All About Namibia

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Podcast Transcript

Located in Southwest Africa is the nation of Namibia. 

Namibia doesn’t make the news very often, which is a good thing. It is one of the most stable countries in Africa and one of the safest. 

It also has some of the most spectacular geography on the planet, wildlife that can be found nowhere else, and a history, unlike any other country in Africa.

Learn more about Namibia, its ancient past, and its modern history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Most of you listening to this probably don’t know much about the country of Namibia. In fact, there is some percentage of you that might not even know that Namibia is a country.

That is because Namibia has, for the most part, stayed out of the news. There have been no major wars fought there. Since independence, there has been no major civil strife, and there has been no need to call in peacekeepers. 

Because things in Namibia have been relatively quiet, it has mostly stayed off of the front page of the news, which is why many people are unfamiliar with it. 

However, you should be familiar with it. That is because it really is one of the most special places on the African continent. 

The story of Namibia begins in the distant past with the creation of the main geographic feature of the country and the thing which gives the country its name, the Namib Desert. 

The Namib Desert extends approximately 2,000 kilometers down the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, starting at the southernmost part of Angola and ending at the northwesternmost part of South Africa. Almost all of the desert lies in Namibia.

The Namib is believed to be the oldest desert in the world, dating back 55 million years. 

The word Namib comes from the Nama people who live in the region. The word basically means “an area where there is nothing.”

In addition to being one of the oldest deserts on Earth, it is also one of the driest, rivaled only by the Atacama Desert in Chile. 

I spent five days in the Namib desert, and it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had traveling. The desert truly is…nothing. It is a vast expanse of massive sand dunes, some of which are the largest in the world.

Despite most of the desert being technically located in the tropics, it can often get quite cold due to chilled waters from Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, which flow north past Namibia. 

This often results in heavy fog, which subsequently has made the coastline a hazard for shipping. One stretch of the desert along the Atlantic is known as the Skeleton Coast. The name is derived from the many whale carcasses which have washed up on shore, but it is also home to many shipwrecks. 

Ships lost in the fog will run around here and then be stuck forever. When I say stuck forever, I do mean it, as the desert is encroaching westward several meters per year. I encountered a ship that had been beached over a century earlier on the coast but was now several hundred meters away from the shore. 

The age of the desert has given rise to severe endemic species which can be found nowhere else on Earth. 

The most famous biological phenomenon are fairy circles. These are circular rings of grass that have no grass on the inside of the circle. There are thousands of these fairy circles that can be found in Namibia, and scientists have never been sure why they existed.

Several theories have been proposed to explain why they exist. One suggests that termites cause them, and others have speculated that the grasses use the rings as a way to conserve water. 

Another species that is unique to Namibia is the Welwitschia plant. Welwitschia is a peculiar-looking plant with only two leaves that grow continuously throughout its life. These leaves are broad, leathery, and split into numerous strap-like segments, giving the plant a distinctive appearance. The leaves can grow to lengths of several meters, but they usually become tattered and weathered due to the desert environment.

Welwitschias can live hundreds of years, and the oldest specimens are believed to be as much as 2,000 years old.

Native people in the region would eat the cone of the Welwitschia, and it was referred to as the onion of the desert. 

In the northern part of the country, there is a population of lions that have adapted to the desert conditions. They have learned to feed on the vast numbers of seals and seabirds in the region and are the only lions in the world that have adapted to hunt marine life.

There is a section of the desert which is a massive sand dune that runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean known as the Lange Wand, or the Long Wall in German. It is over 100 meters or 300 feet high, and I actually was able to camp on top of it. The views from the top are breathtaking.

In the southern part of the country is the Fish River Canyon, which is the second largest canyon in the world, second only to the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps the most famous image of Namibia is that of the dead trees in a salt pan located in front of a dark red sand dune. You might very well have seen images of this as they are very popular with photographers and were made famous by National Geographic. The area is known as Sossusvlei in Afrikaans. 

As interesting and fascinating as the flora, fauna, and landscape of Namibia is, the story of the humans who live there and of the political history of the country is fascinating as well. 

The first known inhabitants of the country were the San people, also sometimes known as the bushmen, who are located throughout Southern Africa. 

Around 2,000 years ago, the Bantu migration brought many of the people who speak Bantu languages into Namibia. These include the Himba and Damara people who reside in Nambia today. The Khoekhoe language spoken by the Damara people is one of several African languages which use clicking sounds, but Damara actually has four different clicking sounds. 

