The Herero is a pastoral cattle-breeding people who migrated from the great lakes region to Namibia several centuries ago. They eventually settled at the Kunene River where they remained for about two centuries before splinter groups moved to central Namibia and eastwards, while the Ovahimba, Ovatjimba and Ovazemba remained in Kaokoland.
The Ovaherero of central and eastern Namibia are subdivided into several groups who are associated with and pay allegiance to different royal houses headed by a chief. Followers can be distinguished by the colours of their flag which is displayed at ceremonial occasions. The followers of Chief Samuel Maherero formed the Red Flag organisation, while the western Ovaherero, the Zeraua Ovaherero, are united under the White Flag and the Ovambanderu under the Green Flag. Another Ovaherero group are followers of the Kambazembi Royal House in the Waterberg area.
The Herero Uprising of 1904-1907 resulted in the large-scale death of tens of thousands of Ovaherero. Following the final battle between the Ovaherero and the German military at Hamakari on 11 August 1904, General Lothar von Trotha issued his infamous Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination order). The surviving Ovaherero fled into the wastelands of the Omaheke where tens of thousands died of hunger and thirst. Others fled to what was then known as Bechuanaland – now Botswana. The Ovaherero and the Nama have been engaged in a protracted standoff with the German government for the past few years for reparations for what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century.
The distinctive Victorian-style dresses (ohorokova) worn by Ovaherero women were introduced by the wives of the German missionaries in the 19th century. Up to seven cotton petticoats are worn under the dresses which are different colours and patterns – giving it its voluminous shape. The otjikaeva distinctive headdress replaced the traditional ekori headdress worn by adult Ovaherero women. It consisted of a three-pointed leather cap with a veil in front, usually worn rolled up. The two lateral points of the otjikaeva symbolises the horns of cattle, which play an important role in the Ovaherero’s culture, religion and economy.
Ovaherero crafts include traditional hand-sewn Herero dolls, leather purses, phone pouches and knife holsters, leather handbags and hand-crafted walking sticks.
EXPERIENCING OVAHERERO CULTURE
Red Flag Day, known as Otjiserandu in Otjiherero, is the best known of several ceremonies where the Ovaherero pay homage to their ancestors. Red Flag Day is commemorated at Okahandja on the weekend closest to 26 August – the date when the remains of Chief Samuel Maharero were reburied at the town in 1923. The Zeraua Herero commemorate their ancestors at Omaruru on the weekend preceding 10 October each year, while the Ovambanderu commemorate the death of their leader, Kahimemua Nguvauva, in June each year. He was executed by a firing squad at Okahandja in June 1896 after a failed rebellion against German rule in Gobabis.
The Okakarara Community Cultural and Tourism Centre at Okakarara has interesting exhibits of the culture of the Ovaherero as well as the 1904 war. There is also a campsite.