Travelling through the world of the Owambo

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Owambo kraal

Text Ron Swilling

Just when I thought I was getting to know the intriguing country of Namibia, I paid a visit to the north and discovered a part of the country that was utterly unlike the rest. Before the plane had even landed at the small airport in Ondangwa, I found myself looking at a tapestry of unfamiliar shapes and colours. This was the land of the Owambo.

I had entered a new world. Around me were golden mahangu fields, makalani palms and oshanas (shallow depressions filled with water), a forest of shebeens with wacky names like Happy Life Shop and Caribbean Inn, and homesteads enclosing small groups of huts and houses surrounded by palisades of mopane branches, bricks and mahangu stalks.

My days in the north unfolded in a wave of new sensations, tastes and information as I became immersed in the Oshiwambo culture and the way of life in the north-central regions, home to the Oshiwambo-speaking people – the largest ethnic group in Namibia.

owambo kraal

Traditional kraal.

I visited traditional homesteads, meeting women who laboriously extracted marula kernels from the hardened fruit for their delectable oil; stamped grain in large wooden mortars with long, heavy pestles, beating out a rhythm that echoed the heartbeat of Africa; and wove perfect baskets from makalani fronds with the skill of artists refined by a lifetime of practise.

Old mission houses and churches led me on journeys into the past where I felt the cool breeze of time. I strolled through markets, watched men weave enormous granary baskets and spent time chatting to people in the shebeens. Travelling west, I sat in the sacred centre of an ancient baobab and slept underneath its branches, feeling blessed by the old arboreal king, and listened to the sound of fish eagles calling from the banks of the crocodile-infested Kunene River.

Traditional Owambo dress.

Traditional Owambo dress.

On the sandy pathways of an African palace surrounded by a robust fence of mopane branches, I imagined marula festivals and kings and queens resting in the simple huts or receiving guests who would kneel before them in reverence. I shifted and expanded my perception to embrace the wonders and ways of Africa. With an appetite for the extraordinary, I tried the new, strange and unusual food and drink of the north, and appreciated my hosts’ generous hospitality and friendliness.

This is the Ovamboland of old, with its ancient kingdoms, cultural beliefs and traditions, merging with the 21st century in an unusual and colourful fusion, yet retaining an essence entirely of its own.


Visit the Nakambale Museum

Located in the village of Olukonda, 14 km from Ondangwa, Nakambale holds a century of character. Surrounded by mahangu fields and housed in the old mission house, the thick walls of the museum could tell a thousand stories.

Nakambale museum. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Nakambale museum. Photo ©Ron Swilling

The name Nakambale was given to one of the first Finnish missionaries, Martti Rautanen, who lived in the mission house with his family. He was known for wearing a hat that if turned upside-down, resembled a type of Owambo basket or okambale in the Ngandjera language. Martti erected the first church building in northern Namibia at Olukonda and completed the translation of the Bible initiated by various missionaries into Oshindonga. In addition to the museum, Nakambale has a campsite (and a replica of a traditional Ndonga homestead), making it a destination to add to your itinerary as a good overnight stop to absorb a serving of history, culture and charm. To complete the visit, pre-book an Oshiwambo meal and partake in a walk through the village.

Stroll through an African palace

The Uukwaluudhi Royal Homestead in Tsandi is the former home of King Tatekulu (father) Josia Shikongo Taapopi, the twelfth king of the Uukwaluudhi. It is a typical (but much larger) Owambo homestead surrounded by a mopane-pole palisade with various huts located inside.

Uukwaluudhi royal homestead. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Uukwaluudhi royal homestead. Photo ©Ron Swilling

This was his ombala (palace), reflecting his wealth and position in the community. Each of the 36 sections of the homestead has a specific function. Passages connect the various parts in a labyrinth of pathways, their secret purpose being to deter enemies and wild animals. It is a maze that would confuse any traveller without a GPS, but fortunately the tours are guided and the visitor returns safely to the unassuming Y fork in the palisade that serves as the entrance/exit point, and to his vehicle. The various sections and huts of the ombala include reception areas, sleeping quarters, a granary, and a kitchen, all in delightful Oshiwambo style.

