Weeping the departed - ETANDO, a cultural form of art

By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
December 2011/January 2012

“Ooweeoowee,” echoes the vibrant voices in chorus but at times solo in myriad differing tones, signalling the sad and sombre mood emanating from the interior of the main house of a homestead, or any other house designated for the vigil.

The ululation is actually a conversation among the mourning women eulogising a deceased through weeping. In the death of one, in the Otjiherero-Otjimbanderu, or Otjihimba culture, a vigil takes place while awaiting the burial. An important aspect of this vigil is a ceremony known as Etando; actual mourning by women. Rarely do men enter into this house. This ceremony, figuratively also referred to as okurira (crying), has been distinctly female. Not that they would necessarily be in a weeping trance of endless tears but they would be having a conversation, sombre, poetic, lyrical resemblence of a murmuring cry to communicate and comfort the bereaved family.

As the news of the sad departure of someone spreads, neighbours, relatives, friends and acquaintances would, in no time, converge at a homestead or house of a senior relative of the deceased. This senior member’s homestead is either one from the deceased matrilineal line in the instance that he is unmarried and or a senior from the patriarchal line if he was married. But, such an assembly is only for when preliminary final arrangements are being made for the vigil. Once the venue of the vigil has been decided upon, as pre-determined according to one`s descent, eyanda and oruzo, a day is determined when the vigil begins officially in the main house. A leading or senior woman linked to the deceased through his patriarchal descent, omuyanua, usually someone who shares the same eyanda as the deceased’s paternal grandfather “opens” the house, for the official beginning of the vigil.

The men would ordinarily be scattered outside the house, in the homestead’s forecourt in groups, in clusters of seniority, by age as well as social status - either by wealth, wisdom or sheer association - or aspiration to either of these clusters.

They would talk, jibe and debate, engage the minds of the bereaved to suspend thoughts of their loss. In turn, the women would crowd the homestead, usually a one-roomed structure, or a designated house if in an urban area. In this house, unlike their fellow male mourners outside, the mannerism of consoling and comforting is not extravagant but more discreet, subdued, tuned down to befit the sad occasion.

From far asunder, people would be converging on the homestead, women filing into the house in droves to comfort fellow bereaved members of their gender. Tueja vanatje va tate, (we are here, my father’s children) the anointed leader, by her seniority in descent, would announce their arrival again emphasising the centrality of patriarchal descent in this weeping ceremony with reference to “my father’s children.”

The introduction is in a typical lyrical and poetic conversing-weeping correct tone, directed, especially to the leading female member(s) of the bereaved family, the one who “opened” the house to register their presence and to share their bereavement. In turn, she returns the salutation weeping: koree kumuazu, kumuarara (tell us where you are from where you cometh and where you slept). Tuazu konganda ya mandumba ohuwa vanda, comes the response, revealing where the delegation hails from without saying the name of the place but through the praise-singing of the place, in this instance, Katutura. And so the weeping-conversation is unleashed.

In the case of death of a husband, the wife, covering her face with a black veil, hence unable to see or know who the sympathisers are. But, through the weeping-conversation, she is able to decode the message and the identity of any delegation. If only by deduction. Mourners would not introduce themselves to the bereaved in the house by their names but through their matrimonial connections for married ones, known as mukaa, meaning wives of so and so, without also mentioning the names of their husbands. Introduction to the bereaved family in the house is thus descriptive and symbolic.

Those familiar with such descriptions, codes and symbolic expressions would be able to decode the coded weeping messages and respond accordingly. This weeping-conversation entails arriving sympathisers and mourners detailing their journeys, difficulties encountered, if any, introduce the driver and praise his driving skills as well as introducing accompanying members of their delegation. If able to weep-converse, the way and tone of weeping conveys a message they would take turns to introduce themselves rather than the lead converser doing this on their behalf. When all members of the delegation have had their turns, it is either back to the leader to conclude and pass it on to the house, or the last in turn shall conclude and do so then choruses of ululation would follow, thereby acknowledging the message and the greetings.

Weeping-conversing is in fact proving to be an art in itself as much as traditional dancing and singing as outjina and omuhiva. In such, toning is very crucial and there are roomed weeping-conversers in this regard. Weeping tones are many and varied as much as the weepers and vigils and the status of the deceased in life. Weeping is but a eulogy of someone, which again depends on their earthly deeds, which enrich such a eulogy. Thus, an amount of tuning, fine-tuning and retuning to fit the nature of any vigil is involved.

But for the young, uninitiated or simply indifferent and detached from culture, mourning is proving to be an alien matter. The seasoned today have learnt by listening in an actual vigil house, taking them close to six months to master it. But, such learning seems to be out of bounds nowadays. Because of disinterest, the young seldom get into the house thus forfeiting a learning opportunity... excuse alone the overcrowding of the house. The Ovaherero Cultural Youth League (OCYL) has since come up with an initiative to run weeping-conversing sessions. The basic for any seasoned mourner-converser is just for the aspirant to know her omurirua, in essence her descent and the praise-singing thereof. For someone married, this becomes her husband’s decent. Also by no means any small matter, is one’s tone and fine-tune this to any mourning occasion or vigil, explains Pekara Kuruuo Kanovengi; one of those who have been preparing young Ovaherero and Ovambanderu mourner-conversers for such a traditional calling.

Compared to last year, Venee Korumbo, Chairperson of OCYL, says the demand for such sessions has been higher this year. Lest they are accused of ominously inviting death among the community by faking death through such sessions, they have ritualised such sessions by offering the ancestors a sheep thereby pleading for their blessings to engage in such sessions for a good cause; the preservation of the Ovaherero-Ovambanderu culture. PF