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Herero people

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Title: Herero people  
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Subject: Himba people, Namibia, Clemens Kapuuo, ǃKung people, Ovambo people
Collection: Ethnic Groups Divided by International Borders, Herero People, World Digital Library Related
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Herero people

Three Herero women.
Total population
250,000 (Namibia only)
Regions with significant populations
Traditional faith, Christianity
Related ethnic groups

The Herero is an ethnic group inhabiting parts of Southern Africa. The majority reside in Namibia, with the remainder found in Botswana and Angola. There were an estimated 250,000 Herero people in Namibia in 2013.[1] They speak the Herero language, which belongs to the Bantu languages.


  • General 1
  • History 2
    • Herero Wars 2.1
  • Culture 3
    • Language 3.1
    • Beliefs and superstitions 3.2
      • Omuroi 3.2.1
  • Domestic animals 4
    • Cattle 4.1
    • Goats and sheep 4.2
    • Horses and donkeys 4.3
    • Dogs and chicken 4.4
  • Herero in fiction 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Herero woman

Unlike most Bantus, who are primarily subsistence farmers,[2] the Herero are traditionally pastoralists and make a living tending livestock.[3] Cattle terminology in use among many Bantu pastoralist groups testifies that Bantu herders originally acquired cattle from Cushitic pastoralists inhabiting Eastern Africa. After Bantus settled in Eastern Africa, some Bantu tribes spread south. Linguistic evidence also suggests that Bantus borrowed the custom of milking cattle from Cushitic peoples; either through direct contact with them or indirectly via Khoisan intermediaries who had themselves acquired both domesticated animals and pastoral techniques from Cushitic migrants.[4][5]

The Herero claim to comprise several sub-divisions, including the Himba, the Tjimba (Cimba), the Mbanderu and the Kwandu. Groups in Angola include the Mucubal Kuvale, Zemba, Hakawona, Tjavikwa, Tjimba and Himba, who regularly cross the Namibia/Angola border when migrating with their herds. However, the Tjimba, though they speak Herero, are physically distinct indigenous hunter-gatherers; it may be in the Herero's interest to portray indigenous peoples as impoverished (cattleless) Herero.[6]

The leadership of the Ovaherero is distributed over eight royal houses, among them:[7][8]

Since conflicts with the Nama people in the 1860s necessitated Ovaherero unity, they also have a paramount chief ruling over all eight royal houses,[8] although there is currently an interpretation that such paramount chieftaincy violates the Traditional Authorities Act, Act 25 of 2000.[7]


Herero, at the end of the 19th century

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Herero migrated to what is today Namibia from the east and established themselves as herdsmen. In the beginning of the 19th century, the Nama from South Africa, who already possessed some firearms, entered the land and were followed, in turn, by white merchants and German missionaries. At first, the Nama began displacing the Herero, leading to bitter warfare between the two groups, which lasted the greater part of the 19th century. Later the two peoples entered into a period of cultural exchange.

During the late 19th century, the first Europeans began entering to permanently settle the land. Primarily in Damaraland, German settlers acquired land from the Herero in order to establish farms. In 1883, the merchant Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz entered into a contract with the native elders. The exchange later became the basis of German colonial rule. The territory became a German colony under the name of German South-West Africa.

Soon after, conflicts between the German colonists and the Herero herdsmen began. Controversies frequently arose because of disputes about access to land and water, but also the legal discrimination against the native population by the white immigrants.

Herero Wars

In the late 19th and early 20th century, imperialism and colonialism in Africa peaked, affecting especially the Hereros and the Namas. European powers were seeking trade routes and railways, as well as more colonies. Germany officially claimed their stake in a South African colony in 1884, calling it German South-West Africa until it was taken over in 1915. The first German colonists arrived in 1892, and conflict with the indigenous Herero and Nama people began. As in many cases of colonization, the indigenous people were not treated fairly.[9]:31 [10]

Between 1893 and 1903, the Herero and Nama people's land as well as their cattle were progressively making their way into the hands of the German colonists. The Herero and Nama resisted expropriation [11] over the years, but they were unorganized and the Germans defeated them with ease. In 1903, the Herero people learned that they were to be placed in reservations, [12] leaving more room for colonists to own land and prosper. In 1904, the Herero and Nama began a great rebellion that lasted until 1907, ending with the near destruction of the Herero people. "The war against the Herero and Nama was the first in which German imperialism resorted to methods of genocide...."[13] Roughly 80,000 Herero lived in German South-West Africa at the beginning of Germany’s colonial rule over the area, while after their revolt was defeated, they numbered approximately 15,000. In a period of four years, approximately 65,000 Herero people perished.[14]

Tree in Otjinene Koviunda where many Herero people are said to have been hanged.

