1914-1916: The years Ovambo population diminished

By By Dr. S V V Nambala
February 2011
THE northern regions of Namibia (former Ovamboland) have been threatened by severe drought for years.

The following years are considered years of famine in Ovamboland: Omimvo dhondjala onene (Years of Great famine) 1877-1879; Ondjala yekomba (Sweeping famine) 1914 – 1916, and Ondjala yoondama (Famine of dams) 1929 – 1930.

The years of sweeping famine are the most notable in the history of the region. The three years from 1914- 1916 did not only threaten the population, but it was also accompanied by a plague of caterpillars (oshipahu = oshiponokela shoombahu) which swept the land. There was no seed to sow anymore. People were roaming around in search for food in 1915.

The population was then estimated at 156 000. Some tried to go to the south, but died in the bush from exhaustion. Water was a scarcity. Cattle had to be slaughtered for food and for saving them from starvation. The sweeping famine was so severe that people did not have energy to bury the dead. Human bones were scattered all over the area.

In 1916, Major C. N. Manning was the colonial Resident Commissioner at Ondangwa. In his correspondence to the Native Commissioner in Windhoek of 3rd June 1916, Manning reported about the scene in Ovamboland.

He reported that since his arrival into the region, “skeletons were everywhere and as a result of the terrible famine and influx of starving natives, people were dying along the roadside, near water holes, etc. where their bodies lay. Those dying at kraals (homesteads) were generally thrown out and left (with exception of Ondonga area where burial of some sort generally occurred)”.

By the beginning of 1916, some rains come, but most starving people had died. The survivors held out until they were able to gather green food to augment what the Government could assist them with. Soon after the rains, Manning further reported that “for some months past no complete skeletons have been seen anywhere”.

“The very heavy rains, sudden growth of grass and scrub, not to mention hyenas and jackals, seem either to have wiped out the once numerous signs of the enormous death toll or to have left scattered in complete bones and odd broken skulls”.

However, at harvest time a fair good crop was experienced. The effect of this starvation was indeed a sweeping one. Therefore, it appropriately deserved the name Ondjala yekomba. It had swept, destroyed and diminished the population in the region.

Very soon Namibia will commemorate the unfortunate death of King Mandume, the son of Ndemufayo, on the 6th February each year. The Ondjala yekomba was immediately followed by the colonial punitive force called Ovamboland Expeditionary Force (OEF) against King Mandume of Uukwanyama in 1917.

The force consisted not only of European colonists, but also of 100 indigenous volunteers from Ondonga, Uukwambi and Uukwanyama who joined the force against their kings.

There were 40 volunteers from Uukwambi and the rest from Ondonga and King Mandume’s military absconders from Uukwanyama. They were under the leadership of native Sergeant Lukas, while the Military Constabulary was under the command of Lt. Col. Fouche.

When King Mandume and his commanders (among them Kalola and Sheetekela) were attacked, Mandume sustained six shot wounds – about four in a row across the chest. He died in combat at Oihole village on 6th February 1917.

Among the colonial commanders present were: Lt. C. H. L. Hahn, Lt. Moroney, Lt. Ross, Col. Venning, Col. De Jager, Brodtkorb (a Norwegian hunter), Gardner M. T. C., Nesbitt S. A. M. R. and Jan Vennel. The colonial force suffered 9 dead and many wounded. PF

National Archives of Namibia (NAN),
RCO 9/1916/141.
NAN, CHL Hahn Papers, A 450.6/2/2; 6/2/4; 6/2/8; 6/2/9.