Lining up bare-breasted maidens: Colonial representations of efundula
Megan Vaughan (1991:130) reminds us that in the colonial state’s dominant discourse on African sexuality, women’s sexuality was to be contained by means of social control and order, represented by African men in the name of ‘tradition’. She argues that the containment of women’s sexuality was regarded as one measure of the effectiveness of an indirect rule policy in shoring up existing systems of social control. In northern Namibia, the South African administration from its inception in 1915 sought to rule indirectly through the embodiments of African power: chiefs and headmen. Official recognition of indigenous rulers was combined with interventions where the administration deemed this fit. The colonial administration backed Owambo political authorities in their conflicts with the Christian missions that had been working in Owambo since 1870. Longtime Native Commissioner C. H.L. Hahn argued that in Ondonga the Lutheran Finnish Mission had “practically destroyed the authority of chiefs and headmen; so much so that little tribal discipline is left.”
In the contestations between the administration and its male traditionalist allies versus the missions, efundula representations procured a place centre-stage. The former argued that the initiation rites were cornerstones of healthy, ‘tribal’ traditions that should be preserved. This discourse bolstered the paradigm of indirect rule. It also fed well into Owambo traditionalists’ efforts to tighten control over their subjects. Women were thus assigned the role of bearers of culture in the administration and their allies’ efforts to guarantee a redefined ‘traditional’ order in the colonial society. While Owambo women were silenced in the structures of local power where at least certain elite women had made their voices heard prior to colonial rule, they acquired a new form of muted visibility.