Women emancipation in Ovamboland

By By: Dr. S V V Nambala
May 2010
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THERE is a general misconception that African women have been discriminated upon over the years. However, it should not be taken for granted that it has always been the case. In the Ovambo cultural context women played a vital role and dominated society in many respects.

Examples abound of how men were discriminated upon by women. Four examples, among others, are given here as an arbitrary provocation of cultural debates.

Example one: Among the Ovambo people like it or not, children automatically belong to the maternal lineage. When a man is married, no matter how many children he fathered, they all belong to the maternal clan. The husband would be at home serving as a “slave” to the wife and her children.

Therefore women liked to marry men who are hardworking and strong enough for two main purposes: Produce many children and work for the wife’s clan. A woman who was married to a productive husband was always praised and referred to as “ohambo nomatenga gayo” (“cattle post and its contents”), meaning that she is lucky to find a productive husband who is to produce for the clan.

Example two: When a man has erected a house, there were two important rooms for the woman: Her main sleeping room and kitchen. A husband, in spite of the fact that he built the house, could not enter the wife’s sleeping room and the kitchen without the wife’s consent. If they found him lingering around the kitchen, he would become the talk of the village.

The result was that when you visit an Ovambo man and the wife was not at home, he would tell you “ongame andike ndi li mo, ooyene kaye mo” (“I am present; the owners are not at home”). This means that he could not go to the kitchen and get you “oshikundu.” If he tried to do it and, in the process, found by any woman in the kitchen, then he was termed “a tulwa mo” (“tamed”). When you are said to be tamed, you are no longer viewed as a real man or husband, but a slave.

Example three: All heavy duties and dirty work at home or society were to be performed by men only. Women preferred to do light duties and stay around home. Men had to travel long distances to find food. A man who never went away and travelled afar in search for commodities was considered “half-man” (omukatalume) and, therefore, worthless to be mentioned among “men”.

Example four: When a boy is born at home, women were not happy. Why? Because a man is considered the end of clan extension (omulumentu oshihulilazimo). To show that men are nothing when it comes to lineage extension, the Oshiwambo languages have a pejorative proverb: Mondha kamu zi zimo. Since a man cannot extend the lineage, the raising of boys was deemed an arduous task. Ovambo girls were well protected and guided in the affairs of life by their mothers. For a boy, no one would care even if he did not get anything to eat for the day.

It could be argued that the above examples, indeed, suggest that Ovambo men were discriminated upon.

Following are examples of women’s emancipation in contemporary occupations.

Example one: Ndemupitako Haikali commonly known as Nanguroshi Eeva-Maria Haikali was born in Ombandja tribal region between 1853 and 1856. During the Uukwambi incursion into Ombandja by 1870, a girl was taken prisoner of war and brought to Uukwambi during the reign of King Nuuyoma wEelu (+1875). In 1870/1 the king gave the guardianship of this girl to the Finnish missionary, Pietari Kurvinen, at Elim mission station.

When missionary Kurvinen left the Ovambo mission in 1874, he took Ndemupitako Haikali along to Finland. She became the first known Namibian citizen to go to Finland and Europe at large. Ndemupitako stayed in Finland from 1875 to 1879. While in Finland, Ndemupitako was baptized as Eeva-Maria in 1876 and was confirmed in Helsinki thereafter. She also learned to speak fluent Finnish and acquired other helpful skills.

On her return to Namibia at the end of 1879, Eeva-Maria stayed at Omaruru until 1882. She became one of the key staff members of the mission at Omaruru. There she was also married to Martin Iipinge yaNuuyoma in November 1881.

They had seven children: Jakob, Gabriel, Mikael, Wilhelmina, Henok, Frieda and Fenni. Some of their descendents are also known by the author today. In 1882, the Nuuyoma family moved to Ovamboland and established themselves first at Omandongo, then later at Olukonda. After the death of her husband in 1916, Eeva-Maria who was then old moved to Engela to join one of her daughters Fenni in 1928.

Old age caught up with her and she died at Engela on the 15th September 1929 after 53 years of being a pioneer local Namibian missionary. After her death, the Eeva-Maria Fund was established by the Lutheran Church (ELCIN) in 1964. The patron of the Fund was a Finnish lady called Nadja Auerma. The objective of the fund was to give grants to women scholars. Indeed some women benefited from this fund. Among others were Maria Nakafingo and Ottlie Mookwandje Amadhila who were trained in Domestic Sciences in South Africa through this fund.

Example two: The second example is that of Elizabet Auala yIitono who was born in about 1871, baptized on the 6th January 1884, and confirmed in November 1884. Elizabeth was married to Gideon Uusiku wIimbanga (Iitope) on 30th December 1893. Gideon Iimbanga was born in 1868 and died on 17th January 1915. Elizabeth and Gideon had the following six children: Albertina-Saarlotta (*1895), Rauha-Edla (*1897), Henok, Severus, Laina-Lovisa and Ndeyapo-Oiva.

From 1885 to 1892, Elizabet Iitono was in Finland studying tailoring. She became the second Namibian to visit Finland. On her return to Namibia at the end of 1892, she became a teacher in dress-making. First she worked at Elim in Uukwambi and later moved to Oniipa in Ondonga.

She led the clothing making production and produced clothes from the Ondangwa and Oniipa cotton plantations. Elizabeth Iitono died on the 11th October 1921.

The third and last example is that of Johanna, the daughter of Kristof (*1868), the son of Ndengu. Johanna’s mother was Hanna (*1872) the daughter of Shipombo, Kristof’s first wife. Johanna was born on the 12th December 1901. The siblings were: Jesaya, Jakob, Johanna, Lydia, Simeon, Enos-Nikolaus and Martin.

After the death of Hanna in 1915, Kristof married to Monika Ndengu yaNambahu yaShikongo (*1886). Their children were: Martin-Elifas, Salomo, Abednego-Kristoferus and Sesilia. Again Monika died in 1924, and Kristof married Hilda, the daughter of Shipanga in 1925. They too had children: Hosea, Stefanus, Abisai and Eino-Johannes.

Among the siblings, Johanna was not only a courageous woman, but she was a woman with vision. Although Johanna was educated at Oniipa and Oshigambo in 1920 and 1921 respectively, she wanted to do more.

She had a passion for education and especially teaching. She wanted to become a teacher. But at the time, teacher training was only offered to men.

One day, in search for teacher training opportunity, Johanna sneaked into men’s teachers training class. When she was found out, she gave reasons why she did it. Then she was allowed to stay on and pursued her teachers’ training course without further hindrances. Johanna Kristof was then trained as a teacher at Oniipa Teachers Training Seminary in 1925 – 1928.

After her graduation, Johanna Kristof Ndengu was offered a teaching post at Oshitayi where she taught school till her death. Johanna Kristof Ndengu became the first Ovambo woman to attain a professional Teachers Certificate.

These women and many others pioneered the route to women emancipation in Namibia. Today, in terms of literacy and numeracy, Namibian women are far ahead than men.

The 2001 Population and Housing Census indicate that the literate ratio of women to men in Namibia is: 467 661:427 001 (i.e. 1.1:1.0). I suspect this gap is widening as one observes how the adult education or literacy education continues to attract more women than men.

Women are coming in full force not only in the area of education, but also in positioning themselves in occupying many socio-economic, political, religious and other key positions and roles in society. Men are left behind. They are neither sitting in the kitchen nor in the schools. Where are the men? PF