Ovambo men (early 20th century)
|Regions with significant populations|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Other Bantu peoples|
The Ovambo people (pronounced [ovambo] (listen)), also called Aawambo, Ambo, Aawambo (Ndonga, Nghandjera, Kwambi, Mbalantu) or Ovawambo (Kwanyama), are a Southern African tribal ethnic group. They are the largest ethnic group of Namibia, found in its northern regions and more often called Ovambo. They are also found in southern Angolan province of Cunene where the name Ambo is more common. The Ovambo consist of a number of kindred Bantu ethnic tribes who inhabit what was formerly called Owamboland. Accounting for about fifty percent of the Namibian population, the Ovambo are its largest ethnic group. In Angola, they are a minority, accounting for about two percent of the total Angolan population.
The Ambo people migrated south from the upper regions of Zambezi in the period around the 14th century. The contemporary total Ambo population is about 1.6 million, and they are predominantly Christians (97%).
The Ambo are an ethnolinguist group and speak Ovambo language, also called Oshiwambo, Ambo, Kwanyama, or Oshiwambo, a language that 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 Ambo people have adapted to the widely varying seasonal weather patterns with their housing, agriculture, and livestock practices.
The Ovambo people are Bantu-speaking tribes. 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. They speak Oshiwambo, in many dialects such as the Oshikwanyama, Oshingandjera, Oshindonga and others.
The Ovambo people 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. 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.
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.
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 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 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 people 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 Aawambo 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). Forza was an important game in their lives.
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 people 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 has a hereditary chief who is responsible for the tribe. Many tribes have 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.
The Aawambo raise cattle, fish in the oshanas, and farm. They are skilled craftsmen. They make and sell basketry, pottery, jewelry, wooden combs, wood iron spears, arrows, richly decorated daggers, musical instruments, and also ivory buttons.
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 following table contains the names, areas, dialect names and the locations of the Ovambo tribes according to T. E. Tirronen's Ndonga-English Dictionary. The table also contains information concerning the classification of noun class of the Proto-Bantu language for these words.
|Classes 9 (*ny > on-), 11 (uu-/ou-)||Class 2 (*wa-, a-)||Class 7 (*ki > oshi-)|
|Ou-kwanyama||Ova-kwanyama||Oshi-kwanyama||Northern and Eastern Ovamboland, Southern Angola|
|E-unda||Ova-unda||Oshi-unda||Western Ovamboland, Epalela vicinity|
|O-mbadja||Ova-mbadja||Oshi-mbadja||Southern Angola, Shangalala region|
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