Namibia: The Herero people, including their religious beliefs and practice of the "holy fire" custom; witchcraft and idol-worship practices; the transfer of religious leadership in Herero tradition and the consequences if the intended heir refuses to inherit the role; current situation of the Herero; whether some lead non-traditional lifestyles in urban centres such as Windhoek [NAM104027.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. About the Herero

The Herero [also known as the Ovaherero (Namibian Sun 16 Feb. 2012)] are an ethnic minority in Namibia (IPS 6 Oct.2011; MRG n.d.; Professor 6 Mar.2012). According to the World Factbook of the US Central Intelligence Agency, the Herero constitute seven percent of Namibia's estimated population of 2,165,828 people (US 10 Feb. 2012). Other sources indicate that the Herero account for six percent (MRG n.d.) to ten percent (AP 4 Oct.2011) of the population.

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a staff member of the Windhoek-based Legal Assistance Centre, speaking as a Herero woman working in the country's capital for a public-interest law firm that protects human rights (LAC n.d.), explained that the Herero are not physically distinct from other ethnic groups in Namibia; rather, their differences are cultural and linguistic (Staff Member 8 Mar.2012). She also explained that most Herero come from places such as Omaheke, Okakarara, Omaruru, and Okandjatu, which also make them identifiable as Herero (Staff Member 8 Mar.2012).

Traditionally, the Herero have reared cattle and led a nomadic lifestyle (Online Guide to Namibia n.d.; MyFundi n.d.; AP 4 Oct.2011). According to the Associated Press (AP), prior to German colonization, there were approximately 85,000 Herero occupying one third of the land with "tens of thousands" of cattle (4 Oct.2011). However, several news sources report that, in the early twentieth century, the Germans waged a campaign of "genocide" against the Herero (Namibian Sun 1 Nov.2011; IPS 6 Oct.2011; AP 4 Oct.2011). Approximately 75 percent of the Herero people were killed in retaliation for an attempted uprising against the Germans in 1904 (UN 16 Aug. 2004; Online Guide to Namibia n.d.; IPS 6 Oct.2011). In addition, the Herero lost much of their land and cattle (AP 4 Oct.2011; MyFundi n.d.), with many displaced to Botswana (ibid.; IPS 6 Oct.2011), where they continue to live (ibid.). The Herero have sought reparations from the Germans for the actions taken against their ancestors (UN 16 Aug. 2004; MRG n.d.), as well as the return of Herero skulls that were taken to Germany for scientific experiments about race (IPS 6 Oct.2011; AP 4 Oct.2011).

2. Herero Religion and the "Holy Fire" Custom

A representative of the Windhoek-based human rights organization NAMRIGHTS, in correspondence with the Research Directorate, explained that the Herero religion (Oupwee) follows the holy rules of a supreme being known within different contexts as "Ndjambi, Karunga, Musiss, Kaheua, Nguvitjita, Karivangera, and Kapurua" (15 Mar.2012). Sources corroborate the statement that the Herero believe in a "Supreme Being" called Njambi (or Nyambi) Karunga ( n.d.; MyFundi n.d.; Online Guide to Namibia n.d.). According to one website featuring travel information about Namibia, Herero traditionalists believe that life originates from Njambi Karunga, who is "the giver of all blessings, revered for his kindness" and "lives in the heavens and is all-knowing" ( n.d.). The NAMRIGHTS representative said that only ceremonial chief priests can invoke the name of Njambi during "religious rituals" in times of "calamities, disasters and famine, disease or death" (15 Mar.2012).

Some sources describe the Herero religion of today as combining aspects of Christianity with traditional practices (my-beautiful-namibia n.d.; MyFundi n.d.; Online Guide to Namibia n.d.). Several sources report that ancestors are a focus of Herero religious worship (ibid.; Professor 6 Mar.2012; MyFundi n.d.). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a professor of language and literature at the University of Namibia, who is himself Herero, explained that "[w]e believe that our ancestors have joined god in heaven after death," and that "[w]e worship god through our ancestors" (Professor 6 Mar.2012).

Herero practices include keeping a "Holy Fire" (ibid.; Staff Member 8 Mar.2012; Namibian Sun 31 Aug. 2011), which is also known as omuriro omurangere ( n.d.), the "sacred fire" (MyFundi n.d.), "Ancestral Fire" (LAC 2005, 58), and the "sacred shrine" (Professor 6 Mar.2012). The Professor, who preferred the term "sacred shrine" and compared it to a church in Western culture, explained that it is the place where the Herero worship God (ibid.). The NAMRIGHTS representative also referred to the holy fire as a "sacred" place for conducting prayers and rituals such as wedding ceremonies, burials, name-givings, circumcision-preparation rituals, coming-of-age rituals, and rituals to welcome a new bride (15 Mar.2012). Holy fire ceremonies reportedly involve the use of ashes or water to purify the recipient against "bad spirits or diabolic signs" and bring "prosperity, health and good luck" (NAMRIGHTS 15 Mar.2012).

