Okangwati Area

Researcher: Diego Menestrey


As a consequence of the water decentralization measures in Namibia since independence, rural communities have become responsible for the operation and management of their own water points, including dealing with financial matters. Against this background, the aim of my study is to investigate what kind of institutions are developed by the users in relation to their water points, how these institutions are set up and how they change over time, and what consequences they have for the local community. The aim is to understand how the socio-political and economic structures and belief systems at the local level shape the process of institutional emergence and change.

Due to the employment of such a holistic approach, several methods of data collection were employed, including participant observation, ethnographic census, network-analysis, informal, unstructured and semi-structured interviews, the genealogic method, and wealth ranking.

Research setting:

The broad area chosen for the fieldwork activities is situated in the semi-arid northern of the Kunene Region. Most of the data collection was conducted over a period of approximately 12 months between November 2010 and November 2011 in a  Village wiew in the Okangwati Areavillage located in the area surrounding Okangwati, a small town on the way from Opuwo to Epupa, near to the Angolan border. (In order to protect the identity of the informants, the exact location and name of the village won’t be revealed). The community of study consists of 13 Ovahimba households scattered in a large valley covered with  Mopani trees, surrounded by mountains and traversed by ephemeral rivers.

A standard Himba household (onganda) is comprised of a nearly round kraal encircling several huts and a sacred fire (where the ancestors are worshiped). The inhabitants of these compounds are normally extended families. The household’s livestock (specially the cattle) usually spend the night within this enclosure.

Most of the members of the community consider themselves to be part of a big family. This is mostly due to the fact that all heads of household are, in one way or another, related to each other: whether through the patriclan (oruzo), the matriclan (eanda) or though relationships of first degree. Moreover, the village is under the jurisdiction of a Headman, his counsellors, and a council of Elders, all of them living in the community.

Like in the rest of northern Kunene, in the community in question livestock herding is the main strategy of subsistence. During the dry period, parts of the homesteads relocate, along with a portion of their herds to cattle posts for better grazing until the next rains come. When this happens, they then return to their main settlements, leaving the pastures around the posts to recover. The animals provide the people with milk, meat and materials for clothing and ornaments.

Horticulture is also an important part of the households’ subsistence. Nevertheless, it is only practiced during the rainy season, since the grounds are only watered through rainwater. Maize (the principal element of the Ovahimba diet), pumpkins, beans and sugarcane are commonly grown in the gardens. Once the resulting harvest has been consumed (3 – 5 months after its collection), maize meal must be purchased from the towns. Cash is obtained exclusively through selling animals (mostly in Opuwo, or else to Owambo traders visiting the area) or in the form of state pensions. Wage labour, or “penny economy” as it is known, is practically nonexistent.

For livestock farming, as well as for many daily activities, such as cooking, and even ritual activities (for example, wishing luck to a married couple) water plays a very important role. Yet it is scarce and its extraction entails costs, especially in the dry season. During this period, the members of the community depend on a diesel engine to provide their families and animals with water from underground (including those coming from the far-off cattle posts). Diesel must be bought to operate the pump, and replacements for defective parts have to be acquired from time to time. When the rainy season comes, the homesteads fall back on small rivers, hand-dug wells and/or a dam that catches the rainwater. All of these sources are used as long as they provide water. If a period of good rain comes, the villagers are able to forego operating the diesel pump for a maximum of six months.


Weather station in Okangwati Area, Okangwati.


Water management (focus water fees):

With regard to the question of how the community manages to regulate the contributions for the regular purchase of diesel for the pump, the fieldwork findings revealed a conflict scenario. Simply put: the poorer herders wanted the water fees to be paid according to the number of animals each homestead owns, while the richer ones favoured the option of  Watertank in the Okangwati Areaevery homestead paying the same amount. The flat-rate contribution favoured by the richer herders had prevailed for almost 7 years, although the idea of paying per head of herd animals had been promoted by the poorer households since they received the pump from the government in 2004 (the idea of paying according to the number of animals is standard advice that the representatives from the Directorate of Rural Water Supply give to the communities every time they hand over the management responsibilities of a water point). Until then, the negotiations among the herders had been stuck, shaped by patron-client dependencies, mutual competition for animals, and cultural norms restricting the counting of cattle, among others. Finally, however, near the end of my fieldwork activities, an external, indirect intervention in favour for the poorer herders precipitated an end to the impasse: a veterinary campaign undertaken by the government in the region made public the numbers of cattle per household in the village. After this, the richer herders could no longer use their most powerful argument against their poorer neighbours, namely that “We Himbas don’t count our cattle”.

The maintenance of the pump is an intricate issue. When a part of the pump has to be urgently replaced, not every household contributes – either because of money shortages, or because some refuse to contribute until certain neighbours have done so. Nevertheless, the community members always managed to find a way to repair the pump before its absence caused a major water shortage. In fact, the community had a bank account where money was kept specifically for these instances, but payments into the account were stopped due to the contributions conflict. The reason: some of the poorer herders refused to continue making these deposits (20N$ per year) because the richer ones didn’t want to pay according to their number of cattle. After their refusal, the richer households also stopped with these maintenance fees.


Key results to date: 

Various points included in the government’s blueprints for communal water management are not adopted by the local users. In fact, the community members often implement alternatives, variations and/ or adaptions of the state guidelines. Here, local understandings of authority, power dynamics, gender roles, and established patterns of behavior, as well as the broad socio-political and economic context, are determinants of the way water is in fact managed. Water-management institutions go through complex processes of emergence, negotiation, and change. Power and conflict play an important role here; but so do moral views and the desire to live in peace. Social norms keep conflicts related to the water management within bounds, and are crucial in maintaining cooperation despite some rules (especially the ones regarding the money contributions) being regarded as unfair.  

Community members are linked to each other in different ways, for instance through kinship, and common cultural beliefs and values. Moreover, they maintain diverse relations of social and material support. These ties create a community motivation, extending beyond resource management and the conflicts connected to it, to stick together and avoid costly sanctions, such as exclusion from the water point (which is one of the suggestions of the state for dealing with non-payers).

Furthermore, the analysis shows that not it is not only ‘crafted’ and established institutions that are essential to maintaining the water supply. The ethnographic data reveals that in extreme situations, creativity and self-sacrifice on the part of certain community members are also important factors that contribute to keeping the pumps running. In this regard, the acquisition of status within the groups can be a strong motivation to show individual commitment. 



Forthcoming work:

Diego Menestrey will carry on with the study of the Okangwati area, and in August 2015, he will be conducting fieldwork to investigate how the water-management situation in Ombaka and the surroundings has developed. In so doing he will seek to deepen diverse insights grasped during his previous work, such as the relationship between witchcraft and water management, and the role of power and social norms in the implementation and change of institutions.

 Milking cattle Waterpump in the Okangwati Area

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