Ovambo people


Ovambo / Ambo / Aawambo / Ovawambo

The Ovambo people also called Aawambo, Ambo, Ovawambo are a Bantu ethnic group native to Southern Africa, primarily modern Namibia.

They are the single largest ethnic group in Namibia, accounting for over half of the population.

They are also found in southern Angolan province of Cunene where they are more commonly referred to as "Ambo".

The Ovambo consist of a number of kindred Bantu ethnic tribes who inhabit what was formerly called Ovamboland. In Angola, they are a minority, accounting for about two percent of the total Angolan population.

Ovambo people

There are an estimated 1.6 million ethnic Ovambo, and they are predominantly Lutheran Christians (97%).

Their language, Ovambo language, also called Oshiwambo, Ambo, or Kwanyama, belongs to the southern branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages.



The Ovambo people reside in the flat sandy grassy plains of north Namibia and the Cunene Province in south Angola, sometimes referred to as Ovamboland. These plains are generally flat, stoneless and at high altitude.

Water courses, known as oshanas, irrigate the area. In the northern regions of Ovamboland is tropical vegetation sustained by abundant but seasonal rainfall that floods the region into temporary lakes and islands. In dry season, these pools of water empty out. The Ovambo have adapted to the widely varying seasonal weather patterns with their housing, agriculture, and livestock practices.

Ovambo people

The Ovambo people are a Bantu-speaking group. In Namibia, these are the AaNdonga, Ovakwanyama, Aakwambi, Aangandjera, Aambalantu, Ovaunda, Aakolonkadhi, Aakwaluudhi and Aambandja. In Angola, they are the Ovakwanyama, Aakafima, Evale and Aandonga.



Ovambo people speak  Oshiwambo, a Bantu language which belongs the larger Niger-Congo phylum. It include the Oshikwanyama, Oshingandjera, Oshimbadja, Oshindonga and other dialects. Over 2 million people in Namibia and Angola speak Oshiwambo and over half of the people in Namibia speak Oshiwambo, particularly the Ovambo people.

The language is closely related to that of the Hereros and Himba, Otjiherero. An obvious sign of proximity is the prefix used for language and dialect names, Proto-Bantu *ki- (class 7, as in Ki-Swahili), which in Herero has evolved to Otji- and in Ovambo further to Oshi-.
Linguistically, the Ovambo can be divided broadly into two groups. The first includes the Ovakwanyama and all the southern Angolan peoples, whose dialect is known as Oshikwanyama and distinguished. The second includes the Ondonga and all the remaining Ovambo peoples, the dialect known as Oshindonga.


The Ovambo started migrating to their current location from the northeast around the 14th century from the Zambia region.They settled near the Angola-Namibia border then expanded further south in Namibia in the 17th century. They have a close cultural, linguistic and historical relationship to the Herero people found in more southern parts of Namibia, and Kavango people to their east settled around the Okavango River.

In contrast to most ethnic groups in Africa, the isolated, low density pastoral nomadic lifestyle left the Ovambo people largely unaffected by the Swahili-Arab and European traders before the 19th century. When Germany established a colony in Namibia in 1884, they left the Ovambo people undisturbed.[8] The Germans focussed on the southern and coastal regions. After the World War I, Namibia was annexed into the South African administration by the British as the South West Africa province. This brought major changes, with South African plantation, cattle breeding and mining operations entering the Ovamboland. The colonial Portuguese administration in Angola, who had previously focussed on their coastal, northern and eastern operations, entered southern Angola to form a border to the expanding South African and British Imperial interests. The Ovambo people launched several armed resistance in the 1920s and 1930s, which were all crushed militarily by the British and Portuguese forces.

Ovambo people

The South African administration continued the so-called "Police Zone" in south, a region created by the Germans covering about two-thirds of the province later to become Namibia. Ovambo people were not allowed to move into the Police Zone, neither other tribes nor Europeans could move north without permits. This isolated the Ovambo people. However, because of labor shortage in the Police Zone and South Africa, in part because of massacre of native Africans such as through the Herero and Namaqua genocide, the South African government allowed migrant wage labor. Numerous Ovambo people became migrant labor, but with segregation and highly restrained human rights, in South African towns such as Cape Town and in the Police Zone.

