Namibia cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
First meetings will usually centre on personal details (name, country of origin etc.). In turn, you should ask the same sort of questions. It makes a good impression showing a Namibian that one is really highly educated, although such revelations may seem as if one is showing off. But if it takes the form of: "I am working now for Company X for the last five or 20 years", it might impress. To be regarded old is a positive sign for Namibians; as few Namibians are educated, it is regarded as a sign of experience and authority. Illiteracy is high in Namibia and all Namibians envy good education.
In informal situations, Namibians enjoy topics such as education, family and weather. Political gossiping is also common, but most Namibians do not enjoy discussing local political issues and avoid such topics. They also do not like to be asked: "What tribe are you?" The best way to put that question today is to ask ’which language is your mother tongue and which region or town do you come from?’ or ’Where did you go to school?’
Most Namibians avoid using gestures to show that they are confident and at ease. Namibians do enjoy humour.
Family is a very good start to a first conversation, as is asking people what part of the country they are from. Namibians have large extended families and family ties are very important. The natural beauty of the country is also a good topic. Namibia is a strikingly beautiful country with some of the world’s best game parks and oldest deserts. Most Namibians are quite proud of this and very aware that many visitors come as tourists to see the country’s wildlife and geography. As a desert country, talk of rain—how much, when, timing, impending drought, are the rivers running (Namibia has only a handful of permanent rivers) the state of crop production etc—are all perennial topics of conversation and good ways to start a conversation.
It is best not to jump right into Namibian politics or history as a first topic of conversation. Many Namibians of all ethnic backgrounds are willing to discuss their history and present-day politics but these can be very emotional topics for many people and should be entered into with care.
Football (soccer) is followed closely and the fortunes of its national team, The Brave Warriors, are a great conversation topic for many Namibians.
It is difficult to generalize about humour in Namibia. There is a strong sense of formal politeness in relations with strangers or newcomers and this can make humour a guarded affair until you get to know people more closely.
Namibians keep fair distance. Only couples come close to each other.
It is every important to keep eye contact with a person you are speaking to, although in the north, children must show respect by not looking into the eyes of elders. Also, most criminals keep good eye contact, so it is difficult to judge them as being a potential criminal (the content of discussion and attitude to some issues will usually betray them).
Most Namibians do not have a good command of English and those with fluency are sometimes regarded as foreign and may be distrusted.
Namibians tend to be much like Canadians in terms of personal space. Getting too close can make people a bit uncomfortable but following a ’typical’ Canadian approach of keeping about 3 or 4 feet apart is comfortable. Making strong direct eye contact can be uncomfortable for some Namibians. Shaking people’s hands when being introduced is common practise. Touching people when speaking to them is okay, provided it is no more than hand contact or perhaps a pat on the shoulder. I am not aware of any gestures and facial expressions that could cause offence other than ones that Canadians already know and understand. Namibians (this is a generalization) tend to avoid direct confrontation and this should be a major consideration in terms of tone of voice and directness.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection or anger are not common in Namibia. However, if no agreement is reached in industrial disputes, legal strikes are possible and the workers may sing songs in their vernaculars and wave placards. Increasingly, workers are being educated. As a result, damage to private property and personal injury in cases of industrial disputes are uncommon nowadays.
Namibians tend to be quite private in terms of their emotions. It is rare to see public displays of anger or affection. While an occasional hug or even a word or two of frustration or impatience is okay, there is a line beyond which many Namibians will take offence.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Most Namibians are very formal and formal clothing during working hours is the general rule. Shorts, trunks and T-Shirts are regarded as informal and ladies wearing jeans are not allowed in most of our churches and work places.
Most Namibians are punctual and it is regarded badly to be late to work. Some companies make their employees sign forms of misconduct if the employee is late even one minute.
Most committees and individuals are frequently given deadlines that are not to be missed.
Namibians are generally unfriendly when it comes to issues of conflicting interests and it is best to keep one’s record clean from the beginning. This gives one a better negotiation position when in work-related problems.
Absenteeism is not tolerated and employees are required to request formal leave when absent from work, or at least, to inform their immediate superior.
Work dress in Namibia is for the most part quite casual. Many men where ’dockers’ and an open neck shirt (’smart casual’). Women wear skirts or pants. Revealing clothing is not common, although shorts and short sleeve shirts are often worn during hot weather. High-ranking government and business officials are more formally dressed and it is respectful (though not entirely necessary) to wear a suit and tie to meetings with these people.
