Efundula: Women’s Initiation, Gender and Sexual Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Northern Namibia
In the early 1990s I, together with colleagues, carried out research into ‘customary’ marriage in Owambo, northern Namibia. In the course of the research, we were told by a large number of local residents that getting married was primarily a matter of Christian rites. However, many also spoke freely about ‘customary’ aspects of marriage, such as the wedding gift, oyonda, and its part in establishing a valid marriage. Contrary to this, other aspects of what established a ‘traditional’ marriage were conspicuously absent from people’s representations. This was curious. Missionaries, colonial officials and anthropologists who had worked in Owambo from the late 19th century through to the 1960s had emphasised the outstanding cultural significance of young women’s combined initiation cum wedding group rites. Now, none of our informants made even the most cursory mention of it. This profound silence puzzled me. I wondered, what had happened to initiation. Did it still take place?
In 1995, I enquired of several friends and colleagues who had grown up in Owambo at different times from the 1940s through to the 1970s whether women’s initiation was still practised. Some of these women and men had left Namibia for exile in the early 1970s; others had spent most of their life in their home area and had migrated to Windhoek only in the 1990s. None of them, however, felt competent to answer my question. While some suggested that the continuing practice of initiation was unlikely because “today we are all Christians”, others thought that it might still be conducted, but that this happened only in very remote areas or across the border in Angola, in other words, in areas that northern Namibian residents commonly regard as ‘the bush’.
Arnfred Page 36 Wednesday, March 3, 2004 2:38 PM