OTJIHERERO DRESS, AN INDIGENISED COLONIAL HERITAGE

By By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
March 2011
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ANY culture is not static but dynamic, meaning it changes to adapt to new and changed circumstances.

In the process it undergoes a metamorphosis by either assimilating other cultures thereby stopping short of being assimilated or by conquering other cultures and making them its own.

This is according to Dr. Jekura Kavari, one of the brain-child of the Ombazu Heritage Council established last year to resuscitate the Ovaherero culture and preserve it by, amongst others, codifying its aspects and creating awareness around it.

Kavari and company are in the process of publishing one of the bases of the organisation of the Ovaherero culture, their patriarchal or matriarchal descent known as Omayanda.

Recently,a weeklong exhibition of Ovaherero traditional artifacts - utensils and wear as well as various matters of their socio-economic and cultural existence was held.

According to Kavari this preservation of one’s culture is only possible if driven by the owners of such culture themselves like the Ovaherero did with the Victorian dress but which is now an inalienable part of the Otjiherero culture.

He cites the Ombazu Heritage Council’s cultural revival initiative and most importantly the Otjiherero Dress Designers Competition which has become a cultural-cum-commercial institution. Through the annual competition, organisers had set out to popularise the dress, and thereby its preservation.

The dress is an enforced evolution from the traditional leather wear vestiges thereof of which are very much discernible among the Ovahimba in the Kunene Region.

With the advent of latter day western colonialism in Namibia, wearing this leather wear became hazardous as the colonists would willfully shoot the natives proudly donned in this wear partly to break their cultural resistance thus the indomitable spirit against occupation.

In this regard, as a matter of survival, Africans took to the so-called civilised fashion mode, an euphemism for westernised wear.

As the Victorian fashion, in particular the dress, relates Otjiherero cultural historian and folklorist, Hiangaruu Veseevete, shaped fashion mode then, especially amongst colonialist women, African women, including Ovaherero, would understandably take to the fashion of their assumed fashion models and mentors but moreso in the name of survival.

As the fashion started to take root within the Ovaherero culture, it evolves with their cultural dynamics. Naturally the western women, as alien as they were to the scorching conditions of the country, would pair the Victorian dress with matching hats as a shield.

For the unsuspecting African women, this was seen as only a fashion. Unable to afford the western hats they resorted to make-shift hats from ordinary fabrics fashioned like the normal African women’s head garb, ala Ghana or Nigeria, according to the fashion afficianado’s head shape or hair style.

Soon this head-gear assumed in the Otjiherero cultural fashion an eco-cultural dimension in which it was shaped to reflect and imitate the horns of their cattle, then the mainstay of this cultural group’s economic existence. Not only this but unlike the western hat that one could wear off and on at will, the headgear became a permanent feature of the Omuherero woman that she could only take off within the confines of her privacy.

The shaping of the head like the horns of the cattle, a holy animal revered as the only source of livelihood then, effectively heralded the institutionalisation of the Victorian dress among the Ovaherero as cultural indigene.

Henceforth any Omuherero woman reaching puberty, and thus maturity, would be initiated at a special ceremony where a sheep is slaughtered. Such an initiation went with a special code of conduct.

Like the revered cattle that would move gracefully, an initiatee would be expected to imitate such movement. Not only this but the dress itself dignified as it came to be because of its link to a dignified animal, so its wearer came to be expected to behave in a dignified manner. The dress assumed the aura of dignity, shunning anything considered loose and undignified.

Thus, when adorned in this gear, one should as much as possible steer away from shameless and uncontrolled and unchecked social conduct. To date, this is the aura the wearer and its cultural proponents and adherents would want to maintain let alone preserve as part of their culture and as much as a derivative and heritage of western Victorian fashion as it may have been.

Perhaps, in the spirit of Kavari’s cultural adaptation or death, assimilation and conquer, the Otjiherero dress is today going places thanks to the crusade of initiators of the designer’s competition. Admittedly Veseevete was initially apprehensive about the competition, fearing it may lead to radical changes in its design and possibly its wholesome de-culturalisation. But with hindsight he came around to the idea.

If its very cultural cannot drive its modernisation initiative, can un-Ovaherero and thus uncultured designers in the Ovaherero culture actually be trusted with such?

Could this not open the dress, so much a part and parcel of the Ovaherero culture to unscrupulous elements who may at the end of the day prevail over its demise, and that of the Ovaherero culture or perhaps disproportionate the Ovaherero off perhaps one of the few last bastions of their culture?

Having last November just tested the uncharted waters of the Berlin catwalks, courtesy of the Namibian Ministry of Trade and Industry, during which it showcased with other Namibian garments there seems to be just no stopping the ever ambitious organisers of the designers’ competition.

It all started in October 2005 at a full house in the Leisure Centre of the University of Namibia when close to 350 predominantly traditionally elegantly dressed ladies filled the centre to its brim.

Six years down the line the organisers have, no doubt, been casting their net wide and soon Paris, New York or Milan shall no doubt follow suit if the determination of the organisers is anything to go by.

A usual face to this competition since its birth, Grace Kauatjama once again took part last year coveting a third place. With the first edition, in which the designers have to design a futuristic Otjiherero dress, Kauatjama came second after Christa Veii-Beukes.

She has since been part and parcel of every competition as a designer. She does not doubt for a moment that the competition has greatly enhanced this traditional dress. And that it is quickly becoming a must in the wardrobes of various ethnic people, in Namibia and beyond. And a favourite photo shoot outfit among tourists to Namibia. In turn, Kauatjama and others have started to reap off the spinoffs as designers.

Fellow founding organisers of the competition, Inge Murangi, says one of the objectives was to enhance the dress and endear it to a wider audience, especially the younger Otjiherero-speaking generation lest it fizzles and phases out with time.

Onwards one or two of the designers have since set up shops, notable Christa Beukes with Christa B, Creations in Independence Avenue in Ausspannplatz in the City of Windhoek, and Kauatjama renting space at the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) headquarters in Katutura. These are but among the few various designers. PF