Preserving ‘tradition’: Efundula as cultural heritage
This last section draws on very recent developments in Owambo, and the wider postcolonial Namibian society, where beginning in the mid-1990s disputes over the values that pull the national and local community together have increasingly embraced notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’. The production and prime-time screening of a documentary on efundula (Carstens 1996) exemplified this eruption of Owambo cultural practice into public presence in postcolonial Namibian society.
The new national public discourse mirrors shifting local strategies. The past half-dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a vocal discourse in northern Namibia about the ‘loss of culture’ that Owambo have supposedly experienced because of the activities of the missionaries. This discourse revolves around the role ‘Christianity’ had in suppressing ‘culture’ in the past, and the obligation of the modern-day Namibian churches to contribute to the present and future preservation of cultural heritage. Among the most vocal proponents of the new heritage discourse are several leading Owambo clerics who have been outspoken in their criticism of what they see as the missionary responsibility for the decline of culture and history in northern Namibia.
Efundula: Women’s Initiation, Gender and Sexual Identities in Northern Namibia
The postcolonial Namibian state having come forth through the nationalist struggle against the South African colonial apartheid state was initially also wary of local practices because of the apartheid regime’s use of cultural difference. As a commentator in the governmental weekly wrote, “In the past culture was misused and this has left the impression that talking about culture means talking about invaluable things aimed at separating people” (Denis Nandi in New Era, 27.1—2.2.1994; quoted in Fairweather 2001:137).
In the years that have passed since 1994, culture has become a much talked – about item in Namibian postcolonial discourse. Yet, the use of ‘cultural’ social practices in the organisation of everyday life has remained largely taboo. Nor have new representations of initiation and other practices relevant to gender and sexuality been aiming at integrating local practices into strategies to cope with the social stresses of the postcolonial era, such as teenage pregnancies, gender-based violence or AIDS. Instead, the reclamation of culture has taken shape predominantly as exhibit and performance. As Ian Fairweather (2001:4) has argued, cultural heritage has become a means by which the Namibian state seeks to engender national unity through the incorporation of distinct local cultures.
The regular regional and national cultural festivals organised by the Namibian state and local and regional cultural associations have become rallying points for showcasing culture. In Owambo, the oudano songs and dances, in earlier times thriving components of all-night opportunities for young men and women’s courtship, are important items on the list of heritage performance; even local schools run regular oudano competitions. In contrast, they have seemingly lost their former social significance in the formation of gendered sexual identities and practice of partner choice.
The discourse of cultural heritage has been driven predominantly by urbanised Owambo, and indeed often the most cosmopolitan members of the postcolonial elite in attempts to reclaim and display their ‘roots’ in a concurrent demonstration of their very cosmopolitan modernity. This indeed appeared to be the main social significance at the August 1998 urban reinvention of an efundula on the eve of the high-society church wedding that I witnessed when a daughter of a prominent SWAPO Women’s Council politician married her British fiance in the presence of half a dozen members of the Namibian cabinet, including the country’s (non-Owambo) Prime Minister. The ‘efundula’ held for the bride, a postgraduate student at a European university, lasted a couple of hours and lacked the ritual’s defining activities except for the modern-day ritual garb, and the characteristic drumming and dancing. It was obviously regarded as a success, however. The elderly woman who had acted as the ‘ritual organiser’ at the event, when interviewed a couple of days afterwards, reported that two other members of the town’s emerging elite had on the spot requested her to also organise omafundula for their soon-to-be married daughters.