Is the tradition al holiness of okahandja on slow erosion?

By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
August 2012
“Okahandja ongumbiro yOvaherero,” reads a line from the lyrics of a popular traditional dance similarly titled by dancer-singer, Joda Hengua, which literally translates into English as “Okahandja is the holy shrine of the Ovaherero”.

Many a traditional dancers have fallen in line to sing about this holiness of the town. And lately, Oviritje singers have joined the bandwagon.

The dancers and singers are not without their reasons. One of the events the town has been known for is the annual pilgrims of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu. This is to pay homage to the historic graves of such Namibian patriotic greats like Tjamuaha, Maharero, Kahimemua Nguvauva, Jan Jonker Afrikaner and Hosea Kutako, to mention but a few. All are heroes from the wars of resistance against Imperial Germany.

As recent as 2008, Chief Kandjanatazombua Tjiho, who led his community, the descendants of the survivors of the great wars of resistance against Imperial Germany from Botswana to temporarily settle in Gam, had been interred in this very town. And most recently, May this year, Chief Alfons Kaihepovazandu Maharero, of the Royal House of Maharero – Tjamuaha and great-great grandson of the Maharero, joined his forebears there.

Traditional leaders such as Tjamuaha and Kahitjene wa Muhoko went to Okahandja in 1800 to establish themselves there. Chief Tjamuaha was the father of Chief Maherero, who was known to be the great leader of the Ovaherero. Jonker Afrikaner moved to Okahandja in 1854, where he later died.

Two Ovaherero and Ovambanderu eminent personas; Kahimemua Nguvauva and Nikodemus Kavikunua, were captured by the Germans in Gobabis, shot at Cross Barmen and were buried at the Bantu Kirche, off the current Martin Neib Street in Okahandja.

On the 12th of January 1904, the Ovaherero rebelled against the German occupation in the very same town of Okahandja. These are but few of the historic footprints of these communities in the town, hence its historicity and accompanying sacredness, prompting oral historians and praise singers-cum-dancers like Hengua to solemnise the town in their song-dances.

But more than anything else, the town started to derive its sacredness as has come to be known over the years from the re-internment of the remains of erstwhile Paramount Chief, Samuel Maharero. He died on 14 March 1923 in Serowe, the capital of the Bamangwato people in Botswana. However, his remains arrived in Okahandja on the morning of 23 August 1923. It was Chief Samuel Maharero’s wish that he be buried in Okahandja alongside his ancestors.

On 26 August, three days after the arrival of the remains in Okahandja, he was re-interred. It took three days before his re-internment to allow the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu from all over the country to go and pay their last respects to their erstwhile paramount chief. In fact, when news of his death broke out, pilgrims started streaming towards Okahandja.

About 2 500 people of a population then estimated to have been reduced to only 20 000, were recorded to have attended the funeral. But it was more than a funeral.

“At the funeral of Samuel Maharero, the various strands of Herero society that had emerged in the aftermath of the war came together and, through the process and ceremony of burying Samuel Maharero, were woven and drawn together to make up, for the first time in history, a unitary Herero society,” writes Jan-Brat Gewald in his book, Herero Heroes.

History has it that between 1890 and 1923 Ovaherero and Ovambanderu society was destroyed and rebuilt. The first notable destruction emerged with the fall and conquer of Okahandja, which started properly with the declaration of war against German occupation in 1904. With the re-burial of the remains of Paramount Chief, Maharero in 1923 in Okahandja, these communities saw a golden opportunity to reconstruct and re-awaken culturally and otherwise, by among others, going back to the old ways of their ancestors.

One important occurrence, which heralded the conquer of the Ovaherero, was the intrusion of a camel in the homestead of Maharero, which was seen as an omen and thus the sign of the beginning of the conquer of the community. This occurrence was followed shortly by the death of Maharero.

Thus the re-burial of Samuel Maharero in Okahandja was seen as the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu’s proper renaissance. Thus every year on 26 August, or any weekend close to that date, since 1923, on a day that has come to be known variously as the Red Flag Day, Maherero Day or Heroes Day since Independence, hundreds have been converging in Okahandja to pay tribute to their fallen heroes and to pray by summoning their ancestral spirits, hence, Okahandja is one of their holy shrines, if not the holiest shrine or place of prayer.

Somehow, the sacredness of the day and the town has been diminishing over the years. As far as the Ovambanderu are concerned, the annual pilgrim in June has been on ice since the death of their Paramount Chief, Munjuku II Nguvauva in 2008 and the ensuing wrangling over his successor, pitting against each other’s factions of two of his sons; Kilus Nguvauva and his younger brother, the late Keharanjo II Nguvauva - and, subsequently, between Kilus and Keharanjo’s mother, Aletha Karikondua Nguvauva, who succeeded Keharanjo II when the latter passed on last year.

As much as the Ovaherero have had their share of traditional family feuds and turf battles over Okahandja, the tussling reached an all time low last year when a section of the community aligned to Paramount Chief Kuaima Riruako relocated the place where the traditional symbolic fire is lit and rituals are carried out from “behind” the Red Flag commando hall to its front.

Customarily, the holy fire in any homestead is between the main house and the kraal with the house facing west. This relocation did not carry the approval of a section of the community. Notably, under the late Chief Alfons Maharero who had been among, if not the leading or main diviner in Okahandja, he felt they were not recognised in the decision to relocate and the eventual relocation.

These rumblings and many other mishaps in the communities had been seen as a curse on the two communities needing spiritual divine intervention. This came via a dream by a woman in the community who was directed in her dreams to approach one of the traditional diviners, Amon Tjatindi.

The dreamer was informed in her dreams that a divine spiritual intervention was necessary to avert deaths of traditional leaders within the community. As if to amplify her dream, deaths had already been visiting the communities starting with the death of Munjuku II in 2008, Keharanjo II in 2010, Kaverirua Hoveka of the Hoveka clan in 2010 and Christian Zeraeua and Kaivepovazandu Maharero this year.

Tjatindi already convened his first interventionist meeting on 25 May this year at his homestead in the village of Kalkpan in the Epukiro Constituency. The idea was for diviners to converge in Okahandja in June to summon the ancestral spirits for their divine intervention. But this pilgrim is yet to come, if it ever will materialise, seeing the June deadline has come and gone.

Are more deaths of traditional leaders to be expected on these communities? What more mishaps await them? Who knows? Perhaps more would be revealed to the communities through another dream. That is if nothing comes of current attempts by Tjatindi to lead fellow diviners and elders to Okahandja in a special divine pilgrim. As matters seem now, looks like the pilgrim in Okahandja this August may take place amidst the controversy and division that has lately come to be manifested by the relocation of the ritualistic fire place. PF