The Okavango River, which forms the border between Namibia and Angola for more than 400 km, is a lifeline to the people of Kavango. It is home to a rich diversity of fish, while a variety of crops are planted on the fertile floodplains. The river is also a highway for the Kavango people who ply the waterway between distant settlements in their watus – dugout canoes made from the trunks of Zambezi teak, copalwood and wild teak trees.
The Kavango people, who are closely related to the Aawambo, originated from the Great Lakes region of East Africa. They settled on both sides of the Okavango River after migrating south. Archaeological excavations place the arrival of the earliest settlers at around the 1600s.
There are considerable cultural differences between the five Kavango communities. Each community inhabits its own traditional area and is ruled by a traditional chief or chieftainess, assisted by a council of headmen. The Vakangwali and the Vambunza, the two western-most communities, have similar social practices such as preparing young boys for manhood and young girls to take care of a household. The Vashambyu and Vagiriku inhabit the central areas, while the Hambukushu is the easternmost community.
Rukwangali, the most common language, is spoken by the Vakwangali and Vambunza. Shishambyu is spoken by the Vashambuyu and Thimbukushu by the Hambukushu.
The Kavango people on the land practice a mixed economy of subsistence crop farming and animal husbandry. More than 60% of the population live within 5 km from the Okavango River which usually reaches its peak in February or March. Once the water has subsided pearl millet, sorghum and maize are cultivated in the fertile ground. Other crops planted include beans, pumpkins and groundnuts. Dryland crops of cereals, which are dependent on rains, are cultivated further inland, while cattle and goats are also kept.
Fish, an important source of protein, is caught for domestic consumption and as a source of income. Although commercial nets have been used increasingly in recent years, traditional methods such as fish weirs and funnel-shaped baskets are still being used.
Much of the rapid population growth in Kavango has been the result of immigration from Angola. Rundu, the administrative centre of the Kavango East Region, is one of the fastest growing towns in Namibia and the second largest town in Namibia. Nkurenkuru is the administrative centre of West Kavango.
The Kavango people are expert woodcarvers. A wide variety of household items such as bowls, spoons, decorative items such as masks, furniture, animals and exquisitely carved wooden doors are made from teak. Woodcarvings and furniture can be bought from roadside vendors along the B8 north of Mururani veterinary control post, the Ncumcara Craft Shop, 35 km south of Rundu, and the Mbangura Woodcarvers’ Cooperative in Rundu. The cooperative also has two craft outlets in Okahandja, 70 km north of Windhoek.
EXPERIENCING KAVANGO CULTURE
The main focus of the Living Museum of the Mbunza, 14 km west of Rundu, is to provide visitors with a detailed insight into the pre-colonial culture of the Vambunza. The fishing and land-cultivation culture of the Vambunza is an essential part of the museum’s various interactive programmes.
Eastern Zambezi, formerly known as East Caprivi, is a water-rich region which is virtually encircled by rivers – the Kwando River in the west, the Linyanti/Chobe River in the east and the Zambezi River in the northeast. It is, therefore, not surprising that many people live in close proximity to these rivers, while there is also a high concentration of people in the administrative centre, Katima Mulilo, and along the main roads linking villages in the region.
The early history of the Zambezi Region, formerly known as the Caprivi, was characterised by consecutive periods of domination by the Lozi from southwestern Zambia and the Koloko, a South Sotho community who migrated from the present-day Free State through Botswana until they reached the Zambezi River.
The Zambezians are composed of a diversity of communities. The Basubia live mainly on the floodplains in the east and the khuta (chief’s council) is situated at Bukalo. The Mafwe consists of a variety of ethnic linguistic groups which includes the Mafwe proper and Batotela, while the Mayeyi and the Mashi, which originally fell under the Mafwe umbrella, have their own traditional authorities.
Zambezians practice a mixed subsistence economy of crop production and pastoralism. The main crops are maize and millet, while beans, sweet potatoes, groundnuts, pumpkins and melons are also grown. Cattle and goats are also kept. Fishing for domestic use or commercial purposes is another important economic activity.
Bounded by Botswana, Angola and Zambia, a vibrant craft industry has developed in the region. Zambezian women are experts at basket making. Products range from the unique khwe fruit collecting baskets of western Zambezi, once used to carry fruits from the fields, and the open east Zambezi baskets used when harvesting crops and sifting millet and maize flour. Other handicrafts include woodcarvings of domestic implements, animal carvings, reed mats, pottery and necklaces made from mbono and other seeds.
A variety of good quality handicrafts can be bought at the Mashi Tourism Hub, 118 km west of Katima Mulilo,
Local crafts and handiwork from neighbouring countries can be bought at the Zambezi Art Centre near the open market in Katima Mulilo. Handicrafts ranging from wood and sandstone carvings to basketry, domestic implements and basketry and fabrics are for sale.
EXPERIENCING ZAMBEZIAN CULTURE
For those keen to gain an insight into the history, culture and way of life of the people of Zambezi there are two traditional villages well worth exploring. The Living Museum of the Mafwe is situated 17 km north of Kongola along the D3502. Programmes include a guided walk through the village, a short bushwalk, singing and dancing. On the half-day programme, visitors can get an insight and participate in various daily activities.
At the Namushasha Heritage Centre close to the Namushasha River Lodge, 20 km south of Kongola, you can learn more about the cultural diversity of the region’s people. Information on various aspects is provided on informative information boards, while a variety of demonstrations including singing, dancing and crafts, as well as a performance by a medicine man is given.