For the most part, the missionaries posed as saviours of African women whom they imagined as downtrodden ‘beasts of burden’, trapped in the sinful darkness of the continent. However, the Christian discourse on gender and sexuality was far from unitary. From the early years of the Rhenish Lutherans’ work in Oukwanyama their views on Owambo gender relations and women’s sexuality were marked by discord. Generally the missionaries were appalled that marriages were unstable, and that especially women seemed to leave undesirable marriages without much inhibition. A 1909 report in the Rhenish Missionary Society’s journal noted that out of ten older women, nine had had a sequence of husbands, ranging from three through to six. The missionaries were equally abhorred at the absence of punishment of adulterous wives (RMG 1909:89). While the Rhenish missionaries agreed that Kwanyama women’s sexual mores were questionable, their views on women’s status in the family and society were at variance. Albert Hochstrate, then in charge of the mission at Ondjiva, emphasised in a 1913 report to the mission headquarters in Barmen the need to ‘uplift’ Kwanyama women’s status which he depicted as exceedingly low and disgraceful (unwurdig). The Presiding Missionary, August Wulfhorst, who over the years hardly ever commented on his juniors’ reports, in this instance expressed his disagreement in an extended handwritten addendum. Wulfhorst remonstrated that, in no way were women subordinated to men and that in the family mothers in fact enjoyed more respect than fathers. This he linked to the matrilineal social organisation. He went further, however, putting much stress on Kwanyama women’s improper sexual conduct: where women were as sinful as men—how, then, could they feel despised in the society?
Unlike the majority of Owambo missionaries of all denominations, Wulfhorst was not convinced that the initiation involved illicit, ‘indecent’ sexual rites. He even conceded that it might be seen as an attempt to restrain young people’s sexual activities due to the serious consequences of a pre-initiation pregnancy. The practice of burning transgressors had been abandoned by the time the missionaries entered Oukwanyama but young women who fell pregnant before their efun- dula, were still subject to enormous social pressures, comparable to those Meredith McKittrick (1999) has shown for the context of western Owambo.
Wulfhorst objected to the efundula, however, because initiation was a part of ‘pagan’ Kwanyama’s wider sexual mores which left much to be desired in the puritan world view of the Wilhelmian German empire. Young women were not in a rush to undergo efundula and become a wife, as they enjoyed a largely unrestrained sexual freedom. Many had sexual relations with men ‘as if they were married’, Wulfhorst noted: many had a ‘fiance’ who visited her at their leisure with the knowledge and approval of her parents. This was unacceptable for the mission, although he admitted that it was not easy for young Christians to resist temptations. Wulfhorst conceded that, in comparison to their ‘pagan’ relatives, the personal freedom of young Christian women was much curtailed as they were com-
Efundula: Women’s Initiation, Gender and Sexual Identities in Northern Namibia
pelled to sit chastely and virtuously at home, waiting for a suitable Christian bride-