Herero people

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Herero women.jpg
Three Herero women.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Traditional faith, Christianity
Related ethnic groups

The Herero is an ethnic group inhabiting parts of Southern Africa. The majority reside in Namibia, with the remainder found in Botswana and Angola. About 250,000 members are alive today.[1] They speak the Herero language which belongs to the Bantu languages.


Unlike most Bantus, who are primarily subsistence farmers,[2] the Herero are traditionally pastoralists and make a living tending livestock.[3] As cattle terminology in use amongst many Bantu pastoralist groups testifies, Bantu herders originally acquired cattle from Cushitic pastoralists already inhabiting Eastern Africa prior to Bantu settlement in the region, from where some Bantu tribes later spread south. Linguistic evidence indicates that Bantus also likely borrowed the custom of milking cattle from Cushitic peoples; either through direct contact with them or indirectly via Khoisan intermediaries who had themselves acquired both domesticated animals and pastoral techniques from Cushitic migrants.[4][5]

The Herero claim to comprise several sub-divisions, including the Himba, the Tjimba (Cimba), the Mbanderu and the 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 Herero's interest to portray indigenous peoples as impoverished (cattleless) Herero.[6]


Herero, at the end of the 19th century

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Herero migrated to what is today 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. Later the two peoples entered into a period of cultural exchange.

During the late 19th century, the first Europeans began entering to permanently settle the land. Primarily in Damaraland, German settlers acquired land from the Herero in order to establish farms. In 1883, the merchant Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz entered into a contract with the native elders. 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 Herero 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.[citation needed]

Herero Wars[edit]

In the late 19th and early 20th century, imperialism and colonialism in Africa peaked, affecting especially the Hereros and the Namas. European powers were seeking trade routes and railways, as well as more colonies. Germany officially claimed their stake in a South African colony in 1884, calling it German South-West Africa until it was taken over in 1915. The first German colonists arrived in 1892, and conflict with the indigenous Herero and Nama people began. As in many cases of colonization, the indigenous people were not treated fairly.

Between 1893 and 1903, the Herero and Nama people's land as well as their cattle were progressively making their way into the hands of the German colonists. The Herero and Nama resisted expropriation over the years, but they were unorganized and the Germans defeated them with ease. In 1903, the Herero people learned that they were to be placed in reservations, leaving more room for colonists to own land and prosper. In 1904, the Herero and Nama began a great rebellion that lasted until 1907, ending with the near destruction of the Herero people. “The war against the Herero and Nama was the first in which German imperialism resorted to methods of genocide…”[7] It has been determined by experts that roughly 80,000 Herero lived in German South-West Africa at the beginning of Germany’s colonial rule over the area, while after their revolt was defeated, they numbered approximately 15,000. In a period of four years, approximately 65,000 Herero people perished.

Samuel Maharero, the Supreme Chief of the Herero, led his people in a great uprising on January 12, 1904, against the Germans.[8] The Herero, surprising the Germans with their uprising, had initial success.

German General Lothar von Trotha took over as leader in May 1904.[9] In August 1904, he devised a plan to annihilate the Herero nation. The plan was to surround the area where the Herero were, leaving but one route for them to escape, into the desert. The Herero battled the Germans, and the losses were minor. It was when they had escaped through the only passage made available by the Germans, and had been chased away from the last watering hole into complete desertion, that casualties grew to insufferable amounts. It was then that the Herero uprising changed from war, to genocide.

At the 100th anniversary of the massacre, German Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul commemorated the dead on site and apologized for the crimes on behalf of all Germans. Hereros and Namas demanded financial reparations, however in 2004 there was only minor media attention in Germany on this matter.[10]


The Hereros 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.[citation needed]

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).[11] 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."[12]

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.[13]


Further information: Otjiherero

Despite sharing a language and pastoral traditions, the Herero are not a homogeneous people. 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 Herero proper and their southern counterparts the Mbanderu, for instance, wear garments similar to those worn by colonial Europeans (see photo at top of article). Traditional leather garments are worn by northwestern groups, such as the Himba, Kuvale, and Tjimba, who are also more conservative in other aspects such as not buying 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.[14]

The Herero language (Otjiherero) is the main unifying link amongst the Herero peoples.[citation needed] It is a Bantu language, part of the Niger–Congo family.[15] 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.[citation needed]

Marriage rituals[edit]

The groom informs his father about his intentions, the message is passed on to his uncles. In situations where there is no contact or relationship with his father, he may talk directly to his uncles. They go to seek permission from the woman’s family to give their daughter's hand in marriage.

