Travel Talk 

Northern Namibia's sliver of fertile wetland is a legacy of colonial land-swapping

From our camp near Chobe National Park in northern Botswana we headed north to the Namibian border and, thanks to a deal cut between colonial powers more than 100 years ago, it was a short drive. We pulled in to the border post at Ngoma, presented our passports to a friendly immigration officer, and crossed into the eastern end of the Caprivi Strip, a 400 km-long sliver of land appended to Northern Namibia.

During the late 19th century scramble to carve Africa into colonial slices, the Germans laid claim to large chunks of land on either side of the continent. They called one of them German South West Africa (now Namibia) and the other German East Africa (now Tanzania). Trouble was, their two colonies were separated by the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and the Germans dearly wanted a trade route between their eastern and western territories. They approached the problem by laying claim to British-administered Zanzibar and with that as a bargaining chip negotiated a deal with the British. In return for retaining Zanzibar without an armed fuss the British gave the Germans a narrow slice of Bechuanaland that linked German South West Africa to the Zambezi River. And so was born the Caprivi Strip, a bizarre eastward pointing finger of Namibian territory that separates Botswana in the south from Angola in the north.

The Caprivi Strip never did fulfill its original purpose. The Zambezi River, which the Germans had hoped would complete their strategic east-west corridor, proved to be un-navigable. But the strip is a rare fertile oasis in a country consisting almost entirely of desert and dusty thorn-covered savannah. Today, with a population of 65,000 people, the Caprivi is one of the most densely populated regions of Namibia.

Our drive north along the partly paved B8 road from Ngoma to Katima Mulilo took us through the traditional territory of the Ovambo people. By far the largest ethnic group within Namibia the Ovambo, who combine agriculture with animal husbandry and fishing, still live in mud-and-reed huts thatched with grass from the river. Most of the villages we saw had only about a dozen dwellings, one or two small kraals made of vertical poles, and a single well. In the past each cluster of these small circular dwellings was home to a village matriarch and her extended family and, although the old matriarchal system is gradually breaking down, the Ovambo people still live much as they did hundreds of years ago. Women, often with infants strapped to their chests, carry water on their heads, grind grain in wooden mortars by pounding the seeds with long poles used as pestles, and cook over open wood-fired hearths. The men still cultivate crops of maize, sorghum, and millet with primitive hoes, and catch fish in the channel-ways and shallow pools of the rivers.


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