Samuel Maharero, the Supreme Chief of the Herero, led his people in a great uprising on January 12, 1904, against the Germans.[15] The Herero, surprising the Germans with their uprising, had initial success.

German General Lothar von Trotha took over as leader in May 1904.[16] In August 1904, he devised a plan to annihilate the Herero nation.[17] The plan was to surround the area where the Herero were, leaving but one route for them to escape, into the desert. The Herero battled the Germans, and the losses were minor. It was when they had escaped through the only passage made available by the Germans, and had been chased away from the last watering hole into complete desertion, that casualties grew to insufferable amounts. It was then that the Herero uprising changed from war, to genocide.

At the 100th anniversary of the massacre, German Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul commemorated the dead on site and apologized for the crimes on behalf of all Germans. Hereros and Namas demanded financial reparations, however in 2004 there was only minor media attention in Germany on this matter.[18]


The Hereros are traditionally cattle-herding pastoralists who rate status on the number of cattle owned. Cattle raids occurred between Herero groups, but Herero land (Ehi Rovaherero) belongs to the community and has no fixed boundaries.

The Herero have a bilateral descent system. A person traces their heritage through both their father's lineage, or oruzo (plural: otuzo), and their mother's lineage, or eanda (plural: omaanda).[19] In the 1920s, Kurt Falk recorded in the Archiv für Menschenkunde that the Ovahimba retained a "medicine-man" or "wizard" status for homosexual men. He wrote, "When I asked him if he was married, he winked at me slyly and the other natives laughed heartily and declared to me subsequently that he does not love women, but only men. He nonetheless enjoyed no low status in his tribe."[20] The Holy Fire okuruuo (OtjikaTjamuaha) of the Herero is located at Okahandja. During immigration the fire was doused and quickly relit. From 1923 to 2011, it was situated at the Red Flag Commando. On Herero Day 2011, a group around Paramount Chief Kuaima Riruako claimed that this fire was facing eastwards for the past 88 years, while it should be facing towards the sunset. They removed it and placed it at an undisclosed location, a move that has stirred controversy among the ovaherero community.[21]


Despite sharing a language and pastoral traditions, the Herero are not a homogeneous people. The main Herero group in central Namibia (sometimes called Herero proper) was heavily influenced by Western culture during the colonial period, creating a whole new identity. The Herero proper and their southern counterparts the Mbanderu, for instance, wear garments similar to those worn by colonial Europeans (see photo at top of article). Traditional leather garments are worn by northwestern groups, such as the Himba, Kuvale, and Tjimba, who are also more conservative in other aspects such as not buying bedding, but rather sleep in bedding made of cow skin. The Kaokoland Herero and those in Angola have remained isolated and are still pastoral nomads, practicing limited horticulture.[22]

The Herero language (Otjiherero) is the main unifying link among the Herero peoples. It is a Bantu language, part of the Niger–Congo family.[23] Within the Otjiherero umbrella, there are many dialects, including Oluthimba or Otjizemba—which is the most common dialect in Angola—Otjihimba, and Otjikuvale. These differ mainly in phonology, and are largely mutually intelligible, though Kuvale, Zemba, and Hakaona have been classified as separate languages. Standard Herero is used in the Namibian media and is taught in schools throughout the country.

Beliefs and superstitions


Omuroi is a Herero noun describing someone who is suspected of being a witch who flies at night, or someone who performs witchcraft or rides people at night. More sort of a ghost person, some claim to struggle with sleeping when a certain person is around due to their belief of that person possessing omuroi. Others claim to also believe that such beings talk at night and when such voices are heard, a shout may scare them away.

