- Aawambo Kingdoms, History and Cultural Change: Perspectives from Northern Namibia
The Basel Namibia Series is an important contribution to the historiography of Namibia and Southern Africa. Its latest manifestation continues in this tradition and represents a milestone in the study of Namibian history. It is the publication of the first two master's theses produced by Namibian students at the University of Namibia as part of the new postgraduate-studies program in history. The theses are published in the form in which they were submitted to the university, with only limited English-language editing. As a result, there are some formatting and grammatical errors that can at times be distracting.
Both authors lived in Northern Namibia, working full-time while conducting their research. They traveled to the archives in Windhoek, but because of the distance, both studies rely heavily on oral accounts. Both authors focused on the need to recover the meaning behind different cultural practices in the region and examine how these practices changed with the arrival of missionaries and colonialism. They demonstrate clearly that, while missionaries and colonist administrations significantly affected these practices, the impact was not uniform across the seven Aawambo kingdoms.
The first thesis in the volume is by Lovisa T. Nampala: Christianisation and Cultural Change in Northern Namibia: A Comparative Study of the Impact of Christianity on Oukwanyama, Ondonga and Ombalantu, 1870–1971. It begins with a discussion of Ovawambo attitudes and understanding of God, and then addresses the concept of Kalungaism; its argument centers on the idea "that traditional beliefs and Christianity were actually perceived as different branches of the same religion" (p. 25). This section provides little new information; the concepts introduced are only lightly covered in the rest of the work, and thus seem an unnecessary inclusion.
The main focus of this thesis is the cultural practices of marriage, circumcision, rainmaking, and death, burial, and naming ceremonies in the three Aawambo kingdoms studied. In this chapter, Nampala seeks to examine how the ceremonies were performed before the 1870s, when Finnish missionaries arrived. The study provides detailed information from oral informants, complemented by written sources, to provide in-depth accounts of the early ceremonies. Nampala freely admits that the informants who participated in the ceremonies were of the generation influenced by Christianity, but these accounts are valuable and important in providing a record for continued study in the field. [End Page 136]
The thesis continues with the impacts the Finnish missionaries had on cultural practices. It traces these changes through 1971 and takes into account the impacts of German and Roman Catholic missionaries, along with colonialism. The thesis makes a good case for how Europeans influenced these ceremonies and how Africans adapted them to fit a changing structure of belief. Overall, the author maintains a balance between the perspective of a cultural advocate and that of an academic researcher.
The second thesis presented in this volume, by Vilho Shigwedha, The Pre-Colonial Costumes of the Aawambo: Significant Changes under Colonialism and the Construction of Post-Colonial Identity, covers much of the same time period as Nampala, focusing on costume, but tries to connect it to modern Namibian debates about culture.
The first chapter focuses on the costumes worn in the precolonial era. A detailed account is provided by oral informants about the meaning of costumes and their construction, hair fashions among women, and beads and other jewelry. The section lacks clarity at times: it is not always clear which of the seven kingdoms is being referred to because all are discussed throughout the chapter.
The second chapter focuses on the impact that missionaries, traders, and the colonial administration had on costumes in the region. This is an important part of the analysis, and Shigwedha provides oral accounts to cover the time period from the 1870s to the Second World War. It is unfortunate that, because of the length of the work, this section could not have been expanded. Sigwedha convincingly argues that changes in costume and the adoption of European costumes were gendered...