Posts Tagged ‘HaMbukushu’

The question that often crosses people’s minds is why the Caprivi Strip, which reaches far into the heart of the Southern African subcontinent and has its independent multi-facetted history, was demarcated in its present form and is part of Namibia.

The area known as the Caprivi Strip became part of German South West Africa as a result of the so-called Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty, which was signed between Germany and Great Britain on 1 July 1890. With this Germany was hoping to gain access to its land properties in East Africa via the Zambezi River. Although the main concern of the treaty was the exchange of the British island Helgoland and the German territorial claims on Zanzibar, Germany also insisted that it was allocated the land strip between the Okavango and Zambezi Rivers. The area was initially known as ‘German Barotseland’ or ‘German Zambezi Region’, but was later named ‘Caprivi’ Strip after the then German Imperial Chancellor Georg Leo Count von Caprivi. The borders of the area were demarcated according to geographical degrees of latitude and longitude or rivers without taking the local inhabitants into consideration. The exact demarcation of the various border sections was a long process and was only finalized in 1933.

Caprivi (map), series of four stamps, issued in 1986

Caprivi (map), series of four stamps, issued in 1986

The Caprivi Strip consists of the narrow piece between the Okavango and Kwando Rivers and the area of East-Caprivi situated east of the Kwando. Some Khwe and small groups of Mbukushu formerly occupied the mostly waterless West-Caprivi. In addition, it was an area of conflict between the BaLozi of Barotseland and the BaTawana of Ngamiland during the 19th century. Although some Khwe still occupy certain parts of it today, the area is a conservation area, which includes the Bwabwata National Park in the north.

The people of East-Caprivi, who form part of the Zambezi tribes, are not related to the other Bantu-speaking inhabitants of Namibia and comprise the BaLozi, BaSubiya, MaFwe, HaMbukushu, BaYeyi, MaTotela, MaMbalangwe and BaMashi, as well as some Khwe.

Since the 17th century the BaLozi, who were living in the Barotse Kingdom north of the Zambezi, dominated and enslaved these tribes. A temporary change was introduced by the terror regime of the Zulu chief Shaka in Natal in the early 1800s. As a result smaller tribes escaped to the north and as far as they proceeded, came into conflict with local groups. In 1830, a group of BaSotho origin, known as the MaKololo, settled under their chief Sebetwane in Old-Linyanti, which is the present Sangwali. They subjugated Barotseland and the area of East Caprivi and founded the Kololo kingdom. Under Sebetwane’s successor Sekeletu they gradually lost power and in 1864 the Lozi chief Sepopa defeated them decisively. The era of Sepopa and that of his successor Lewanika were characterized by cruel suppression and slavery. Only through the influence of the French missionaries 30,000 slaves were released in 1906. The language of the MaKololo, which stems from SeSotho, later became a mixed language, which took up many elements of SiLozi and is still used in the area today.

Border river between East Caprivi and Zambia: The Zambezi at Katima Mulilo. Photo: Archive of Allgemeine Zeitung

Border river between East Caprivi and Zambia: The Zambezi at Katima Mulilo. Photo: Archive of Allgemeine Zeitung

Although Germany had taken possession of the Caprivi Strip, it delayed the opening up and development of this remote area for a long time. Only in 1909 Captain Kurt Streitwolf was sent out as representative. On the banks of the Zambezi River he built a station, which he named Schuckmannsburg after the then German Governor Bruno von Schuckmann. Streitwolf immediately set out to create an administrative structure, which was based on the traditional political system of the local people. This effectively meant that the population was given the opportunity to rid themselves from slavery and dependence and to elect or reaffirm their own chiefs and representatives. During their five-and-half year stay in Caprivi, Streitwolf and his successors managed to gain the confidence of the population. The First World War ended the German era.

Continuation on further developments in the Caprivi in the next episode.


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A large variety of basketry has always formed part of the material culture of the sedentary Bantu-speaking people of Namibia, e.g. the AaWambo, VaKavango and inhabitants of the East Caprivi. Nomadic hunter-gatherers and herders, who had to limit their material possessions to what they could transport, could not afford to have such a wide variety of basketry. With the exception of the Khwe, who manufactured their own baskets, most San groups traded their baskets from Bantu-speaking neighbours.

Collecting Bag, Kxoe [Khwe], 50 Cent, issued in 1997, artist: Johan van Niekerk

The Khwe, who live in the eastern section of the Hambukushu area of Kavango, in the West-Caprivi and areas bordering the Kwando River, are generally classified as San, although their language, their physical appearance (they were sometimes referred to as ‘black Bushmen’) and their history differ distinctly from e.g. the !Xun, who live further south. Long before the Khwe moved to their present area, they lived in close contact with Bantu-speaking neighbours, e.g. the Luyi-Balozi in a region east of the Zambezi River, which resulted in their dark complexion and their stronger body structure. More recently, they mixed by marriage with the Nyemba and HaMbukushu in southeast Angola and the Kavango area and until the early 20th century they often acted as their servants. As a result of the historical contact with Bantu-speaking tribes some objects of the material culture and agricultural practices, as well as the acquaintance with stock penetrated the life sphere of the hunter-gathering Khwe.

In former times, the Khwe made flat winnowing trays, cone-shaped pópò-baskets and bag-shaped /oámà-baskets. They were made according to the coiled technique and a type of vertical coil. During the process of manufacture the makers, who were women, used bundles of strong Aristida grass stalks, which formed the core of the coil, and the middle leaf of the makalani palm (Hyphaene petersiana). If these were not obtainable, the leaf of the Phoenix reclinata palm was used instead. In order to make the palm leaves soft and flexible, they were soaked in warm water before the basket making process commenced. Sometimes the palm leaves were also coloured in different shades of brown by boiling them with the pounded bark of Berchemia discolor. Women made /oámà-baskets until the early 1960s. They were also regarded as their owners. Their height varied between 12 and 30 cm and they always had a handle of skin or fiber. They were primarily used as collecting baskets and for storing berries and other bush crops. When wild fruits were collected these were first collected into smaller pópò-baskets and poured from there into the /oámà-baskets. Popo-baskets were also used for winnowing grain.

Basket of the Khwe (Collection National Museum). Photo: Antje Otto

The ethnological collection of the National Museum of Namibia is in possession of several /oámà-baskets, as well as a pópò-basket, which were collected in 1932 in the West-Caprivi and finally made their way into the museum’s collection in 1948. According to Professor Dr Oswin Köhler, who started with the documentation of the culture and language of the Khwe as from the early 1960s, the making of /oámà-baskets had died out during those years although he still found some examples, which were used. He was able to photograph them and record some interesting information on basket making from his informants. Older people still had the knowledge to make /oámà-baskets although they did no longer produce them. Pópò-baskets were still made.

In 1996, Khwe basket making was revived with the support of a national craft promoter looking for marketable crafts to advance income generation. Since then, the Khwe again make /oámà-baskets not only for their own use, but primarily for the tourist market. Modern /oámà-baskets are sold at a local craft outlet at Kongola and various other Craft Centres in the country. The manufacturing technique and shape of the baskets are similar to the traditional ones although they are generally smaller and have more elaborate designs and more robust handles.

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