Visitors to Namibia often bemoan the fact that they don’t meet the ‘real’ people of the country. To gain an insight into how the Owambo, Namibia’s main population group, live their everyday lives, feature journalist Andreas Vogt recently visited the far northern regions.
One would expect the most densely populated part of Namibia, the central northern region comprising the four so-called O regions – Omusati, Oshana, Ohangewena and Oshikoto – to be a hive of tourist activity. The record shows, however, that this is not the case, primarily because, in the Namibian context, the region is somewhat remote. Not only is it geographically and historically isolated from the rest of the country by the huge Etosha National Park, but from a tourism point of view it competes with the high dunes of Sossusvlei, the abundant wildlife of Etosha and the picturesque Himba people of the Kaokoland.
This by no means indicates that central northern Namibia is completely devoid of tourism attractions. To the contrary – the charm of the region is rather more subtle. It presupposes a somewhat different, more meditative approach on behalf of the visitor to experience a side of the country that is both different and very much within the Namibian context.
Being Namibia’s northernmost region and thus nearer to the equator, in the summer months the temperatures are high, the light is glaring and the roads are long and hot. The main geographical features are the complete absence of mountains, the white Etosha Pan in the south and wide stretches of exclusively sandy, salty soils. The latter are interspersed mostly by dry river channels (the so-called oshanas), which branch and rejoin as they gravitate from the wet highlands in Angola and fill up during the rainy seasons. Overgrown with beautiful makalani palms, which favour the salty soils, marula and mopane trees and the odd baobab make this landscape beautiful and picturesque.
The region has enjoyed hundreds of years of uninterrupted habitation by the seven tribes of the Owambo people, the Ndonga and Kwanyamas, the Kwambi, Ngandjera, Mbalantu, Kwaluudhi, and the Eunda/Nkolonkhadi. Historically it enjoyed a rather isolated existence until 1917 when it came into full contact with western colonialism, by which time South West Africa was already being administered by South Africa. The Nakambale Museum and rest camp at Olukonda, 13 km south west of the regional town of Ondangwa, afford interesting insights into the activities of the Finnish Mission, one of the few European agents involved with the Owambo people in pre-colonial times. Here one can learn about Owambo culture and the political history of the former Ovamboland, as well as experience local hospitality in the form of traditional food and dance (on request) in a reconstructed traditional Ndonga homestead. A great variety of museum displays can be viewed and guided tours of the museum are offered. The original Nakambale mission church, the Nakambale Mission House and the cemetery have been proclaimed as a national monument. Overnight stays in this tranquil rural setting are also an option.
From Olukonda, the nearby attractions include the Ombuga Grasslands & Lake Oponono (1-2 hours drive away, accompanied by a local guide), the markets at Ondangwa and Oshakati (15–45 minutes) and the Etosha National Park (2-3 hours).
Traditional palisade-fenced homesteads made entirely from wood still dominate in the north, although ever more small buildings made from bricks are being built to accommodate the seemingly endless numbers of small cuca shops and trading outlets along major routes. The widespread belief that trade makes one ‘get rich quick’ has led to the establishment of literally thousands of small, some tiny, bars, bottle-stores, liquor and commodity outlets. The most charming aspect here is the imaginative names of these establishments, revealing an unexpected sense of humour, liveliness and hope despite present difficulties and the sometimes understandable deep sense of yearning for being elsewhere other than in the hottest and flattest part of Namibia.
Rapidly expanding towns such as Ondangwa, Ongwediva and Oshakati increasingly feature modern buildings to accommodate Namibian and South African chain stores and franchises. Although several charming high-standard accommodation establishments exist along the main road, such as the Oshakati Country Lodge and Santorini Inn at Oshakati, and the Pandu Ondangwa Hotel and Punyu International Hotel & Casino in Ondangwa, one misses smaller high-standard establishments such as bed & breakfasts in the more rural areas.
To reach Olukonda and the Nakambale Museum and rest camp approaching from the south on the Tsumeb-Oshikati road (B1 tarmac), 8 km before Ondangwa, one should look out for a signpost on the left side of the road indicating a turnoff to the left. The signpost indicates Olukonda (D3629). Follow this gravel road for approximately 5 km. Olukonda (where the Nakambale Museum and rest camp are situated) is to the left about 500 metres from the junction (look for the old church). Access is possible by 2×4 vehicle.
Farther north west, the Tsandi Royal Homestead is home to the king of one of the seven tribes in Owambo. Since time immemorial it has been the centre for traditional values, customs and cultural practices to be passed down from generation to generation. Visitors will find themselves enchanted by the Uukwaluudhi tribe. Here they can take a step closer and meet the people of Owambo, gain insight into the local culture and way of life, learn more about the traditions of the Uukwaluudhi Kingdom and have the opportunity to meet the King in person. Craft outlets with traditional artifacts on display provide the opportunity to buy local handmade crafts including woven baskets, wooden cups and clay pots. A guided tour to the monument at Ongulumbashe (a historical place where the beginning of the liberation struggle in 1966 is commemorated) can be organised on request. The Tsandi Royal Homestead is located in Tsandi, the main town of Uukwaluudhi in the Omusati region, approximately 100 km from Oshakati.
To gain a real insight into the north-central region, visitors are advised to drive right up to the north-western corner where they will be rewarded with the stunning sight of the Ruacana Falls in the mighty Kunene, one of the two rivers on the border between Namibia and Angola.
This article appeared in the Oct/Nov ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.