- Aawambo Kingdoms, History and Cultural Change: perspectives from Namibia
Within the covers of this book two recent MA theses by two Namibian scholars, Lovisa Nampala and Vilho Shigwedha, are published. The authors here counter the missionary perspective that for long has dominated the image of the Owambo past. The two studies cut through a thick layer of Owambo identity, formed as Christian, and tease out elements of historical local culture still remembered. The political and psychological agenda is to restructure [End Page 312] the Owambo self-image and openly reclaim the pre-colonial culture without derogatory labels.
Nampala's study - 'Christianization and cultural change in northern Namibia: a comparative study of the impact of Christianity on Oukwanyama, Ondonga and Ombalantu, 1870-1971', seeks to identify to what extent the type of colonial government, the local political set-up and the denomination of missionaries can explain variations in speed and extent of the eradication of local culture.
Nampala has collected her ethnographic data through personal interviews with local informants, and the yield is impressive. Under the heading 'Traditional ceremonies and practices' she describes child naming, polygamy, traditional marriages, rain making, burials and male circumcision. All of these once expressed pre-Christian culture and belief, structured social hierarchies or marked important life stages. Most of them became extinct through missionary intervention, traditional marriage being the most contested issue.
Nampala describes how Lutheran, Catholic and Anglican missions affected these customs under different political set-ups. She concludes that local customs were better preserved under the Portuguese Angolan colonial aegis, that kingship did not guarantee a preservation of tradition better than kinglessness, and that the Lutheran Finnish mission was more adamant and 'efficient' than missionaries of other denominations in extinguishing certain local customs. The abolition of circumcision, again, had nothing to do with missionaries. None of this is particularly new, and therefore the strength of Nampala's study lies in the new ethnographic data she presents, rather than in the conclusions drawn.
Vilho Shigwedha's study, 'The pre-colonial costumes of the Aawambo: significant changes under colonialism and the construction of post-colonial identity', uses changes of local dress and clothing for analysing the annihilation of the culture of the past. His method and purposes are the same as Nampala's.
In the process of conversion to Christianity, the extinction of local customs of clothing became a key symbol of the missionary endeavour. Shigwedha shows that with the local way of clothing went a whole world of cultural symbols and signs, whereby local society and its social categories had been structured. The generous pictures of female headdress from a study of 1981 well serve the volume's motive of displaying the richness and beauty of traditional Owambo culture.
If Nampala juxtaposes tradition against modernity, or the waning of tradition, Shigwedha's approach is more multi-dimensional. He problematizes the concepts identity and tradition, noting that dress code over time also takes on new identity-shaping mechanisms as in the case of the oohema dhootundo, a type of loose female dress originally introduced by Finnish missionaries that has since become a symbol of 'tradition'.
Shigwedha shows how identity and morality were expressed in the traditional dress codes. The details he presents about beads, bracelets, anklets and headdress as markers of status and position are both rich and impressive. Shigwedha, like Nampala, challenges the missionary aversion to polygamy and the traditional marriage ceremonies. He identifies the social consequences of the missionary zeal for morality; it ruptured social structures, causing a waning of collectiveness in favour of individualism, as well as a break-up of parental authority. Shigwedha is particularly convincing when challenging the missionary idea of 'pagan nakedness'. He reveals that there were strict cultural mores and cultural codes of dress and decency that were concealed from the missionary gaze. This is new and important data, both for identity reconstruction and for the purposes of research. [End Page 313]
The book is important for many reasons. First, very little of northern Namibian...