THE FOUR O's

The Region of the 4 O’s is Namibia’s most densely populated area and consists of a number of closely associated ethnic groups collectively referred to as Ovambo or Ambo. The language itself is also collectively referred to as the Oshivambo language that originates from Bantu, it is however divided into many different dialects that include Kwanyama, Ongandjera, Mbadja, Ndonga and others. The nation as a whole was divided when the colonial governments decided to demarcate the Kunene River as the most northern border of Namibia, as to this day the southern part of Angola, Cunene, is also inhabited by the Ovambo people. When combined, the Ovambo make up approximately 1,6 Million people, which is nearly as much as the entire Namibian population. In Namibia the tribes consist of the Ndonga, Kwanyama, Kwambi, Ngandjera, Mbalantu, Mbadja, Kolonkadhi and Kwaluudhi while in Angola they are the Kwanyama, Kafima, Evale and Ndonga. Although each tribe does speak a different dialect, the tribes can communicate between each other.

The Ambo people migrated south from the upper regions of Zambezi down to the Kunene River in search of new grazing areas for their cattle. Having recognized the excellent agricultural possibilities in this rich soil surrounded by endless water supply, including their staple food – fish, they did not waiver to settle in the land now known as the 4 O’s (Omusati (Tree), Ohangwena (Grass), Oshikoto (Lake) and Oshana (Pan).

The region, apart from the majestic Kunene River that flows throughout the year, is made up of flat sandy plains that are bisected by the so-called “Oshanas” (pans). When these are filled with water and mirror the long and narrow makalani palm trees on their water surfaces, the Region of the 4 O’s becomes one of the most scenic areas to visit. In combination with the traditional villages and the overall traditional lifestyle still being lived here, traveling the area gives you the impression of having gone back in time to the undisturbed Africa 200 years ago. Normally in each rainy season the Oshanas flood and overflow, submerging the low-lying villages and agricultural land. During these times the sandy plains appear to be one giant lake ornamented with thousands of palm trees and an estimated 60% of the entire region is under water. The main tar roads have been built in such a way that the water can flow underneath the roads, making travel in the Region of the 4 O’s possible even when it is flooded. This is also a wonderful time to watch the local people using traditional and untraditional (eg mosquito nets!) fishing tactics in search of the daily dinner.

The Ovambo people have been able to adapt to their land and their environment, although deforestation has become a real problem in most parts of the region, as these have become overpopulated. The Ovambo are subsistence farmers and survive mainly on their staple food – fish and Bullfrogs (from the Kunene River and the Oshanas) and mahangu porridge (a type of millet they grow on their prepared fields). They raise cattle and goats, which usually are slaughtered only on special occasions such as weddings, funerals or traditional rituals. They are extremely skilled craftsmen when it comes to making baskets of all sizes from the leaves of the Makalani palm tree, but are also well-known for their basketry, pottery, jewelry, wooden combs, wood iron spears, arrows, richly decorated daggers, musical instruments, and also ivory buttons.

Beliefs among the Owambo people centre around their credence in “Kalunga”, who rules over the Ovambo and strictly controls their actions. For example, when a tribe member wants to enter the chief's kraal, they must first remove their sandals. It is said that if this person does not remove their sandals it will bring death to one of the royal inmates and throw the kraal into mourning. Another belief deals with burning fire in the chief's kraal. If the fire burns out, the chief and the tribe will disappear. An important ceremony takes place at the end of the harvest, where the entire community has a feast and celebrates.
Each tribe is reigned by a chief that is responsible for that tribe and who is a member of the royal family of the aakwanekamba - only those who belong to this family by birth have a claim to chieftainship. Because descent is matrilineal, these relations must fall on the mother's side. The chief's own sons have no claim in the royal family. They grow up as regular members of the tribe.
Ovambo brew traditional liquor called Ombike. It is distilled from fermented fruit mash and particularly popular in rural areas. The fruit to produce Ombike are collected from Makalani Palms, Jackal Berries, Buffalo Thorns, Bird Plumes and Cluster Figs. Ombike with additives like sugar is brewed and consumed in urban areas. This liquor is then called omangelengele, it is more potent and sometimes even poisonous, as the inebriation effect may be catalyzed with the use of battery acid or even molten plastic.

In recent times, most Owambo consider themselves of Lutheran belief and most inhabitants of the region visit their churches on Sundays wearing their best clothes. The Ovamboland was one of the very few areas that had no colonial influence by the German forces. The reason for this was that the Ovambo’s by far outnumbered the Germans, meaning that a revolt of the Ovambo’s could have wiped out the German garrison. Besides being used as control posts to control the Rinderpest, the forts of Sesfontein, Okaukuejo,  Namutoni and Grootfontein were also used as military posts to warn of an Ovambo nation attack! The area however was not completely devoid of European influence -   Finnish missionaries arrived in Owamboland in the 1870s and replaced most of the indigenous traditional beliefs with Christianity. One of the old Finnish mission stations can still be visited at the Nakambale Museum close to Ondangwa, where guests can also a visit a traditional Ovambo village.

The traditional Ovambo “Kraal” is built as a group of huts surrounded by a fence of large vertical poles, which protect the residents against predators, elephants and also the weather. Each hut generally has a different purpose, such as a bedroom, storeroom, or kitchen, while some huts are exclusively meant for the chief alone.