It is important to take the time to greet people as you arrive at the workplace. You can be informal and use people’s first names once you get to know them. People with names that are difficult to pronounce in English will often use a shortened version or a nickname, though not always. It is appreciated if you take the time to learn how to pronounce local names, even if they pose a challenge to an English or French speaker.
The approach to time is less rigorous than a Canadian may be used to with meetings often starting late and ending early. However, this varies between organisations and the capital Windhoek tends to reflect an approach to time and deadlines similar to what a Canadian may be used to. Keep in mind, there are other constraints to keeping to deadlines and productivity. Perhaps the most significant one remains a shortage of skilled labour in many sectors of the economy.
Preferred managerial qualities
It is generally expected that a supervisor set an example to his/her subordinates, as Namibians are reluctant to accept orders from those who do not adhere to their own principles. A supervisor should show himself, in practice, to be educated, experienced and caring. Namibians are generally obedient and do not need to be forced to work, but no subordinate can be assumed to give his her best at all times if there are no control or accountability measures in place. Namibians are not likely to discriminate against foreigners (expats). They love to work with them. Still, Namibians have fresh wounds from the country’s colonial and oppressive past and are sensitive to foreigners’ presence.
People look for experience, leadership, and hard work. Education is highly valued. Being personable is essential. This does not mean being everyone’s best friend but it does mean being approachable and being seen to be good at listening. Involving staff in decision making and keeping them informed of broader organisational issues can be effective. If a manager is non- local there are other dynamics. A major one will be dealing with the question, ’why isn’t a Namibian in the position?’ Namibians are proud of their Independence and given the history of South African occupation and the disenfranchisement of the majority under Apartheid, they want to be sure that ex-pats are not taking jobs or decision-making authority away from Namibians. Being open, involving others in decisions, and supporting the training and development of Namibian co-workers can be important for developing strong working relationships with them.
Because Namibians can be very private in terms of their emotions it may be difficult to know how you are viewed by co-workers. Over time you will get an impression through normal workplace interactions but you may not ever get as clear an understanding of this as you’d like or you’re used to in Canada.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Management makes the decisions pertaining to policy matters but the workers are consulted in the case of matters of mutual interest to employer and employee/s. Some companies involve higher-level employees in the planning of the future activities and plans. It is important that supervisors and subordinates keep close a relationship, as Namibians’ levels of performance are sensitive to such relationships.
This varies between organisations. Namibian workplaces are often quite hierarchically organized. However, it is common to consult and hold meetings with various groups before making major decisions and normal to look for advice or direction from an immediate superior.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Most Namibian cultures have customary practices that discriminate against woman, hence the laws, workshops and government policies (affirmative action and active promotion of woman involvement) in place aimed at ending this discrimination.
Discrimination on the grounds of religion or active hostility between religious groups is not known in Namibia. Each religion is free to exist. This has resulted in lack of unity in some cases, with the Lutheran Church divided on ethnic grounds. The biggest churches in Namibia are the Lutheran and Catholic churches and 95% of Namibians are Christians. However, there are numerous other churches, from all over the globe that mushroomed after Independence.
Namibians are generally unfamiliar with classes, because only few individuals are rich and the rest are very poor.
Strong sense of ethnicity is still a factor in Namibia and there are still legacies of the racial divide. Nevertheless, there were serious efforts by individuals and organizations to eradicate this trend and even laws to prevent further racial division among Namibians. The Government is encouraging sense of Namibian-ness among Namibians.
Keeping to the dictates of the laws and the social norms will always have a positive impact on the workplace.
Namibia’s constitution guarantees women equal rights. However, Namibia remains a male dominated society. How women are treated varies across ethnic and socio-economic groups and between urban and rural communities. While women’s rights are far from fully realised and rural women in particular face significant discrimination, women hold jobs that involve responsibility, have access to education and are increasingly active participants in Namibia’s economic and political life.
Gender relations can influence the workplace and women may have a more difficult time taking on roles as leaders.
