Herero people


Herero / Ovaherero / Dama / Damara

The Herero, also known as Ovaherero, are Bantu ethnic group inhabiting parts of Southern Africa. The majority reside in Namibia, with the remainder found in Botswana and Angola.

There were an estimated 250,000 Herero people in Namibia in 2013. They speak Otjiherero, a Bantu language. In Botswana, the Hereros or Ovahererero 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

Herero people map

Ovaherero are known as bold culture keepers. The big ball gown dress and the head gear are the main wear for women while men are mostly seen with leather hats and walking sticks. Ovaherero are good in food preservation.Some if the food they preserve is milk and meat. They make sour milk and dry meat to use for a longer time .



Unlike most Bantu, who are primarily subsistence farmers, the Herero 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.



Approximately 150,000 Herero live in Namibia and about 20,000 in Botswana. The Herero make up approximately 7% of Namibia's population. The Herero have also scattered throughout southern Angola. Oral history has it that the Herero people group left the great lakes region of eastern Africa in the 1500s. They spent the next two centuries migrating to southwestern Africa where they settled in central Namibia. Things were relatively peaceful for the Herero for the next 150 years or so except for the occasional skirmish with the tribes from the south who were pushed north by South Africans who desired their grazing lands. The Herero are herders and the plains of central Namibia are perfect for grazing the cows that are foundational to their culture. Herero women wearing traditional Victorian-style dresses and headdress shaped after cattle horns. The headdress symbolizes their relationship with cattle farming, which is central to the Herero economy and lifestyle



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 Herero is used in the Namibian media and is taught in schools throughout the country.



The Herero claim to comprise 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. It may be in the Hereros' interest to portray indigenous peoples as impoverished Herero who do not own livestock.

The leadership of the Ovaherero is distributed over eight royal houses, among them:

Since conflicts with the Nama people in the 1860s necessitated Ovaherero unity, they also have a paramount chief ruling over all eight royal houses, although there is currently an interpretation that such paramount chieftaincy violates the Traditional Authorities Act, Act 25 of 2000.



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). In the 1920s, Kurt Falk recorded in the Archiv für Menschenkunde that the Ovahimba retained a "medicine-man" or "wizard" status for homosexual men. He wrote, "When I asked him if he was married, he winked at me slyly and the other natives laughed heartily and declared to me subsequently that he does not love women, but only men. He nonetheless enjoyed no low status in his tribe." The Holy Fire okuruuo (OtjikaTjamuaha) of the Herero is located at Okahandja. During immigration the fire was doused and quickly relit. From 1923 to 2011, it was situated at the Red Flag Commando. On Herero Day 2011, a group around Paramount Chief Kuaima Riruako claimed that this fire was facing eastwards for the past 88 years, while it should be facing towards the sunset. They removed it and placed it at an undisclosed location, a move that has stirred controversy among the ovaherero community.



