Male circumcision in Owambo - Part 2

By Petrus Angula Mbenzi
March 2013
Back in the day, a circumcised man was held in great esteem. He would be given many tasks of honour and was even allowed to join adult men’s meetings.

He could also marry, for he was no longer a boy. (Teinonen, 1949:24–25).

In 1929, Otto Närhi gave another description of Owambo male circumcision, highlighting its function in making an elite of those who went through it: The Owambo boys became adults in former times through the ritual of circumcision.

In the Ondonga and Uukwanyama tribes, it has, however, been prohibited for a long time but in the Ombalantu, it is still practised. It is a secret ritual, which cannot be spoken about with anyone.

It was a big festivity that lasted for many weeks, accompanied by the slaughter of a number of bulls to complement the pomp and fanfare. The circumcision was done on young men aged 25–30 years.

As part of the initiation, the young men would undergo many tests of courage and abstention. They had to go through many tests of physical strength including having to endure punishment. They had to lie in the blazing sun stark naked and bear the cold of the night too.

The circumcision was done very quickly with the splinter of a stone on a bloody piece of hide. The boys had to endure the bleeding afterward without complaint. In some instances, some young men would die from the brutal exercises and the bleeding but they would, in sacred places.

While recovering, the young men would receive food and care. Women were not allowed to come near such places.

Younger boys would be given sacred water and with this ceremony, the circumcised men would be elevated to a caste of their own. They would, thus, be far above ordinary people because they could then marry. (Närhi, 1929:33–34).

Local informants’ descriptions of male initiation rituals do not contradict the details presented by Närhi, nor the variety of ways of conducting the ritual that was brought out in Teinonen’s description: They’d rather complement the information given by the two Finns and give it depth.

Circumcision as a mechanism of creating exclusiveness was referred to by many informants (msc Liedker: On Ondo nga, msc Kandongo, on Uu kwambi, Kaulinge msc on Uukwanyama).

Many also bore witness to the need for a king to be circumcised in the early days of kingship: “Early kings were circumcised. It gave strength to society”, as Vilho Kaulinge said (msc :Kaulinge). Many described the limitations in the ritual power of kings who were not circumcised and no ompampa was erected on their graves.

The general picture conveyed in the literature from colonial times and in the narratives collected in the 20th century, as well as in oral tradition is, circumcision was abandoned before the arrival of the missionaries.

Rautanen reported this for Ondonga (1903: 335). In Uukwanyama, it was no longer practiced after Haimbili (Loeb 1962: 24), who died in 1858. It was abolished in Uukwambi fairly late.

According to the missionary several decades later, circumcision was performed among the neighbours of the Owambo, north of the Angolan border; both as a regular practice of these people and for the Owambo boys from further south (Estermann 1981: 32, Sckär, manuscript: 48, Loeb 1962: 236, Väänänen, fms collection Hpxxxix.1 v.k. 1933–1935: 614).

Circumcision was once thought to give supernatural skills to men who fought in wars – the ability to localise the enemy’s cattle and to move unseen.

Vilho Kaulinge suggests that it was no longer necessary in this context after the arrival of firearms. The advanced weaponry meant that the power of the spirits that circumcised men had been thought to embody was no longer needed. It had been substituted by the power of firearms, which would be traded with Europeans.

The narratives of Liljeblad’s informants substantially elaborate on the spiritual aspect of circumcision, staged in the form of the possessive intervention of Big Birds - oma zila (or omadhila sing; eedhila, eethila).

This aspect is missing in both Närhi’s and Teinonen’s accounts. The Big Birds were called the “spirits” or the “Gods” of circumcision and the narratives describe their function in great detail.

The behaviour of those called upon in male initiation was conspicuously similar to that of the Big Birds in the Uukwaluudhi rain ritual. Their sounds were produced by a bullroarer whirled in the air at the end of a strong rope, or by blowing into an instrument made from the tip of an antelope horn.

The anthropologist, Edwin Loeb, describes the role of Big Birds in the Uukwanyama circumcision ritual in a way that harmonises well with local connotations. The practice was symbolically envisaged as a ritual in which neophytes were eaten by a Big Bird and then defecated from its anus.

Being “eaten by” was a common metaphor for spirit possession in Owambo tradition. “The Birds” were dangerous spirits and it was through them that adulthood was achieved.

Loeb even describes circumcision in Uukwanyama as a secret ritual officiated by men carrying bird masks (Loeb, 1962: 237–8).

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