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Namibia’s Traditional Culture – Visiting an Oshiwambo Village in the North

Pink and red skirts are swaying rhythmically to joyful singing and clapping. They are bound together with belts made out of beads or animal fur and belong to about 20 laughing women, dancing in a circle. It is a special day for the habitants of “Ongonga” village. It is the day of the Epasha ritual. Twins were born into the village and their arrival calls for a celebration.

Namibia's traditional north. Oshiwambo people celebrating a traditional Epasha ritual.

Women are singing and dancing cheerfully in their traditional Oshiwambo attire.

Throughout the Namibian culture, the birth of twins has always been special. But today only a few tribes celebrate the age-old ritual; most of them have turned away from it completely. “Don’t talk to my grandmother about it. She believes that rituals like that are the work of the devil”, a co-worker at the NGO, I’m working at, tells me.

Westernisation in Namibia

In modern Namibia, answers like hers are common. When the missionaries arrived in Namibia in the 19th century, they demonised the indigenous beliefs. As a result, the people themselves started to denounce their old rituals and turned to the Christian god. But even more: They too believed that their own traditions were the works of the New Testament’s devil.

Additionally Namibia, like all African countries, had been colonised since 1884 by Germany. It was called German South West Africa until South Africa took over in 1915. The following South African Apartheid-regime has done the rest to destroy the Namibian culture and heritage and further ensured fiction between the tribes.

Namibian Culture Today

Today, Apartheit is over and 27 years ago Namibia gained its independence. But while the call for true reconciliation is getting louder, Namibia is far from restored. Especially the young have forgotten what their culture entails and for many of the older generation, the memory is too painful.

Yet, far from cities and shopping malls, you can still find the remains of Namibia’s ancestral culture. In the country’s north, the Ovakwanyama tribe of the Oshiwambo people have remained as traditional as the modern world allows.

The Epasha Ritual

Here, special occasions like the birth of twins is celebrated just like in the old days, explains grandmother, Lucia Kambode Nangolo, 96: “It is the same way my grandmother celebrated it and her grandmother before that. Christianity hasn’t changed it. This is Oshiwambo culture”.

Namibia's traditional north. Oshiwambo people celebrating a traditional Epasha ritual.

Elder and grandma Lucia Kambode Nangolo. She’s 96 years old.

Thus friends and family have gathered today in the home of the twin’s mother. We are in a village within a village. In the Oshiwambo culture, a big family lives together in a circle of huts surrounded by a wooden fence. On this day about 50 people have joined to honor the twins.

Namibia's traditional north. Oshiwambo people celebrating a traditional Epasha ritual.

The celebrated twins. The Epasha ceremony usually takes place 1 or 2 months after they are born.

The main part of the ritual contains of a traditional cleansing ceremony, in order to keep the children and parents save from illnesses or bad spirits. This is followed by dances and music.

Culture Endangered

Yet here too, Western influence is visible. Our clothing, Coca Cola, and bottled beer have mixed with traditional attire and self-brewed drinks like “Omalodu Oilya”. While the belief in spirits is still existing, the prayer outside the village is to the Christian god. Thus it might only be a question of time before it will disappear as a whole.

So let’s enjoy the images while they are there. To get an even better idea of the Epasha ritual, check out my videos on Youtube.

The Short Version

The Long Version

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Keeping Africa’s Traditions – The “Epasha” ritual in Namibia

The Cleansing

Oshiwambo culture today. In northern-central Namibia, the Ovakwanyama people still celebrate their traditional ways of life. With the “Epasha”-ceremony the tribe is welcoming twins into the world. First, a spiritual cleansing of father, mother, and the newborns takes place. The couple undressed in front of selected family members. Then, their bodies are cleansed by a traditional healer, an “Onganga”. For this, a special medicine is made from the mopane – or “Omufyaati” – tree. At the end, dried parts of the tree are eaten.

The ceremony lasts a day and is accompanied by a big meal, singing and dancing. Through the influence of Christianity, prayer has become an integrated part of the festivities.

The Ovakwanyama (Oshiwambo culture) are praying a Christian prayer. ©Manon Steiner

The Ovakwanyama (Oshiwambo culture) are praying a Christian prayer. ©Manon Steiner

A Tradition For Kings

For the Ovakwanyama, the birth of twins is a godsend. In the old days, only a man born as a twin or with his feet first could become a tribe’s king. In tradition this is called “Eehamba”. It is hard to tell how long “Epasha” goes back. But due to legend, already the first Oshiwambo kingswere cleansed through this ritual. Their names were Kavongeka, Kapuleko, Heita, or Hautolonde.

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On the search…

On the search…

Manon Steiner in a fishing boat on the Mekong river in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

On the lookout over the powerful Mekong – thinking about the meaning of life. ©Manon Steiner

I’m on the search. For what? A sense of belonging, myself, a career I feel worth pursuing, the world and the meaning of it all. The usual stuff. For a long time, I was horrified at the idea of designing my own life and that made me stop short of breath instead of going forward.

