Confusion on culture, tradition rages on

By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
November 2012
In two earlier editions of this year, we focused on a cultural debate that had been raging on within the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu (and related) communities. This debate displayed concern for the demise, if not the erosion, of cultural practices within these communities.

The discussions, which were broadcast live on the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC)’s Otjiherero Language Service, took place; one at the end of January in Katutura’s Red Flag Commando Hall, Windhoek, followed by another one in Opuwo, Kunene Region, in an area widely seen as the last bastion of the cultures and traditions of these communities.

Among the cultural-cum-traditional issues, the discussions focused on how children were traditionally brought up in these communities, as well as the essence of marriage. This bordered around how spouses traditionally conducted themselves within such a union and how today’s marriages differ from that era.

These were but two of the subject issues of the intense debates. At a recent cultural-traditional event, however, it became clear there are many grey areas within the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu cultures and traditions.

Some of these are the cultural practices that are supposed to prevail in the event of a death within any traditional family or homestead. These range from where the vigil should be taking place; who should convey news of the death to family and relatives as well as who should be amongst the first to be informed of such. Even the mode of notification can be an issue.

Nowadays, death notices or announcements are made through the NBC’s Otjiherero Language Service. As much as this has been a convenient and faster means, it has not been without its cultural trappings and complications.

While a family member may have been informed personally or telephonically of a loved one’s death, having one’s name among those announced through the public broadcaster seems to have special quasi-cultural a status and/or meaning of its own.

Thus, drawing such a list of names requires utmost meticulousness as to whom to include first depending on their relation to the deceased, as well as any other standing issue such as paternal and maternal relations.

Their general standing within the community like whether or not they are leaders also counts. Besides that, one’s financial wherewithal within that community carries a lot of weight and meaning.

This usually dictates the length of a list but the fact that the Service, on its own, dictates as a matter of control, needs to limit the names, because it usually complicates the balance actions of those drawing up the list.

Back to basics: When death occurs in any family or homestead, anyone within a Ovaherero and/or Ovambanderu community has a dual traditional descent and not simply descendant from their parents.

Their parents would ordinarily be members of two different maternal descents known as Omayanda. These normally enjoy some prominence in the event of death, just for the sake of being notified.

Thus, the first consideration is to give them due recognition by directly notifying the head of any Eyanda - maternal grouping. But this may not be enough in view of the assumed status of having one’s name broadcast.

There are also the requisites of who should extend the notifications, which may be the head of the homestead or a holy fire prophet. It’s usually someone from the paternal descent, custodian of the totem or an omunioruzo. The holy fire or ordinary fire also referred to as ‘omuniomuvanda’ is the head of a homestead.

While the deceased’s maternal and paternal descents may dictate who becomes the person in charge of the funeral arrangements and related matters, the homestead where any vigil takes place, known as omuvanda and the head thereof, omuniomuvanda, must sanction anything that takes place around the vigil and the funeral, if only by welcoming the two paternal and maternal groupings into his homestead and giving them the freedom of the homestead.

In fact, he should be the centre around which everything revolves. Even the two descendant groupings of the deceased - their maternal and paternal descents, omayanda - should ordinarily be at the courtesy of the omuniomuvanda, depending on the marital status of the deceased within this homestead before death, or whatever their relation may be to the supreme of the homestead.

Likewise, a female member of one of the maternal groups of the deceased must ritually inaugurate the house where the vigil takes place, known as the okupaturura ondjuwo (opening of the house) where the womenfolk would (especially) be having the mourning vigil. Ordinarily, these death vigil phases are easy and straightforward.

But therein also lie pockets of confusion and indecision relating to some of its aspects. Among these is whether the widow should be veiled or not and when. This question usually arises if the marriage was troubled.

The veil is not automatic; it is solely to signify that the widow remained loyal to her husband through good and bad times. It may also not be enough for the widow to have remained within the homestead with her husband if their relationship was strained before his death. In this event, the husband’s family may decide not to veil her.

Another cause of confusion in these communities’ cultures and traditions is the law. As if to avoid a leadership vacuum, one of the first things that transpire is the leadership succession within the homestead, especially in the case a homestead head’s death.

Two positions come into play in this regard whereby the sons of the deceased inherit the foremost symbols of his authority and leadership, at least traditionally. These may be the holy fire, his hats, walking sticks and guns.

Normally, the holy fire goes from the main custodian to either his elder or younger brothers. In the event that none of the deceased’s brothers are still alive, would the belongings then be inherited by his elder brother’s sons?

As such, what seems like a simple order of succession and/or inheritance, recently turned out to be a bone of contention, consuming close to two hours of verbal exchange amongst parties trying to reach an understanding on what should be the practice, as they kept on coming up with their own versions.

The irony is that those who partook in the debate were elderly community members as well as traditional leaders who should know the cultural-cum-traditional practices within their communities’ best. PF