Although nomadic in precontact times, the Herero today are sedentary, and their primary residential unit is the "homestead" ( onganda; pl. ozonganda), consisting of a number of sunhardened clay huts ( ozondjuo; sing. ondjuo ) arranged formerly in a closed circle but nowadays in a line or an arc. At the center of the traditional onganda were animal corrals, constructed of thornbushes. Just to the east of the cattle corrals was the "sacred hearth" ( okuruo), consisting of an upturned bush and a small fire that burned continually in honor of the ancestors. To the east of the okuruo was the hut of the "great wife" of the homestead head, the senior male, who was referred to as omuini, or "owner" of the homestead. A series of huts extended in northwesterly and southwesterly arcs from the senior wife's hut to form a circle around the corrals; all huts opened to face the corrals. The entire homestead was surrounded by dead thornbush branches as protection from raiders and predators. This circular pattern also emphasized the cultural focus of Herero society. Cattle were considered sacred gifts from the ancestors, and all ritual activities were conducted at the okuruo, which symbolized the coherence of Herero society and the direct connection with the Herero then had with their forebears. Today, however, cattle are considered secular commodities to be sold at market for profit, belief in the ancestors no longer plays a large role in Herero life, traditional rituals have given way to secular ceremonies, and, consequently, the "sacred hearth" has disappeared. Huts are no longer arranged in any special pattern, although their openings still face the corrals, given that cattle remain the bedrock of Herero economy. The Herero also maintain cattle posts, extensions of the permanent homesteads, to help distribute cattle over wide areas and thus exploit large tracts of pasturage in an arid habitat.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Cattle herding remains the primary subsistence activity, but Herero are also engaged, in decreasing order of importance, in trading, hunting, and cultivation. Cattle management may be characterized as laissez-faire. Except for the rainy season (October or November through early or mid-April), adult cattle are not penned up at night. They graze freely on their own, returning every three or four days to a well near the homestead for water. When grass becomes too thin in a given area, a herdsman leads the animals to another unoccupied area. During the rainy season, however, the herd must be watched more closely. In the dry season the herd tends to stay together because good pasturage occurs in relatively isolated and well-delineated areas, but during the rainy season more good grass is found over a wider area, and individual animals may wander and become separated from the herd. With few naturally occurring watering spots in the Kalahari, the Herero must dig wells. One well provides drinking water for the people of a single homestead; another, larger well provides water for the animals that are kept by a cluster of three to five homesteads, located within several kilometers of each other. Horses and donkeys are watered with the cattle, but sheep and goats usually do not approach the well until after most of the larger animals have left. Tubs of water are also filled each day by women and children and are kept at the homestead for the animals that remain there. The Herero keep dogs, for hunting, and chickens, whose eggs are eaten (as are the chickens themselves when they die, although they are not killed for consumption). Cattle, goats, and sheep are also eaten, as is some wild game, whereas horses, donkeys, and dogs are not. Although of minor importance to the Herero economy and diet, hunting is considered an exciting and psychologically satisfying pursuit by these formerly nomadic warriors and raiders. Winter (May to August) is the most active hunting season; the weather is cooler, and meat can be kept longer without spoiling. In addition to meat for consumption, the Herero hunt to acquire commodities (meat, hides, horns) to barter for such staples as sugar, tea, salt, and tobacco. The Herero engage in this activity only if early rains indicate a lengthy wet season. On average, only one homestead in a cluster has a field. Both horticulture and agriculture are practiced; planting is in November and December and harvesting in April. Crops, chief among which is maize, are grown mainly for consumption by the cultivators themselves, but any surplus is sold or traded to neighbors.

Industrial Arts. Nowadays the Herero manufacture little, either for their own use or for sale or trade, except for an occasional three-legged, triangular chair, for which they were once well known.

Trade. Trade has always been an important element in the Herero economy. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Herero traded animal products with other groups, such as the Ovambo and Bergdama, for axes, iron for weapons and ornaments, and salt. With Europeans, the Herero traded sheep, oxen, butter (which the Herero did not consume, but used as a cosmetic and sunscreen), pelts, and ivory in return for barrels, wagons, metal implements, rifles, salt, and whiskey. Today the Herero are thoroughly dependent on markets. They travel to towns to sell their cattle and the products derived from both domestic and wild animals, and they frequent general stores to purchase such items as canned food and fresh produce, tobacco, clothes and material for clothes, furniture, tools, gasoline, paraffin, soap, matches, and machine parts for well pumps. Some Herero even own motor vehicles, and nearly every homestead has at least one portable radio. Gone are the leather aprons and white-plumed headdresses of former times. Men wear contemporary Western clothes, and women make their own brightly colored versions of the high-necked, long-sleeved, long-hemmed "Mother Hubbards" that were worn by the wives of colonial missionaries. Weekly visits by a goods-laden truck from a general store provide occasions for the residents of an area, both Herero and non-Herero, to gather, gossip, haggle, and flirt.