The South African Apartheid rule was brought into the Ovamboland in 1948. The South African government declared the Ovamboland as independent province in 1973, and appointed chiefs aligned with the South African government policies. The Ovambo people rejected these developments, and in 1975 the appointed chief minister of Ovamboland was assassinated. In conjunction with the armed SWAPO movement, Namibia and its Ovambo people gained independence in 1990 from South Africa.



Traditional religion

The traditional religion of the Ovambo people is the primary faith of less than 3%, as most state Christianity to be their primary faith. The Ovambo's traditional religion envisions a supreme being named Kalunga, with their rites and rituals centered around sacred fire like many ethnic groups in southwestern Africa. The Kalunga cosmology states that the Supreme Being created the first man and first woman, who had a daughter and two sons. It is the daughter's lineage that created Ovambo people, according to the traditional beliefs of the matrilineal Ovambo people.

The rituals involve elaborate fire making and keeping ceremonies, rain making dance, and rites have involved throwing herbs in the fire and inhaling the rising smoke. The head priest traditionally was the king of a tribe, and his role was in part to attend to the supernatural spirits and be the chief representative of the Ovambo tribe to the deities.


Christianity arrived among the Ovambo people in the late 19th century. The first Finnish missionaries arrived in Ovamboland in the 1870s, and Ovambo predominantly converted and thereof have identified themselves as Lutheran Christians. The influence of the Finnish missions not only related to the religion, but cultural practices. For example, the typical dress style of the contemporary Ovambo women that includes a head scarf and loose full length maxi, is derived from those of the 19th-century Finnish missionaries.

The Ovambo now predominantly follow Christian theology, prayer rituals and festivities, but some of the traditional religious practices have continued, such as the use of ritual sacred fire. They also invoke their supreme creator Kalunga. Thus, the Ovamba have preferred a syncretic form of Christianity. Most weddings feature a combination of Christian beliefs and Ovambo traditions. Their traditional dancing is done to drumming (Oshiwambo folk music).


Society and culture

The traditional home is a complex of huts surrounded by a fence of large vertical poles linked by two horizontal poles on each side. The complex is a maze with two gates but it is easy to get lost within the homestead. Each hut generally has a different purpose, such as a Ondjugo (the woman of the homestead's hut) or Epata (kitchen area).

The Ovambo people lead a settled life, relying mostly on a combination of agriculture and animal husbandry. The staple crops have been millet and sorghum (iilyavala) beans (omakunde) another popular crop. In drier regions or seasons, pastoral activity with herds of cattle (eengobe/eenghwandabi) goats(iikombo/onakamela) and sheep (eedi) becomes more important. The animal husbandry is not for meat (ombelela), but primarily as a source of milk (omashini). Their food is supplemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering.

During the colonial era, the Ovambo were active in elephant(eenjaba) hunting for their tusks to supply the ivory demand, and they nearly hunted the elephants in their region to extinction.

Each Ovambo tribe had a hereditary chief who is responsible for the tribe. Many tribes adapted representation by having a council of headmen who run tribal affairs. Members of the royal family of the Owamboland are known as aakwanekamba;ovakwaluvala,ovakwamalanga,ovakwaanime,aakwanyoka and many more only those who belong to this family by birth, through the maternal line, have a claim to chieftainship. The tribes figure their descent by a matrilineal kinship system, with hereditary chiefs arising from the daughter's children, not the son's. Polygyny is accepted, with the first wife recognized as the senior.

Ovambo brew a traditional liquor called ombike. It is distilled from fermented fruit mash and particularly popular in rural areas. The fruit to produce ombike are collected from Makalani Palms, Jackal Berries, Buffalo Thorns, Bird Plumes and Cluster Figs. Ombike, with additives like sugar, is also brewed and consumed in urban areas. This liquor is then called omangelengele; it is more potent and sometimes poisonous. New Era, one of the English-language daily newspapers, reported that clothes, shoes, and tyres have been found to have been brewed as ingredients of omangelengele.



The domestic economy of the Ovambo is organised principally around agriculture and pastoralism:

the former being the sphere of women, and the latter that of men. The basis of their diet is millet (Pennistetum spicatum) called oilia, which means ‘the principle food’. It withstands drought longer than other cereals, thrives in poor soils and stores for 2-3 years. Sorghum vulgare (oiliavala) is also grown; it is less hardy and requires better growing conditions, but is more highly prized.

