The origins of the Damara people are an enigma to anthropologists. One of several puzzling aspects is that while they differ physically from the Nama and the Haillom people, they also speak the Khoekhoegowab language. Another conundrum is that although they are dark-skinned, they differ from other people of Bantu origin in Namibia in most other respects.
Traditionally, the Damara community consists of a number of sub-divisions called haoti. These are clusters of clans and extended families that were formerly concentrated in specific areas, consisting of about 11 sub-groups. Phonological research of Khoekhoegowab dialects has provided evidence that the Damara were Khoe-speakers before they came into contact with the Nama. Their original distribution in the central part of Namibia extended from Otavi southwards to Rehoboth and the Khomas Hochland west of Windhoek as well as the areas between the Kuiseb and Swakop rivers. Other areas inhabited by the Damara include the Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi triangle, as well as the arid pro-Namib from Sesfontein southward to the Brandberg.
The Damara were ousted from their traditional areas by the advancing Nama and Ovaherero. In German colonial times, they were settled in the Okombahe area, as well as other smaller reserves, including land that was subsequently proclaimed as the Daan Viljoen Game Reserve, west of Windhoek. An area of close to 4.7 million hectares was proclaimed as Damaraland by the South African administration in 1973, with Khorixas as its administrative capital. Following independence, this area became part of the Erongo Region.
In pre-colonial times, the Damaras’ way of life was similar to that of the San insofar as they lived from hunting and gathering veldkos (veld food), but they also kept small herds of small stock, especially goats. Nowadays, rural Damara people cultivate corn and vegetables, while livestock production has become an important source of income. Many work on commercial farms; others in mines while some make a living from small-scale gemstone mining in the vicinity of Spitzkoppe and the Brandberg in the Erongo Region. A relatively large number are employed in urban centres as teachers, clerical workers and officials.
EXPERIENCING DAMARA CULTURE
At the Damara Living Museum, just 8 km from the Twyfelfontein World Heritage Site, visitors can get a glimpse into the history, culture, daily routine and crafts of the Damara people. Also offered is a guided walk to collect plants for food, medicinal purposes or perfume, as well as setting traditional traps and snares.
The two-day annual Damara Festival takes place at Okombahe, about 60 km west of Omaruru, in November. The festival commemorates deceased Damara leaders and also aims to raise awareness of Damara traditions among the younger generation through the inclusion of cultural performances.