Africa Overland: Namibia Part I

Late on a hot sunny morning our overland truck trundled across a bridge spanning the Orange River between Vioolsdrif in South Africa and the Namibian border checkpoint.  We’d been warned that this small border crossing could be slow and had desperately tried to leave our campsite before the other tourists and overland trucks so we could get to the front of the line.  We quickly completed South African exit formalities and found the queue at the Namibian immigration office short.  I was one of the first to complete the entry form and found myself in front of a surly immigration officer.  He barked a few questions at me before noticing that I was a New Zealander which triggered an immediate change in attitude seen as both Namibia and New Zealand are big rugby playing nations.  He barely checked my documentation as we discussed Namibia’s recent performance on the international rugby scene and before I knew it my passport had been stamped.

Soon the rest of the group cleared entry formalities and we were on a bumpy road to the interior and our first stop at Fish River Canyon just a few hours away.  It would take us 11 unforgettable days to get from this southern checkpoint to the Botswana border in the north, and in the meantime I’d experience some of the most incredible and surreal landscapes I’d ever seen.  From Atlantic waves washing up on giant sand dunes to vistas that looked like we’d just landed on Mars, this was a country like no other.  But before I get into the fun tourist stuff I need to explain a bit about Namibia which also means explaining a bit about Africa and that is no easy thing to do.  So please bear with me as I kick off the first of my Namibia posts with an attempt at a bit of Africa 101.


Long before Namibia became the nation we know it as today it was a region simply known as the Namib Desert with a diverse number of mostly nomadic ethnic groups calling it home.  This desert is often said to be the oldest in the world and a people collectively known as the San were one of its earliest human occupants.  In fact, their DNA can be traced to the earliest known humans.  The San in this part of Africa were hunter gatherers, moving around the desert to wherever they could find food and never setting up much more than a temporary home.  They were eventually joined by other ethnic groups, some who raised cattle and were also nomadic, and others who created more permanent settlements.  Life passed fairly peacefully like this for hundreds of years when the Bantu arrived from Central Africa in the 1300s.  Whilst war and many changes followed, largely life continued in much the same way.

In the 1700s the Oorlam arrived from the Cape Colony, a region that now forms part of South Africa.  By this time numerous ethnic groups were scattered throughout the Namib and as this latest one arrived from the south they, along with the Christian missionaries they bought with them, were largely welcomed and soon assimilated into the existing groups. Whilst things progressed fairly well, this was an early sign of the drastic changes about to come to societies in the Namib and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Members of a San family in Namibia

Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Deutsch-Südwestafrika, Namafamilie
A Nama family during the German colonial period.

Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons

The missionaries began to convert people to Christianity, convincing them to abandon traditional clothing for the modest attire of the time, to change their attitudes to sex, death and marriage, and to generally make themselves more like Christian Europeans.  This wasn’t resisted very much and by gaining just a small understanding of the way many African ethnic groups viewed spirituality and their place in the world, it is not hard to see how they made the leap to Christianity reasonably easily.  However, this was just the beginning of a vast cultural shift that we probably still haven’t seen the end of.  The most important takeaway is that many Africans were led to believe that their traditional way of life was heathen, savage and backward versus the European way of life that was enlightened, civilized and educated.  In my opinion this is when many African cultures began to lose their collective sense of self-worth and confidence.  But I digress.

Christian missionaries with their converts in Democratic Republic of the Congo circa 1889.  Note that traditional dress is already long gone in favor of modest European attire of the time.

Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons

When the main wave of European colonialists arrived from countries like Britain,  France and Germany a few hundred years ago, the concept of nationhood as we know it today didn’t really exist in Africa.  At that time around 3,000 ethnic groups speaking 2,000 different languages were dispersed throughout the continent.  Instead of formal borders and governments these groups defined themselves by their culture and their family, clan or tribe.  Some of these groups pretty much stuck to specific geographic areas, occasionally being displaced to another location due to things like inter-tribal wars or droughts.  Others never truly defined their location, simply moving seasonally to the best places to find food and shelter.  People may have stuck to broad geographical areas that contributed to their culture and therefore broadly became people of the desert or people of the mountains and so on, but they certainly didn’t define themselves by a specific geographical region.