Each married woman has her own grain fields and vegetable garden adjoining the ehumbo, and co-wives work together on the grain field of their husband. The husband must clear each of his wives’ fields prior to planting in October or November each year. Every ehumbo is equipped with its’ own communal threshing and pounding areas (Estermann 1976:132-4).

Because of the extensive flooding which can occur during the wet season, crop fields are established on specially prepared raised mounds and thus fed but not annihilated by the ooshana (Hahn 1928:34). Loeb (1948:16) argues that the use of these raised beds has prevented European introduction of the plough, and in turn handicapped the missionaries in introducing monogamy: agriculture requiring many wiv es to hoe a plot of ground and harvest the crops. In addition to grain, various curcubits and peanuts: osimbutufukwa (Arachis hypogaea) and osifukwa (Voandzeia subterranea) are also grown.
The Owambo engage in herding of cattle (engobe) which is the responsibility of men. The king manages the largest herds and those of other men vary in size depending on socio-economic status. Some men, ovanahambo, are without herds of their own and look after the herds of others. Such a man is entrusted with about 40-50 head of cattle which he takes to established grazing posts during the dry season; he is usually young and unmarried All herdsmen know the grasses preferred by cattle - those that fatten them easily. A number of herbal remedies for cattle and for the herdsmen themselves are also known, and certain herdsmen specialise in castration (Estermann 1976:136-137). Cattle are an extremely prestigious commodity, reflecting the wealth of the lineage (Hahn 1928:35)

Apart from cattle herding, most Owambo households own a few goats and cattle, and occasionally a few pigs” (2). Also, “most houses have chickens” and “when the rains come, the rivers to the north in Angola overflow and flood the area, bringing fish, birds, and frogs.” 

They make and sell basketry and pottery.


Sexual Division of Production

Males are responsible for building households and granaries (omaanda), clearing waterholes and fields, iron production, the manufacture of all wooden items and hide goods, salt procurement and hunting. Females are concerned with most child care, all food preparation, the production of baskets and pots, thatching of dwellings, the gathering of wild fruit and vegetables and the collection of water (Hahn 1928:25; Estermann 1976:143-5). 
“It is the job of the young men to attend to the goats and cattle, taking them to find grazing areas during the day, and bringing them back to the home in the evening.”

Fishing is a joint enterprise, although the methods adopted by men and by women differ. Women actively fish with tall, conical baskets in the oshana pools, whereas men construct traps across the narrower water-courses, consisting of weirs (olua) with conical baskets (omidiva) in the apertures (Estermann 1976:142).


Land tenure

“If someone wanted to leave some of his property to his wife or children, he could sell it to them for a nominal price. After he had informed his maternal kin of the transaction, they could no longer claim that particular part of the husband’s property after his death. Today, the Namibian constitution protects the window and the children from such inheritance mistreatments. When a woman died, her property was inherited by her children, mother or other more distant matrilineal relatives”


Ovambo Settlement and Social Structure

Each Ovambo group (kingdom) occupies its’ own area within the Ovambo region as a whole. Estermann (1976:51) writes that tracts of no-man’s-land, several kilometres in depth, used to separate one kingdom from another. The establishment of homes was traditionally prohibited within these zones of forest or bush, which were quite discernible in the 1920s. By the 1950s (Estermann’s time of writing), however, people were starting to occupy the buffer zones, leading to their virtual obscurity.

The area occupied by one group is known as oshilongo (country) falling traditionally under the jurisdiction of the king (ohamba) or paramount chief. However, in order to render it more manageable, the oshilongo is sub-divided into districts - omikunda (omukunda sing.) - which are governed by omalenga, district heads and counsellors of the king. They are appointed by the king and are responsible to him. Women as well as men could be district-heads, for example the king’s mother always had her own large district some distance from the king. About 15-20 households were established within an omukunda, with distances between them ranging from 500 m up to 3 km or more (Loeb 1962:42; Tuupainen 1970:16; Williams 1988:460).
The Ovambo household (ehumbo) is a self-contained economic unit, although cooperation between them during weeding and harvesting is common, as is the sharing of cattle herding between morning and evening milking (Williams 1988:48). It is a large, roughly circular, structure composed of several huts and living areas separated from one another by tall wooden or millet stalk palisades. Palisades also form intricate connecting passageways which allow access to the various areas. In the centre is a large meeting area (olupale), and around the outside are fenced areas for the cattle. 