The visit is usually done three times, but depending on the willingness of the brides family to give their daughter away, it might take years. In the case were the groom`s family does not like the woman their son is about to marry, they may prolong or delay in the process of going to the woman’s family with the hope that their son will find a different woman. Normally when the groom is reluctant his family goes ahead with his wish. The male’s family goes the first time, which is to convey the message of a potential marriage. On this day they are presented with a date to come the second time. During the second visit the bride’s family will express their consents and propose the date for the third meeting. On the third visit the bride’s family will stage either their approval or disapproval. If an approval is staged, a list of items to be presented as dowry or ovitunja is negotiated and date is set for the final wedding rituals or rites. Usually on every visit they go to beg the lady’s family, some families make them crawl from the main entrance to the place where the bride’s family is seated.

After this, preparation for the wedding begins. The bride begins to collect items (parcel of things) that will be essential for the ceremony. Items normally collected are cool bag, basin, chamber pot (onagpota) and a drawer like box with the opening on top called otjikesa (contains the three dresses (ozohorokava) that will be used for the entire wedding rituals). One of the ozohorokava is used on the Friday to receive the male’s family when they present the ovitunja or dowry price (usually 2 cows and price money which is recently on the rise depending on the educational level of the bride to be). The second dress, she wears on the Saturday before she finally wears the third, which is used on the wedding day. The bride is not allowed to buy her own wedding dress, usually her mother takes care of it. Formally, mothers sewed or made the wedding dresses by themselves but now, mostly given to seamstresses. The basin included in the parcel of things or items presented to the groom’s family signifies the bride's ability and willingness to do the groom’s laundry or literally washing her husbands to be clothes. On the side of the groom preparations of the ovitunja or dowry list are made towards the final wedding rituals. During this period the groom is not allowed to drive, carry a chair or show his face in public (hence the reason groom puts a white cloth under his hat to cover his face) during his wedding.

The bride to be is then put in a house (most likely her father’s house and were the wedding ceremony will be held) for a week all by herself. She is covered up, doesn’t show her face and not allowed to talk for the whole week up onto the Friday where the grooms family comes in to present the ovitunja. During this period of quiet people normally come in from time to time to help her undress and dress.

On the Friday the customary rights begins, the groom's family are expected to perform the rites before the sun goes down. Upon arrival the family and friends of the groom are stationed behind the house while the bride’s family and friends are stationed in front of the house. The family and friends of the groom are only allowed to move to the front of the house when it is time for the presentation of the ovitunja. Immediately after the presentation the family and friends of the groom with the groom are expected to leave and are not allowed to meet again until the Saturday afternoon at the Orunde ceremony. The bride after the presentation then changes her dress and seated after to receive or welcome guests for the rest of the day, still having her face covered and is still not allowed to talk except the need arises but must talk very softly even when she does.

On the morning of the Saturday, the bride’s family gives a young cow with tiny horns to be slaughtered by the groom’s family, then there is a certain special organ of this cow called evango (normally the 3 ribs on the left side ) which is taken back to the groom’s house, the groom’s family slaughters another cow where they also take out the evango and give it to the bride's family. After the exchange of these omavangos, the families are now allowed to start moving in between homes, the groom’s family can now mingle with the bride’s family. Later in the day the bride is allowed to step out in the company of her brides maids (mostly married), they walk all around her mostly covering her from been seen in another ceremony called orunde. They sing songs to hail and attribute her to be fresh, clean, fruitful and worthy of marriage. While this happens a select ladies from both the grooms and brides family make a fire for the (orunde) ceremony. These women sit around the fire, do the traditional dance (outjina) and sing in turns, the selected ladies from the brides family sing songs to tease that of the grooms selected ladies. Songs mostly say things like your son doesn’t deserve our daughter, you presented skinny cows, the groom is not handsome, etc. The selected ladies of the grooms family will also then reply defending their honour by singing all that you have said is not true, we have presented the best cows, etc. The bride and her entourage move towards the fire, upon arrival she is made to walk around the fire. Whiles walking she is aided by her aunty (or elderly woman from the bride’s family) to slightly remove a portion of the fit that is placed around her head covering her face. Nowadays this orunde ceremony is where the ladies wear their best dresses and as well as the men in their formal suits to sort of present which family comes better (whether the groom or the bride’s). This goes to compliment the famous saying ombanda onguru kaitono outjina ('an old dress or suit does not dance at the outjina ceremony'). Very interesting designer clothes are usually observed at this ceremony.