Others resort to sleeping with candles on, believing that the omuroi fears or hates light. Some may even bring in spiritual doctors to perform ceremonies to chase this omuroi away. This superstition has been passed on for generations and continues in the modern culture of the Herero people.

Domestic animals

The Herero making a living out of rearing domestic animals, including:


Cattle are most valued domestic animals in the Herero culture, therefore cattle herding is the most significant and substantial activity for the Herero people. In the Herero culture the cattle herding and cattle trading activities are only conducted by males while females are responsible for milking cows, carrying out household chores, harvesting small field crops and taking care of the young children. As women are responsible for milking cows, there are also responsible for preparing the delicious sour milk called "Omaere".[24] Although males are responsible for the cattle trading activities the females do most of the trading such as bartering for other goods. The Herero people take pride in their cattle hence the culture of Herero requires women to wear hats shaped of cow horns[24] so as to show importance of cattle in their culture and they also believe that the more cattle one has the richer he or she is, so cattle is used as symbol of wealth in this culture. In call for celebrations such as marriages cattle is normally used for meat consumption while for carrying out religious or ancestral ceremonies, ancestors are honored by sacrifice of cows or animals.

Goats and sheep

Goats and sheep are also used for meat consumption, and the goat milk is used to make dairy products. The goat skin has a significant use as it can be used to carry babies on the back and create household ornaments. In the Herero culture the goat dung is a used for medicinal purposes[25] as it is normally used for healing chicken pox.

Horses and donkeys

Horse and Donkeys are normally used for transportation. In cases of herding or searching for lost domestic animals the Herero people engage horses to carry out these activities. Herero people consume donkey meat too but rarely consume horse meat.

Dogs and chicken

When males go for hunting they use to dogs to help in hunting for purposes and also for herding. The Herero people tend to hunt to acquire meat,hides and horns so as to barter for goods such as sugar, tea and tobacco. Chickens are kept for meat consumption and breeding eggs.

Herero in fiction

  • A group of Herero living in Germany who were inducted into the German military during the Second World War play a major part in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. The genocide under von Trotha plays a major role in another novel by the same author, V..
  • German author Uwe Timm's novel Morenga, set in German South-West Africa, also includes several Herero characters.
  • A Portuguese-Herero mestiça protagonist is featured in Guy Saville's novel The Afrika Reich. The fictional story takes place in a 1952 Africa largely conquered by the Nazis who came away from World War II politically and economically empowered and relatively unopposed.
  • "Mama Namibia," a historical novel by Mari Serebrov, provides two perspectives of the 1904 genocide in German South-West Africa. The first is that of Jahohora, a 12-year-old Herero girl who survives on her own in the veld for two years after her family is killed by German soldiers. The second story in "Mama Namibia" is that of Kov, a Jewish doctor who volunteered to serve in the German military to prove his patriotism. But as he witnesses the atrocities of the genocide, he rethinks his loyalty to the Fatherland.[26]
  • The Treatment of the Herero by German colonists is the subject of the 2012 play We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia, Formerly Known As South West Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884–1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury.

