Okuyepisa, is there a real concern, or yet another hegemonic chicanery?

By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
April 2014
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Okuyepisa, a practice that is still to a certain degree alive today, especially among cultural adherents of the Ovaherero, moreso the  Ovahimba sub-cultural groups of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu,  a cousin  would step aside to allow his cousin or guest to enjoy conjugal sexual favours with his wife, be it only for one night or once-off.


This practice has been known as okuyepisa, an adverb of the verb yepa, meaning ducking or okuyepa, act of ducking. When one thus yepisa,this means causing to duck. In the context of okuyepisathis means offering one’s spouse to one’s cousin so that he/she temporarily enjoys her/his conjugal niceness. Towards the end of last year, a debate on this cultural practice  broadcast live on the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC)’s Otjiherero Language Service, courtesy of the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC),  unleashed a debate, which has been raging since, not only among the Ovaherero-Ovambanderu communities but in the whole society.


This is not only whether the practice is archaic and should be outdated but also because of the health hazards such a practice may pose, especially in this age of HIV and AIDS which is transmitted mainly through unprotected sexual engagement.


The debate particularly spread throughout the entire society following an article in a local English daily. “Chief encourages sharing of wives with friends,” screamed the headline in the said daily, one of the few rare occasions the Chief of the Otjikaoko Traditional Authority, Uziruapi Tjavara, had the privilege of the front pages in one or the other  local daily. When and if he ever shall again enjoy such front page coverage, remains to be seen.


But one thing for sure is that the practice seems to have been misunderstood, at even misrelated by many, even by, and in the media that seemed to have had a field day on the subject following the purported defence of the practice by Chief Tjavara. The glaring ignorance, if not sheer prejudice of the daily about the practice is clear in the headline, which is talking about “sharing of wives with friends”. How many friends a husband would have, and who would enjoy such favours with his wife or spouse remains something for conjecture. 


But one misperception about the practice being trumpeted, deliberate or maliciously so because of ignorance, is that it has mainly been forced by men (husbands) upon women (wives). However, it transpired during the same live debate, which was followed by another one at UN Plaza in Windhoek, that indeed women could and can also do the same. The same? What is the same? Does it mean that a wife can tell her husband that she his conjugal privileges are only temporarily on suspension on the particular night of the visit of the honorary cousin and guest?  Or would this only be the case when the husband chooses to stand aside for his own cousin?


This is a matter which needs clarification.  It also transpired that if a wife so chose, she could behind closed doors refuse to accede to her husband’s benevolence, or dictates, whichever way one may see it. But the pertinent question during the debate was to what extent, and how a wife, given her position of powerlessness, and hitherto her assumed weak physical disposition deny or resist her husband’s or spouse’s culturally sanctioned sexual favours extended to his or her cousin? Behind closed doors where the “guest of honour” may be able to force himself upon her and overpower her?


Whatever the argument may be, for and against the practice, and the debate is likely to continue. Not everyone may have been aware of the essence of the practice, until and during the live debate where Chief Tjavara, and others tried to inform about the origin and essence of it, and to contextualise and deposit it within the socio-cultural, and perhaps also economic milieu of the Ovaherero, Ovahimba and Ovambanderu, and other cultural sub groups of the broader Ovaherero. Ordinarily, unknown to their parents, adolescents would meet at secret rendezvous when they would engage in multiple relations.


Thus when one marries into a family, it did not mean the end of that previous relationship. Thus when the ex visits the homestead, in which her/his ex has now been married, her husband or his wife as the case may be, would hospitably give way to fellow cousin, who would be an esteemed guest by virtue of him/her being cousin to the husband/wife. Thus he/she may have the freedom of her or his cousin’s home, and as much the wife or husband. This, ala Chief Tjavara, was meant to keep peace within the clan, as well as keep jealousy smoothened.


This is unlike today when suicides and killings seem the only option when double, multiple or extramarital affairs, call it what you like, are revealed.  “This is our old culture, it has no other ulterior motives than keep jealousy in check. The same jealousy which today is leading people to hang themselves, kill spouses and children and then self,” determines Chief Tjavara. “These things are our culture we find it like that and with only that single purpose, dear fellows!  We find it like that with our fore bearers!” Tjavara tries to explain the practice further, emphatically adding that “we do not have a problem with it. My partner that we sleep together is mine but when a brethren is around, he can have her. We do not have a problem with it.”


“The only threats to this practice are the modern day diseases. Okuyepisais something coming from time immemorial, that we have been born with but now slowly and slowly it was being stalked by different menaces through diseases that you have brought into the country,” laments Tjavara. He adds diseases which entail suicides and the killings of wives, coupled and driven by jealousies. The traditional leader is at pains pointing out that there is no material gains attached to the practice but it is something born out of pure African love. “He is my flesh and blood from where we hail back in age. We come together and have been created together, and he cannot come into my home and be found wanting and lonesome.  Nothing is given in return for such favours but this is done out of pure dignity because he is the son of an aunt or daughter of an uncle and he should not come into your home and be wanting.”


The debate has evoked mixed reactions with some gunning for the wholesale abandonment of the okuyepisacultural practice, while some feel that the practice is intrinsic to its own communities, and thus needs adaptation but discarding it would a non-starter. In fact the very communities that have remained the cultural bastion of the Ovaherero, were adamant that doing away with it is only the beginning towards a cultural harakiri. In fact as one cannot ignore the health hazards the practice may pose to its practitioners, as much one cannot agree with discarding it, which seems to be the motives of those purporting to have the culture, and the health of these communities at heart.


As much as the traditional leaders appreciated, and were aware of the diseases that have come be coupled to the practice, of which for that matter the causal link of it and the diseases in question have as yet to be established, their suspicion that such diseases have been imported only to kill their practice, was clearly discernible. Not to mention the fact that as yet they are not prepared to part with the practice, perhaps to the dismay of their cultural detractors posing as well-meaning philanthropists. But the debate must continue. PF