The Caprivians

The Caprivi Strip, as it is historically known, was named after Count Leo von Caprivi, the German negotiator at the Berlin Conference held towards the end of the 1800s between Germany and other colonial administrators.

The Caprivi has a chequered history of administrative changes. Before 1992 the water-rich pan-handle in Namibia’s far north-east was administered separately by three countries – South Africa, Botswana and the former South West Africa – while prior to independence the Caprivi Region was isolated from the rest of Namibia, as it was used strategically by the South African Defence force in its fight against Swapo guerrillas. It remained a centre of conflict throughout the struggle for independence achieved in 1990, after which there was further political strife when a group of secessionists staged a political uprising in 1998–1999.

The Caprivians share their language with the Lozi of Barotseland, the remnants of the Kololo Kingdom, established by Chief Sebetwane of the Bafokeng, who crossed the Zambezi River in the 1838. Although Lozi is Caprivi’s current official language, it is the mother tongue of only a few people living in eastern Caprivi. Today the six main ethnic groups living in the region – the Masubia, Mbukushu, Mbalangwe, Mafwe, Totela and Mayeyi – speak three other distinct Bantu languages and many different dialects. The largest groups are the Masubia and Mafwe, while a small group of Mbukushu and some San communities live in the more arid western Caprivi, a long, narrow strip of land that is primarily a nature reserve, with the Trans-Caprivi Highway running through it. About 86 000 people live in Eastern Caprivi, which borders on Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana and has the bustling town of Katima Mulilo as its capital.

Caprivi’s just over 20 000 square kilometres of land fall either under state or communal administration. The state-controlled areas consist primarily of game reserves and national parks, state forest and agricultural projects administered by different ministries and the National Development Corporation (NDC). Subsistence farming is practised within the communal areas, which are also put to commercial uses via hunting concessions and tourist lodges and camps.

Most Caprivians make their living on the banks of the Zambezi, Kwando, Linyanti and Chobe rivers. When the Zambezi and Chobe come down in flood, more than half of Eastern Caprivi becomes inundated and wooden mekoro, dug-out canoes, become a common means of transport. Being surrounded by perennial rivers, freshwater fish are an important resource in Caprivi, providing food and income for many locals and recreational angling for visitors. Agriculture is, however, of greater importance than fishing in terms of economic and livelihood activities. Stock farming is dominated by cattle, primarily the indigenous Sanga breed, an animal steeped in social, religious, economic and mythical significance. Cattle are highly prized for their value as tangible resources, and especially for their social value of giving herd owners security, rights to land and status. Goats and poultry, on the other hand, are valued only in terms of food and as a source of income. Crops are primarily the staple mahangu (pearl millet). A growing source of income for Caprivian women is pottery and basket-making, ancient crafts that have been revived in recent years to provide families with an income.