”What tribe are you?” The question is a daily reminder from taxi drivers, vendors, and random people on the street who impose on my identity because I don’t look Namibian. I often respond with a question of my own: “What does a Namibian look like?” Or sometimes I ignore them, leaving them in utter disbelief at not having satisfied their curiosity.
What does a Namibian look like? Why this obsession with learning the origins of an individual’s identity to make people more comfortable around them?
As an avid student of history, I looked back into Namibia’s past to find the roots of these questions.
The San were the earliest inhabitants of Namibia, followed by the Damara and Nama people. Bantu groups, known collectively as the Ovambo people, began immigrating to Namibia around the 14th century and became a majority in the late 19th century. The OtjiHerero, Caprivian, Kavango, Baster, Afrikaans, German, Himba, and English people round out the population of today’s Namibia.
During European colonization in the late 19th century, the German Empire established rule over most of the territory as a protectorate in 1884. It began to develop infrastructure and farming, and maintained the land as a German colony until 1915, when South African forces defeated its military. In 1920, after the end of World War I, the League of Nations mandated the country to the United Kingdom, which delegated the administration of the country to South Africa. The South African leaders imposed their own laws, including racial classifications and rules. In 1948, with the National Party elected to power, South Africa applied the apartheid regime to Namibia, known at the time as South West Africa.
In the later 20th century, uprisings and demands for political representation by native African political activists seeking independence resulted in the U.N. assuming direct responsibility over the territory in 1966, though South Africa maintained de facto rule. In 1973, the U.N. recognized the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) as the official representative of the Namibian people; the party was and continues to be dominated by the majority Ovambo ethnic group. In response to continued guerrilla warfare, South Africa installed an interim administration in Namibia in 1985. Namibia obtained full independence from South Africa in 1990, though Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands remained under South African control until 1994.
This history has led to a Namibian population that is multicultural and multiracial; its 2.1 million people speak various languages, travel avidly, are of mixed heritage, and have integrated into society. However, many still hold biases when it comes to culture. Norms regarding how things are done, such as strong pressure to marry within one’s tribe, are ingrained by elders and deeply rooted in minds of most young Namibians.
I am of mixed heritage. My mother is Isi Xhosa, from the Transkei, a region in South Africa. She moved to Namibia in her early 20s and met my biological father, who is also of mixed heritage; he’s part Damara/Nama, German, and Otjiherero. My stepfather, who adopted me when I was 16, is Damara. Perhaps what bothers me about the question, “What are you?” is that I don’t fit neatly into any one category. I can’t say I’m Xhosa or Damara or any of the other ethnic groups in Namibia. My home language is a mix of Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Damara. I took my stepfather’s Damara surname, which ends with a “b,” despite cultural norms that say a woman’s last name should end with an “s.” I can’t be bothered to box myself into cultural and traditional norms, although I respect the traditions of both my parents.
I conducted a social experiment and interviewed any friends, colleagues, or strangers who asked me about my heritage. I asked them in return questions about identity—stereotypes as related to their respective tribes, whether they believe those stereotypes, and how those beliefs influence their choices in life. The answers were astounding. A group of educated, middle-class workers aged 20-30 believed in many of the common stereotypes about the characteristics and behaviors of members of different tribes, not necessarily because they’re true, but because of the influence of older generations impact. Most of them believed that traveling beyond their communities would have a negative impact on them and could create tension with their families, rather than change their mindsets.
They also spoke of the pressure that comes with Black Debt, the practice of paying for family, siblings, and anyone who helped bring you up through monetary gifts, education, weddings, and funerals. In Namibia in particular, there is a belief that one has to pay homage to parents and elders in order to receive blessings, prevent illness, and avoid bad luck.
My friends are open-minded and travel often. They are also quite expressive and partake in activities that would be considered abnormal for black women in Namibia, such as yoga, meditation, tattoos, and piercings. We stand out in a crowd; we have dreadlocks and afros and are often asked where we’re from. We are all Namibians. We have encountered the typical stereotypes of Africans in Europe and the United States, but what strike me more deeply are the stereotypes we imprint on ourselves in Africa, even though we share such profound similarities. There’s tribalism and racism in the stereotypes we Namibians place on ourselves, from the comparison of women in different ethnic groups, to our languages and behavior. Through a great divide in our understanding of one another, we have become isolated by our own perceptions.
My experiences as a black Namibian woman are tested daily, and the only way I know to confront such injustice is by participating in open dialogue, whether through meetings, debates, or platforms such as social media to confront the perpetrators in public. It’s important to hold people accountable and try to change their mindsets, or, at the very least, the mindsets of the next generations. We still need to understand that as Africans, we will continuously integrate through art, music, culture, language, and travel. The more that happens, the less valid questions such as “What is your tribe?” become.
Zodidi J. Gaseb is an avid student of African history and how it connects to modern-day Africa. As a former art curator and social activist, she tries to delve deeper into the differences and similarities of what it means to be an African. She uses social media, social experiments, debates, and interviews as tools of understanding.
[Photo courtesy of Boberger]