tain ritual ‘tests’ that the member of the younger generation had to pass. While the ethnographic silence about female ritual leaders may be partly due to the colonial omission and outright non-recognition of women, who were regarded as an anomaly in any positions of power, it may also be more in line with an overly het – ero-sexualised presentation of these ceremonies, especially by the Christian missionaries, whose allegations include practices such as ritual masturbation and the ‘doctoring’ of millet beer with semen (cf. Tuupainen 1970:48).
Transitional periods of about six to eight weeks in Oukwanyama, or even three to four months in northwestern Owambo followed the rites in the first half of the 20th century. During this “period of social freedom” (Bruwer 1959:119) the initiates were known as oihanangolo (‘white things’, as they were smeared with white clay and ashes), or as ovamati (boys). This ritual stage encompassed gender inversion, where the young women temporarily moved into ‘male’ roles. They assumed the names of great warriors, and were regarded as being possessed by the spirits of their namesakes. Armed with knobkerries, and accompanied by prepubescent girls (omufundifi) they moved freely throughout the country. The oihanangolo were entitled to whatever food they found during their wanderings, and could mock at, and beat every man they encountered. According to oral sources, this included their (future) husbands, who received beatings as well, and were made to dance as ‘women’ before their brides. Estermann, a Roman Catholic missionary who lived among the Kwanyama on the Angolan side of the colonial border for many years during the first half of the 20th century, recorded a proverbial expression that exemplifies the privileges enjoyed by the young women during that stage, ‘omunu utoka kena osidila’. This literally translated means, ‘to a white person’—so called because of being powdered with white ashes—‘nothing is prohibited’ (Estermann 1976:72).
When we read against the grain of the colonial-era ethnographies, it emerges that the rites were marked by enormous fluidity in form and meaning, contrary to the cultural and temporal stasis suggested by most ethnographic texts. It remains particularly doubtful that the meanings officials and missionaries from the earlier colonial periods ascribed to the women’s initiation truly reflected Owambo motives. In both cases, and also extending to the small number of professional anthropologists such as the conservative American Loeb and the South African volkekundiges of the later period, such as Bruwer and Louw, ethnographers drew their information generally from a minuscule selection of the local population, namely, older elite men, preferably with a background of authority. The views of women, and particularly those of young women, were certainly not sought.
Efundula: Women’s Initiation, Gender and Sexual Identities in Northern Namibia