Preserving ‘morality’: Efundula in the time of AIDS
“In our tradition we are very Christian”. This commonly-heard statement exemplifies the cultural identity of many Owambo in the postcolonial era. In Owambo, where the proportion of practising Christians is estimated at about 90 per cent, Christianity has largely succeeded in restructuring people’s conceptual universe in important respects, including the social, cultural and political representations of everyday life. Discourse in Owambo has been framed in a ‘Christian’ language for decades. At a first glance not much appears to have changed from the colonialmissionary to the postcolonial, dominant discourse of moral identity, gender and sexuality in the time of AIDS.
Apparently, however, in some aspects the Christian churches, today all under Namibian leadership, have taken a more accommodating stance towards the initiation of young women. In 1996 we came across a Catholic school in Owambo where students who had recently taken part in efundula had presented their experience in a school play. We also met a female omupitifi who was at the same time an active member of the Anglican church. The Lutheran church may still be harder on young women who undergo initiation (see below), but even ELCIN (Evan – gelican Lutheran Church in Namibia) no longer proscribes the mere observation and celebration of the ceremony.
Yet, the air of secrecy surrounding initiation has continued to prevail. Despite the wide-spreaed presence of initiation, numerous Owambo-based informants expressed the conviction that the ceremonies no longer took place. On various occasions people have told us that efundula was still not allowed “by Christianity”. This is no unfounded perception. In 1996, Kleopas Dumeni, the then Bishop of ELCIN, by far the largest Christian denomination in Owambo, told me in no uncertain terms that his church would never tolerate the participation in efundula because it legitimised sex outside marriage and, thus, was in fundamental contradiction of ‘Christian values’. For the most part, the churches reject redefinitions of the initiation ceremonies in the face of current social challenges, such as large-