The Professor said that the rising smoke of the holy fire "symbolizes a link between us and [our] ancestors and god" (ibid.). Other sources describe the holy fire as symbolizing the gift of life that comes from the ancestors ( n.d.). Thus, the holy fire is a "symbolic link between the living and the dead" (ibid.), "the means through which those that are in the world of the living communicate with their ancestral spirits" (Namibian Sun 31 Aug. 2011), and a symbol of "life, fertility and prosperity" (Online Guide to Namibia n.d.).

According to the South African Encyclopedia website MyFundi, every Herero village clan unit traditionally kept its own holy fire, which was overseen by a senior male head of the unit who had religious as well as political authority (n.d.). The Herero staff member who works at the Legal Assistance Centre noted that, today, the holy fire is kept at a "main house" in rural areas (Staff Member 8 Mar.2012). According to a senior Herero traditional leader, as reported in the government-owned news source New Era, performance of the rituals associated with a holy fire can only be carried out by people who have a surname connected to the ancestor group of the holy fire, and by younger brothers when in the presence of their elder brother (31 Aug. 2011). The Professor said that the holy fire needs to burn at sunrise and sunset, but that it does not need to burn continuously all day long (6 Mar.2012).

Namibian media sources report a controversy that occurred in August 2011 in which a holy fire was moved from the Okahandja Red Flag Commando (New Era 31 Aug. 2011; Namibian Sun 31 Aug. 2011), a site at which the descendants of the late Chief Samuel Maharero had been burning a holy fire commemorating their ancestor since 1923 (ibid.). The Maharero clan leaders viewed the relocation of the fire by a group of Herero who were not part of their clan as a "'desecration'" of Herero tradition (ibid.).

3. Witchcraft and Idol Worship

Two sources indicate that the Herero religion does not include idol worship (Professor 6 Mar.2012; NAMRIGHTS 15 Mar.2012). The NAMRIGHTS representative maintained that the Herero religion does not include the practice of witchcraft (ibid.). He noted that traditional healers are used in Herero culture for health issues, but that these practices are not linked to witchcraft (ibid.). However, in the Professor's viewpoint, although witchcraft was not traditionally practiced by the Herero, Herero traditional healers today, influenced by other cultures, now use some witchcraft (Professor 6 Mar.2012). He noted that Herero witchcraft practice is typically used either "to 'bewitch' someone to become ill or die," or to cure a person who is very ill (ibid.). Other sources refer to Herero traditions as including "witchcraft" (MyFundi n.d.) or "magical practices" (Online Guide to Namibia n.d.), although without providing details.

4. Transfer of Herero Religious Leadership

Sources indicate that Herero religious leadership is passed through the father's side of the family (Professor 6 Mar.2012; Online Guide to Namibia n.d.; MyFundi n.d.). In a 2005 report on customary laws of inheritance by the Legal Assistance Centre, it states that the role of keeper of the holy fire is typically passed to the eldest son of the head wife, but that a younger son or nephew may be named if the next in line is considered "unfit" (58-59). The NAMRIGHTS representative indicated that the eldest son inherits the holy fire from his father, but that, if there is no son, the eldest son of the father's sister "will be given a fire stump to take … to his residence and kindle the same Holy fire" (15 Mar.2012). However, for his part, the Professor explained Herero succession practices as follows:

In Herero culture, the leadership is passed on from father to the next brother in the family hierarchy based on seniority, so that it goes from the oldest brother to the youngest brother. When that circle is completed and there are no longer any brothers to pass it on to, the leadership goes to the oldest son of the oldest brother. (Professor 6 Mar.2012)

He noted that, in the Herero language, the term "'son'" is used for both a son and a nephew, so that a nephew calls his uncle either "'big father'" (if older than his father) or "'small father'" (if younger than his father) (ibid.).

The guardian of the fire will sometimes bypass a traditional successor and recommend a younger male member of the family instead (ibid.; LAC 2005, 58-59). The Legal Assistance Centre report states that the guardian's instructions in such cases are often respected as many believe that, if his wishes are not followed, it will result in "ill fortune" (2005, 58-59). However, the Professor said that, "[i]n some cases, the family honours that decision, while in other cases, they revert back to what the traditional succession would be" (6 Mar.2012). According to the NAMRIGHTS representative, the successor must be a legitimate son and not someone born out of wedlock (15 Mar.2012).

Information about the consequences of refusing to accept the transfer of religious leadership and the role of keeping the holy fire was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate. According to the Professor, "[i]f it is someone's turn to take up the leadership and he does not want it, he will be excused and it will go to the next person in line" (6 Mar.2012). The NAMRIGHTS representative also said that, if the person refuses the leadership, the clan elders will assign the role to a younger brother or nephew (15 Mar.2012).

