Early Inhabitants of the Region
Little is known about the early history of Gobabis and the part of the Kalahari in which it is situated, since many of the oral traditions referring to the town and its environs have long been forgotten and only myths, legends and praise songs to animals, deities and heroes remain.
It is generally accepted that the earliest inhabitants of the area were San hunter-gatherers who roamed their hunting-grounds in small, unstable bands. Rock engravings on numerous farms in the Nossob Valley (e.g. Margerethental, Klein Witvley, Freiheit-Ost and Wiesesrus) are all that remains of these people who lived here hundreds and even thousands of years ago. They chiselled the central themes of their lives - hunting and game - into the rock, but apart from showing animals which no longer occur in the area, such as elephant, lion, blue wildebeest, giraffe and eland, these ancient works of art tell us little about the early history of the region.
Abundant game, good grazing and the healthy climate gradually also drew other peoples to the region, such as the Mbanderu and the Tswana, and later also the Oorlam and white hunters and adventures. Going by early travellers' accounts, however, it would appear that the area around Gobabis was more or less no man's land during the early 19th century. Although the San, Mbanderu and Tswana could all lay claim to the fountains and the grazing, they all lived either towards the east in the Ghanziveld, towards the north in the Nyae Nyae or Tebraveld, or towards the west and north-west in the areas that today form part of Windhoek and Okahandja districts. Not one of these groups had any territorial ambitions; according to Williams, prior to the nineteenth century and the onset of long-distance mercantile trade, the chiefdoms of the region had no expansionist tendencies, were without standing armies, and were bound to one another through mutual relationships consisting of tribute, trade and cultural ties.
Guenther states that the San living in the eastern and north-eastern part of the region at the time, in the area between Ghanzi and the Epukiro Omuramba, were quite independent and politically well organized.¹² Passarge writes that the San of the 19th century comprised two large peoples, each of which was divided into various tribes consisting of several clans. Formerly, these tribes were politically independent entities led by a captain and subordinate headmen. He mentions =|=Dukuri, a !Naro captain living in the Ghanzi area who had a well-organized army that was equipped with spears and other arms subjugated neighbouring San tribes. His subjects were obliged to pay taxes in the form of skins and ivory which they obtained by digging deep pits in dry riverbeds such as the Epukiro Omuramba and driving game, including elephant and rhinoceros, into these with dogs and teams of drivers.¹³ There was also active trade between the San and neighbouring peoples, the main barter items being ostrich feathers, strings of ostrich-eggshell beads and animal skins.¹⁴ Ivory emerged as an important trade item only at a later stage, following contact with the Twana and the Oorlam.
Each captain exercised control over his clan's hunting-grounds, and these hunting-grounds were defended against neighbouring clans. The San were so well organized at the time that they succeeded in keeping the Tswana, Herero and the Mbanderu out of large parts of the Omaheke.¹⁶ The Herero-Nama Wars of the 1860s, for example, led to the impoverishment of large numbers of Herero (known as ovatjimba), while the Herero-German War of 1904 created an even poorer group known as the oturumbu or Veld Herero, and both these groups moved further and further to the north-east. These, however, they were attacked by San parties, who fiercely resisted their incursion into the area.¹⁷ The other peoples in the area showed considerable respect for the Bushmen; the Tswana dared not venture into their hunting-ground at all, and the Oorlam did so only during well-organized raiding parties.¹⁸ In fact, one of the San captains regularly attacked the camps of the Dorslandtrekkers and hunters in the Tebraveld towards the north-east and robbed them of their belongings and cattle. The raids were so well organized that the trekkers were obliged to send out mounted commandos in pursuit, but they never succeeded in capturing him.¹⁹ The killing of the district's magistrate in 1922 was probably the last show of organized resistance against subjugation.
The name "Mbanderu" is derived from the words mbandu (human beings, people) and oruu (reeds) and means "People of the Reeds", a reference to their origin, which is presumed to lie in the area of the East African lakes. According to oral traditions, three related peoples left the area and gradually migrated towards the south-west. The Owambo were the first to leave, followed by the Herero and then the Mbanderu. It is quite possible that the Herero and Mbanderu belonged to the same group initially, since there are numerous cultural similarities between these two peoples even today.
The Herero first settled in the Kaokoveld, while the Mbanderu, who had followed the same route, continued and moved into what is today Namibia through Owamboland, progressing via Outjo, Tsumeb, Grootfontein, Otjituuo and Omambonde to Otundu near the Waterberg. Here, the group broke up into smaller groups or clans, each of which ventured further in search of suitable grazing and water for their cattle. After some time, the Mbanderu people moved south and then east, via Windhoek, Witvlei, Gobabis and Rietfontein, to Ghanzi in Botswana, which they presumably reached during the early eighteen century. They settled in the area between Rietfontein and Ghanzi and maintained peaceful relations with the Tswana, who were also living in the area.²²
Some time before 1750, the Tswana and Mbanderu clashed after Mbanderu herdsmen had stolen a calf and killed a Tswana girl. The Tswana, who had shields and arrows with iron points, defeated the Mbanderu and drove them back into the Ovingi area, north-west of Gobabis. Here, the Mbanderu consolidated and some time before 1780, they, in turn, attacked the Tswana, drove them back and reoccupied the Ghanzi area.²³
After some time, the Mbanderu decided to return west again, and they moved first to the Erongo Mountains and then to Omusorakuumba, north-west of Okahandja. Eventually, they settled in the area between Windhoek and Gobabis under their chief, Kandjake Uahandura, at more or less the same time as Amraal's people moved to Gobabis. Meanwhile, the Herero had moved south from the Kaokoveld via Sesfontein, Kamanjab and Omaruru, and some time between 1863 and 1867, the Herero and Mbanderu met in Otjimbingwe to determine the boundaries of their respective territories. It was decided that the area from Grootfontein south past the Waterberg o Windhoek, Kalkrand and Gochas and then east to Botswana would belong to the Mbanderu, while the Waterberg, Omatako area, Otjimbingwe and Okahandja were claimed by the Herero.