Modernity threatens inheritance culture

By By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
April 2011
Social and economic organisation in most African communities has historically been on the basis of certain principles, the principles of descent.

These principles define any member of such a clan, community or group as either a relative or kinsman or woman.

One’s relations to any social or economic unit in this regard has not been defined in a narrow western sense of a nuclear family, (a couple and its children) but encompasses an extended group of people from the same lineage or matrilineal.

Members within the group would broadly refer to one another as either brothers or sisters.

In this African cultural concept and context, one’s brother’s children, or one’s sister’s children would relate to them also as father or mother and in turn their children. And their children relate to one another also as sisters and brothers, not cousins.

One’s brother or sister is not only the children of one’s biological parents’ but also those of one’s mother or father’s sisters and brothers..

All these children relate to one another as brothers and sisters and not as cousins or first cousins, as practised in the western culture.

Such descent, based on one’s lineage, would also define succession as well as heritage. “The traditional African family typically includes all individuals belonging to a common lineage,” Vincent Khapoya affirms the African customary practice in his 1998 work titled African Experience.

Similarly, in the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu culture, this lineage is dual, namely the Eyanda (singular) or Omanyanda (plural), which denotes one’s matrilineal descent.

Then there is what is known as oruzo, which is one’s patrilineal descent. This dual system of descent has been the basis of kinship association and familial relations, perhaps more than one’s consanguineous origin and attachment. If one dares trace the family, tree some consanguinity shall eventually be established.

As much such lineages also define succession and inheritance in the Otjiherero culture, that is among Ovaherero, Ovambanderu, Ovahimba and Ovazemba, and other sub-cultural groups.

On succession and inheritance, the matrilineal lineage has been the dominant one as even the basis of one’s oruzo can be traced to one’s grandfather’s mother.

Thus succession and inheritance would either pass on to the homestead’s elder brother, or the homestead’s nephew. In terms of inheritance, there are properties and matters as well as animals that pass on to the deceased’s patrilineal relatives, and those that would ordinarily pass on to one’s matrilineal relatives.

In particular, property and wealth in the Otjiherero culture is inherited matrilineal while religious and ritualistic privileges, mainly the sacred shrine or authority over such a shrine in terms of presiding over rituals, are inherited patrilineally.

But such African custom has slowly been eroding. The contradictions in the interpretation and application of the custom of descent, and tied to this, inheritance and succession, has lately been in sharp focus lately and a subject of public debate among Ovaherero.

Namibian legal instruments do not seem to help the situation much. One such law is the Children’s Status Act, Act 6 0f 2006.

“Despite anything to the contrary contained in any statute, common law or customary law, a person born outside marriage must, for purposes of inheritance, either intestate or by testamentary disposition, be treated in the same manner as a person born inside marriage,” the Act provides.

Where does this law leave Otjiherero customary law?

Hence the debate within the Ovaherero community as far as inheritance is concerned, and the status and relationships between and among children born within wedlock and those born outside.

Not that the Otjiherero cultural practice, or law if you like, has been silent on this. However, in the aftermath of post-colonial modernity, its property relations and legal trajectories, coupled with influences of western decadences, such cultural rationalities have been relegated to the backburners of custom, tradition and modern living.

Among such matters is the legitimacy or illegitimacy of children born out of wedlock. The cardinal question is whether within an African traditional context, of not Otjiherero culture for that matter, an illegitimate child ever existed or do exists? Tied to the issue of legitimacy is the question of seniority of children. Who is senior and thus heir to the father’s estate?

Otjiherero folklorist and cultural historian, Hiangaruu Veseevete, accentuates the factoring of the Ovaherero culture, and likewise their cultural inclination as far as inheritance is concerned, according to three things.

These are one’s mother’s descent, eyanda; one’s father’s matrilineal descent, omunaa, which bestows on one their totem or oruzo; and one’s father’s patrilineal descent, hence the reference to one as omunaa.

These three, determine kinship within the Ovaherero, and thus also inheritance. The Ovaherero hails from seven or eight matrilineal descents, which is omayanda.

Thus any homestead or the head thereof, shall be known or denoted according to such matrilineal descent like Ovakweyuva (people of the sun), to mention but one of the matrilineal descents.

Likewise, inheritance would ordinarily be intra-matrilineal. If the homestead or head of the homestead is, for instance, an Omukweyuva, the heir shall either be his elder or younger brothers as per the Otjiherero context of brotherhood and sister as expounded already. The deceased sons, from a different matrilineal descent as him, cannot ordinarily and customarily be his heirs.

But nowadays sons, especially elder or senior ones, are anointed as heirs, a departure from Otjiherero culture. This has given rise to the issue of legitimacy or illegitimacy of the sons, those born inside and outside wedlock, their seniority.

Veseevete affirms the old-age African, or Otjiherero custom, of an illegitimate child alien to their culture, as stated already.

“Any child born outside wedlock, or to an unmarried mother, his father would legitimise him by the donation of cattle known as katjivereko, which can be likened to compensation to their matrilineal homestead for bringing them up.”

Once this ritual is done they become bona fide children of the homestead or kinspeople with full claim as first heir to his father’s estate, for the son if he happens to be his father’s first born.

But there seems to be no consensus on this, hence the continuing debate with some maintaining the precedence of the son born in wedlock as senior and first heir over and above others born outside wedlock and the ligitimising ritual of Katjiveroko notwithstanding.

Not only this, but others also dispute the fact that such legitimization has been by virtue of the award of katjivereko, saying this is done by virtue of the ceremony of okuhepura ezumo, meaning reporting to the pregnancy to the pregnant woman’s relatives. This, others maintain, is enough a legitimising act.

A testimony to this raging debate is the current leadership battle within the Royal House of Nguvauva, and by extension Ovambanderu, that has pitted brothers, Kilus Nguvauva, said to have been born out of wedlock, and his younger half brother, Keharanjo II Nguvauva, said to have been born inside wedlock.

Such has largely centred on succession to the thrones of the Nguvauva Royal House and the Paramountcy of the Ovambanderu community.

Observers of the Otjiherero culture maintain that by the Otjiherero law of inheritance, based on the dual matrilineal and patrilineal descent of the Ovaherero-Ovambanderu, succession to the throne of the Nguvauva Royal House, and ultimately to the Ovambanderu Paramountcy, should not in the first place have been made a dispute between Kilus and Keharanjo II.

They are not next in line in succession in terms of assuming authority, let alone over the sacred shrine of the Nguvauva clan.

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