Putting the Vanyemba Recognition Issue in Context (part I) [column]

The issue that has of late received media currency regarding the possibility of recognising the ‘Vanyemba’ groupings, as a distinct traditional community and authority in Namibia, is not really new as some might think. The first time this issue came to the public’s attention was in or about 2003. Since then the same issue has been recurring within private groups and organisations in the Kavango regions and other regions in Namibia.

It must be noted that whereas the first ‘Vanyemba Association’ (VA) committee consisted of notable elderly men, who were all Rundu-based residents, the current committee is composed of young men (30-40 years old), who are all Windhoek-based. Thus, in the absence of a sober and mature leadership, this issue has the potential of destabilising the peace and stability of the Kavango regions and the country at large.

To start with, it is not true that all the ‘Vanyemba’ are recent migrants into the so-called Kavango kingdoms, namely Kwangali, Mbunza, Shambyu, Gciriku and Mbukushu. For the purpose of this discussion, the Kavango kingdoms are those kingdoms that transcended the Kavango River – the boundary between Namibia and Angola. It is also pertinent to point out, as the ‘Vanyemba’s detractors’ always point out, that the ‘Vanyemba’ cannot seek recognition of any kind in the Kavango regions in Namibia because they are recent migrantsrefugees from Angola. This argument is partly wrong, as it should not be the main grounds upon which the ‘Vanyemba’ recognition issue must be rejected. To counter this argument, the ‘Vanyemba’ always point to the fact that the so-called ‘Vakavango’ were also themselves until the 1900s residents of present-day Angola.

At national level, no one must dispute the citizenship of some ‘Vanyemba’ in the Kavango regions, especially those who have acquired it by provisions of Article 4 of the Namibian Constitution. Thus, it can also be true that not all those who call themselves Vakavango automatically qualify for Namibian citizenship if, for instance, they are recent migrants from Angola, Botswana or Zambia. This is just to highlight the fact that the ‘Vanyemba-Vakavango’ ‘conflict’ is not simply a Namibian-Angolan issue, but evidently of historical, traditional and cultural nature.

Thus, when seeking solutions to whether the ‘Vanyemba’ should be recognised as a distinct traditional community and authority in the Kavango regions, one needs to investigate the royal and ethnic history of the contending groups? These subsequent questions might be of help in unravelling some of the puzzles in the ‘Vanyemba-Vakavango’ impasse:

1. Did the ‘Vanyemba’ and the ‘Vakavango’ ever have separate and independent kingdoms in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Angola and Namibia? If yes, where were these kingdoms located?

2. If there were separate and independent ‘Vanyemba’ and ‘Vakavango’ kingdoms, what was the relationship between them?

3. Who were the ‘Vanyemba’ and the ‘Vakavango’ royal heads since pre-colonial times and where were their royal seats located?

4. If at all, how did colonialism, the liberation war and the Angolan civil war affect the ‘Vanyemba’ and the ‘Vakavango’ kingdoms?

It is my considered view that when the above questions are honestly answered, most misconceptions that have blurred the lines in this ‘Vanyemba-Vakavango’ controversy will be cleared.

From a historical point of view, and since pre-colonial times, there is irrefutable evidence that the ‘Vanyemba’ and the ‘Vakavango’ had separate and independent kingdoms. Though with so much hardships, this status quo remained intact during the Portuguese colonialism in Angola, and German and South African colonialism in Namibia.

It must be noted that in pre-colonial and colonial Angola the ‘Vanyemba’ were the northern neighbours of the five Kavango kingdoms. The concession agreement signed by a Swedish trader, Axel Wilhelm Eriksson (locally known as Karwapa) in September 1890 with ‘vahompa’: Nyangana of Gciriku, Mbambangandu of the Shambyu and Kapango of the Mbunza can testify to the fact that the ‘Vanyemba’ were the northern neighbours of the Kavango kingdoms. Obviously, there are also plenty of maps that can support this assertion.

In exception to the Mbukushu, by this time all the other royal seats of the Kavango royal heads were on the Angolan side of the middle course of the Kavango River. The critical point of observation in the said concession agreement is that whereas the northernmost boundaries of the Kavango kingdoms were further down from the middle course of the Kavango River into Angola, their southernmost border was at some fountain in the present Karukuvisa area or at 19° southerly latitude into present Namibia.

From these facts, one can therefore discern that though the ‘Nyemba’ and ‘Kavango’ kingdoms were neighbours, this neighbourliness was only as far as their locations in Angola were concerned. It can, therefore, be seen that in as far as separate Nyemba kingdoms were concerned, in pre-colonial and colonial times, their kingdoms existed in Angola but were not in the proximity and vicinity of the middle course of the Kavango River.

However, it can also be seen that the extent of the boundaries of the Kavango kingdoms transcended the middle course of the Kavango River. In fact, until December 30, 1886, as per the German-Portuguese agreement, the middle course of the Kavango River was never regarded as an international border between Angola and Namibia, but was just a mere lifeline and transport course for the people who lived alongside it.

*This author is a high school history teacher and he writes in his personal capacity. Part II of this piece will be published next Friday.

Source : New Era