Lorena Rizzo: Gender and Colonialism. A History of Kaoko (north-western Namibia) between the 1870s and the 1950s

PhD thesis, History Department, University of Basel, 2010

The dissertation deals with colonialism in a Namibian periphery and considers both the German colonial period as well as South African rule in the country. The main is to develop an understanding of the dynamics and vectors of change in the Kaoko’s African societies gradually being placed under colonial rule. With a focus on socio-economic processes the thesis explores the continuous reconstitution of gender roles and relations and anchors its argument on an integrated analysis of archival written and visual sources as well as on oral knowledge. In its theoretical and methodological outline, the thesis is concerned with developing a narrative beyond ethnic and tribal categories and hence to critically revise most of the ethnography and historiography on the region available up to date.

Background and Aim of Research

Namibia gained independence from South African occupation in 1990. Only then could a critical historiography establish itself in the country and many areas and issues, which could not be considered for research, came into focus. Kaoko is a former reserve which is considered to be one of the most marginal areas in Namibia. The region has been given particular attention by the tourism industry and by anthropologists, both showing a keen interest in the Ovahimba  population in Kaoko, which is considered to represent par excellence indigenous African life beyond the disruptions of colonialism and modernity. The thesis seriously questions such static and a-historical visions of the era and contrasts them with reconstructing dramatic changes between the late 19th and the mid-20th century.


The main sources for the thesis are the archival documents and historical photographs kept in the National Archives of Namibia in Windhoek. Furthermore mission archives in Namibia and Germany were considered. Besides these sources, all of which emerge from a colonial archival discourse, oral knowledge about Kaoko’s past has been extensively collected. Interviews done in Kaoko in various languages and later transcribed and translated into English helped blurring some of the biases suggested by the archives. Relevance In contrast to most historical work on former Namibian reserves the thesis tried to link Kaoko’s history to developments in its neighbouring regions, both in northern Namibia and southern Angola. This has helped placing the argument into a broader regional frame and has allowed to adjust some of the scholarly assumptions about Kakoko’s past and present.

Rizzo, Lorena, Gender and Colonialism. A History of Kaoko in north-western Namibia, 1870s-1950s, Basel Namibia Studies Series 14, Basler Afrika Bibliographien 2012.


Poster (pdf)