Discourses and practices of efundula in postcolonial Namibia
In the postcolonial society, representations of efundula continue to play a major part in the Owambo, and beyond in the national Namibian, cultural discourse. This final section of the chapter revisits the silences around women’s initiation that I encountered in the mid-1990s. It then engages with the increasingly public presence of efundula over the past few years, as exemplified in a prime time national TV programme. How do these, seemingly contradictory, postcolonial strategies refashion gender and sexual identities? Do they do this, and if so, where do they continue to be shaped by the colonial dynamics discussed above? I conclude by considering how the reconfiguration of cultural strategies since Namibian national independence in 1990, has possibly impacted on shifting gender and sexual identities.
Before I focus on the multiple discourses on efundula in the postcolonial context, I need to draw attention to changes in ritual style and practice. Many Owambo, especially those of the older generation, speak about efundula ceremonial history in ways that serve to demonstrate continuity. In the different context of Okiek women’s initiation in Kenya, Corinne Kratz (1994:323) has found a similar discourse-based image of ‘tradition’ that affirms continuity. In contrast to the dis-
Efundula: Women’s Initiation, Gender and Sexual Identities in Northern Namibia
cursive assertion that ritual changes have been peripheral, some moves have in fact had profound repercussions for constructions of Owambo gender and sexuality.
In general, despite past and present variations in detail and duration, changes in ritual practices during the ceremony itself appear to be limited. Efundula ceremonies in Oukwanyama now last no more than three days. The days and stages are called okambadjona (the little jackal), ombadyeyakula (the big jackal) and omuuhalo (the day of love). After numerous preparations the initiates are kept in a special hut inside the homestead where the ritual takes place, called the ondjuo, where they are fed by the ritual leader. On the morning of the second day, the young women are summoned out of the ondjuo, one by one. On leaving the hut they have to crawl through the omupitifi’s legs. The ritual leader then presents each initiate with a drink of millet beer mixed with herbs. If she vomits upon taking this drink, it is regarded as proof that she is pregnant, and will thus be removed from taking part in the ceremony. The initiates are also required to step over the fork of a cleft stick (olumana), which is regarded as a second test for possible illicit pregnancy. Following this stage the ovafuko have to pass what has been described as further ‘endurance tests’, that is, continuous dancing. These more public parts of the ceremony involve other members of the community, particularly men and boys who come forward to play the long efundula drums (eengoma), which are only used for the specific purpose of the initiation.
Efundula establishes a valid marriage, even if there is no husband, which is, however, apparently an uncommon occurrence. ‘Wedding’ appears to be the dominant meaning present-day Owambo attach to the rites. Informants described the stage of the rites that involves the initiates’ prospective spouses as significant. The husband-to-be sends a male messenger (ongeleka) to put a palm ribbon around the omufuko’s arm. If she accepts him, she keeps this bracelet. If she rejects him, however, she tears it off. Younger women who had been to initiation more recently told us that the palm ribbon may nowadays be replaced by a ring or a watch.
A significant change with respect to gender concerns the former oihanangolo period, which has been reduced to a symbolic few hours during the efundula, when the ovafuko fake a period of social freedom by moving within the area near the homestead where the ceremony has taken place. After the ceremony the initiates immediately return to their homes, from where they may then leave to live with their husbands.
The oihanangolo stage was previously central to the ceremony when the initiates temporarily assumed ‘male’ gender attributes, which were complemented by the expected ‘female’ behaviour on the part of men, and particularly the oshihanangolo’s future husband. The multi-layered meanings this involved are of particular interest for the analysis of the shifting gendered connotations linked to the ritual.
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