Native Commissioner C. H.L. Hahn’s written and visual ethnographic narratives of initiation pertained crucially to the discursive reconstruction of a patriarchal and hierarchical Owambo ‘tradition’. Hahn loved to attend and take pictures at the ceremonies. In the event, residents occasionally had to reschedule or repeat their efundula dances to coincide with his visits. Hahn’s photography underscores the representation of initiation as a massive event close to the core of indigenous power that already has a strong presence in his ethnographic writing (cf. Hahn 1928:29—31). The ostentatious glamour of his photographic efundula representations becomes even more obvious when we consider the striking contrast between his visual narratives and the film the Powell-Cottons made on an efundula which took place in the district of Owangwe in southern Angola in July 1937, (Powell-Cotton and Powell-Cotton 1937); that is, roughly about the same time Hahn took his pictures on the Namibian side of the border. The Powell-Cottons’ filmic narrative of a ceremony that involved four young women presents a modest ritual in an intimate environment; it strongly contrasts with Hahn’s images of large numbers of ovafuko participating in a dazzling, public event.
Hahn’s glamourisation of the ceremonies was much in line with his representation of the rites as determined and authorised by ‘native authorities’ (cf. Hahn 1928:29—31). His rule in Ovamboland built on social control and order, represented by African men in the name of ‘tradition’. Patricia Hayes has argued that Hahn’s ethnographic photography seems to “effect an interruption, stabilisation and stasis” as it erased the signs of hybridity, such as Western clothing and other commodities, from the picture (Hayes 1998a:177).
Hahn’s representations of initiation certainly originated in his endeavours to reinvent a precolonial, premodern African order in the construction of colonial modernity. But his constructions also implied sexual connotations. Lining up large numbers of people on public occasions such as an efundula may have suited his sense of power: Hahn certainly felt “flattered with the shows of tribute and deference, taking on a temporary African-ness” when in the habitus of an African ruler ceremoniously tasting food and drink, as Patricia Hayes (1998a:176, 179) has argued. It may be more explicit, though: work done in different contexts suggests the imagined heterosexualisation of spaces where huge numbers of ‘other’ women are being massed and moved (cf. Theweleit 1980). Male phantasies in colonial Ovamboland arguably extended between attempts at incarnating the imagined, unlimited power of precolonial, premodern African kings and an assumption of female sexuality which was ostensibly ‘innocent’, yet readily available to the desiring heterosexual male gaze. Beyond, and at once as part of his constructions of Ovamboland as archaic Africa, Hahn’s ethnographic writing and photo-graphy embraced the notion of an innocent, uncontaminated African sexuality embodied in bare-breasted young women dancing rites to enhance their fertility.
Efundula: Women’s Initiation, Gender and Sexual Identities in Northern Namibia
Sexual mores of the dark continent: Mission discourse on sexuality, gender and initiation
The Christian missions, on the other hand, objected to the initiation of young women as ‘savage’ and indecent. To them the ‘nakedness’ of the traditionally clad Owambo embodied the darkness, disorder and danger, in other words, the ‘savagery’ of African sexuality and culture. Whereas the Anglicans adopted a rather practical stance, the Finnish mission banned the traditional attire altogether. The efforts to cover women’s bodies were accompanied by attempts to strip them of their traditional decorations and ornaments, which the Protestant missionaries abhorred as the embodiment of sinful vanity.
In the dominant missionary discourse the Owambo women’s initiation was a perverse occasion for sexual licence. As to what took place during the ceremonies, the Rhenish missionary Karl Sckar expressed his disgust at their ‘true piggish nature’ (reinste Schweinerei). In the Catholic view, the ceremony comprised endless “excesses and indecencies” and represented the “triumph of darkest paganism” (Seiler 1940:1
0; my translation). Finnish missionaries proclaimed that no decent person could even speak of it, and Anglicans condemned the rites because of their ‘phallic flavour’ (correspondence cited by Hayes 1996:372). Missionaries suggested that the rites were highly-sexed as the beer given to the initiates was allegedly “doctored by penis of the witchdoctor”, and that the rite involved illicit sexual intercourse (cf. Tuupainen 1970:48).
All Owambo missions, the Lutherans, i. e. the Finnish Mission Society and the Rhenish Mission, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglicans forbade their adherents to participate in initiation. The Rhenish missionaries’ early battles against efundula reached a climax with a drawn-out conflict with the last Kwanya – ma King Mandume in 1912/1913. In December 1913, the Rhenish missionaries in Oukwanyama devoted their annual conference to a discussion of initiation. The missionaries conceded that a total ban of efundula could not be enforced at this point. Mandume had already accommodated the missionaries and their Christian followers with the suggestion that young Christian women should partake in the rite for a few hours to satisfy local expectations. The missionaries were certainly not happy with this but eventually grudgingly accepted the compromise. The full participation of mission adherents in efundula was to be avoided at all costs, however. It was recommended that in such a case a Christian should flee Oukwanyama in order to avoid taking part in efundula. In later years, the missions increased the stakes: in the 1930s, defiance of the church ban on initiation became an offence punishable by excommunication (cf. Seiler 1940:10; Mallory 1971:33).
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