Circumcision, marriage, social etiquettes ala Otjiherero culture spotlighted at IUM

By By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
December 2013/January 2014


Circumcision may hitherto have been or seem to have been a straightforward matter, more so in this age where hygiene is of essence in the face of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. It is a prevention tool against the scientific findings that it can reduce infection rate of up to 60%.


But in the Ovaherero culture, circumcision has come to be more than a mere surgical operation for hygienic considerations. Onganga Tjitavi Kambausuka, a praise singer, historian and traditional surgeon specialising in boys, and even older men. These days  this kind of surgery is becoming, popular with those who may have missed circumcision in their teens. They are now queuing up to be hygienised or even culturalised, if you will. 


Kambausaka is part of a formidable team of traditionalists, culturalists, folklorists and psychologists who have been reined in by students of the International University of  Management (IUM)’s cultural society, Otjiwana, to share with the cultural intrigues of the Ovaherero.


The gathering intends to not only educate and make the young academics aware of their culture but also to remind them of the cultural ways of their predecessors, and inculcate such cultural values and ethos in them make an impact, and to further culturalise them lest they are eroded and lost.It is feared that should this be the case , it may signal the demise of this once culturally intractable community. 


Otjiwana could not have opted for a better informed and seasoned eclectic team, added to the presence of a respected surgeon, Dr Jekura Kavari, and an Otjiherero linguist, lecturer and expert with the University of Namibia (Unam).


As if this is not enough, Dr Kavari is an avowed adherent and practitioner of the Otjiherero cultural and traditional practices. He hails from the Kunene Region, more especially the former Kaokoland, to date still the natural habitat of the Ovahimba and thus,  in a way, the last cultural bastion of these communities, even more so because these days of the wholesale of the indigenous to the assumed better or superior cultures such as the Coca Cola culture.


No wonder culture and tradition comes naturally to Dr Kavari and his like as do the Otjiherero language, he does not only happily speaks but has perfected academically to obtain a PhD therein.


Then there is Johanna Maendo, a traditional-cum-cultural stalwart with an unbroken link with her native Kaoko, modern day Opuwo Constituency. Any cultural-cum-traditional expedition cannot be complete without cultural historian, teacher and folklorist Hiangaruu Veseevete.


Psychologist and lecturer at Unam, Dr Mara Mberira, and chairperson of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu Genocide Foundation (OGF), Utjitua Muinjangue was in attendance. In their own special way they added icings to the cultural-cum-traditional cake.


But back to circumcision as per Dr Kambausuka, in the Ovaherero culture as it was then. Any boy starring this all important traditional initiation ceremony needs to be prepared well,  religiously, traditionally or culturally,  however you may view and read it.  Before the actual initiation, referred to as Otjivetero, and which has also been linguistically and erroneously referred to in the Otjiherero language as okupindua, which when literally translated into English may mean castration.


Before undergoing this important surgery, the boy must   undergo all kinds of cultural undertakings. This can start from his early childhood his mother applies some milk from her breast to his tender male organ.


This apparently means to make it tender during the surgery long after he undergoes such surgery. This is to cleanse it from undesirable substances associated with an uncircumcised penis. This is besides for the fact that a foreskin so treated becomes easy to remove during the circumcision operation.


The initiate must be administered with a special ointment from a special tree known asomuvapuwhich bears wild berries. This ointment is known as ondomo. The homestead’s elder must chew such peels from such tree branches and then the concoction thereof, which has become Ondomo andis applied on the forehead of the boy, his private parts and the G-zone if you like.  Also the boy must pass by the holy fire or, or if there is none, pass through the homestead’s courtyard where the elder will appeal for blessings from the ancestors.


The idea behind all these activities is to ease the circumcision operation with Tjitavi as per the testimony of Dr Kambausuka. According to Dr Kambausuka,  some difficult operations which he has had has added to the mystique of the ritual, and to the conviction in its mysticism, especially in the urban areas where more often than not such rituals are bypassed.  But all in all, the raison détré of circumcision, according to Tjitavi, is hygiene. Being naturally nomadic cattle herders, as pastoralists Ovaherero herdsmen would spend long spells away from “home” with little access to water for bathing.


Thus, in such instances, an uncircumcised penis would not be much of a nuisance. But based on hygienic considerations, circumcision has become a cultural institution in its own right, with boys circumcised in the same period, which is usually three years, clustered in peers groups.


Such a cluster is usually identified by a major happening in and around the period in which the boys have been circumcised, such as the death of prominent member of this community.


A typical case in this regard is the Hosea Chief Hosea Kutako peer group, so named denoting the death and burial of the Ovaherero Paramount in 1971. Most recently, in 2011, with the return of the skulls of Namibian victims of German genocidal wars, another peer group has been created that will cover boys circumcised between 2011 and 2013. 


Any such cluster or club has its rules and social etiquettes, which apply to all who have been circumcised during this period. If one has undergone such a surgery one thus automatically becomes a member. The etiquettes include peers refraining from swearing at one another, or even the parents of one peer or another, because the parents of a fellow peer are considered also parents of all peers who are members of the club or cluster.


Also no peer may have a relationship with the daughter of a fellow peer, as she is also his daughter. As such it is a sanctioned offence for a peer to have an affair with the wife of a fellow. High respect underpins any interaction between the peers, and fighting  among them is not sanctioned. The defiant peers may pay a heavy price, possibly in small or large stock.


One after the other the traditional experts fall in line sharing their traditional-cum-cultural protégés, mopping up the cultural-cum-traditional as well as the psychological minefield touching on best practices then. The many aspects of culture and tradition, such as how boys and girls were brought up from cradle the grave, and in between childhood, teenage, puberty, marriage, and language usage.


The students, a sizeable crowd though not a full house,  in  true vogue and style if not in the spirit of the occasion, with a sprinkling of  some female student members of Otjiwana,   proudly adore  in traditional gear, the trademark Ovaherero dress, and its accompanying head garb, known as otjikaiva, hear the finer points of culture and tradition. Their admiration and mercerisation of the good old days of a proud a culture and tradition, untainted by the trappings of modern development, or would you say, civilisation, is unmistakable


Among them the old wise men and women share with their younger fellow culture as it pertains to traditional marriage and the practice of Ondjova. This practice has been likened to or commonly interpreted as the equivalent of Western conventional honeymoon; the intricacies and extent of the Otjiherero language; the soul (is it an Omuherero cultural soul in this instance?); the matrimonial descent of any Omuherero, known as eyandaas well as the peer practice, oukura, meaning boy children circumcised in the same period as well as the practice of initiation into puberty, known as ouramwe. And to wind up, students are introduced to Genocide and Reparation.


Needless to say these are a mouthful of topics from cultural and traditional practices that have evolved over centuries. Can those entrusted with conveying their essence to their lesser initiated fellows do justice to them in just about two hours? After two hours, and with darkness having descended, it becomes obvious that covering satisfactorily such varied and extensive cultural-cum-traditional aspects is not possible. But the little that the students have been able to gain is a mouthful, given their borrowed time and venue, if not a good starter, at least until the next available opportunity.PF