Is this the beginning of two pilgrims to Okahandja?

The annual pilgrimage of the Ovaherero, Ovahimba and Ovambanderu to Okahandja, like many traditional-cultural practices, has its dos and dont’s.

These dos and dont’s are amplified by the stern and blunt admonition by the word “tjizera”, meaning any action, or behaviour that is not culturally permissible. If one does not heed such admonition, expect ancestral wraths.

The use of foul language in the vicinity of the commando, where the pilgrimages usually camp in Okahandja, is an example. Other punitive acts include alcohol abuse, sex and other social and cultural undesirables.

However, things seem to be changing at a fast and alarming rate. A case in point which may signal the beginning of the end, if not the last signs of the dying throes of the Otjiherero culture, is the recent relocation of the holy fire, or the place where the divine priest(s) welcome pilgrims at the Okahandja Red Flag commando.

The rational advanced for the relocation is that, ordinarily such a holy fire, like any holy fire in a homestead, should be located west in front of the main house in the homestead whose main door would ordinarily be facing westward, where the sun sets, and the backdoor eastward, where the sun rises.

Thus, the holy fire would be in front of the ‘main house’, between the homestead’s courtyard and the kraal. Thus because of this relocation, most pilgrims found the usual holy fire where they receive a holy welcome, courtesy of the divine priest(s) of the Ohorongo totem, in front of the commando house, facing west instead of east. A different divine priest, from the “Esembi”, Chameleon totem, was now in charge of the rituals.

Because of this surprise relocation of the holy fire, this year’s pilgrimage to Okahandja was met with mixed feelings with a section of the Ovaherero community compelled to boycott.

Is this the beginning of the end to the internecine traditional-tribal feuds between the Ovaherero and their leaders, or the beginning of two different pilgrims? One cannot ignore but ask this pertinent question following the incident in Okahandja when a section of the Ovaherero community, chose to stay away.

Under the traditional leadership of Supreme Leader, Chief Alphons Kaihepovazandu of the Royal House of Tjamuaha-Maharero, was compelled to distance itself from this year’s pilgrimage after 88 years the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu have been undertaking pilgrims to Okahandja since the re-interment of the remains of erstwhile Ovaherero Paramount Chief, Samuel Maharero, on the 26th of August 1923, three days after their arrival on the 23rd of August 1923 at the Okahandja train station.

Last month’s column focused on the origin of the three flags, Green, Red and White, and the special and significant role these flags have been playing among these cultural-ethnic groups, especially in fostering unity among them.

In the last edition this very column alluded to the attempts by especially the young generations to take pride in their Otjiherero culture, and to revive it to the extent that many a cultural festivals in institutions of higher learning boasts of paramilitary drill parades by the three flags. If anything, the realignment of rituals in Okahandja may dampen the cultural revival efforts of the youths.

What we are seeing today, is not a cultural difference among the Ovaherero. If seen as such, then this would be superficially so.

Actually it is a manifestation of the simmering politico-tribal feud that has been raging between the Riruako camp, only recognised last year, and fellow Ovaherero traditional leaders like Chief Maharero, Chief Christian Zeraeua of the Zeraeua Royal House and the White Flag, and Chief Paul Tjavara of the Otjikaoko Royal House, to mention but a few.

They, for one, do not recognise the paramount chieftaincy of Chief Kuaima Riruako, as anything more than equal to their own and in accordance with the Traditional Authorities Act of 1995, amended in 2000.

But this supposed equality of traditional authorities as per the Act, endorses an understanding and/or interpretation that because the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA) of Riruako is equal to other authorities, there is no way Riruako can be Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero, a title he currently carries outside the purview of the Act, and within the Ovaherero governance structure. If such a hybrid still exists, then there is something other Ovaherero traditional leaders seem to deny?

But there are some political undertones to the seeming tribal feud between Riruako and fellow Ovaherero chiefs than meets the eye, or the various role players and chief makers would want one to admit. A major influence of these unfolding, and the legacy of the old Apartheid colonial dispensation, which saw some chiefs eating out of the hands of apartheid, and those against it labelled troublemakers, and given a hard.

With independence, the perseverance of the so-called trouble-making leaders, especially among the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu community, seem to be rewarded automatically with official recognition by the Government, while others to date remain unrecognised.

This partly has been part of the problem, the rumblings thereof which has been manifesting itself in pilgrims to Okahandja, with differing claims among the competing traditional interests as to who are the legitimate guardians and authorities of the pilgrim to Okahandja?

Thus because of these historical tribal-political rumblings, the programme for the pilgrim to Okahandja has been a tussle between the competing interests.

The Riruako group is claiming legitimate authority over the event and its programme by virtue of this event being an Ovaherero event, and thus properly belonging under the authority of the Ovaherero Paramountcy.

On the other hand, Maharero-Tjamuaha clan, by its consanguinity to Samuel Maharero, and the convention of it having prevailed over the holy fire and the rituals all these years, 88 years in total since the first pilgrim, have equally been claiming legitimate authority over the events and its programme.

This in a nutshell is the background to the recent relocation of the holy fire at Okahandja, which can be seen more as an attempt by the Riruako section to dis-empower and delegitimise the Maharero-Tjamuaha clan. Hence not only the relocation of the holy fire but its divine guard from the Ohorongo totem, which is the totem of Chief Maharero and company, who have not been well disposed towards Riruako and company and his paramountcy, to the Esembi totem, whose members seem more well disposed towards Riruako and his paramountcy.

In certain circles the latest development in Okahandja of the relocation of the holy and change of divine guards, is being interpreted as the last straw and henceforth two pilgrims may emerge. Whether this may eventually emerge as a scenario, and how it would affect the sacredness of the shrine, remains to be seen.