Whilst there were turf wars and some ethnic groups either disappeared or became much smaller due to the appearance of other groups, this way of life was followed for thousands of years until European countries began to stake their claim in Africa.  Often colonialism started out to exploit a natural resource such as gold, diamonds, tea or human slaves.  Other reasons for colonization might be to secure a valuable port or other trade route to transport goods across the world to their own country, to trading partners or to their other colonies.  Sometimes several of these reasons were in action but all eventually morphed into a need to secure well-defined territories to protect European assets in the region.

Eventually European politicians, economists and academics of the time sat down in offices in places like London and Paris to draw borders.  Some of the people who were most influential in this exercise hadn’t even been to Africa.  The borders were drawn much like you’ll find many borders in Europe, marked by easily defended and easily observable natural boundaries such as rivers, lakes, coastline and mountain ranges.  They were also drawn to ensure they included valuable resources that were needed such as water sources, good sea ports and crops to feed themselves as well as their new subjects.  No thought was given to ethnic groups when these borders were drawn.  Often they were divided from each other leaving a group that may have been a majority on one area now a minority in this new and confusing nation they found themselves in.   In many cases the new countries would encompass ethnic groups that had been warring on an off for centuries and were suddenly expected to live peaceably together as fellow citizens.

European forms of government were created that quickly replaced the traditional ways various ethnic groups had governed themselves which was often through decision by tribal consensus and leadership was generally provided via a complicated system of village elders and chiefs.  Suddenly they had a bewildering array of laws, government departments and ministers to contend with, all led by  white politicians and/or royals in far away European countries they knew little about and who all too often knew little about them.

A map showing what pre-colonial Africa probably looked like.  Note the distinct lack of borders, particularly in Southern Africa.

Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons

A map of Africa from 1910 before the two World Wars began to break down colonialism in the region.  Note the key at the bottom right hand corner that shows which colonial power ruled each country.

Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons

The people of the Namib Desert became caught up in this new world order when the Germans arrived in the 1800s to stake their claim.  By 1884 they had drawn borders and instilled a colonial government.  They named the new country German South-West Africa and in an effort to create a civilized and well controlled colony that served the mother country well, Germany carried out genocide against the Nama and Herero ethic groups.  With an estimated 75,000 lives lost they wiped out half of the Nama people and about 80% of the Herero.  And before we sit in judgement solely of Germany, let’s remember that the British committed similar atrocities in Australia and North America as did the Belgians in the Congo, and that pretty much every colonial power committed atrocities that only just fell short of genocide at one time or another in order to control their new domains.

The Germans ruled there until 1915 when South African forces overthrew them as part of the wider World War One conflict.  South Africa was still a British colony at the time so Namibia also became a British outpost largely administered by the South Africans.  When South Africa gained independence, Namibia became a full South African territory although this was disputed and resisted many times as South Africa repeatedly resisted Namibia being given full independence in the years following World War Two.  Sadly South African apartheid law extended to Namibia and hard-won self-rule wouldn’t come until 1990.

Herero genocide survivors who had escaped through the desert from the Germans.

Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons

Today Namibia is one of the most progressive nations in Sub-Saharan Africa with a healthy GDP and high level of literacy.  But things haven’t been plain sailing; the population was hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, lowering life expectancy and creating far-reaching socio-economic impacts.   When Namibia became independent in 1990 around 50% of the land was owned by whites who made up just 0.2% of the population.  Land reform continues to be a thorny issue.

