The colonial administration looked down upon them because of their hunter-gathering status.  Goldblatt (1971) averred "the oldest inhabitants of the country, had no fixed abode and lived under primitive conditions, hunting game and being hunted like game by any newcomer into the Territory. They were outlaws of the country... from the earliest times, and those who could not hide in the mountains had been subdued and been made slaves of Namas."

The Okombahe area was enlarged upon the recommendation of Odendaal Commission of Inquiry in 1960`s, when so-called tribal homelands were created for the different ethnic groups in Namibia. In 1973 an area of approximately 4.7 million hectares was proclaimed as Damaraland, with Khorixas as its administrative capital. Following independence, this area became part of the Erongo Region. According to the latest census (2011), about 150 400 people live here, 42 400 more than in 2001. The Damara homeland comprises northwest of the country, from Uis in the south to Sesfontein in the north, and this remains predominant Damara area even up till now.


Historic traditional attire

The Damara made use of animal hides for clothing. The principal animal hides that were used were those of springbok and goats for clothing and sheep and jackal for blankets. Damaran traditional attires differentiated between a girl, an unmarried or married woman and an elderly woman in the same manner that it differentiated between boys, unmarried and married men and men of age. Some outfits were reserved for special ceremonies in contrast to everyday garments.

A girl in a Damara context is any female that has not yet undergone the menstrual cycle while a boy is any male that has not yet undergone the first hunting ritual. A hunting ritual was performed in the Damara culture as Damara males were not circumcised. The first hunting ritual was performed by boys in order to become man and the second by man to become community elders. All Damara children regardless of sex wore a ǃgaes, an apron like loin-cloth that covers genitalia. Girls would at a tender age undergo the ǂgaeǂnoas (have earring holes made) after which black thread would be inserted until such a time they will first start wearing ǃgamdi (earrings).

A man in the Damara context is any male that has undergone the first hunting ritual while a woman is any female that has experienced the menstrual cycle. The Damara culture would continue to differentiate between a married and unmarried man or woman. An unmarried man is called an axa-aob while a woman is an oaxaes. An unmarried man would simply wear a ǁnaweb which is a loin-cloth that is tucked in between the legs while an unmarried woman wore a ǃgaes to cover genitalia and a ǀgâubes to cover the rears.

A married man that has a child or children is called an aob, while a married woman with children is a taras. Such a man would wear a sorab which is a strip of soft leather worn between legs. Both ends are tucked under thong around waist and flapped over at front and the back. They would also wear a danakhōb which is the skin of any smallish animal that the wife presents to her husband at their wedding to wear on his head. The men would wear the "head hide" to ceremonies and on auspicious occasions to show that he is the head of a household. The hide would preferably be of a ǃnoreb (a common genet). Married women just like girls would wear a ǀgâubes (rear loincloth) and would wear a ǀawiǃgaes (loincloth consisting of strips) instead of a regular ǃgaes. A ǁkhaikhōb would also be worn only to ceremonies and on auspicious occasions, but mostly during pregnancy and by elder women on a daily basis. The ǁkhaikhōb is the hide of a medium-sized antelope most preferably a ǀhauib (a Damara dik-dik) or a dôas, ǀnâus (Duiker) that is worn to cover breast and the abdomen (during pregnancy).

An elderly man, kaikhoeb, is any Damara male that has undergone the second and last hunting ritual. An elderly woman, a kaikhoes, is a female that has concluded her menstrual cycle. All elderly men and women would wear a ǃgūb, which is a skirt-like loin-cloth or traditional skirt for men and women. Elderly women would also wear a ǁkhaikhōb and sometimes a khōǃkhaib (headgear fashioned of soft hide).

Women being more aware of beautification would wear ǃgamdi (small traditional earrings made from iron and or copper) and wear necklaces made of ostrich egg shells known as a ǁnûib in Khoekhoegowab. Women wore ǃganudi (arm bangles) and ǃgoroǃkhuidi (ornamental anklets) they also originally made from iron and or copper later replaced by beads and or ostrich egg shells. An anklet made from moth larvae (ǀkhîs) was also worn but only during performances/dances along with a tussled apron known as a ǀhapis (for females) and or ǀhapib (for males)

ǃNau-i (traditional facial foundation) also played a significant part in Damara and the wider Khoekhoe cosmetics. Women would ǀīǃnâ (perfume) hides and blankets by stewing buchu on hot stones placed under a ǀīǃnâs (dome-shaped basket) after which they would boro themselves (smear red ochre on their faces) early in the morning. They would also sprinkle some sâ-i (buchu powder) on their hides and blankets with a ǃūro-ams (powder-puff made from a piece of hare fur used to pluck ǃūros (tortoise-shell container, carried by women for holding sâ-i) to power oneself.)

