Tribal cultures of Southern Africa

The desert vistas and abundant wildlife of Namibia and Botswana are the big-ticket features of a Cape Town to Victoria Falls tours, but any itinerary worth its salt will include some human context, too. Meeting the tribal people of Southern Africa is often a highlight of a tour, and a fascinating chance to learn how people have lived and thrived amid these wild landscapes.

In central Namibia, you can meet the Herero people, and both Namibia and Botswana are home to one of Africa’s oldest and most distinctive tribal communities – the San Bushmen. Taking the time to meet the San brings a fascinating, unforgettable human element into your wild desert adventures. Listen to their stories and songs, and learn about their traditional way of life and its emphasis on living in harmony with the environment.

The San

Believed to be Southern Africa’s original inhabitants, some 100,000 San, also known as Bushmen, live on the continent. Around 30,000 of them live in Namibia, but only 2,000 still follow a traditional way of life. The San have lived in this region for at least 20,000 years and have a profound connection with their land and an intimate knowledge of the natural world, and for millennia have maintained a delicate, harmonious balance with the environment. Snippets of ancient San life can be found across the country, most notably in rock paintings and carvings at Brandberg Mountain and Twyfelfontein, some dating back 6,000 years.

Life for today’s San has not been easy. The darker side of Namibia's celebrated conservation successes has been the eviction of the San from their ancestral grazing and hunting lands, leaving many communities landless and reliant on food aid. Without their land, traditional skills and knowledge passed down through generations are at risk of being lost.

In Botswana, the San have fared no better. A series of government clearances have removed virtually all the San from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve since the 1990s, after diamonds where discovered here in the 1980s – and that’s despite this reserve being established specifically as a protected area for the San in the 1960s. The government has also frustrated their attempts to move back onto the reserve, despite the San winning two court appeals. Currently, Bushmen are prevented from hunting and the majority are forced to live outside their ancestral land.

The Herero

Officially the Herero encompasses a hugely diverse range of tribal cultures, including the Himba, Tjimba, Mbanderu and Kwandu. However, it is the Herero proper – the largest of these groups, residing mainly in central Namibia – to whom the term usually refers.

It’s not easy to miss Namibia’s Herero women, decked out in voluminous, brightly-coloured, Victorian-style dresses and extraordinary cow-horn hats. Unlike other ethnic groups in Namibia which preserve pre-colonial ways of life and traditions, the Herero’s dress in particular is directly influenced by the German colonists. Originally forced into their distinctive dress – albeit in more subdued colours – the style is now a unique part of their cultural identity and a point of pride, and the iconic hat is a nod to the group’s pastoral heritage.

The colonial style dress is particularly poignant as the Germans were responsible for a horrific genocide at the turn of the 20th century, which resulted in the deaths of up to 65,000 Hereros – some 80 percent of the population. Some of these were starved to death while trapped in the desert, and others were killed in concentration camps. Unsurprisingly, the community remains scarred by these events to this day.

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Cape Town to Victoria Falls small group lodge tour

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Meeting the San and Herero

Visit the San and you’ll have an opportunity to take guided walks, learning traditional bush and tracking skills as you go and gaining an insight into their encyclopaedic knowledge of the land, wildlife and weather. You could even try learning a word or two in Khoisan, although the language’s seven distinct clicks will test even the most skilled linguist.

On a Cape Town to Victoria Falls tour you can meet the San in Namibia, in the far north. Tours often stay overnight at a camp about 50km outside Grootfontein, before making the 180km round-trip to visit the San people. Some Cape Town to Victoria Falls tours include meeting the San in Botswana rather than Namibia, with a night camping in the Kalahari to round off the experience.

Most Cape Town to Victoria Falls tours don’t pass through Namibia’s capital Windhoek, where you can often see Herero women walking around in traditional dress. But you can meet them in Swakopmund, in the neighbouring Mondesa township, home to many Herero families. On a tour with a local guide you can visit a Herero home, learn about their distinctive cow-horn hats, their family traditions and how apartheid set out to divide Namibia’s many native communities.

Responsible tourism

It’s hugely important that any visit you make to meet the San Bushmen as part of a Cape Town to Victoria Falls tour is ethical. Make sure your tour operator has experienced the San tour they are selling, as this is the only way they will know how responsible it is. Ask them if the tour is sensitive to the San culture and find out how the San benefit from you going to meet them. There has to be a benefit for the San people involved, and not just the tourists, otherwise it’s exploitation.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mario Micklisch] [Intro: Mario Micklisch] [The San: Andy Maano] [The Herero: SanDanceVR]