Division of Labor. Herding remains today primarily a male activity, the only cattle-related female chore being the daily milking. Women and children see to the daily watering of sheep and goats at the homestead, and women are responsible for domestic activities, care of young children, and tending and harvesting the small fields of crops when these are present. Men conduct trading activities regarding cattle and the products of the hunt, but women do most of the bartering of other goods. Cooperative activities that involve large numbers of people (such as watering herds, care of livestock wells, and hunting) are undertaken by the men of a homestead cluster and other neighbors. Formerly, according to the Herero, large-order cooperation occurred only between agnatic (patrilineal) relatives; thus, they say, kin tended to live near each other to facilitate joint activity. Nowadays those who live near each other, regardless of their relationships or the absence thereof, are those who cooperate. Research conducted during the 1970s indicated that, contrary to Herero claims, this may have largely been the case even in the past (Vivelo 1977).

Land Tenure. In precontact times, the land upon which Herero cattle grazed at any given time was Herero land. After the arrival of Europeans in South-West Africa, Herero access to open territory became increasingly restricted as the settlers staked out exclusive claims to the land. By the time of the 1904 war, the Herero were confined by the growing European population to the areas around a few permanent or semipermanent waterholes. Today all land is owned by the state but is leased to local residents, through the offices of district land boards, for ninety-nine-year terms. Inheritance of rights in land is determined by civil law, according to which the land passes from elder to younger brother or from father to son.



Marriage. Today ethnic endogamy is giving way to intertribal marriage, and children of such unions suffer no social stigma. A Herero man may also keep concubines, women to whom he is not formally married, who live either in his homestead or in their natal homesteads. The children of such a union belong to the man's patrisib if he pays child-wealth to the mother's father, or to the mother's patrisib if he does not. Wives live in their husbands' homesteads, and a married couple usually lives in the man's father's homestead, although sometimes poor matrilineal relatives may also be found in a homestead. Because formal marriages are not validated by civil ceremony as opposed to tribal ritual, divorce is similarly conferred by the Botswana courts and is not difficult to obtain.

Domestic Unit. The primary domestic unit is the individual household within a homestead, in which a woman and her children reside. In a monogamous marriage, the husband lives in the same house; in a polygynous union, the man has no house of his own, but rotates among those of his wives.

Inheritance. In former times, when "sacred" cattle were distinguished from "secular" cattle, the former were inherited patrilineally, first from elder brother to younger and then from father to son, and the latter were inherited matrilineally from mother's brother to sister's son. Today, under the influence of Botswana's legal system, inheritance of all property is largely from parent to child.

Socialization. Care of children is chiefly a female responsibility. Girls remain with their mothers, often looking after younger siblings, until they are married and move away. Boys assist with chores around the homestead under the direction of any resident adult, but most of their day is spent in leisurely play. Girls are considered marriageable at about age 16, and premarital sex is permitted among young people of marriageable age. Most Herero children acquire only enough formal schooling to learn basic reading and writing.



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, practising 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, and their southern counterparts the Mbanderu, incorporates and appropriates the styles of clothing worn by their German colonisers. Though the attire was initially forced upon the Herero, 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, including peaked caps, berets, epaulettes, aiguilettes and gaiters, "to honour the fallen ancestors and to keep the memories alive."

Herero women adopted the floor-length gowns worn by German missionaries in the late 19th century, but now make them in vivid colours 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 centre front. Anthropologist Dr Lutz Marten writes: "A correctly worn long dress induces in the wearer a slow and majestic gait." 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.

This dress style continues to evolve. In urban Windhoek, fashion designers and models are updating Herero dress for modern, younger wearers, including glamorous sheer and embellished fabrics. "Change is difficult, I understand, but people need to get used to the change," says designer McBright Kavari. "I'm happy to be a part of the change, to be winning souls of people and making people happy when they are wearing the Herero dress." Kavari has won the Best Herero Dress competition three times in a row, but has been criticised for raising the hem of the garment to the knee.



The Herero practice double descent; that is, descent is reckoned both patrilineally and matrilineally. Every Herero is linked to a series of male ancestors through his or her father and to a series of females through his or her mother. Herero descent-ordered units consist of otuzo (sing. oruzo), or patrisibs, and omaanda (sing. eanda), or matrisibs, which are internally differentiated into patrilineages and matrilineages, respectively. (Patrisibs are classified into six phratries, and matrisibs into two.) In Otjiherero, the term for patrilineage and homestead is the same (onganda), as is the term for matrilineage and hut or household (ondjuo), which reinforces the view that Herero kin relations are connected to, and possibly derived from, coresidence.