Man also wore arm bangles (ǃganugu) and ǃgoroǃkhuigu (anklets) which were unadorned in design and denser than those of women. A strand of beads that criss-crossed the chess known as a karab was also worn by men. Tsaob (ash) was used as an anti-perspiring agent by the Damaran as they believe that it is the purest substance on Earth.


Contemporary traditional attire

The replacement of animal hides with fabrics has also been visible in the Damara culture as the aforementioned outfits are mostly worn to cultural ceremonies and on auspicious occasions. Thus the Damaran sought for a perfect substitution for animal hides and introduced the Damarokoes (Damara dress). The Damarokoes was adopted form missionary wives in the mid-19th century and was introduced due to the Christianisation of the Damaran as missionaries saw the animal hides as "primitive and exposing". The dress adopted to cover up the "nude" Damara women ensured just that with its ankle-lengthiness and long sleeves and a ǃkhens (shawl) to ensure maximum coverage.

The Dama ǃkhaib (headgear) is a unique innovation of the Damara women as they shaped a headgear that can be fashionable yet work effective as they still could ǂkhao (carry/load something on head) water containers and firewood. It is not only the ǃkhaib that was fashionable and work effective but also the sleeves as the sleeves have a protruding elbow design allowing the elbow to contract and release without constrains. The length of the dress is also fashionable and work effective as it is not too long so as to be caught by twigs, branches and or thorns.

Damara men on the other hand were shirts, coats and or blazers with Damara colours being blue, white and green, sometimes with print or embroidery.



The Damara currently rely for subsistence on the varying combination of pastoralism, foraging and horticulture as well as alternative means of income-generation within formal and informal economies.

Nowadays rural Damara people cultivate corn and vegetables, while livestock production has become an important source of income. Many work on commercial farms; others in mines, with some making a living from small mining in the Erongo Region. A relatively large number are employed in urban centres as teachers, clerics and officials.



The supreme deity of the Damaran (ǂNūkhoen) is ǁGamab, also referred to as ǁGammāb (provider of water), ǁGauna (Sān), ǁGaunab (Khoekhoe) and Haukhoin (Khoekhoe: foreigners) by the Khoekhoe.

He lives in a high heaven, even above the heaven of the stars. ǁGamab, from ǁGam, Khoekhoe: water, and mā, Khoekhoe: give is provider of the water and thus associated with the rising clouds, thunder, lightning and water. He ensured the annual renewal of nature being the cycle of the seasons and supplied game animals to the ǃgarob (Khoekhoe: veld) and the Damaran. One of his chief responsibilities is to warrant the growth of crops.

ǁGamab is also the God of Death, directing the fate of mankind. He shoots arrows at humans from his place above the skies and those struck fall ill and die. After death, the souls of the dead make their way to ǁGamab's village in the heaven above stars and gather around him at a ritual fire. Then he offers them a drink from a bowl of liquid fat to drink, as a reward.

ǁGamab's arch-enemy is the evil ǁGaunab


Tradition and Culture

The community consist of several larger families called haoti. These are clusters of clans and extended families that were formerly concentrated in specific areas, consisting of about eleven sub-groups.

The Damara are divided into clans, each headed by a chief, with a King, Justus ǁGaroëb, over the whole Damara people. Prince ǀHaihāb, Chief Xamseb, and ǁGuruseb were among the richest and most powerful chiefs.

Damara males were not circumcised. However, groups of boys were initiated into manhood through an elaborate hunting ritual. This ritual is repeated twice, for teenagers and grown men, after which the initiates are considered clan elders.

Their traditional clothing colors are green, white, and blue. Green and blue identify the different sub-groups. Some women may wear white and blue or white and green, the white representing peace and unity among all Damara-speaking people.

The women do household chores like cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Their primary duty is milking the cows in the morning and nurturing the young. Men traditionally hunt and herd the cattle, leaving the village as early as the sunrise, patrolling their area to protect their cattle and grazing ground as tradition dictates. Men can be very aggressive towards intruders if not notified of any other male presence in a grazing area.

Though many Damara people own and live on rural farms, the majority live in the small towns scattered across the Erongo region or in Namibia's capital city of Windhoek. Those that still live on farms tend to live in extended family groups of as many as one hundred, creating small villages of family members.

The Damara are rich in cattle and sheep. Some chiefs possess up to 8,000 head of horned cattle.



The Damara consist of 34 clans.

At least 12 Damara clans were recorded by the beginning of 1800 with various identities and leadership styles.