5. Current Situation of the Herero

Media sources describe the Herero people in Namibia as being marginalized (IPS 6 Oct.2011; AP 4 Oct.2011). The head of the Windhoek-based NGO Namibian Rights and Responsibilities said that Herero-populated areas are less developed than other areas of Namibia, schools and hospitals are in poor condition, and roads are unpaved (AP 4 Oct.2011). The head of the Herero Youth League claimed that 50 percent of Herero households are home to an unemployed youth (ibid.). The Professor similarly expressed concerns related to employment (6 Mar.2012). He said that "[m]ost of the jobs go to 'elite groups' that are in most cases from the majority group that dominates politics" (Professor 6 Mar.2012). According to AP, some landless Herero are threatening to seize farmland taken from them over a century ago by the descendents of the current white settlers (4 Oct.2011). This information could not be corroborated among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response. However, the NAMRIGHTS representative also expressed concern about the human rights situation of the Herero in Namibia, claiming that their "ancient traditional rights" are being breached, that they need a "longstanding" development plan to improve their living standard, and that they need a responsive institution to address the problem of their lost wealth and assets (15 Mar.2012).

6. Herero in Urban Areas

Sources indicate that some Herero people live in urban areas, including Windhoek, but keep in close contact with their home communities (Staff Member 8 Mar.2012; Head 29 Feb. 2012). Both the Herero staff member at the Legal Assistance Centre (8 Mar.2012) and the Professor (6 Mar.2012) note that holy fires are not kept in urban areas, and that many Herero travel back to their home communities to practice holy fire rituals or to participate in wedding ceremonies. The Legal Assistance Centre staff member noted that many Herero continue to practice their culture in urban areas, although some practices are modified, such as adapting the traditional dress for modern life for women under sixty and supplementing the traditional diet with vegetables and starches (Staff Member 8 Mar.2012). Some Herero who move to urban areas reportedly convert to Christianity (ibid.; Professor 6 Mar.2012), or they stop practicing the traditional religion (ibid.; NAMRIGHTS 15 Mar.2012).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Associated Press (AP). 4 October 2011. Michelle Faul. “Germany’s Return of Namibian Skulls Stokes Anger.” <> [Accessed 23 Feb. 2012]

Head, Department of Linguistics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 29 February 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Inter Press Service (IPS). 6 October 2011. Servaas van den Bosch. “Namibia: German Occupation Left Deep Divisions Among Ethnic Groups.” (Factiva)

Legal Assistance Centre (LAC). 2005. Gender Research and Advocacy Project. Customary Laws on Inheritance in Namibia: Issues and Questions for Consideration in Developing New Legislation. By Mercedes Ovis and Robert J.Gordon. <> [Accessed 5 Mar.2012]

_____. N.d. "What Does the LAC Do?" <> [Accessed 14 Mar.2012]

Minority Rights Group International (MRG). N.d. “Namibia Overview.” World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People. <> [Accessed 22 Feb. 2012] N.d. Ben Chinkoti and Mwalimushi Kamati-Chinkoti. “Herero Culture.” <> [Accessed 23 Feb. 2012]

MyFundi. N.d. "The Herero." South African Encyclopedia / Suid-Afrikaanse Ensiklopedie . Editor-in-Chief Linda Roos. <> [Accessed 1 Mar.2012]

Namibian Sun [Windhoek]. 16 February 2012. "Pohamba, Ovaherero Meeting Hits Snag." <> [Accessed 1 Mar.2012]

_____. 1 November 2011. “Royal House Boycotts Genocide Anniversary.” <> [Accessed 6 Mar.2012]

_____. 31 August 2011. Lorraine Kazondovi. “Maharero Ready to Die over ‘Holy Fire’ Dispute.” <‘holy-fire’-dispute> [Accessed 6 Mar.2012]

NAMRIGHTS. 15 March 2012. Correspondence from a public relations officer to the Research Directorate.

New Era [Windhoek]. 31 August 2011. Magreth Nunuhe. "Namibia: Holy Fire Relocation Triggers Storm." <> [Accessed 1 Mar.2012]

The Online Guide to Namibia and Travel Boutique. N.d. “The People of Namibia: Information on Ethnic Groups.” Windhoek: Elena Travel Services and Car Hire CC. <> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2012]

Professor, Department of Language and Literature Studies, University of Namibia. 6 March 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Staff Member, Legal Assistance Centre, Windhoek 8 March 2012. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

United Nations (UN). 16 August 2004. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). “Namibia: Germany Rules Out Reparations but Offers Aid.” <> [Accessed 1 Mar.2012]

United States (US). 10 February 2012. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “Namibia.” The World Factbook. <> [Accessed 22 Feb. 2012]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Attempts to contact an academic at the University of Leiden, and a representative of Otjiherero Radio were unsuccessful. Two academics, from Saint Lawrence University and Dartmouth College, were unable to provide information.

Internet sites, including: Africa Confidential; AfricaFiles; Africa Research Bulletin; Afrik-News; AllAfrica; Amnesty International;; Europa World Plus; Factiva; Freedom House; Human Rights Watch; International Federation for Human Rights; National Society for Human Rights; United Nations – Refworld, ReliefWeb.