Kinship Terminology. Herero kinship terminology is of the Iroquois, or bifurcate-merging, type.


Sociopolitical Organization

Previously, leadership among the Herero depended on a combination of descent, wealth in cattle, success in warfare, and personality characteristics, and it carried little real authority. In precontact times, Herero society consisted of autonomous herding units, each headed by an elder male, or omuini, each ranging over large tracts of land in search of pasturage and water. At the end of their migratory period, these units set up homesteads around major water sources, and although they still practiced nomadism, their movement tended to be more regular and less far-ranging. They gathered in neighborhoods or clusters of homesteads around a dependable water supply and formed alliances for military and economic purposes. In each cluster, an omuhona, or headman, emerged, one of the homestead heads who had distinguished himself as a military leader and who was respected for his fairness and good judgment. An omuhona's authority was limited, however; he led only because others saw an advantage in following him. When the Herero settled in the new land, they lived under the political jurisdiction of Tswana chiefs. As they grew in number and economic independence to be recognized as a separate group, with their own settlements, local Herero headmen were designated by the Tswana chiefs. Nowadays headmen are appointed by the Botswana state administration, and they function as the lowest-level bureaucratic authority, serving as spokespersons for the state, rather than for indigenous leaders and constituents. They handle local disputes of a relatively trivial nature; more serious conflicts and social control in general are the purview of the police and district commissioners.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, all important social occasions and all stages in the Herero life cycle were validated by religious ceremonies that invoked the ancestors. Because cattle were a gift from the ancestors and were kept in their honor, all important rituals involved the use, often the sacrifice, of animals. Today the connection with the ancestors has been broken. The most valued legacy of the ancestors has, in the Herero view, been profaned. Cattle are no longer treated as sacred commodities, but as secular property. When cattle were the exclusive property of a group of people with common descent (i.e., persons who shared the same ancestors), their sacred nature was preserved. Now that cattle are sold to nonrelatives, the ancestors' gift has been rejected, which means that the ancestors and the way of life they bequeathed to their descendants have also been rejected. Decreased reference to the ancestors has led to the disappearance of religious ritual. Without ritual, the place where ritual was conducted (the okuruo) became superfluous. Today Herero society may be justifiably characterized as secular. Although some Herero are nominally Christian, most disavow any religious belief.

Ceremonies. The only ceremonies in which Herero engage today are what they call "celebrations." On the occasion of a girl's coming-of-age or a marriage or some other notable happening, and sometimes for no reason at all, Herero will summon their neighbors (including non-Herero), kill a goat, cook the meat, and sit around the fire drinking store-bought beer, eating, and singing songs (some secular, some derived from Christian hymns). Men, women, and children will eat, sing, and chatter long into the night.

Arts. The Herero practice no arts other than occasionally to adorn the exteriors of their huts with individualistic designs (handprints, geometric patterns).

Medicine. The Herero no longer practice any native medicine; they rely on the services of Western physicians and nurses.

Death and Afterlife. The Herero bury their dead, as they always have always done, but today the funeral rites are simple and secular, and interment is in government-approved cemeteries. The Herero believe that a soul survives the body and upon death goes to a place in the sky, but they profess to know nothing about this place or what happens there, and they say that they are content to wait and find out when they die, rather than to speculate.


Domestic animals

Cattle. Cattle are 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.

Cultural impact. 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.

Goats and sheep. Goats and sheep are kept for their meat and milk. Goatskin is manufactured into child carriers and to create household ornaments. Goat dung, meanwhile, is considered medicinal; it is normally used to treat chickenpox.

Horses and donkeys. Horse and donkeys are common means of transport for the Herero. In cases of herding or searching for lost domestic animals, the Herero engage horses to carry out these activities. Herero people also consume donkey meat, but rarely consume horse meat.

Dogs and chickens. In the Herero culture, dogs are used by men for both hunting and herding. The Herero people tend to hunt to acquire meat, hide, and horns that are bartered for goods such as sugar, tea, and tobacco. Chickens are kept for their meat and eggs.