Travels with V
A man with two wives
An important part of every visit we do here is the preparations. We start by doing some shopping in the food mart, not for ourselves but we have received clear instructions about what to bring along as gifts. In the remote villages where we’re heading traditions are extremely important. We are expected to bring cooking oil, flour, sugar, detergent and dried soup. Arras, a man who works for the culture department, is helping us out.
Arras also helps us with something we could never have done on our own, getting a Namibian sim-card for the cellphone. A complicated procedure that starts at the post office where Arras speaks to a man who disappears inside but soon emerges with a sim-card in his hand. But that’s not enough, it has to be registered with a net operator. So Arras drives to a supermarket where this can be done, but outside the office there’a a sixty meters’ long queue that doesn’t move at all. But Arras talks to this guy and to that, and soon we pass the whole queue, and get our cards ready. That’s how it’s done here.
In a small village north of Ondagwa we pick up Tegelela who is a school teacher and knows a lot about ovambo culture and habits. She’s our new interpreter. We engage the 4wd and rush off into dirt roads with sand spurting out in clouds behind us. After several kilometers in a labyrinth of paths we stop by a fence with several huts behind it. Our guide and another woman carry baskets with the gifts on their heads, as tradition demands. A man must never carry a basket and a women must never carry a hammer.
We pass between the huts and arrive at a bigger, squared tent, where a happy company waits for us. It’s the farmer, Weyulu, his two wives Ester and Jusfina, and a couple of grandchildren. They greet us warmly, making us feel like welcome old friends. And we talk for hours about life in the ovambo village, why polygamy is a good tradition, who inherits who and how marriage, divorce, jealousy and sex is viewed. And of course the value of cattle.
For the Ovambos as for many other people in Namibia, cattle is a measure of status and respect in a way no other property is. Cows are given as marriage gifts, so everybody owns cows, even younger people who have moved to the city. Their cattle is cared for by relatives in the country. The cattle can also be goats, but they are of less value. One cow equals ten goats.
All the huts here belong to one family, they are more like separate rooms in a house. Three huts are kitchens, because each wife must have her own. The square hut we’re in is a place for social gatherings. And some huts are for storage.
Our guide Tegelela strongly defends the traditional ways, but remarkably she herself is unmarried. And prefers to be.
To Tegelela the biggest threat to the traditional life for the ovambos is the missionaries work. Their efforts to turn the wild heathens into good christian citizens has ruined much for the people, she says. The missionaries have banned polygamy and forced men to keep only one wife and kick out the others. Which causes these women big problems. How will they be able to survive? She also points at traditional healing that the missionaries have rejected in favour of western medicine. “We have lost good practices for how to cure disease” she says.
Our last meeting in Ondangwa is with a pastor in the Evangelical congregation. His name is Johannes and he’s a big and powerful type of man. We get the impression that he seems to have a more practical way to tackle conflicts than his forerunners. We have for example read about how missionaries have tried to forbid initiation rites, when a girl is initiated to be a woman, and can be married. These rites that many African people practice are instrumental in their traditions, and they seem to have survived in spite of the missionaries ban.
So we ask pastor Johannes tough questions about abortion, divorce, polygamy and other issues. And he really seems to advocate tolerance instead of confrontation. This is a bit of a surprise for us, but we see hope in it.