The Block

Namibia is home to some of the world’s oldest rock paintings, which are thought to be more than 25,000 years old. The central figure of this block, made by Céleste Compion, is a typical example of the naturalistic scenes depicted by the San (Bushmen) who predate most other ethnic groupings in Southern Africa. It was created in a rust-coloured fabric symbolic of the otjize (red ochre paste) with which Himba women cover their bodies, partly as decoration, but more practically as protection against the harsh African sun.

Handmade beads on the skirt were made from ostrich eggshells and fish bones. Interestingly, the ostrich eggshells are also used to store water underground in times of drought. Men generally make beads for women to weave and string into jewelry, such as necklaces, bracelets, armlets, anklets and headbands.

The blue background represents the seemingly perpetual blue sky over the vast Namib Desert. Indeed, the country experiences an average of 300 days of sunshine annually. A patchwork frame surrounds the piece and typifies the Victorian style of dress––introduced by German missionaries in the 19th century––shared by Damara, Herero and Nama women.

Sandstorm while driving from Swakopmund to Walfish Bay, 2005
Road in the desert
Stolze Himbamutter
A Himba woman and her son
Herero ladies
Herero women
San rock art - Namibia
San rock art

Cultural Profile

Namibia (formerly German Southwest Africa and then South-West Africa) is situated on the Atlantic coast of South-West Africa. One of the driest countries on the planet, it is divided into three distinct regions: the Kalahari Desert, a central plateau of mountains, rugged outcrops, sandy valleys and poor grasslands, and a low-lying coastal belt consisting of the Namib Desert, site of the world’s largest uranium mine. Two large parks encompass much of the Namib Desert, the Namib-Naukluft National Park and the Skeleton Coast Park. The coastal park is comprised of almost two million hectares of sand dunes and gravel plains and is often described as the world’s largest shipping graveyard. The name ‘Skeleton Coast’ comes from the whale and seal skeletons that litter the beaches, as well as the numerous shipwrecks. The San Bushmen call the area ‘The Land God Made in Anger’, for its inhospitable settings of high sand dunes, frequent fog, high winds and absence of rain.

Namibia has limited water resources. However, the land, which has some of the world’s most plentiful diamond fields, is rich in mineral resources. The San (Bushmen)––among the only people in the world who have learned to live with no permanent water source––are believed to be the earliest known inhabitants of the area. They, combined with the Owambo, Kavango, Herero, Damara, Nama, Caprivian, Baster, Tswana and Himba form the majority of Namibia’s predominantly black African population. There are also mixed race ‘Coloured’ and Basters, who are partly descended from Europeans settlers in Namibia, as well as Afrikaners and people of various European ancestry. These varied ethnic groups have lived peacefully together since independence from South Africa was achieved in 1990. English is the official language, although Oshiwambo is the most spoken language. Afrikaans and German are widely used, especially in commerce, and individual tribes have their own language as well.

The principal occupations in Namibia are subsistence agriculture and raising livestock, including Karakul sheep, the “black diamond of Namibia”. The importance of cattle for Namibians is great. Owners often describe their animals as their ‘savings account’ as they represent the largest part of the inhabitants’ wealth. The country’s literary customs are still developing, though visual, architectural and performing arts have been a part of the local culture for thousands of years.

Time-honoured dances, singing, and playing instruments such as drums, bows, thumb pianos and harps are important parts of community gatherings. Each ethnic group is known for specific handcrafts. These include the Basters’ karosses or blankets, the San’s ostrich-eggshell and beadwork necklaces and amulets, the Caprivian’s basketry, wooden masks and stone carvings, the Damara’s glass and metal beadwork, the Herero’s dolls in Victorian-style dress, the Himba’s skin and leather head-dresses, and the Owambo’s ivory buttons or ekipa. Other crafts include weaving, embroidery, sculptures and print-making.

Just over 300 Namibians now live in Canada. Their culture and skills are shared in part by imported hand-woven carpets, wall hangings and area rugs made in Namibia from the wool of karakul sheep.


Sponsor: Margaret Wallach, in memoriam Terry Wallach | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons