Woodcarvers in the Kavango


Nikolaus Yitaha with some of his pieces of craft, 1997.


The multi-cultural and multi-ethnical structure of the Kavango population has contributed to big variety of skills amongst its people. One of these artistics skills is reflected in the works of the woodcarvers of the Kavango. Their products are famous in the whole country, and due to a limited market they are mostly sold in craftshops in Windhoek and at the big roadside markets at Okahandja and Swakopmund.

The abundance of precious wood in the Kavango region has motivated a great number of artisans, some with artistic ambitions, to settle in this part of Namibia.

Most of the woodcarvers in the Kavango are Chokwes. (http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/toc/people/Chokwe.html)

The Chokwe used to live in Central/Southwestern Angola, in Congo and Zambia.  They are well known for art objects produced to celebrate and validate the royal court. These objects include ornately carved stools and chairs used as thrones. Most of the sculptures are portraits, which represent the royal lineage. Staffs, scepters, and spears are among other implements sculpted to celebrate the court. Old Chokwe sculptures reach high prices on international art markets.

In Kavango the woodcarving objects are mostely animals, drums, masks and decorated furniture.


One of the Chokwe woodcarvers from the Kavango was Nikolaus Yitaha. His life is a typical example of the mobility of people in this part of Africa, their initiatives and their ability to combine creative strength with the necessity to survive the hardship of the conditions of the region.


Nikolaus Yitaha

Nikolaus Yitaha´s father, Kasiwa, came to Namibia (the former South West Africa) from Angola in the 1930´tees. He was actually on his way to the gold-mines of South Africa. When he reached the Namibian boarder at Nkurenkuru, he had allready walked for more than four weeks and needed an urgent rest. He stayed over at Nkurenkuru for some time. From here he proceeded with his journey, by foot, bus and train, and arrived in Johannesburg another 4 weeks later. After working for two years in one of the gold-mines in the Witwatersrand he returned to the Kavango; in his baggage he carried with him a meager amount which he had saved during the years of hard work and some woodwork-tools which he had bougth in Johannesburg.

This was his foundation for a small income as a carpenter, because - instead of continuing his journey back to Angola - he made the Kavango region his permanent home. He settled near Nkurenkuru and started his own small carpenter`s workshop under the next tree near his homestead. With enough wood available in the surrounding, he produced his own wooden planks from which he build small doors for the traditional rooms, chairs, tables, coffins and other usefull items for the daily life. If he could not sell them due to the shortage of cash amongst his customers, he bartered the items against agricultural products.

One of the many Chokwe carpenters in the Kavango, finishing off a table

Kasiwa, belonging to the Wakwasipika clan, made sure he found a Chokwe woman with whom he married. His wife was allready born in Namibia and belonged to the Mukwanyime clan. She came out of a Catholic family, because her father had been baptised in Haisisira. With Mutango, his wife, he settled  in Mayara, not far from Nkurenkuru.

One of their childeren was Nikolaus Yitaha. He was born on the 20th January 1949. He grew up in this setup of a small business of his father who considered himself as a self-employed carpenter. Learning all the skills from his father, Nikolaus soon discovered that he was not at all satisfied with the work on the tables, chairs and what have you. In his free time he started to carve his first animals: elephants, duikers and birds, all of whom  he had still seen as a young boy in the thick forest south of Nkurenkuru. Through his contact with the catholic Missionstations along the river (he was baptised at Cuangar on the 24.12.1967), he managed to sell some of his products to the white missionaries. Now and then the colonial officials from Rundu would buy from him when they were on their tours to the west of the Kavango.

When the Kavango was militarised by the South African Army in the 70`tees and a big military camp was build at Nepara - not far from Nkurenkuru - Nikolaus Yitaha had new customers. The conscripts at the base changed frequently, and many of the South African soldiers bought a piece from Nikolaus as a souvenir for their families and girlfriends back in South Africa. In 1975 he moves with his homestead from Mayara to the vicinity of Nepara. In 1978 he worked in one of the mines in Namibia.

With the Independence of Namibia and the retreat of the South African Defence Force the market for woodcarvings collapsed in the western Kavango. Being too far away from the tourist routes in Rundu and the eastern Kavango, he again had to rely on the few Europeans working in Nkurenkuru and surrounding. His products were never of any use for the local population.

Nikolaus Yitaha was married to Beata Yihemba in his first marriage. Beata was a Njemba. They had 10 children together, of which 5 died before reaching adulthood. Beata died in 2000 at the age of ca. 35 years. In his second marriage Nikolaus was married to Josefine Naita a Kwangali woman from Mayara. They have one child together.

Nikolaus Yitaha died, at the age of 53 years, on the 12th June 2002 in a hospital in Rundu.



The basic tools used by a woodcarver in Kavango


nzimbu    -     hatchet

nzimbu sonene    -    a small hatchet

mbere    -    knife

sivera    -    file