The Bride’s wooden chest, a fashionable cultural artifact

In the olden days when any homestead and thereby its wealth was a manly domain, the bride would normally take along few earthly possessions, besides crucially, a dome.

A dome, otjihanda, usually goes along with a wooden traditional vase, Otjipuna. These two items were and are still, to a certain degree, considered the essence of an Omuherero or Omumbanderu womanhood. The items she uses with some earthly wood, orupapa, are the ones which when burnt, produce a pleasant scent.

But times have changed and the bride these days does not leave her homestead with few earthly possessions but with a lock, a stock and a barrel. This necessitates a convoy of vans to fit in her earthly possessions. And as much, a bigger container, hence the idea of a wooden chest known as otjikesa, which these days is a necessary and handy part of the gadgetries of any bride the day she is literally given away. Otjikesa, in this instance, is not to be confused with a coffin that is also known as otjikesa or otjipirangi in the Otjiherero language.

Even if only symbolic, the wooden chest seems to be a central feature of the wedding if not somehow indicative of the socio-economic status of the bride and the homestead she hails from. In fact, tales abound of the bride rejecting a particular chest that would compel her family to pay for two chests. In getting the bride ready for her big day, this wooden chest, specially designed to her taste, if not for her financial wherewithal, may delay the wedding day. No self-respectful family would give away a daughter with her belongings scattered. That would not give a good impression on the in-laws who may, at a later stage, treat her without respect as though she had been gotten rid of her by her family.

For carpenters, traditional weddings have become a lucrative business with tailor-made wooden chests raking in thousands of Namibian dollars with the prices ranging between N$2000 and N$6000, or even more.

But does this wooden chest have any cultural or traditional meaning besides being a more spacious container for the possessions of the bride? A snap survey among the Ovaherero-Ovambanderu community regarding the cultural essence of the chest, has produced mixed results. Some, including women who have been married for some time now, as long as 30 years or so, are not aware of any cultural meanings and the importance of certain practices. Among them is a traditional councilor from the Gam area, Uahororua Uiiue, who says the chest is no more than a container and carrier for the possessions of the bride. In his own experience and days, especially in Botswana where he was born, a simple bag would suffice. A big bag known as mairondopi could then do. But not in today’s traditional-socio-economic settings, hence the chest in its many and varied designs.

For some, the chest has some cultural, if not mere traditional meaning as a symbol of the omnipotence of a married woman in her new homestead. A modern and more prestigious version of its forerunner, the old style steel coffer or suitcase, these days, epitomises the bride in her marital homestead, whether present or absent. The day it arrives within the groom’s homestead, it ordinarily takes its place in the traditional main house, ondjuwo onene, from where it onwards symbolises her presence ever, physically, spiritually and symbolically.

Because of its cultural importance as an embodiment of the new addition to this homestead’s family, it is ordinarily located safely in the main house and away from possible omens that could cast a spell on the marriage. But its storage may not necessarily be in the main house but anywhere safe. Its safe-keeping is also necessitated by the fact that it may contain the wife’s precious possessions. Its presence in the main house has not so much to do with its traditional essence other than that it is the only space available for its storage.

But the day the wife is no more, either through death having done the couple apart, or through divorce; the chest, once again plays a central part as a matter of traditional practice and not necessarily culture. The return of the chest, known as okuyarura otjikesa, together with a cattle, known as ongombe yotjize, cattle of the ocre; dome and a wooden vase, otjipuna and the wife’s other belongings, to her original homestead, traditionally signals the beginning of the end of the ties between the two people and homesteads. The chest is the first item that is loaded onto the pickup in this regard followed by the other belongings. Once it has been safely deposited to the wife’s family, it can only be inherited by her matrilineal family, either her younger or elder sister, or daughters, nieces, etc.

An Omumbanderu lady who has been married for close to 40 years, says besides for its traditional essence, the chest is to the lady of the homestead of some importance. A precious asset where she keeps her valuables and like a safe, something few have access to. This seems a tradition passed on from one generation to another when the elderly ladies would not allow any one access to this chest, let alone reveals its content which remained a mystery to fellow. In this regard it had somehow assumed, unwittingly, a spectra of cultural or traditional mysteriousness, if not sacredness.

While some maintain that the wooden chest had been ushered in by the relative affluence of the Ovaherero-Ovambanderu community and thus has little to do with their culture, another Omumbanderu lady points out to the fact that in the event of a marriage break-up, the return of the chest indeed either culturally or as a matter of traditional practice signals the end of such a union and the official acceptance by the two respective parties of its end. PF