Better Know a Tribe: Owambo

Better Know a Tribe: Owambo

There are many tribes in Namibia, and the Owambo tribe is the most populous.  

The Discovery of oMahangu

Let me begin with a story.

Mahangu is the traditional staple of the Owambo diet.  They say mahangu was discovered long ago, at the home of a man with two wives.  One wife got pregnant and gave birth.  The other wife, called the nyamukweni in Oshiwambo, was very jealous.  When the baby came to the house, the nyamukweni decided she was going to kill the baby’s mother.

Now there was a tree nearby the well, and this tree had a strange flower.  Assuming it would be poisonous, she picked the flower and began mixing into the other wife’s meals.  The mother of the child began to gain weight, and the nyamukweni said, ‘ah, surely now she will die’.  Day after day, the mother gained more weight and looked healthy as ever.  The flower she thought was poisonous was in fact the most nutrient dense grain in Namibia, mahangu.

Everyday Owambo

Don’t pass something behind a person, always pass in front.

If somebody owes you money, you can never ask them to pay up, so hopefully you trust them.

Traditional jewelry is made out of ostrich eggs, filed into thin beads and put on necklaces, earrings, and around the waist.  The beads around the waist are worn until marriage, then passed down to the daughters.

Their characteristic pink and black fabric seen in the top picture was part of some fabric reams discarded by the Germans during colonization.


I’ve made every faux pas listed below, may you do better than I.

ONLY eat with your right hand.  There was no toilet paper back in the day, and you used your left hand to wipe yourself after nature called.  If you hand someone something, only do it with your right hand. 

Never throw or toss food to anyone.  Food fights are extremely taboo because it is disrespectful to the people going hungry.

While eating, children sit with their legs crossed.  They eat the mahangu porridge first, and hold the meat in their other hand for dessert.  Adults usually sit on a stool but if you’re on the ground, you can’t lean on your left hand while you eat you must sit straight.

Never hum or sing while you’re eating … that’s rude.


Disclaimer: I do not support or oppose any political party in Namibia.

SWAPO stands for the South West Africa People’s Organization.  During apartheid the white police force would beat up and throw in jail anyone who displayed the colors of SWAPO.  Now, Owambo people proudly advertise their political loyalty.  The SWAPO party has evolved to include a lot more tribes, and is pretty much the only political party with power in Namibia.


In the past, everybody would mourn very loudly with wails and tears.  This tradition has since died out with westernization, and people are encouraged to cry in private.


The traditional celebratory cry of the Owambo tribe.  You can hear it well in this video clip although it isn’t mine.

Owambo Weddings

The Owambo wedding is filled with traditions. 

On the first day, the bride waits at home for the groom’s family to arrive at the gate.  Once there, they sing and ask to be left in.  Sometimes it can take hours before the bride’s family finally lets them in if they are really testing their commitment. 

The bride at her homestead

The groom’s family and friends bring everything the bride will need for her wedding day, including the dress, shoes, toiletries, towels, etc…    They present the items to her one by one, and if the bride doesn’t like something, the groom’s family has to find an alternative.  Nowadays the bride picks out her own things and the groom’s family bringing the things is symbolic.

After presenting the items for the wedding, the groom’s family stays for the rest of the night singing.  The tradition says they have to stay up all night singing, and are not allowed to sleep.

Flower girl #1.  Side note: this house is at a rural village where they mix huts with more modern structures.

At dawn, the bride’s family begins to cook the cows and chickens slaughtered the day before.  The wedding itself is at a church, and often there are more than one couples getting married on the same day.  Pretty much every Owambo wedding takes place in December when Namibians are off from work and school, so the time slots are double, triple, and sometimes octuple booked.

The family blessing the couple


The church is full
Leaving the church

With multiple weddings comes multiple more hours sitting in a hot church.  When you don’t speak the language, it is incredibly tedious.  The family and friends do the speeches at the church instead of the reception.

Family making speeches

After 5 or 6 hours in church, everyone makes their way to the reception.  The first reception is at a hall with a catered meal.  The only thing the bride can eat all day is traditional food like pap and ombidi (porridge and spinach dishes).  The reception is incredibly short, maybe 45 minutes long, and does not include dancing!

After the reception, the grooms family returns to their home, and the bride’s family celebrates back at the homestead with the traditional beer (Tombo) or Oshikundu.

The next day, the bride’s family and friends all travel to the groom’s homestead, and there is a gifting ceremony under the biggest tree on the homestead.  Everybody lines up with their gifts and present them one by one to the bride and groom.  The bride is officially welcomed into the home with parade guests and family raising their zebra tails in the air and yelling ‘wilililili’ in high-pitched voices.

The zebra tails in the air.

What Could Have Been

Had I been sent to the northern part of the country as was originally intended, I would have become part of the Owambo culture.  Here in Outjo, I am not as exposed to it, but Outjo has an amazing diversity that you can’t get in any other part of the country.  Among the staff from the hospital, every tribe is represented.  Because of this diversity, the hospital and Outjo are very successful.

Meet the author / Weens


  • Barbara Damon

    The wililililili cry seems very similar to the arab celebratory yell. Are there many zebras in Namibia?

    F.Y.I. The NY Times sunday crossword had a clue for 76 across: a four letter word for “Like much of Namibia” which because of you I knew — a-r-i-d.

    • weens

      Yes there are a lot, mostly in the National Park. The zebra tails might now technically be horses tails. You should have made me guess the clue!

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