Sunday in the morning is when she is finally given away. She brings all her collection or parcels for the wedding (chamber pot, cool bag, basin, etc.) and sits in front of her husband. Both families advice the bride and groom, the brides family does this first by mainly saying to the bride to take good care of her husband to be, advices what a good woman should do, bits of marriage counseling for both, bids farewell and state whom they are giving their daughter to. The grooms family does similar but generally advices both, the role of a good husband and they also bid farewell to the couple to be.

After this they are both taken to the holy fire at the groom’s place, where an elderly will call their ancestors and seek blessings on behalf of the couple. They both leave after for the house where they are seated in front of the house. To conclude the ceremony she milks one of the cows that was presented in the presence of the groom and the groom is presented a stick.

A little after that the bride leaves with her groom in the family car of the groom where the groom is usually driven either by his younger brother (rarely) or by someone who got circumcised in the same year as he was (omakura). Omakura are the guys who accompany the groom wherever he goes during the entire wedding ceremony and carry his chair and umbrella, actually they are the most important guys to the groom, and they have this strong brotherly love that they even consider the bride as their bride and support the groom in many ways such as contribute towards the ovitunja money, buy him the wedding suits or give him a car in case the groom needs an extra one. On the Monday another ceremony happens at the groom’s house, then on Tuesday the stick is presented back to the family of the bride signifying acceptance of the bride or a pass in the final test at groom’s family residence.

Beliefs and Superstitions[edit]


Omuroi is a herero noun that is believed to be someone who is suspected of been a witch who flies at night, or someone who performs witchcraft or rides people at night. More sort of a ghost person, some believe in and claim to struggle with sleeping when a certain person is around due to their belief of that person possessing omuroi. Others claim to also believe that such beings talk at night and when such voices are heard, a shout may scare them away.

Others resort to sleeping with candles on, believing that the omuroi fears or hates light. Some may even bring in spiritual doctors to perform ceremonies to chase this omuroi away. Even though it seems very superstitious, it is a belief that has been passed on from generations hence creating some sort of room for it in the culture of the herero people.

Domestic animals[edit]

There are a lot of animal in the world in which there are divided into two categories which are wild animals and domestic animals. The Herero making a living out of rearing domestic animals and these domestic animals are:


Ankole Cattle.jpg

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 whilst females are responsible for milking cows, carrying out 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[16]". Although males are responsible for the cattle trading activities the females do most of the trading such as bartering for other goods.

Herero Woman Namibia(1).jpg

The Herero people take pride in their cattle hence the culture of Herero requires women to wear hats shaped of cow horns[16] so as to show importance of cattle in their culture and they also believe that the more cattle one has the richer he or she is, so cattle is used as symbol of wealth in this culture. In call for celebrations such as marriages cattle is normally used for meat consumption whilst for carrying out religious or ancestral ceremonies, ancestors are honored by sacrifice of cows or animals.

Goats and sheep[edit]

Goats and sheep are also used for meat consumption, and the goat milk is used to make dairy products. The goat skin has a significant use as it can be used to carry babies on the back and create household ornaments. In the Herero culture the goat dung is a used for medicinal purposes[17] as it is normally used for healing chicken pox.

Horses and donkeys[edit]

Horse and Donkeys are normally used for transportation. In cases of herding or searching for lost domestic animals the Herero people engage horses to carry out these activities. Herero people consume donkey meat too but rarely consume horse meat.

Dogs and chicken[edit]

When males go for hunting they use to dogs to help in hunting for purposes and also for herding. The Herero people tend to hunt to acquire meat,hides and horns so as to barter for goods such as sugar, tea and tobacco. Chickens are kept for meat consumption and breeding eggs.

Herero in fiction[edit]

  • A group of Herero living in Germany who were inducted into the German military during the Second World War play a major part in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. The genocide under von Trotha plays a major role in another novel by the same author, V..
  • German author Uwe Timm's novel Morenga, set in German South-West Africa, also includes several Herero characters.
  • A Portuguese-Herero mestiça protagonist is featured in Guy Saville's novel The Afrika Reich. The fictional story takes place in a 1952 Africa largely conquered by the Nazis who came away from World War II politically and economically empowered and relatively unopposed.
  • "Mama Namibia," a historical novel by Mari Serebrov, provides two perspectives of the 1904 genocide in German South-West Africa. The first is that of Jahohora, a 12-year-old Herero girl who survives on her own in the veld for two years after her family is killed by German soldiers. The second story in "Mama Namibia" is that of Kov, a Jewish doctor who volunteered to serve in the German military to prove his patriotism. But as he witnesses the atrocities of the genocide, he rethinks his loyalty to the Fatherland.[18]
  • The Treatment of the Herero by German colonists is the subject of the 2012 play We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia, Formerly Known As South West Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The incredible Victorian-style fashions of Africa’s Herero people | Death and Taxes
  2. ^ Immaculate N. Kizza, The Oral Tradition of the Baganda of Uganda: A Study and Anthology of Legends, Myths, Epigrams and Folktales, [1], p.21: "The Bantu were, and still are, primarily subsistence farmers who would settle in areas, clear land, organize themselves in larger units basically for protective purposes, and start permanent settlements."
  3. ^ Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples, Grove Press, 2001, p. 276
  4. ^ J. D. Fage, A history of Africa, Routledge, 2002, p.29: In the north-east, the Bantu entered 'Azanian' lands inhabited by peoples speaking southern Cushitic languages. Indeed, this was of some importance because there is firm archaeological evidence that modern Kenya and northern Tanzania were the home of a succession of societies, once known as the 'Stone Bowl' cultures, which from about the middle of the third millennium B.C. onwards had cattle and were developing food-producing techniques well suited to the environment. It is unlikely that the Bantu would have brought large cattle with them through the forest, and their cattle terminology suggests that they acquired cattle from eastern African speakers of Cushitic languages, possibly through the mediation of Khoisan-speaking peoples. There is also linguistic evidence to suggest that at a later stage the Bantu may have borrowed the practice of milking directly from Cushitic-speaking peoples in East Africa."
  5. ^ Was there an interchange between Cushitic pastoralists and Khoisan speakers in the prehistory of Southern Africa and how can this be detected?: "This paper will argue that the explanation for some continuities of pastoral culture between NE Africa and the Khoe-speaking peoples is really quite simple; pastoralists speaking Cushitic languages once spread as far as south-central Africa, where they were in contact with the ancestors of present-day Khoe-speakers. This led to a transfer of both species of domestic animals and also some rather specific techniques of pastoral lifestyle including dairy-processing etc. Khoe pastoral culture is known mainly from records and their original sheep and cattle breeds have now become heavily crossbred. The explanation for related traits among adjacent Bantu peoples is likely to be a similar, subsequent transfer from the Khoe to the Bantu, although it is possible that there was also direct Cushitic contact with the Bantu in the same region. It is further likely that this was connected with the expansion of the Khoe peoples, explaining why their language subgroup is remarkably coherent within Khoisan, which is otherwise characterised by a high level of internal diversity, reflecting its considerable antiquity. The importance of the pastoral revolution in Southern Africa led to the borrowing of livestock terms into other branches of Khoisan."
  6. ^ Roger Blench, Are the African Pygmies an Ethnographic Fiction?
  7. ^ Chalk, Frank, and Jonassohn, Kurt. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. “Published in cooperation with the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies”. (Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 1990)
  8. ^ The New York Times (New York). 18 Aug, 1904
  9. ^ The Times (London). 7 May 1904
  10. ^ Krabbe, Alexander. "Remembering Germany's African Genocide". OhmyNews International. Retrieved 2004-08-06. 
  11. ^ 1 How Societies Are Born by Jan Vansina: “Of Water, Cattle, and Kings”
  12. ^ Boy-Wives and Female Husbands edited by Stephen Murray & Will Roscoe. Published by Saint Martin's Press in 1998. p. 190
  13. ^ Nunuhe, Margreth (31 August 2011). "Holy fire relocation triggers storm". New Era. 
  14. ^ Carvalho, Ruy Duarte (2000 (1992-1997)). Vou lá visitar pastores. Rio Mouro, Portugal: Círculo de Leitores, Printer Portuguesa Casais de Mem Martins. ISBN 972-42-2092-3. 
  15. ^ Herero language reference at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
  16. ^ a b "Herero People: Hats & History". 
  17. ^ "Domestic Animal Farming in the Fransfontein Area". 
  18. ^ Serebrov, Mari. Mama Namibia. Windhoek, Namibia: Wordweaver Publishing House, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]