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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.