Olufuko – a Tradition Worth Preserving?

SEVENTEEN – year-old Veneruru Kambindja sits quietly in a secluded corner in the shade. She leans on a pole for support, looking slightly irritated when groups of onlookers kneel down to smell and feel the softness of her skin.

She is covered in a mixture of red ochre – a powder obtained from the trunk of a leak tree and mixed with cow fat. Her perfectly shaped breasts are out for the world to see. The rest of her body is covered in a skirt made of animal skin.

Kambindja is the first girl from the Ovahimba tribe taking part in the Olufuko ceremony at Outapi just 90 km outside Oshakati in the Omusati region. The Olufuko is an initiation ceremony that prepares girls for marriage through the revival of a culture of preserving virginity.

This year, 81 young girls – aged between 14 and 21 – took part in the ceremony. All were dressed in different traditional handmade skirts, some decorated with shell beads and animal skin. The girls are from various Aawambo tribes. As men and women enter the traditional homestead on the first day to witness the arrival and the introduction of the young brides, Anna Haufiku (14), is already seated inside an unlit hut, preoccupied with laying out several bracelets. She lifts her right leg, pulling it closer to her chest, and begins to tie a golden beaded bracelet on her shin.

She struggles, strands of her braided hair fall onto her face. She slowly tucks the braids behind her left ear. Finally, she looks up and squeezes out a smile, but not before she manages to knot the bracelet, making sure the loop is in place.

“I think this is how it is supposed to sit,” she says softly.

When asked why she is taking part in the ceremony, she hesitates, and after a long while, says: “Because it is my culture.”

Throughout the festival, girls like Anna would spend seven days in traditional homesteads learning more about their cultural duties. Various traditional activities to teach them etiquette and customs are carried out.

Before the initiation ceremony, the girls are required to prepare a traditional powder called olukula by crushing the roots of wild teak trees, and make wooden bowls and cups to be used as utensils during the ceremony.

The girls will also be required to make a traditional omahangu storage facility, pottery, prepare marula oil and gin made out of a combination of palm and berry fruits.

Their fathers have to slaughter cows as a gesture of accepting their daughters’ transition from girlhood to womanhood. For those from the Aambalantu, the animals are slaughtered at their homes after the ceremony.

Later, the girls are allowed to leave the traditional huts led by their elders to attend the mahangu pounding session. This is called oshinii by the Aawambo. Here they produce omahangu flour for their families.

Rakkera Ndapwilwa Mukulu, who ensures that the girls perform all the duties, says this is a vital part of the ceremony.

Girls cannot be initiated if they are not virgins, and that those found to be pregnant are disqualified.

“When a bride cannot perform any of her tasks, this is the time when pregnancies are discovered,” she said.

On the fifth day, just before sunset, the ratification of girls, also known as the efudula, takes place.

According to Mukulu, on this day, a female senior ritual leader called Namunganga leads the girls to the kraal where they receive formal blessings for marriage. But not before they each pass through between Namunganga’s legs.

On paper, the initiation of young girls in rural areas is not considered legal, but at the festival it has proved a favourite among village girls.

Close by, Ndamonanghenda Shimoshili (21) and her sisters Petrina Shimoshili (17) and Lydia Shimoshili (16), who are from the Onamanape village, are well informed.

Ndamonanghenda said she decided to join the Olufuko because her parents gave her a choice.

“After they explained to me the reasons behind the ritual, I immediately said yes.”

“Olufuko is a culture we got from our forefathers and we must follow it to understand what is right and wrong before marriage,” Lydia explains.

Helalia Shimoshili, the three girls’ mother, says if the girls oppose the ritual, fathers are called in to convince them. “If they still reject it, that is mostly considered as defying your elders.”

Mukulu also says the girls are not forced to be part of the ceremony. “It is explained to them that they do have the right to say no, until such a day when they are ready.”

“It is, however, best for them to join the ceremony when they reach puberty because the older the girls become the more difficult it is for them to take part because they would have started to meet boys,” she explains.

Source : The Namibian