I still don’t know what I’m doing or where I’ll end up. I have no master plan and certainly no answer. But there are two things I do know.
First, you do in fact only live once. While this realisation seems to have reached our generation with the much overused term “yolo”, it is only penetrating the surface. People are still chasing money and a certain status in life. That brings me to my second realisation: For me, this is not enough. I want to find inner peace by exploring every bit of life and the world possible.

Because, for those of us who don’t believe in heaven, an afterlife or rebirth, that’s it. And in today’s world of opportunities, choices and expectations, we need to take a break from rushing around to get what we want and think about what it actually is that we need?

One Size doesn’t fit all

If your dream is a good job, a nice apartment and a family, that’s great. Because our society is designed for that. But as we’ve learned from buying jeans and shoes, one size doesn’t fit all, no matter what the shopkeeper is telling you. 

Nowadays, young people don’t necessarily strive for the old dream of a white-fenced house in the suburbs. But talking to my closest friends, I realized that, indeed, I was the only one who wasn’t already on the path towards a promising career and a more or less settled life.

Doomed to live unhappily?

And that stressed me. For over a year, I had been in a job I hated and couldn’t imagine ever liking being tied town by another one. So, was I doomed to live unhappily?

For a long time, I thought so. And then I remembered a dream, I’ve had since I can remember. That dream is to see the world – all of it. And learn as much as possible about this universe. And you can’t do that with a steady job, an apartment and often even with a relationship. I always thought, I was one of the few, feeling this way.

Until, in mid-2016, I finally left my hometown Vienna and stepped out into the world for good. I had always been fortunate enough to travel and to live abroad for a periods of time. But the thought of planning my four to five week holiday each year, evoked in me the kind of “horror” that Mr. Kurz must have felt in the “Heart of Darkness”.

The Berlin-months

Music, fashion, press passes, parties: For 4 beautiful months, this was my life.

So, after some soul searching and quitting my first steady job, I decided to follow dream number two: Being a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and living like my idol Hunter S. Thompson.

I secured a short-term freelance position with the German Rolling Stone magazine and embarked onto the Berlin Club scene. The following four months were a exhilarating mix of learning, mind opening, fun, bizarre events and stress. But most importantly, they paved the way for my further decisions.

For one, I realized that even my dream job wasn’t as rosy as I had painted it and that I was in no way ready to settle down or close to living the way I wanted – not even in the amazing city of Berlin – a place that only exists once in the world and that I can recommend to all the lost souls out there.

Finally on the Road

So after four months in Berlin, my boyfriend Tom and I went on a trip to Southeast Asia with no return ticket and no apartment or job to come back to.

Finally on the road in Vietnam. ©Manon Steiner

Finally on the road in Vietnam with Tom. ©Manon Steiner

It was there, that my journey really began. We only had a rough idea of the countries we wanted to see and no specific plan. We bought our ticket three weeks before we left and booked the cheapest flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (Check out pieces and pics of the trip on this site).

Changes happened gradually. They can’t be made manifest on certain events or situations. It was the journey, the people we met, the things we learned, that gave both of us a different perspective on life. And that’s what it’s all about: Seeing the world, the whole world, as it really is with all its beauties and horrors and becoming at peace with it.

I’m not there yet but I am on the way and this is the beginning of my story.

Always ready to capture life with my Canon EOS 750D and my iphone. ©Michael Dande

Always ready to capture life with my Canon EOS 750D and my iphone.
©Michael Dande

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Discovering Namibia – Spinning the Kids off the Streets

Thousands of small pebbles are catapulted at my bare arms and legs, a cloud of dust engulfs my face. Momentarily, I feel like I’m in a battlefield and there is no place to hide from the attack.

As my view gets clearer, I focus my eyes back to the action right in front of me. A car is racing past, comes to an abrupt halt and starts spinning around its own axe. Suddenly, the driver jumps out, watches his car turn around him and jumps on the hood. A few more circles and he’s back behind the wheel.

Spinning Round and Burning Rubber

We’re at the Otjiwarongo Spin Show in Namibia. Here, tuned cars are drifting and spinning on the gravel, while their drivers are conducting crazy stunts and burning rubber.

According to “Windhoek Spin City’s” organisers Joel Nambahu and Emmanuel “Driver”, spinning  is one of Namibia’s fastest growing sports. In the midst of the roaring crowd, boys and young men of various ages – the youngest is Joel’s 10-year old son – are showing their skills.

Live at Windhoek Spin City in Otjiwarongo with Joel Nambahu's youngest son on the hood, March 2017.

Live at Windhoek Spin City in Otjiwarongo with Joel Nambahu’s youngest son on the hood, March 2017.

Keeping the Kids off the Streets

But this isn’t just about entertainment: “We are trying to keep the kids off the streets”, explains Joel. Before they started their initiative, young boys were taking their cars to the streets illegally, often leading to accidents and injuries.

With “Windhoek Spin City”, Joel and his crew are offering the kids a save environment in which they are teaching them how to spin, drift and perform stunts without harming themselves.

In March 2017, I got the opportunity to witness the results live in the small city of Otjiwarongo, two-hours north of Namibia’s capital Windhoek. Follow me here: