Cultural symbols: What’s in a Herero flag?

By By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
September 2011
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Today hardly any cultural festival in any of the institutions of higher learning takes place without the traditional drill (parade) by paramilitary warriors in their traditional colours of Green, Red and White flags.

In fact, if one speaks of either the Ovaherero or Ovambanderu, or their cultural inclinations, the three flags are the centre-piece, usually epitomised by paramilitary regalia of khaki, blue, green and other uniforms spotted with green, red or white insignias for men.

Likewise, women would be adorned in their symbolic green, red and white Otjiherero dress with black bodices. The three flags have been associated with these people for as long as they have culturally existed in Namibia. The Green flag goes back to more than 50 years, while the Red and White flags have been there for more than 80 years.

“Maripaka marinjanda,” meaning the flags are for all seasons, joy or sorrow; have been auspicious in their presence as everlasting symbols of unity among these cultural people, especially at important festivals such as the annual pilgrims to sacred places, when celebrating momentous occasions within these communities or honouring a departed bona fide member.

To a subdued degree, this still prevails today, especially at funerals and pilgrims. In the case of a deceased member, one would normally notice any of the three flags occupying a designated roof corner of the house of the departed, or their close senior relative.

But in this age of tribal-cum-political polarisation, fuelled by the new obsession of the recognition of traditional communities, and the exclusion of others from such recognition, the showmanship of the flags at vigils is becoming a cautious matter. More than a right it seems these days, a privilege depending on the departed’s association to the centre of traditional authority, and its attendant traditional army.

Membership of this traditional army, of which the distinguishing symbol is the flag, Green, Red or White, is usually earned by one’s activeness within the community. This is rewarded with a rank title, akin to those in a conventional army. Each member has a membership book which also denotes his/her rank in the traditional army.

In the event of a member’s death other members make a donation, usually N$20 per member, which goes towards the funeral expenses of the deceased member. Thus the flags have over the years been fulfilling more than a cultural function but also providing the necessary material support network. The highest rank one can reach in this hierarchy is of the General Field Marshall.

The Green flag in most modern times is believed to have been introduced in Namibia in the late 1950s when Hijatuvao Nguvauva brought it from Botswana. The white and black colours were added to it overtime.

For the Ovambanderu, the flag is green, white and black and green is the main colour, hence the reference to the Green Flag.

The colour green represents the ever green vegetation of the country and symbolises “the optimism of the Ovambanderu people for their determination to continue living peacefully.”

White which represents light, symbolises “the keen aspirations of the Ovambanderu people for peaceful co-existence with people of other traditional communities”, while black indicates that “the mission of human kind on earth ends with the grave of each person”.

Ownership and control of the Green Flag, which is for the exclusive use of the Ovambanderu community, rests with the community itself through the Ovambanderu Traditional Authority.

The Ovambanderu Constitution provides that the Flag is for use at events “of a traditional or cultural nature such as burials, commemorations of historic occasions of fallen heroes, celebration of victories or successes, festivals at sites belonging or associated with the Ovambanderu people.”

The history of the Red Flag dates back to the late 17th and early 18th century. This was during the Ovaherero-Nama wars when the warring factions would distinguish one another by the red symbols or band affixed to the hat, in the case of the Ovaherero, and the white band in the case of the Nama.

In the aftermath of the Ovaherero and Nama wars, and the emergence of Imperial Germany, the Ovaherero revitalised these symbols which in the meantime had been influenced by their military engagement with German military forces, partly by some of them serving in German armies and also by the paramilitary structures of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which received a great deal of support among the Ovaherero.

The UNIA was organised as a paramilitary organisation with its own ranks, uniforms and titles. But the re-internment of the remains of erstwhile Ovaherero Paramount Chief, Samuel Maharero, in Okahandja on 26 August 1924, after he had died in exile in Botswana in 1923, is said to have greatly revived the wearing of the red symbols, then red scarves, a tradition which has continued to date.

This has been reported to be a resurrection of the Ovaherero army as known during the 1904-7 wars with Imperial German forces, shaped also by their association with the Nama, and the British, as evidenced by the wearing of the Scottish kilt.

Like the Red Flag, the White Flag traces its origin to the Ovaherero-Nama territorial battles. Its genesis proper is the death of an Omuherero eminent person by the name of Mainuwa, who in fact as he was light-skinned and wore no means of identification, was mistakenly killed by his own people, the Ovaherero, during one of the internecine battles with the Nama.

It was shortly after that Chief Willem Zeraeua decreed the affixing of the black and white-spotted feather of a guinea fowl to the hat, since it has seen various transformations from being a white and black flag to its current form of black with white dots.

There have been various interpretations to the revival of the symbols by the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu, and also Nama. Social scientists initially explained it as a means of internalised escapism by a defeated people but later it so transpired that this was externalised, especially among the Ovaherero with the re-burial of the remains of Samuel Maharero on 26 August 1923.

Since then the symbol red has become an important source of Ovaherero association and 26 August has so to speak been a national day for the Ovaherero. Otjiserandu or the Red Flag was then revived to take care of the arrangements of the pilgrim to Okahandja.

The pilgrim to Okahandja, for the Red Flag, and to Okahandja as much for the Ovambanderu where their erstwhile King Kahimemua Nguvauva, is buried, and to Omaruru for the White flag where many of their heroes like their erstwhile King, Willem Zemburuka Zeraeua, and lately, 2004 the reburial of the remains of Michael Tjiseseta, had thus become more than just a cultural affair.

They are cultural-cum-political events to reminisce on the valiant colonial history of resistance of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu, and to seek ancestral spiritual inspiration from it in their future endeavours.

One of them today, is seeking reparation from successor government to the Government of Imperial Germany for the genocide of the Ovaherero people, confiscation of their land and plunder of their cattle.

Due to the tribal-political polarisation that has set in prior to independence among the Ovaherero, and the Ovambanderu, vestiges thereof, or the legacy thereof still manifests today, Otjiserandu (Red Flag), and as much the Otjingirine (Green Flag) and Otjiyapa or Otjizemba (White Flag) has been subdued.

Pilgrims, in whom the flags have been the centrepiece, have of late been engrossed in pseudo political-cum-tribal squabbles as per the political-tribal pole positions of the leading traditional leaders and traditional armies’ generals.

The traditional hoisting of the flags at vigils as honour to a deceased member of any flag has also been affected. Even the monolithic command structure of the flags seems to have been torn asunder with divergent sources of command now even with regard to whether a flag should be hoisted at any house where there is a death in that family.

But of late, thanks to the youth out to reclaim their historical heritage, there seems renewed interest in the flags, with the accompanying drill parades and battle cries being major attractions at many cultural festivals. This cultural revival among the young, one hope, may eventually restore the Green, Red and White flags to their former glory of being the symbols of unity among the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu, and their cultural epitome. PF