Namibia is predominantly Christian (80 to 90%) and religion plays an important role in the majority of people’s lives. Going to church is widespread and it is common to begin meetings with a blessing from a local church minister. As in many other places, the role of the church is more pronounced in rural areas than urban ones but many Namibians are strong believers and this is important to respect and recognize. Traditional religious practices also continue especially in the rural areas. For instance, the Herero people maintain a sacred fire.
Socio-economic disparities are profound in Namibia. The UN usually places Namibia near the top of the list of countries with high disparities of income. There are high levels of illiteracy and the majority of Namibians live in poverty. A small percentage lives a lifestyle comparable to, or better than, that of the Canadian middle class.
In Apartheid times, these distinctions were also along racial lines. This has begun to change since Independence as education and participation in the political and economic life of the country have become available to everyone. Nevertheless, poverty and illiteracy continue to be concentrated within the black population. The distinctions are particularly profound in the rural areas where many people live on a few hundred dollars a year.
This means that one’s socio-economic status is for the most part quickly apparent in terms of dress, education, housing and the like.
The workplace could be affected by practical issues such as education and literacy. The high incidence of poverty, coupled with the fact that those with jobs are often responsible for the support of less fortunate members of their extended families can create dynamics foreign to the Canadian experience. For instance, what may seem like a reasonable wage for an individual can be inadequate for someone supporting many relatives and workers may look for other opportunities to supplement their income. Training opportunities are valued highly as many people cannot afford higher education and look for opportunities within the workplace.
Poor wages for some workers and pressures to send money home to support family mean that workplace theft can be a larger problem than a Canadian is likely used to.
The main ethnic groups in Namibia are the Owambo, Kavango, Herero, Nama, Damara, Basters, Caprivians, Himba, San, Tswana, as well as English, German and Afrikaans speaking whites. Each has a unique history and culture.
The history of these ethnic groups is complex and reflects the history of Namibia from before the colonial period. The struggles surrounding colonialism and Apartheid are an important defining characteristic of attitudes between the ethnic groups and there are many scars and tensions within Namibia that continue to exist close to the surface of social calm. Namibia has a policy of ’reconciliation’ between groups and has rejected the truth commission approach used in South Africa, focusing instead on ’forgetting’ the past and working towards racial and ethnic harmony within the framework of a modern constitution and rule of law. Only time will tell whether this policy works but so far Namibian society has made the transition from South African rule and Apartheid to Independence relatively peacefully in spite of tensions, grievances, and continued poverty for the majority of its population. One exception to this was a short-lived ’insurrection’ in Caprivi, which was quickly and somewhat controversially put down by the government in 1998.
Ethnic diversity is a source of pride for Namibians, but it is linked to emotional and difficult aspects of its history as a colony. Gaining some background on this history would be useful for anyone planning to spend a lot of time in Namibia.
Ethnic tensions can build within the workplace between whites and blacks or ’coloureds’ but also between members of different ethnic groups.
It is very important to establish a personal relationship with a colleague, especially when working together. Likewise, most employers would want to get a personal best from each employee. Most modern companies in Namibia organize unofficial gatherings to encourage and establish personal relationships with the colleagues, outside official working hours: family sports, dinners, fishing or camping trips, end-of-year functions, birthday cards and cakes, newsletters, etc. all aimed at personal motivation and group spirit.
It is important to develop some understanding of one another first in order to build trust. The history of the country is one in which there is a lot of distrust about the motives of people who are from outside the country or of a different skin colour. Be open and friendly but do not expect to be soon invited to someone’s house for meals or other family activities. It is better to establish good working relations during work hours. Getting right to business after some brief pleasantries is possible, but like anywhere else, trust and understanding come with getting to know people over time.
Privileges and favouritism
Generally a Namibian will not expect special treatment or special favours but there are some who may attempt to test for loopholes of such weak points in the management. Special favours only turn out to be counterproductive for the company or for morale. All employees expect to be treated equally and absence of this may be judged as discrimination of some kind. But it is normal for those who perform above average or put in special personal efforts to be recognized if the guidelines to such recognition are laid down and announced or agreed upon beforehand. Such recognition is appreciated when done publicly. It is normal that Namibians know that colleagues may not always be at the same level and have the same salary, but if the difference that is detected does not follow the norms or principles set out, there will be reason for discontent.
