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Centre of African Studies: Research


Paper Details

Author: Sandra Brown

Title: "A Haven of Tribalism?": Reflections on Ethnicity and Politics in Okombahe - A "Labour Reserve" in Western Namibia

Year: 1991

I spent five months in Namibia, from March to August 1989. Four of these were spent living just outside the village of Okombahe in Damaraland, the "homeland" of the Damara population group, in western central Namibia. In this village, there is strong support the ethnic-based political party, the Damara Council. Over 90% of Okombahe's residents are members of this party. This paper is an exploration of the strength of support for the Damara Council in this community. This stronghold of ethnic political support occurs in a country where by the far the most popular and powerful political forces is the nationalist "liberation" movement. Supporters of nationalism frequently explain ethnic politics in terms of "tribalism". According to them, those who support ethnic-based parties do so because they aspire to ethnic separatism rather than national integration. This was also the view I help of ethnic party supporters when I embarked upon my fieldwork. However, as I learned more about Okombahe and about what life involves for the people who live there, it became clear to me that this view was inappropriate in this situation. Support for the Damara Council in this village cannot by explained as the manifestation of a long-term collective aspiration towards the preservation of ethnic autonomy, as opposed to national assimilation. Rather, when it is considered with the total context of Okombahe social life, it becomes obvious that ethnic political support is a strategy undertaken by individuals seeking to fulfill the much more immediate needs and aspirations of daily existence, in a society whose economic, political and social forces determine that such support is a necessary condition for survival.

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