Namibia is one of Africa’s most celebrated nations for its political, economic and social stability. And thanks to the arid Namib Desert stretching along its Atlantic coast, it is also one of the least densely populated countries in the world. What this means for Discovery Tours travelers is clear: In your small group, you’ll experience diverse and vibrant cultures that embrace their past and look eagerly toward the future, and you’ll witness some of the most dramatic and serene desert landscapes on earth. Yet Namibia’s peace, tranquility and prosperity did not come easily.
Ancient Tribes Speak a Curious Tongue
The story of how Namibia evolved into one of the continent’s most captivating nations begins millennia ago. San Bushmen and the Damara and Namaqua people were the region’s original inhabitants. Anthropologists and linguists are enthralled by many tribes in southern Africa, but these are particularly fascinating as they all speak some variation of the Khoekhoe language. The curious clicking sounds typical of their language comprise what is believed to be the oldest language in human history. And even though all three tribes spoke a similar language, they seem to have come from different lineages. Descendents of all three tribes remain today, many of them eking out a living in the same way their ancestors did.
Strangers Arrive by Land and by Sea
In the 14th century, the Bantu arrived as part of the historic Bantu expansion into southern Africa. The following century, other strangers arrived not by land, but by sea, when in the 1480s Portuguese navigators arrived along what today is known as the Skeleton Coast, named for the many ships and sailors who met their demise in these thrashing seas. Even for those explorers who did make landfall, the coastal desert was far from inviting, so they only used Namibia as a pit stop during their long search for a trade route to India.
When the Orlam tribes moved in during the late 18th century, tensions rose between them and the Herero people of Windhoek. By 1880, they were fighting the Nama-Herero War, a conflict that was only quelled when an opportunistic Imperial Germany stepped in and normalized tribal relations. Later, more German colonists and traders who had settled in South Africa (historically known as the Boers) passed through Namibia on their way to Angola, seeking to escape British rule and put down roots. Many stayed and, wittingly or not, set the stage for German rule.
The Roots of Apartheid
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany kept his eyes on the British and, in a successful effort to thwart expansion of the Crown into his growing colony, moved troops into Namibia and created his own German South-West Africa. Only 20 years passed until the Herero and Namaqua people rose up against the ruling foreigners, but the results of their attempted overthrow were horrific. In fact, some scholars believe that the ensuing systematic genocide—in which 80% of the Herero and half the Namaqua were murdered—served as a model for Nazi Germany’s Holocaust yet to come. We can’t know for sure, but history does tell us with certainty that the segregation and forced labor of the Herero and Namaqua survivors laid the foundations for the policy of apartheid that would soon grip the region.
With the end of World War I in 1915, South Africa occupied Namibia and ruled it from its own court made up entirely of a white minority. Throughout the 1950s, the Herero’s Chief Council petitioned the United Nations for independence. And as European countries in the 1960s began pulling out of colonized Africa, pressure mounted on South Africa to give sovereignty to Namibia. Still, even after an International Court called South Africa’s presence “illegal,” it would not budge.
Revolution and Independence
The white South African farmers who settled in the region came to represent just 0.2% of the population, yet 74% of the arable land was theirs. Brutality and repression of Namibians were daily occurrences. Pushed to the brink, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia took up arms in 1966. An ensuing guerilla war lasted 22 years.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Namibia was free, after much local and international pressure on South Africa. Today, the peaceful nation is a multi-party democracy and promotes human rights protections, compensation for loss of private property, an independent justice system, and national reconciliation around the events of its turbulent past.