You might have noticed the Caprivi Strip on a globe or atlas—it’s that 280-mile-long panhandle of Namibia stretching improbably eastward toward Zimbabwe.
Of all the weird African borders caused by the colonial carve-up of the 19th century, Caprivi is one of the nuttiest—and one of the most glamorously named, since it’s also been called “Itenge” or “the Okavango Panhandle,” adventurous-sounding names straight from a pulp novel or Indiana Jones movie. But the Caprivi Strip’s odd past—and turbulent present—are an accident.
It only exists because someone forgot about the largest waterfall in the world.
- Leo von Caprivi was the German politician who succeeded Otto von Bismarck as chancellor in 1890. His administration warmed toward Great Britain, and a few months later he signed an agreement trading the islands of Zanzibar to the British in exchange for Heligoland, an archipelago just northwest of Hamburg. Bundled in the deal to Germany came a bonus, this little strip of Bechuanaland, no wider than 20 miles across in some places.
- Why did Germany want this random stretch of British Africa? Because it ended at the Zambezi River, which would provide, the Germans thought, a route to the Indian Ocean and Germany’s East African territories (modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi).
- The German negotiators should have checked a map. In fact, the Zambezi River is difficult to navigate along the Caprivi Strip due to rapids. Then, 40 miles east of Caprivi, it becomes extremely non-navigable due to a 355-foot drop: Victoria Falls, by some reckonings the world’s largest waterfall. Oops. No one’s getting to the Indian Ocean that way.
- So the Caprivi Strip turned out to be useless for trade, and mineral-poor to boot. Caprivi’s political rival Bismarck huffed that the Heligoland trade had been a bust, and that Germany had traded away its entire “trousers for a button.” Due to the strip’s odd shape, it’s been culturally isolated from the rest of the region ever since. In 1976, when South Africa controlled it, they tried to make it a segregated “bantustan” for blacks, with its own flag and national anthem. As recently as the 1990s, civil war raged there as a local rebel group, the Caprivi Liberation Army, tried to secede from Namibia. Count von Caprivi died in 1899, but the problems caused by his accidental strip live on.