Indigenous Namibia: 6 places to experience traditional culture

Outside pressures have robbed Namibia’s indigenous peoples of many of their traditional ways. Now “Living Museums” are helping to restore what was taken...

5 mins

The sheer remoteness of Namibia’s traditional rural communities is, in some ways, the key to their distinctiveness and resilience. Living a semi-disconnected life within challenging wilderness regions, far from urban influences, has helped cement many of the ancient customs and philosophies that other similar indigenous peoples have lost. That’s not to say that their lifestyles are frozen in time. Due to a combination of external pressures, environmental changes and personal preferences, very few Namibians live a fully nomadic life these days or, for example, wear entirely traditional attire on a daily basis. Nonetheless, many communities have taken steps to preserve their precious traditions, and community-run cultural heritage tourism projects are helping make this financially worthwhile. They are fitting partners for Namibia’s pioneering wildlife and habitat conservation projects, which recognise that the best way to promote biodiversity and keep the environment pristine is to ensure that rural communities prosper as a result.

Visiting African tribal communities can be controversial, so it’s natural to wonder whether your experience will feel exploitative, or even voyeuristic. The good news is that Namibia’s responsible tourism projects have been more than two decades in the making, long enough for communities (and tourists) to learn from their early mistakes and grow from them. Greater understanding on both sides has banished mutual awkwardness in favour of genuinely harmonious encounters where locals willingly share and discuss their ancestral knowledge and visitors come away with the feeling that they’ve actually taken part in something positive and worthwhile. Among the most successful projects are the Living Museums overseen by the Living Culture Foundation, a German-Namibian non-profit organisation set up in 2007. Scattered around northern Namibia’s rural communities, each represents a different ethnic group and offers hands-on cultural experiences delivered by local performers. As Rimunikavi Tjipurua, manager of the Living Museum of the Ovahimba people in Kunene, succinctly puts it: “They help us keep our traditions alive and enable us to send our children to school.”



Six places to learn about traditional culture in Namibia

1. Windhoek

The statue of Namibia’s  founding President, Sam Nujoma, stands outside the Independence Memorial Museum (Alamy)

The statue of Namibia’s founding President, Sam Nujoma, stands outside the Independence Memorial Museum (Alamy)

Most visitors to Namibia breeze through capital Windhoek at speed, heading out on safari almost as soon as they arrive. However, it’s well worth making time to visit the Independence Memorial Museum, which opened in 2014 and chronicles the nation’s liberation struggles. Next, to broaden your understanding of Namibia’s cultural diversity, dip into the dusty but dignified ethnographic exhibits at the National Museum of Namibia, which include Himba metalbead ornaments, a Dama hut made from woven grass, and images of the remarkable San rock art found in the Huns Mountains and at Twyfelfontein and Brandberg.

2. Oshikoto Region

Launched in 2021, Namibia’s new Museum of Namibian Music has a suitably playful feel, with guitars made from metal jerry cans displayed alongside thumb pianos and tribal drums. The curators have taken care to document instruments specific to ethnic minorities, such as a Ju/’Hoansi-San guashi (bow lute), an Oshindonga ondhila made from an enormous kudu horn, and a mighty Lozi silimba, a xylophone with wooden keys and gourd resonators. There are recordings to watch, and it’s hoped that live events will be held here too.

3. Erongo & Kunene Regions

Damara man in traditional clothing (Shutterstock)

Damara man in traditional clothing (Shutterstock)

The multicultural township of Mondesa, on Swakopmund’s north-eastern fringes, is home to Owambo, Damara and Herero families. Mondesa Township Tours show guests around by vehicle, bike or on foot, offering a chance to sample township cooking, visit a shebeen (local bar) and learn the origins of the cattlehorn-shaped headwear worn by Herero women. Further north, the Living Museum of the Damara, near Twyfelfontein, stages cultural performances based on lost huntergatherer and herder culture, while the Living Museum of the Ovahimba, between Opuwo and Epupa Falls, offers a chance to meet Namibia’s Himba people on their own terms.

4. Otjiwarongo, Otjozondjupa Region

Namibia’s newest cultural centre, the Museum of Namibian Fashion, is due to open in Otjiwarongo, 250km north of Windhoek, in 2022. Conceived in collaboration with the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, which holds an important collection of Namibian artefacts, it is reactivating local knowledge of tribal clothing and ornamentation. By celebrating both traditional and modern dress as an expression of cultural identity, it hopes to help address the trauma of the colonial experience while hosting talks, workshops and projects to support Namibia’s creative industries

5. Tsumkwe, Otjozondjupa Region

Grashoek’s Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San was the first of its kind in Namibia (Shutterstock)

Grashoek’s Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San was the first of its kind in Namibia (Shutterstock)

Namibia’s original Living Museum in Grashoek, west of the remote town of Tsumkwe, and its sister museum in Xa oba, further north, are dedicated to the traditions of the Ju/’Hoansi, a subgroup of the long-marginalised San Bushmen. At Xa oba, an area where the San are still officially allowed to conduct traditional hunts, you can learn how they track or trap spring hares, porcupines and guinea fowl. Tucsin Tsumkwe Lodge makes a convenient base; the staff here can arrange Ju/’Hoansiguided bushwalks in Nyae Nyae Conservancy – a chance to see the wilderness through their eyes

6. Kavango & Zambezi (Caprivi) Regions

The Zambezi Museum, a new centre that launched in Katima Mulilo in 2021, focuses on local communities in Namibia’s biodiversity-rich north-east and the environmental issues they face. This region is also home to three Living Museums. In the village of Singalamwe, near Kongola, Mafwe guides demonstrate how they weave fishing nets and prepare meals, while at Sikondo, beside Samsitu Lake, you can learn about Mbunza blacksmithing and pottery. The newest Living Museum, near Divindu, is run by Khwe San and offers Alamy bushwalks and artisan experiences

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