The powers of Omuyanua of casting away death

By By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
May 2014



Is Omuyanuaa stranger and an intruder who does not deserve the honour and esteem often bestowed upon him within the Otjiherero culture, to the extent of even in some instances inheriting the main bull in the homestead’s kraal in the event of the death of the homestead’s head?


This is the pertinent cultural question that has lately been asked, albeit occasionally, and which has been occupying and continues to occupy many aging men-folk at traditional vigils, like it was the case in the village of Otjonguvi in the Okakarara Constituency during a funeral not too long ago. But far from the traditional roles that the Omuyanuahas been fulfilling being eroded and getting outdated,  it seems  more than anything such a question is prompted by  the high prices bulls are fetching these days, even running into a quarter of a million Namibian dollars. Many may recall the bull named Hennie which farmer Albert Tjihero bought last year from Danie Bothas.


This is too good to be true to allow a hitherto distant and little-heard-of  so-called relative to appear out of the blue entreating ones’ homestead in the event of the death of the head, and to get away with such a handsome if not lucrative booty of a bull for only carrying out some mystic traditional rituals. And it is the changing material dictates, and the attendant greed of the times that had these aging men-folk spellbound for almost the whole day at Otjonguvi, driving them to argue endlessly for almost a whole day about the essence of Omuyanuawithout, at the end of the day any closure on the matter.


But Omuyanuais by no means a new institution or cultural phenomenon within the Otjiherero culture, nor is it near to becoming a cultural relic but has for very  long been with their traditional, customary and cultural being as long as the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu. The practice has been in existence and can be traced back to the maternal and paternal origin of these cultural adherents, in the same vogue of the practice of ouramue, whereby the son and daughter of a brother and sister may enter into marriage. As much the Omuyanuaphenomenon is as old as the practice of okuyepisawhere by cousins may offer one another the conjugal pleasures, albeit for one night, of each other’s spouses.


Anyone being a descendant from the Otjiherero culture is defined by one’s maternal descent, which is eyanda, referring to the maternal descent of one’s mother, the maternal descent of one’s father’s mother, denoted by omunaa kuayeas well as the maternal descent of one’s grandfather’s mother, nguyanenua movakuaye. It is the latter that denotes omuyanua, meaning the maternal descent of one’s grandfather’s mother from his paternal side.


In the Otjiherero culture, in the event of death of anyone, Omuyanua, especially a male, presides over a host of rituals, which include the inauguration of the vigil, referred to as okupaturura ondjuwo(opening the house where the vigil is to take place); pointing out exact location where the grave is to be dug in the graveyard; being the first to intern the deceased by throwing the first sand into his or her grave after the preachers have done so.


After the burial, the cleansing of mourners follows especially those who have been to the graveyard. This is done using a special concoction from the tree branches of a wild berry tree, water spit from his mouth or from a cup; disposing of the ashes of the fire where food has been prepared; dismissing the vigil after the burial. These days a day or two after the burial while in the olden days the mourning used to extend to a month or more; and also to cleanse the immediate family members of the deceased at a special ceremony the morning of the day when the vigil officially ends.


On this occasion a cow is slaughtered for this purpose and the muscles, liver and hoof is cooked for this ceremony known as okusuvira,meaning one should not eat these pieces but only blow them. Any other meat slaughtered from an animal slaughtered previously as a rule must be consumed and finished as meat from the two slaughtered animals must not mix. Also the digestives of the slaughter animal are applied by the same Omuyanuaon the foreheads of members of the extended family who have remained behind a day or two after the funeral in a ritual that goes parallel with okusuvira, known as okuhuwa otjandja. The same digestives are sprinkled by the very Omuyanuain the house where the vigil has been taking place.


The process described above is only applied to the men-folk while to the women-folk, some fat, omaze, is applied to them similarly by a female Omuyanua. Before such application of omaze(fat), members of this homestead who have been bereaved are not supposed to bath. Likewise the Omuyanuaalso attaches black ribbons to such family members as a sign that they have been bereaved, and while wearing this black pieces of clothes or ribbons, they should not wander around and away from the homestead, until such has been removed on the day when the vigil is declared over, and the ladies are dismissed out of the vigil house.


This happens early in the morning before sunrise when the women who have been engaged in a mourning ceremony within the house known as etando, emerge from inside the house and sits on either side of the house. On which side of the house depends on whether it is the head of the homestead who has passed on, when the ladies once dismissed from inside the house must sit on the left hand side of the house, and if the deceased is a woman or child they must sit on the right hand side of the house with the front door of the house facing towards sunset, west. Also in the urban area where usually there is no slaughter animal, and thus no digestives to sprinkle the house with, the Omuyanuadoes this simply with water.


Besides applying the fat to fellow female mourners, the female Omuyanuais also responsible for rearranging furniture inside the house to make space for the etandoceremony (mourning), as well as being responsible for the distribution of the personal possession of a female deceased in a ceremony known as otjipirangi, meaning the casket. It is so named because usually Ovaherero and Ovambanderu ladies keep their treasured possessions in a wooden chest, which is actually one of the very few earthly possession in which they used to carry their belongings along when joining new homesteads upon marriage.


In an urban area Omuyanuadoes the cleansing of the house where the vigil has been usually with water, while  one of his other important roles in this era when a deceased has to be taken back to the village, he has to accompany him in the car carrying the casket. All the same eyandaplays an important role on the last rite of the deceased when he or she must be accompanied be it in the car carrying a casket or the car immediately following the casket there must be three or four different women, all related to the deceased in terms of descent according to the various. This, in a nutshell defines the importance of Omuyanuain the Otjiherero culture, rituals meant to cleanse any bereaved family of death and to keep such at bay so that it does not visit such a family again for a foreseeable time. Legend has it that once the Omuyamuahas presided, death would normally stay away from such a family for up to six years, cast away by his powerful self over death as the supreme of the homestead being progenitor of the homestead’s head who have passed on.


In this sense an Omuyamuais a pivotal person in the Otjiherero culture, and not a mere stranger as some would assume or wish to argue. He or she is a direct descendant of any family, and or deceased who when called upon has to assume his rightful position and call to duty. Is not every Tom, Dick and Harry who is called upon to carry such a ceremony, nor is he or she restricted bound by age to fulfil such rituals as in the event him being under-age, a proxie stands in for him or her. 


With respect to the bull when the head of the homestead passes on, theOmuyanuawould drive the main bull away, also as part of the ritual of casting away death from this homestead, and allowing it to start afresh. After years if such bull may have gotten calves within his homestead he may decide to take back one as a bull to the homestead of his deceased “son” to give it a fresh start. Also the Omuyanua would declare the holy fire extinguished, kuayambururua, by removing the thorn bush which protects it to at a later stage re-initing it for handover to the designated presider over it, usually the first born son of the deceased, or his brother’s first born son.


 In the Otjiherero socio-cultural practice, Omuyanuais thus seen as having the supernatural powers to cast away death so that it does not befall any homestead and its residents. Thus he or she is a powerful and Very Important Person and not the assumed stranger. PF