The entire structure is enclosed within a thick wooden palisade about 6-10 ft in height (Hahn 1928:10; Williams 1988:45). It is occupied by a polygamous family unit comprising usually a husband, 2-4 wives and all their children. It was not uncommon, however, for other kin members to reside there as well - particularly newly married couples with no ehumbo of their own. Each wife has her own cooking facilities and food storage area in her living quarters, and her children live with her until old enough to marry (girls) or move into the cattle pens with other adolescent boys. Ovambo marriage is preferentially based on clan exogamy and kingdom endogamy, although marriages between members of two different Ovambo kingdoms are not uncommon. The system of descent is matrilineal.


Political system / Structure

Each tribe has a chief that is responsible for the tribe, although many have converted to running tribal affairs with a council of headmen. Members of the royal family of the Owamboland are known as aakwanekamba and only those who belong to this family by birth have a claim to chieftainship. Because descent is matrilineal, these relations must fall on the mother's side. The chief's own sons have no claim in the royal family. They grow up as regular members of the tribe.”

The importance of the king as guardian and benefactor of his country is reflected in the symbolism of the nations sacred fire, omilo guoshilongo, built only of omufyati (Colophospermum mopane) wood and which permanently smouldered in the royal residence. It was believed that terrible misfortune would befall the whole country if this fire were allowed to die out during the king’s lifetime, and so two specially appointed elders, atonateli yomilo, were charged with constantly tending it. The fire symbolised the life of the king, which in turn symbolised the life of the nation; only when the king died was the fire allowed to extinguish naturally and a new one kindled for his successor. All royal subjects established their own domestic fires with embers taken from the sacred fire, the order in which they were received depending on status (e.g. the omalenga received theirs before other householders) (Hahn 1928:17-18).

The king and his omalenga aimed to ensure economic and social stability throughout the kingdom:

settling disputes, for example. The king also managed the kingdom’s economic year, by ritually inaugurating the agricultural and herding seasons, fruit picking and fishing seasons, the annual expeditions for salt or iron, and the national big game hunts. Dates for house-moving and for major ceremonies like the efundula female transition rites, are also given by the king (Loeb 1948:71-75; A. & D. Powell-Cotton 1937a).

Not all kings, however, proved to be benefactors of their people, and there are reports of autocratic, despotic kings who ignored the advice of their elders and terrorised their subjects (e.g. see Hahn 1928:8). Such kings were often eventually displaced by rival candidates with popular support (Clarence-Smith 1979:79). Though, to claim, as many missionary and colonial administrative sources have, that all Ovambo kings were cruel despots, is both slanderous and misleading. The catholic missionary Estermann, for example, writes: "There is no doubt that the most perfect and absolute despotism prevailed almost everywhere" (1976:124), yet this opinion is based on the memoirs of South African soldiers like W.B. de Witt, who clearly had a vested interest in denouncing the indigenous system of government in order to justify imposition of colonial rule.

It is true that Ovambo kingdoms did not always peacefully co-exist and were not always internally stable, but the disputes over cattle, land and water rights, and refugees seeking assylum, were not the product of internal dynamics alone. Rather, as argued by Katjavivi (1988:3-4), such conflict can be seen as the product of wider socio-economic changes, whereby external stimuli (trade and contact with Europeans) have interacted with internal social dynamics. The result was intensification of social stratification during the late nineteenth century, which saw the strengthening of a dominant ruling elite (chiefly omalenga) who exacted tribute (cattle, grain) from the people, and who encouraged the development of ivory and slave trading. Tribute and slaves were traded with Europeans for prestigious commodities like horses and guns.

Eventually, the traditional Ovambo form of government was replaced by a colonial system of indirect rule, imposed by the Portuguese in southern Angola and by the South Africans in northern Namibia. Loeb (1948:19) states that under the Mandate of South Africa the Ovambo in Namibia were governed by groups of headmen, or a single chief, who were advised and directed by Government officials. Only half of the kingdoms still had kings in 1948. In Ukwanyama kingship ended in 1917, when King Mandume was shot by Union forces; headmen and sub-headmen replaced the monarchy. Chieftainship was hereditary and continued to be based on matrilineal succession (as among the Ondonga, Ongandjera and Ukwaludhi, for example), whereas headmen were simply appointed by Government administrators (Tuupainen 1970:17).