Because of the extended family structure, there may be some expectations about hiring relatives, although many organisations deal with these pressures by instituting clear and transparent practices. Namibia has very good labour laws, which provide a framework for dealing with workplace relations. I would recommend not granting such privileges, except in cases where work is being done directly with local communities. In this case, it can be important to involve members of local communities and demonstrate that they can benefit from and influence the work being done. In such circumstances, following the advice of people who know the community about who to hire or privileges to extend (possibly to a local headman) can be essential.
Conflicts in the workplace
A colleague has to be confronted directly if indirect contact does not work. Private consultation is also important, as some feel embarrassed when cautioned in public. Warnings, suspensions, expulsion, signing of misconduct forms, disciplinary hearings and Labour court and Labour tribunals are all part of Namibian employment relations. If the productivity of a colleague drops notably, there is reason for concern.
’Common sense’ rules here. If the problem is a minor one, raise it directly with the colleague but do it privately. I would try and find an indirect or very polite way to raise the issue. If the problem is significant and you feel the person may not respond well to having it raised, look for other support from a supervisor if possible. You may not know if you have done something to offend another colleague given the tendency for Namibians to avoid conflict. However, there may be a lack of cooperation or engagement in daily work relations. It is acceptable to raise concerns about this if you have them, although doing so in a confrontational manner will likely make the problem worse.
Motivating local colleagues
Motivating factors would include: money, job security, motivation due to poverty and family responsibility, fear of losing social status, and above all, encouragement and involvement in the daily business of how the company should be run. Recognition of personal effort and encouragement through training and evaluation also contribute to a Namibian’s motivation to perform to the best of his/her ability.
Motivation is complex. However, to make some broad generalizations, money, social standing, and the ability to break free of traditional rural life are important motivators. Being involved in decision making can help provide job satisfaction, which is also important. People’s motivation may vary depending on their skill and education level.
Recommended books, films & foods
Our National broadcaster, NBC (Namibian Broadcasting Corporation), has numerous documentary programs on history, politics and culture that are also available for sale. Our local publisher is Gamsberg Publishers and they have books on education, fiction and politics. National archives, museums, libraries and historical sites are all on line today.
The Lonely Planet for Namibia is a good source of travel information and a fairly good introduction to the countries history. Namibia’s Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword reviews the history of the anti-Apartheid movement and the first years of Independence. There are also a number of good wildlife and conservation videos on Namibia.
Consult The Namibian Newspaper http://www.namibian.com.na/; The Namibian Economist http://www.economist.com.na/; Chronology of Namibian History: From Pre-historical Times to Independent Namibia http://www.klausdierks.com/Chronology/contents.htm; and Human Rights Watch Namibia http://www.hrw.org/africa/namibia.php.
Namibian industry is not yet independent and almost everything is imported from South Africa. As our shops are mostly western, all shops have a variety of processed as well as unprocessed commodities. Most Namibians are not vegetarian.
Going to concerts and night clubs (there are no ’no-smoking’ areas), reading newspapers, watching TV and listening to radio, going to sports events, and holiday resorts (especially Swakopmund and Hentiesbay) are all good ways to get acquainted.
The Art Gallery has a theatre that shows plays and music. The National Museum of Namibia, The National Art Gallery of Namibia and The National Theatre of Namibia are all very good places to start. You should also watch for music and comedy by Namibian performers at the Warehouse Night Club in Windhoek. If you want to travel and find out more about the people of Namibia getting in touch with NACOBTA (Namibia Community Based Tourism Association) arrange a stay in one of the many community based tourist camps in Namibia.
Namibia’s urban foods tend to be German in flavour and origin. It is a difficult country to be a vegetarian in if one wants to travel outside of centres like Windhoek and Swakopmund. Rural foods especially in the north centre on mealie pap made from a pearl millet called Mahangu.
National heroes of Namibia are of three kinds: the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial heroes. The first group includes those associated with Chieftainship and stern resistance to colonial rule: Mandume, Kutako, Maharero, Morenga, Witbooi and Nujoma. The Germans were the first to arrive for settlement in Namibia and also have their Heroes: Kurt Francois, Kaizer Wilhelm, Franke, Martin Luther. The South African Apartheid regime also had its heroes: Pienaar, Botha, Mudge, and Pretorious.
