Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 July 2003
Namibian politics and society are today dominated by people who trace their descent from the settlements and homesteads of Ovamboland in southern Angola and northern Namibia. Yet, prior to 1915, and the defeat by South Africa of the German colonial army in German South-West Africa, very few Ovambo had settled in areas to the south of the Etosha Pan. In 1915, a Portuguese expeditionary army defeated Kwanyama forces in southern Angola, and unleashed a flood of refugees into northern Namibia. These refugees entered an area that was already overstretched. Since 1912 the rains had failed and, on account of the First World War, trade and migration had come to a standstill. As a result the area was experiencing its most devastating famine ever. Unable to find sanctuary in Ovamboland, thousands of people trekked southwards into central Namibia, an area which had only just come under the control of South Africa. The famine allowed for the easy entrance of South African military administrators and labour recruiters into Ovamboland and heralded the demise of Ovambo independence. By focusing on developments in the central Namibian town of Karibib between 1915 to 1916, the article explores the move of the Ovambo into central and southern Namibia. It traces the impact of war and drought on Ovambo societies, and follows Ovambo famine migrants on their route south into areas administered by the South African military administration. Discussion also concentrates on the reception and treatment of Ovambo famine migrants in the Karibib settlement, and argues that the refugee crisis heralded the establishment of Ovambo in modern central and southern Namibia.