See also


  1. ^ "The incredible Victorian-style fashions of Africa's Herero people". Death and Taxes. 
  2. ^ Immaculate N. Kizza, The Oral Tradition of the Baganda of Uganda: A Study and Anthology of Legends, Myths, Epigrams and Folktales, [3], p. 21: "The Bantu were, and still are, primarily subsistence farmers who would settle in areas, clear land, organize themselves in larger units basically for protective purposes, and start permanent settlements."
  3. ^ Mark Cocker, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples, Grove Press, 2001, p. 276
  4. ^ J. D. Fage, A history of Africa, Routledge, 2002, p. 29: "In the north-east, the Bantu entered 'Azanian' lands inhabited by peoples speaking southern Cushitic languages. Indeed, this was of some importance because there is firm archaeological evidence that modern Kenya and northern Tanzania were the home of a succession of societies, once known as the 'Stone Bowl' cultures, which from about the middle of the third millennium B.C. onwards had cattle and were developing food-producing techniques well suited to the environment. It is unlikely that the Bantu would have brought large cattle with them through the forest, and their cattle terminology suggests that they acquired cattle from eastern African speakers of Cushitic languages, possibly through the mediation of Khoisan-speaking peoples. There is also linguistic evidence to suggest that at a later stage the Bantu may have borrowed the practice of milking directly from Cushitic-speaking peoples in East Africa."
  5. ^ Was there an interchange between Cushitic pastoralists and Khoisan speakers in the prehistory of Southern Africa and how can this be detected?: "This paper will argue that the explanation for some continuities of pastoral culture between NE Africa and the Khoe-speaking peoples is really quite simple; pastoralists speaking Cushitic languages once spread as far as south-central Africa, where they were in contact with the ancestors of present-day Khoe-speakers. This led to a transfer of both species of domestic animals and also some rather specific techniques of pastoral lifestyle including dairy-processing etc. Khoe pastoral culture is known mainly from records and their original sheep and cattle breeds have now become heavily crossbred. The explanation for related traits among adjacent Bantu peoples is likely to be a similar, subsequent transfer from the Khoe to the Bantu, although it is possible that there was also direct Cushitic contact with the Bantu in the same region. It is further likely that this was connected with the expansion of the Khoe peoples, explaining why their language subgroup is remarkably coherent within Khoisan, which is otherwise characterised by a high level of internal diversity, reflecting its considerable antiquity. The importance of the pastoral revolution in Southern Africa led to the borrowing of livestock terms into other branches of Khoisan."
  6. ^ Roger Blench, Are the African Pygmies an Ethnographic Fiction?
  7. ^ a b Immanuel, Shinovene (24 October 2014). "Rukoro chieftaincy rejected".  
  8. ^ a b Kandetu, Bob (23 October 2014). "Kambazembi and Rukoro Await their Reigns". Informanté. 
  9. ^ Jan-Bart Gewald (1998) Herero heroes: a socio-political history of the Herero of Namibia, 1890-1923, James Currey, Oxford ISBN 978-0-82141-256-5
  10. ^ Peace and freedom, Volume 40, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, page 57, The Section, 1980
  11. ^ "A bloody history: Namibia’s colonisation", BBC News, 29 August 2001
  12. ^ Samuel Totten, Paul Robert Bartrop, Steven L. Jacobs (2007) Dictionary of Genocide: A-L, p.184, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn. ISBN 978-0-31334-642-2
  13. ^ Chalk, Frank, and Jonassohn, Kurt. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. Published in cooperation with the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies. (Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 1990)
  14. ^ UN Whitaker Report on Genocide, 1985, paragraphs 14 to 24, pages 5 to 10 Prevent Genocide International
  15. ^ The New York Times. 18 August 1904
  16. ^ The Times (London). 7 May 1904
  17. ^ Mahmood Mamdani (2001) When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press, Princeton ISBN 978-0-69105-821-4
  18. ^ Krabbe, Alexander. "Remembering Germany's African Genocide".  
  19. ^ 1 How Societies Are Born by Jan Vansina: "Of Water, Cattle, and Kings"
  20. ^ Boy-Wives and Female Husbands edited by Stephen Murray & Will Roscoe. Published by Saint Martin's Press in 1998. p. 190
  21. ^ Nunuhe, Margreth (31 August 2011). "Holy fire relocation triggers storm".  
  22. ^ Carvalho, Ruy Duarte (2000). Vou lá visitar pastores. Rio Mouro, Portugal: Círculo de Leitores, Printer Portuguesa Casais de Mem Martins.  
  23. ^ Herero language at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
  24. ^ a b "Herero People: Hats & History". University of San Francisco. 
  25. ^ "Domestic Animal Farming in the Fransfontein Area". 
  26. ^ Serebrov, Mari. Mama Namibia. Windhoek, Namibia: Wordweaver Publishing House, 2013.

Further reading

  • Rachel Anderson, "Redressing Colonial Genocide Under International Law: The Hereros' Cause of Action Against Germany", 93 California Law Review 1155 (2005).
  • S. Passarge, Südafrika, (Oldenburg and Leipzig, 1908)
  • Hans Schinz, Deutsch Südwest-Afrika, (Oldenburg and Leipzig, 1891)
  • [4]

External links

  • Africa on the Matrix: Herero People of Namibia—Photographs and information.
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