Male circumcision in owambo

By – Petrus Angula Mbenzi
February 2013
According to information provided by a German writer Hermann Tonjes (1949), while Owambo communities historically used to practise circumcision, it was applied to adults, but reserved for nobility, the wealthy and to those in high office serving the King.

During those days, traditional circumcisers used to charge substantial fees for their services. There were also some cases of death due to circumcision. Young men who qualified for circumcision (“etanda” in Oshiwambo) were escorted by their fathers to the place where the circumcision was to take place, known as “oshombo” or “ontanda”. Circumcision was seen to be a physical and spiritual intervention. In terms of the latter, circumcision linked the young man to the spiritual world of his ancestors to secure his fertility.

Male initiation rituals, “etanda”, or circumcision belonged to the recognised tradition of all Owambo societies of Northern Namibia and it is only from Ongandjera that we have no descriptions of it. At some point in time there does seem to have been circumcision there too, judging from the name of the month of July, “mupita omulumentu”, which translates as “the coming out of men” (elc Nameja, 1385:1934). This was the time of year when circumcision camps were held in other Owambo societies.

A number of neighbouring communities of the Owambo also undertook the practice; the Nyaneka-Nkhumbi, the pastoralist groups of the Herero, the Chokwe, the Zimba, the Hakavona, the Kwanyoka, the Himba and the Kuvale (Estermann, 1981:32 and 1979:50). These neighbours were historically linked to the Owambo. The Nyaneka-Nkhumbi are held to be ‘the progenitors’ of certain Owambo kingdoms, including Uukwambi, Ombalantu and Ongandjera (Williams, 1991:30, 31).

In 1949, Seppo Teinonen, a Finnish theologian, compiled the available information on circumcision among the Owambo. His résumé, presented below, shows that there had been a great deal of variation in the custom. Male initiation was called “ohango jaalumentu”. According to Tönjes it was abolished in Uukwanyama in the years 1885–1890 and earlier than that in Ondonga. Hans Schinz, who travelled in the area in 1884–1887, said, circumcision was in practice in Ondonga earlier (Teinonen 1949).

For several reasons, Teinonen found it difficult to give an exact description of the ritual as very little has been written on subject matter. Most of the information is secondary, and the practices vary from one society to another (Teinonen1949:24). In some societies the ritual was performed at home, in others it was the custom to send the boys to a neighbouring society. The ritual lasted from four days to two months. The age of the boys varied too, Schintz (1891) reported that the boys were 10–12 years, Hahn (1928) that they were a little older, 16–20 years; Närhi, again said they were 25–30 years (Närhi 1929).

According to some sources these rituals were for all boys and to others that they were only for the nobility, in other words, the kingly clan and the sons of kingly. The procedures went as follows; the boys were taken away to a remote place where a camp was erected. No women or uncircumcised men could come close to it. In most societies there was dancing, drumming, magic or other more or less religious ceremonies. The initiates learnt a number of things which included songs from older men hailing the bravery of the heroes of old as well as issues surrounding marriage.

There were many tests of endurance during this rite; for instance, the initiates had to lie naked in the sun. The operation itself varied from one society to another, in some societies the head of the ceremony, who was called “omupitithi” or “ombitsi”, conducted the operation, “epitotanda” or circumcision, on a small stone with a dagger made for the occasion.

In others the foreskin was not taken away, only a small incision was made into it. Some died of their wounds but the knowledge that they were dying in a sacred place consoled them. Most boys returned home in good health and when they arrived home a big festival awaited them. Here Teinonen uses Ondonga terminology. The word “ohango” was more commonly used for female initiation.

(NB: Main Source of information for this article is Marta Salokoski, Loeb, Otto Närhi and ELOK archival information). PF