While the pre-colonial and colonial heroes were derived mainly from war, politics and administration, the post-colonial heroes are from various public and private spheres: Nujoma (Politics), Withbooi (Politics and Religion), Frederics (sports), Kameeta (Religion), List (Commerce), ya Nangolo (Human Rights), and MacClean (Beauty).
With Democracy still being young, there are flaws in the selection of heroes by official bodies; indeed, the official definition of a "hero", for a time, included the phrase, "...usually a male..."! Recently, a special monument was erected for what the present government regards as heroes and it is situated in the Capital—Windhoek, called Heroes Acre.
The country has many heroes associated with their independence struggles. The most obvious person is President Sam Nujoma who led SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) during its liberation struggle and has been President of the country since Independence in 1990. Other heroes are: Chief Hosea Katjikururume Kutako, who rejected resettlement of the Herero people and stood up against bringing Namibia under the administration of South Africa; Captain Hendrik; and Samuel Witbooi, who was seen as the main opponent to South African plans to implement its homeland policy.
Other heroes are Jackson Kaujeua, a musician well known for his pro-liberation and Independence songs and Frankie Fredericks, famous as one of the world’s fastest sprinters.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no shared historical events.
Canada’s role within the Commonwealth as a strong advocate for ending apartheid and South Africa’s occupation of Namibia is one. While Canada’s presence in the country was scaled back significantly after the brief establishment of a High Commission after Independence, Canada did play a significant part in the international movement to end apartheid. This would be a positive thing for nearly all Namibians.
Generally, Namibians do not know much about Canadians. Those with political experience or interest may remember Canada being one of the five Western countries with the mandate to look into the case of Namibia becoming independent from foreign (South African) rule. Canada was regarded as more progressive than the other four, Great Britain, France, Germany and the USA. Namibians learned more about Canadians since the establishment of the Canadian mine, Rossing Uranium Ltd. (in 1977), in which most of the workers were Canadians. The General spirit and morale in the mine has been very positive to the extent that one can detect a person from that part of Namibia (Western) by his/her attitude (friendly and trustworthy) and determine that he/she does not hail from the rest of Namibia. The mine also provided lot of community projects from its profits such as giving bursaries to students. So there are no negative stereotypes about Canada or Canadians.
Many Canadians view Africa as one large continent populated by people living in misery, ruled by despots, and haunted by disease, famine, war and poverty. Namibia’s history of Independence struggle, the violence along parts of its northern border with Angola in 2000 and 2001 as Unita forces attacked civilians and tourists, and even the lesser known independence movement in Caprivi may create a view that Namibia is reflective of the large stereotype applied to Africa. This would be a highly inaccurate view of Namibian culture and reality. Namibia remains a relatively safe and stable country with significant natural resources and the potential to improve the livelihoods of many of its people.
The other misconception a Canadian may have of Namibia is that it is a desert wilderness as seen through many documentaries on television. This is only a stereotype to the extent that it ignores the human side of Namibia’s history and development. Namibia is part of Africa and has inherited the complex history that goes with pre-colonial roots, colonial history and present day realities. It is a unique place, a naturally beautiful place, a culturally complex place, and a place well worth getting to know.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in the western part of Namibia and is the second youngest of five. He was raised in a small village called Okombahe until the age of 15. He then moved to the larger town of Khorixas to continue his High school at boarding school and later graduated from the University of the North in South Africa. In 2001, he went on a sabbatical leave to Canada to pursue his PhD in South African Literature. He has worked in the last three years in an effort to revive what was thought to have been an extinct indigenous language (the San language of South Africa). He was brought up in the Desert Damara culture but is a descendent of the German, Damara and Nama groups. He is married and has six children.
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in Victoria BC the oldest of four children. In terms of cultural background, he is Caucasian and was raised in the Anglican Church. He studied Political Science at the University of Victoria and obtained a Masters Degree in Political Theory. His work first sent him abroad in 1987 when he was Director of International Programmes for the Victoria YM/YWCA. He visited projects supported by the YM/YWCA in The Gambia and Ghana and began working for Oxfam Canada. He later became an advisor to the Canada-Namibia Cooperation Programme (CANAMCO), which took him to central and northern Namibia regularly over a period of four years. In 1999, he moved to Namibia with his family as the Oxfam Canada Country Representative for Namibia staying there for 3 and a half years. Since his return to Canada in August 2000, he has resided in Victoria, Canada. He is married and has two children.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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