This is a visit to add to your itinerary. The royal residence provides a unique cultural experience and insight into understanding the customs and beliefs of the Oshiwambo-speaking people. The African palace can be found by following the C41 from Oshikati to Okahao, and then taking the M123. Look out for the entrance to the homestead as you enter Tsandi.

Sit in the centre of a baobab

It is a holy experience to sit in the centre of the king of trees, all the more so knowing that it has a long legacy of varied functions. This particular tree was once a refuge for the Ombalantu people, who are said to have made a hole in its trunk and climbed down into its hollow depths during tribal wars and cattle skirmishes.

Ombalantu baobab. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Ombalantu baobab. Photo ©Ron Swilling

It was subsequently used as a post office. When the area became a South African military base it was turned into a chapel, finally being recognised for its holy energy. A few small benches and a lectern with a Bible still remain in the core of the tree. Now a heritage site, the baobab tree or omukwa is the centre of the small organised campsite. Situated behind the brightly painted open market in central Outapi, the Ombalantu Baobab Tree Heritage Centre and Campsite has good facilities, and four sites positioned under the branches of the massive, hundreds-of-years-old tree.

The Ombalantu baobab still holds its presence as a sanctuary, making the campsite a pleasant overnight stop, providing a place to rest on the journey and to sit in sacred silence in the core of an ancient baobab, honouring Tate Kalunga (God) and the great spirit of the king of trees.

Make a stop for handmade makalani paper

Mahangu (a type of pearl millet) is the staple food of the north-central regions. It grows in low-rainfall, high-temperature and low soil-fertility areas, and is eaten in a variety of dishes and drinks. The stalks are used to feed cattle and to thatch roofs.

Onankali Omahangu Paper Project. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Onankali Omahangu Paper Project. Photo ©Ron Swilling

In 2002 yet another use for this versatile subsistence crop was found. Using mahangu stalks as the main ingredient, the Onankali Omahangu Paper Project began producing handmade paper, using the remnants of the harvest to develop a range of attractive, well-made paper products. Paper-making is a labour-intensive and time-consuming process, beginning with soaking the stalks and leaves of the mahangu plants. This is then made into a pulp, combining it with recycled paper pulp to lighten the colour of the final product. The next stages involve pressing, drying, colouring, silk screening and assembling the products for sale.

Onankali makes use of the striking African designs and images produced by the San Ekoka Art Group, resulting in the well-made and stylish Onankali product range that comprises bookmarks, cards, notebooks, conference folders and magnetised fridge notepads. The attractive products can be bought directly from the Onankali Community Trust Centre, 55 km south of Ondangwa. These items are perfect gifts to take home from the north, where mahangu is central to the life of the inhabitants, providing food, drink and a livelihood.

Sample shebeen life

A colourful array of shebeens, also known as cuca shops, is scattered next to the roadsides of north-central Namibia, their quirky names adding humour and character to the Namibian landscape.

Surprisingly, the word ‘shebeen’ has Irish Gaelic origins, being derived from the Irish word ‘séibín/ sibín’ denoting a measure of grain, weak ale or the diminutive of ‘seibe’, a mugful. The term ‘shebeen’, referring to an unlicensed drinking establishment, has spread far and wide throughout the world. Cuca shops (with a general store for everyday household items) appeared on the Angolan border, adopting the name of the Portuguese Cuca Beer, and spreading down through the northern regions, while the shebeens of South Africa (often combined with a restaurant) spread upwards through the southern and central parts of the country.

Shebeen. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Shebeen. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

The shebeens of South African townships often began with the woman of the household brewing her own homemade beer from maize or sorghum. Small houses transformed into places where people could stop for a drink, hear the latest news, and listen to music. They became popular meeting spots – especially in the apartheid years – and a vital part of daily life. They were most often operated illegally. Today, although still retaining the name shebeen, they are licensed establishments.

Over the years, as centres for discussion, dance and entertainment, shebeens/cuca shops became an important part of Southern African culture. Today they are part of the character and charm of Namibia.

Travel News Namibia | Winter 2012
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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