A Visit To Namibia’s Central North

3 Mar 2020

Dirk Heinrich 

Oshana, Omusati, Ohangwena, Oshikoto:  the regions of central northern Namibia. Their cities and towns – Oshakati, Ondangwa, Oshivelo, Omuthiya, Okahao, Oshikuku, Ongwediva, Outapi, and oh, not to forget Eenhana – are places that usually don’t feature on the tourist route. But the majority of the Namibian population lives there. The central north of the country is where Namibia's founding president was born, where most of Namibia's government ministers came into the world, where the armed conflict started in the mid-1960s, where guerrilla warfare was waged for decades, where much of the Namibian population was caught between the adversaries battling it out, and where the greatest hope for better living conditions sprouted with independence. 

This part of the central north used to be, and still is, called Ovamboland. It lies north of Etosha National Park and is the most densely populated area in Namibia. A divide between urban and rural populations is difficult to detect. Arable farming and livestock breeding play an important role for all. Small home-based businesses thrive next to international department store chains, small shops in corrugated iron huts next to large shopping centres. Modern houses sit next to traditional dwellings and kraals, semi-finished buildings next to pastures. Shattered dreams next to success stories. Showy government buildings next to subsistence farming. 

It is early morning and on a simple grilling mechanism a man is frying a bird that he caught, as a woman with a bulging shopping bag steps out of a shop a few hundred metres away. In the backyard someone is busy repairing a vehicle amidst numerous car wrecks stripped for parts, while new cars are sold a little further down the road. Cattle, donkeys and goats are all over, looking for something to eat. Fields are cultivated on the outskirts of town, mainly with pearl millet (mahangu) which thrives when the merciful heavens send sufficient rains regularly. With simple ploughs, pulled by donkeys or oxen, communal farmers laboriously till their fields. Some can afford to rent a tractor with a plough from the Department of Agriculture to prepare their field for sowing. 

Near Ondangwa, hidden between mahangu fields, modest accommodation, makalani palm trees and countless crisscrossing paths, the oldest church in Ovamboland is found, built by missionaries of the Finnish Mission at Olukonda towards the end of the 19th century. In the former mission house next to the church is the Nakambale Museum, named after missionary Martti Rautanen. Not only the missionary and his family were laid to rest in the church cemetery, but also kings and traditional leaders of the Ndonga, one of the many tribes of the Ovambo, the largest ethnic group in Namibia. 

North of Ondangwa, near Eenhana, is a war memorial, the Eenhana Shrine and Memorial Park, inaugurated in 2008 to commemorate the struggle for freedom. 

Everywhere along the roadside are shacks serving as bars, known as shebeens. Some of them sport rather original names: Water is Life, Sorry Boss, Good Will, Jungle Life, Lavida Sport, Mossie, Oupa's, War Veterans, Key Lost and Farmers Bar, Try again Shebeen or A Family Shebeen. Taking a short stop for refreshments one can connect with the locals, who are uncomplicated and cheerful. 

The flat landscape, often characterised by makalani palms, is farmed by the community. The stems of palm fronds are used for fences and the filament is woven into bridles for donkeys and into strings for tying various things. The scenery is also characterized by large marula trees, the fruits of which are edible. Mopane trees and a few acacias dominate in some areas, and baobabs reign in the northwest.  

The countless shallow depressions (ishana; singular: oshana), which fill up with water in the rainy season, form large grassy areas during the dry period. On the way to the King Nehale gate into Etosha National Park the first wild animals (springbok, blue wildebeest) can be seen grazing on the plains among the cattle. Here lies the newest lodge of Gondwana Collection Namibia, Etosha King Nehale, which opens its doors on 1 May and provides tourists with access to both Owamboland and Etosha. Further west, north of the national park and Etosha Pan, is Lake Oponono which is an important wetland, but difficult to reach. 

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