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People and the River



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Ethnic Groups  

This section provides only a very general description of the ethnic groups living in Kunene basin, due to contradictory information in different literature sources and the general lack of recent studies following the war in Angola.

It should be noted that the concept of "ethnic groups" is becoming increasingly controversial. This is in part due to the fact that the description of ethnic groups was often been made by colonial powers and does not necessarily correspond to the people's understanding of their own identity. Another reason is the strong mixing of the autochthonous populations, which has led to a kind of "melting" of the homogeneous "ethnic" groups once determined by certain characteristics.

Distribution of ethnic groups across the Kunene River basin.
Source: AHT GROUP AG 2010
( click to enlarge )

Bantu-speaking Groups

The majority of the basin’s population belongs to the group of Bantu-speakers which can in turn be divided into numerous groups and sub-groups.


The Upper Kunene basin in Angola is partly inhabited by Ovimbundu families or individuals who speak the Bantu language of Umbundu and have a relatively homogeneous culture. Many Ovimbundu fled to the cities during the Angolan civil war (1975-2002). Those who stayed in the basin’s countryside are small farmers mainly growing maize and all kinds of vegetables under rainfed agriculture. During the civil war, the farmers had switched back largely to subsistence agriculture and are now slowly returning to “cash crop" production.


In addition to the Ovimbundu, some Ganguela groups settle within the Angolan part of the Kunene basin. They are engaged in farming and livestock raising. Ganguela is a collective term which was used by the Portuguese to classify a variety of highly diverse ethnic groups living mainly in eastern Angola.


South of the Ovimbundu and Ganguela – mainly in the middle reaches of the Kunene basin – live several groups of the “Nyaneka-Khumbi”, a general term introduced by the Portuguese to classify a number of smaller ethnic groups. Like the classification of "Ganguela" it is quite controversial. The Nyaneka and Khumbi are mainly livestock herders and agriculturalists. Like all other major groups, they consist of different sub-groups including the Ngambwe (also Ovangambwe) who are the main inhabitants of the Lower Kunene basin, together with the Himba and Zemba (see Herero-speaking Pastoralists).

Oshiwambo-speaking People

Another group of Bantu-origin within the Lower Kunene basin - on both the Namibian and Angolan side of the river - are the Oshiwambo-speaking people, in colonial times often referred to as Ovambo or Owambo. They occupy a vast territory in northern Namibia and the southeast of Angola. In Namibia they are the single biggest ethnic group. Their main livelihood is agriculture and livestock raising. Other economic activities include for example fishing and handicrafts. Only a small section of Oshiwambo-speakers have settled within the Kunene River basin.

Herero-speaking Pastoralists

The (semi-)arid regions of the Lower Kunene basin in north-western Namibia and south-western Angola are mainly populated by Herero-speaking pastoralists raising cattle, sheep and goats. Some of the Herero-speaking ethnic groups also cultivate land (Duarte de Carvalho 2002, Bollig 1997).



One Herero-speaking group living in the lower basin on both sides of the river are the Himba (speaking the Herero dialect Dhimba or Zemba) who became internationally famous during the Epupa dam debate in the 1990s (see also Hydropolitics in the Basin). The Himba are semi-nomadic cattle herders who also breed sheep and goats. Young men will move the cattle between dispersed cattle posts. Other members of the family remain in permanent villages or only move at certain times of the year. At the driest times, when circumstances do not allow use of inland water points, some households migrate to the Kunene River to obtain water and grazing (see also Livestock Farming) (ERM 2009, Bollig 1997).

Hakavona & Zemba 

Other important Herero-speaking groups in the Lower Kunene basin on the Angolan side are the Hakavona and Zemba (also named Ovazemba or Zimba).

Non-Bantu-speaking Groups


There are three major non-bantu groups living in the Kunene River basin: In addition to the Khoisan speakers and the Thwa, Kwisi and Kwepe, one can find Europeans as well as people of “mixed race”.

The Khoi and the San are the earliest known inhabitants of southern Africa.
Source: Garner 2009
( click to enlarge )


Single locations in the Kunene basin – mainly in Huíla Province – are inhabited by small groups of !Kung-speaking San. The San live within certain territories with no fixed settlements and earn their livelihoods mainly by hunting, gathering and livestock raising. They also cultivate land, partially within dependent labour relations with their Bantu neighbours. To know more about the San, please click on the video on the right-hand side.

Europeans and Mixed Population

Two numerically small groups in the Kunene basin are Europeans and people of “mixed race”, called coloureds in Namibia and mestiços in Angola.

In the wake of decolonisation both groups have strongly declined in number in the Kunene River basin. Indeed, one cannot even talk of groups, as only individuals live in the basin, particularly in Lubango. There are also some Cubans who have stayed for personal reasons after the general withdrawal of the Cuban troops from Angola at the end of the cold war. In recent years a certain number of Namibians and South Africans have come to Lubango. A growing Chinese population has also to be mentioned.




Explore the sub-basins of the Kunene River

Video Interviews about the integrated and transboundary management of the Kunene River basin

View a historical timeline of the Kunene basin countries, including water agreements & infrastructure

Video scenes about the limited access to water of the San in Kunene Province