Whilst this post is about Namibia it is important to understand how the other African colonies gained their independence as they took a slightly different yet no less drastic path.  The two world wars of the 20th Century changed Europe almost beyond recognition. Not only could Africa’s ruling European powers not really afford to run their colonies, the general population just didn’t have the stomach to do so when they had so much to worry about at home.  One-by-one the African nations gained independence with a few exceptions in the Portuguese colonies not to mention Namibia who had to wait a good deal longer. By and large the remaining countries did so without too much bloodshed.  The outgoing European powers made a somewhat quick and quiet exit but not before trying to leave behind democratic and capitalist nations that they could still do business with.  They hastily designed democratic governments, quietly instilled their preferred leaders then largely left Africa to sort itself out, only intervening if a former colony was about to do something that harmed their own political and economic ambitions such as making noise about becoming a communist nation or setting up trade deals with the Soviets.

What ensued from this newly found independence throughout Sub-Saharan Africa is extremely complex, often bloody and we can still see the effects today.  Countries like Botswana and Namibia seem to have fared well for the most part.  Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania remain gripped by corruption and poverty, yet manage to stay fairly peaceful.  Angola, Congo, Nigeria and Sudan seem to have been embroiled in non-stop civil wars, whilst Rwanda experienced one of the worst genocides the world has seen yet appears to have recovered well.    Zimbabwe and South Africa took their own paths through post-colonial racial discourse, the former is still suffering under a wholly inept dictator whilst the latter seems to be slowly finding her way.

But despite a wealth of natural resources in oil, diamonds and tourism, what we don’t have in Sub-Saharan Africa is a single nation that can claim to be successful on a global level whilst maintaining low rates of poverty and staying largely trouble-free.  South Africa, Namibia and Botswana spring to mind but even they struggle with poverty and the latter two can hardly be called economic powerhouses on a global scale.

A brand new Sudanese Prime Minister raises a brand new flag as Sudan celebrates independence from Britain in 1956.  Decades of bloody civil war and poverty followed.  The region remains unstable despite holding a wealth of natural resources in oil and diamonds.

Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons

The burning question is why and it was one of the reasons I wanted to take this trip through Southern Africa.  I wanted to see if I could figure out in my own head why Africa didn’t take off post-colonialism like Asia did.  My own country is a former colony as are some major world powers such as USA, Canada and Australia.  Whilst African nations found their independence much later, what else was so different about these former colonies?

Today Namibia is a huge country with population of just 2.3 million, the second lowest population density in the world after Mongolia.  We would drive for miles and miles through arid desert without seeing a single soul or any evidence of human existence other than perhaps some fencing, some roaming cattle or sheep and the road itself.   As we set out on the bumpy road to Fish River Canyon I felt excited to finally be making inroads into the lesser known areas of the African continent where I could take a look at what life was like for people several decades after they gained independence.  I had known what to expect in South Africa but not so much throughout the rest of Southern Africa in countries that rarely made the news and were only visited by the most avid travellers.  I knew a bit of history and something of the politics in the nations I would encounter but I didn’t truly understand what this meant for people who lived there let alone what it would take for them to make a better future.

In my remaining African posts I will definitely cover off my experience as a traveller in terms of the landscapes and experiences I had, but I’ll also try to touch on how well I got along with seeking the answers to the questions I had.


Please note that  I am by no means an expert on history never mind African history.  The information in this post has been gleaned from books I’ve read over the years, internet research and from talking to Africans.  If you follow the many links in the text you can read more about the subjects and places I have written about and perhaps form your own opinions.

Finally, when I refer to Africa I almost always mean Sub-Saharan Africa, basically everything south of the Sahara Desert.  North Africa is a whole other beast and the history, culture and politics there is closely related to events in Europe and the Middle East over the past few thousand years due to the proximity to those regions.  Sub-Saharan Africa was largely cut-off from those societies during much of that time frame due to the vast Sahara Desert, so in the absence of history changing events such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and Moorish expansion, history south of the Sahara took a very different trajectory culturally and politically.

One thought on “Africa Overland: Namibia Part I

  1. Pingback: Botswana Part I: Diamonds & Democracy – The Wandering Wincer

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