The cultural significance of Omugolo (terminalia sericea)

Omugolo is a shrub that grows in the forests or plains. The name omugolo comes from the verb stem gooloka (literally, to return). The shrub is of cultural significance to the Aawambo. It is used to make the people recover from misfortunes or to wish them good luck.

Traditionally, when one is to undertake a long trip, they go in the oshinyanga shondjugo (the reception area opposite the woman’s hut) to inhale the Omugolo smoke.

The Omugolo smoke is derived from burning the tree’s woods and is used as a ‘safe journey’ magic charm.

Aside from inhaling the smoke, the question: Wa gooloka? is also asked to a traveller after his long journey. It is to appreciate the fact that the person has returned despite the difficulties they might have encountered during the journey. The same question may also be asked when someone absconded returns home.

In this case, the question is used in a connotative sense, because such a person is never ‘blessed’ through the inhaling of the smoke from the Omugolo woods.

This Omugolo wood is also used to ‘bless’ men before they take part in war. They go in the oshinyanga shogundjugo to inhale the Omugolo smoke with the hope that they will not be killed in the war. When the soldiers or warriors are involved in a bush war, they get a day’s rest under the shade of the Omugolo tree, before a battle for protection.

Hunters also inhale the smoke so that they are safe during their hunting escapades.

Omugolo keeps a family together. It strengthens social contacts between neighbours and all members of a sub-tribe. Twigs of the Omugolo are cut and strewn on the floor of a new house. This signifies the happiness that should reign in the new house. The Omugolo seed is also planted in a new cattle pen in the hope that many cattle will be born in the cattle pen.

When cattle have to go to a cattle post far away from a homestead, one of them may be hit with a twig of Omugolo so that they return safely and not be attacked by wild animals. There is a belief that when herdsmen keep a stick of Omugolo, their livestock cannot disappear and should they ever do, they are bound to return safely.

It is also used by Aawambo to treat certain ailments. When one suffers from gonorrhoea or constipation, the leaves or barks of Omugolo are taken to oshini (pounding area) and ground to a pulp. The patient then drinks the concoction prepared by mixing water and the ground pulp to get cured from the ailment.

The roots of the Omugolo are used in the treatment of coughs. One can chew the barks from the roots or the roots may be processed in an Oshini for the patient to drink. The leaves of Omugolo are also used in the treatment of back pains. In the ancient times, women who were infertile drank the concoction made from the roots of Omugolo to boost their fertility.

Omugolo produces resin. The resin is eaten by people, especially men when they are tending to livestock. The goats and cattle feed on the leaves of Omugolo. The game animals also browse on the leaves of the Omugolo. The gum of Omugolo is edible and may be used to glue arrows.

Traditionally, children who have become frequent thieves are ‘cured’ from theft with the Omugolo woods; a parent may take a burning wood of Omugolo and roast the child’s fingers. It is believed that such a child would stop stealing. Alternatively, a parent may put the hands of the child in a furnace of the Omugolo woods. A child who wets their bed is put on the Omugolo ‘dose’ too.

The Omugolo plays a significant role in the birth of a child. A nursing mother is massaged by the mid-wife with barks of Omugolo. The rings of Omugolo barks (iigodhi) are put around the neck, the loins, arms and the legs of the newborn before it is given a name. Two strands of the Omugolo barks are tied around each of the body parts mentioned above. This is an old tradition, but some people still practise it today.

Omugolo is important in the construction of homesteads. The sticks of Omugolo may be used to ‘bless’ a new homestead by the he-gona (an aunt from the fathers side) .She would take four sticks and plant two of them on each side of the entrance. The sticks of the Omugolo can also be used to construct a new homestead.

Some men tie the sticks of Omugolo into small bundles; taa dhingi iihwali; planted into the soil in case there are no big sticks. The Omugolo sticks are more resistant to mite attacks than sticks from other trees that may be readily available. But it must be noted that the Omuhongo sticks as well as those of Onyege and Omuhama are more durable and stronger than those of Omugolo but they are mostly available in big forests (Omithitu). The Omithitu grows far from many homesteads. The handle of the hand hoes are carved from Omugolo in most cases. PF