I’d try to demonstrate it, but there is absolutely no way I could do it justice, but it is fascinating to hear native speakers speak it.

The modern history of Namibia can be said to begin in the 19th century during the scramble for Africa. Europe nations all raced to try to grab as much of the continent as they could. 

In 1884, Namibia was claimed and occupied by Germany, which named the region German Southwest Africa. 

The most significant event during the German occupation was the Herero and Nama genocide which took place between 1904 and 1908. The Germans systematically starved and later forced the Herero and Nama people into concentration camps. The genocide was in retaliation for rebellions against German control. 

Approximately 100,000 Herero people and 10,000 Nama people were believed to have been killed, and this is a story that requires the full attention of a future episode. 

Many people believe that the German experience in Namibia laid the foundation for the Holocaust, which took place in Europe several decades later.

With the start of the First World War, German Southwest Africa was invaded by South African forces which occupied the country. In 1920, the League of Nations gave control of the region to South Africa. 

Now known as Southwest Africa, it effectually became a colony of South Africa. As such, in 1948, the Apartheid policies of South Africa were put in place in Southwest Africa as well. 

Despite calls to formally incorporate the region into South Africa, it never actually happened. 

In 1960 the South West African People’s Organization or SWAPO was formed. This became the primary organization that fought for independence and the end of apartheid. 

The United Nations and most of the rest of the world never recognized South African control over Namibia. Through the 70s and 80s, international pressure, as well as domestic political and military struggle, eventually resulted in the independence of Namibia in 1990. 

However, there was a catch. South Africa had carved out Walvis Bay, the second-largest city in Namibia and the largest port, as part of South Africa. 

After Namibia had achieved independence, Walvis Bay remained an exclave of South Africa. This situation was finally rectified, and the territory was ceded back to Namibia in 1994. 

Since independence, Namibia has largely avoided the problems which plagued many African nations since achieving independence. SWAPO has remained a political party and has won every election over the last 30 years. 

However, other political parties have been allowed to function openly, and there have been peaceful transitions of power. The first president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, stepped aside in 2005, and his replacement likewise stepped aside in 2014.

Today, Namibia has the second lowest population density of any country on Earth, behind only Mongolia, with a population of only 2.5 million people spread out over an area of 825,615 square kilometers or 318,772 square miles.

Or, to put it in terms Americans might understand, it is 22% larger than Texas, with a population smaller than Kansas. 

I should note one other unusual thing about Namibia. If you look at a map of the country, you can’t help but notice a very odd feature in the north. There is a long finger of territory that extends north of Botswana. It is almost as if it is Namibia is putting its arm around Botswana. 

It is known as the Caprivi Strip. It was created when the Germans established the colony of Southwest Africa as they wanted access to the Zambezi River, which flowed to the east into the Indian Ocean. It would then allow Germany to have access to their colony of German East Africa, now known as Tanzania. 

The land was acquired in negotiation with Britain by the German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, for whom it is named.

The easternmost point of the Caprivi Strip is a very interesting geographical oddity. 

There is no place on Earth where four countries meet at a single point. However, there is one spot that comes very close.

In the middle of the Zambezi River, the borders of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all come together. Botswana has a border with Zambia in the middle of the river, which is only 155 m or 509 feet, making it the shortest border between any two countries in the world. 

Despite being so short, there is a bridge that goes through this narrow border in the river. So if you drove across the bridge and stopped halfway on the border, you could straddle Botswana and Zambia and literally throw a stone into Namibia or Zimbabwe. 

The Caprivi Strip is only 35 kilometers at its narrowest point and has played an important role in the geopolitics of the region, given its location. It also saw a successionist movement in the years after independence, which ended in 1999.

When people ask me what my favorite country is, I don’t really have an answer, but Namibia would be near the top of my list. 

When I’ve previously done episodes on entire countries, I’ve focused on small countries that were either microstates or islands. Namibia is a rather large country, albeit with a small population. 

However, it is an amazing place. The people, culture, landscape, and wildlife all come together to make Namibia one of the most special countries on Earth.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Brian from Akron, from Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes, 

Airport codes

I’ve come back to this episode multiple times because as an 11th-year 4th generation travel agent, I find airport codes frequently and even make my non-travel agent friends learn them too, particularly when I’m wearing my airport code socks.

Thanks, Brian. I had to Derby Field when I heard about your airport code socks. That sounds like a lot of Funafuti. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.