SKULLS: Okahandja is our own Mecca

By Kae Matundu- Tjiparuro
November 2011
“Okahandja ongumbiro yOvaherero,” (Okahandja is the prayer of the Ovaherero).

Okahandja is the centre stage of the culture of the Ovaherero and everything relating to their being culturally revolves around Okahandja.

This can be linked to the seat of their governance historically dating from the pre-German colonial times, up and until their near annihilation by Imperial German troops during the 1904-8 wars of resistance by the Ovaherero and the Nama against German colonialism.

However, in the intervening years after the wars of resistance culminating in the last and major ‘Battle of Ohamakari’ on 14 August 1904, which led to the eventual retreat of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu into the Kalahari Desert, and eventually into Botswana, Okahandja had been conquered by the Imperial Forces and lost as a seat of governance of the Ovaherero.

It was not until 26 August 1923, with the re-interment of the mortal remains of the erstwhile Ovaherero Paramount Chief, Samuel Maharero in Okahandja from Botswana, where he had died four months earlier, that the town started reviving its former glory as a centrepiece in the cultural-religious activities of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu.

The mass convergence of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu in Okahandja for the re-burial of Samuel Maharero - the first ever gathering of its magnitude by these traditional communities since their wars with Imperial Germany - culminated in the annual pilgrimage to the town in homage to Samuel Maharero and many other leaders since him, notably Paramount Chief, Kahimemua Nguvauva of the Ovambanderu, Hosea Kutako and Clemence Kapuuo. To them, one may add the names of many eminent leaders. Okahandja had thus, regained its cultural-religious status that somehow exists till to date.

True to this tradition, it had a role to play with the recent repatriation of the skulls of the Namibian victims of Imperial Germany’s atrocities in the 1896 and 1904-1908 wars of resistance.

Before departing for Berlin, Germany, to witness and receive the human remains together with the Minister of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture, Kazenambo Kazenambo, Ovaherero Paramount Chief, Kuaima Riruako could not neglect to make a brief turn at this holy shrine to ask the ancestors for a safe passage to Germany, and the safe repatriation of the skulls. Equally, on their return with the skulls, as much another sojourn to the shrine was in order, this time around, such a sojourn had an added symbolic significance. While officially, the last ceremony regarding the reception and welcoming of the skulls was the memorial service at Heroes Acre as far as the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu are concerned, the receipt and welcoming of repatriation of the skulls is by no means over.

Within these traditional communities, the repatriation of the skulls has been treated as a very solemn and sombre occasion akin to that of a death in any family. Thus, weeks before the repatriation of the skulls, one could see members of these communities wearing black ribbons as a sign of mourning. Not only this but a week-long vigil was also held at the commando hall of the Red Flag in Windhoek.

“Mevanga okuye kutja ndangi. Ndangi mwatje woruyano rwetu wa Mukaa ku Kunguza. Eyova uriri tjimuna ingo omakwao. Ingo omatupa wazuva munee?”, a mourner led her fellows to a chorus of “oowee, oowee!”, while mourning these fallen heroes and heroines and in a eulogy, Ovaherero Paramount Chief, Riruako was thanked for his instrumentality in the repatriation of the skulls.

As per tradition, any mourning and vigil period is followed by a ritual referred to as okunambirahi ovakazendu, meaning; the official end of the mourning period when the mourning women must leave the house where the vigil has been taking place. This happens early in the morning before sunrise where after the house or room is sprinkled with fresh digestives of a heifer that has been slaughtered for the ritual.

In this event, the vigil for the repatriation of the skulls was held at the Okahandja Red Flag commando where Riruako and the entourage to Germany also reported back spiritually to the ancestors that their mission had been completed successfully and that the remains of some of their fellow forebears are safe on home soil.

Long before dawn as per tradition, the women had already been ritually dismissed from the vigil commando hall, so they had to be seated on the right hand side of the house while the house was being cleansed with sprinkles of the digestives. The next item on the agenda after the mourning women exited the house was the presentation of Riruako and his entourage to Germany, to the ancestors.

Despite female members having been part of the entourage, this was strictly a male ceremony. This ritual was presided over by someone close to the holy fire, Sam Ketjiperue, who in this instance, introduced himself as Omukuetanda wa Katenda and a nephew of Tjamuaha; father to Maharero and the great grandfather to Samuel Maharero.

“I am entering your holy fire so that your children can present themselves to you and those who went to war (meaning those who collected skulls from Germany) can cleanse their feet in the blood of a heifer,” he spiritually connected with his ancestors.

Collecting the skulls has been likened to collecting the bodies of war vanquished thus touching blood, hence the need for cleansing them of that blood and death. This introduction paved the way for Riruako to spiritually report on his and his fellows’ mission to Germany. “We have not left anything bad from where we just returned, although, we encountered many things,” reported Riruako to the ancestors opting rather, for now, to reserve whatever he wanted to say as if he knew the ancestors already knew about his trials and tribulations in Germany.

The spiritual connection with the ancestors was followed by the actual cleansing process whereby everyone in the gathering took turns to take a symbolic bite from pieces of half cooked fore and hind hooves of the slaughtered heifer as well as coal-grilled liver . This is referred to as okusuvira, meaning; one does not actually take a bite or eat anything from these pieces but can only blow air at it symbolising blowing away the death that has visited the family; in this instance, the genocide that occurred in these communities more than hundred years ago.

“We are here in Okahandja - the Ovaherero prayer venue - where we ask for blessings and fortunes from our ancestors knowing that the Lord Almighty wants us wherever we are and in whatever we do, we should first give praise to the ground we stand on,” explained the Ovaherero folklorist, Hiangaruu Veseevete. He added that before Riruako and company went to Germany, they went to Okahandja to appeal for the good fortunes of their ancestors in their mission. Their appeal was heard as their mission was successful as they returned with the skulls home. Thus, it was only proper for them to thank their ancestors again .

He further added that such a ritual should not only be a once-off thing, or confined to holy shrines such as Okahandja and others but each and every Omuherero or Omumbanderu at his homestead, must slaughter an animal to thank the ancestors for their grace in the repatriation of the skulls. He explained that this would serve in ritualising the mourning period that the traditional communities are observing and have been observing with the return of the skulls. PF