Inheritance patterns

“Each tribe has a chief that is responsible for the tribe, although many have converted to running tribal affairs with a council of headmen. Members of the royal family of the Owamboland are known as aakwanekamba and only those who belong to this family by birth have a claim to chieftainship. Because descent is matrilineal, these relations must fall on the mother's side. The chief's own sons have no claim in the royal family. They grow up as regular members of the tribe.”


Parent-offspring interactions and conflict

Conflict not mentioned. Parents seem to be close to their children. “The traditional home is built as a group of huts surrounded by a fence of large vertical poles. Some families also build a Western-style cement block building within the home. Each hut generally has a different purpose, such as a bedroom, storeroom, or kitchen. Most families collect water from a nearby public tap.”


Passage rituals (birth, death, puberty, seasonal)

“Rituals dealt with the transition between girlhood and womanhood in Ovambo societies on the northern floodplain, grappling with issues of sex and death, generation and regeneration, and its implications were understood to embrace the entire social body.” Male circumcision has been present. “Cows play a particularly important role in funeral rituals, too. When an Ovambo man dies, his body must remain in the house for at least one day before burial, during which time all his pets must be killed.

Traditional Ovambo compounds, called kraals, have gates used by both cattle and humans. At death, the Ovambo believe that the owner may not pass through this gate, or the cattle will die and the kraal will come to ruin. A new hole is cut for him to pass through. A bull is slaughtered, cooked without oil or flavoring of any kind, and a portion is eaten by everyone in the village. Then the kraal and all its contents must be moved at least 50 feet (15 meters). The cattle are not permitted to rest on the same earth that witnessed the death of their owner.” 


Male Circumcision

According to information provided by a German writer Hermann Tonjes (1949), while Owambo communities historically used to practise circumcision, it was applied to adults, but reserved for nobility, the wealthy and to those in high office serving the King. During those days, traditional circumcisers used to charge substantial fees for their services. There were also some cases of death due to circumcision. Young men who qualified for circumcision (“etanda” in Oshiwambo) were escorted by their fathers to the place where the circumcision was to take place, known as “oshombo” or “ontanda”. Circumcision was seen to be a physical and spiritual intervention. In terms of the latter, circumcision linked the young man to the spiritual world of his ancestors to secure his fertility. Male initiation rituals, “etanda”, or circumcision belonged to the recognised tradition of all Owambo societies of Northern Namibia and it is only from Ongandjera that we have no descriptions of it. At some point in time there does seem to have been circumcision there too, judging from the name of the month of July, “mupita omulumentu”, which translates as “the coming out of men” (elc Nameja, 1385:1934). This was the time of year when circumcision camps were held in other Owambo societies. A number of neighbouring communities of the Owambo also undertook the practice; the Nyaneka-Nkhumbi, the pastoralist groups of the Herero, the Chokwe, the Zimba, the Hakavona, the Kwanyoka, the Himba and the Kuvale (Estermann, 1981:32 and 1979:50). These neighbours were historically linked to the Owambo. The Nyaneka-Nkhumbi are held to be ‘the progenitors’ of certain Owambo kingdoms, including Uukwambi, Ombalantu and Ongandjera (Williams, 1991:30, 31). In 1949, Seppo Teinonen, a Finnish theologian, compiled the available information on circumcision among the Owambo. His résumé, presented below, shows that there had been a great deal of variation in the custom. Male initiation was called “ohango jaalumentu”. According to Tönjes it was abolished in Uukwanyama in the years 1885–1890 and earlier than that in Ondonga. Hans Schinz, who travelled in the area in 1884–1887, said, circumcision was in practice in Ondonga earlier (Teinonen 1949). For several reasons, Teinonen found it difficult to give an exact description of the ritual as very little has been written on subject matter. Most of the information is secondary, and the practices vary from one society to another (Teinonen1949:24).



Body paint: Other tribes in this area use ochre, a reddish pigment extracted from iron ore and smear it all over their bodies.

Piercings: “Women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making their figures appear very elongated.” 
Scarification: “Women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making their figures appear very elongated.” 
Adornment (beads, feathers, lip plates, etc.): “Women wear elaborate braids and copper or leather bands around their necks, making their figures appear very elongated.”


Death and afterlife beliefs

“At death, the Ovambo believe that the owner may not pass through this gate, or the cattle will die and the kraal will come to ruin. A new hole is cut for him to pass through.”