|History and homesteads|
It is often said that schools in Namibia suffer from a shortage of textbooks. Yet the history teacher is fortunate because in many ways the Namibian landscape itself is a vast source of information which can encourage us to ask questions about the past.
The way in which houses are constructed - their architecture - can provide clues not just about the particular history of the family that live in that home, but also wider local history. While the vast majority of buildings that have been classified as National Monuments display German style architecture, much can be learned from looking at the architecture of the traditional home - eumbo in Oshikwanyama - of northern Namibia. A better English translation of this word would probably be "homestead" with its implication of a dwelling place with land attached to it.
One can learn a lot from comparing an old plan of the eumbo of a senior Kwanyama headman (elenga) with the design of homestead in the north today. The home was that of Ndjukuma, who had been one of the most senior omalenga during the reign of Mandume ya Ndemufayo and was one of eight men appointed by the administration to the Kwanyama Council that was to manage the kingdom after the death of Mandume in 1917. The drawing was based on a model of the eumbo that had been made by Harold Eedes in 1924. Readers might like to judge for themselves the ways in which the architecture of homesteads in the north continue to use this model and ways in which it has changed. A number of features seem significant of comment, although it should be remembered that the plan shows the homestead of a particularly powerful and wealthy member of the kingdom.
Upon entering visitors would have to turn right and follow a long narrow passage way to the 'visitors waiting place' (olupale in Oshikwanyama).
Old photographs from the National Archives of Namibia show that this passageway and the outer wall of the eumbo were often made from strong wooden stakes, although it seems common today to find walls made out of other building materials - such as woven sticks. Is this a result of deforestation, economics, fashion or the fact that the defensive advantages of such strong structures are no longer apparent?
The heart of the eumbo contains the holy fire. In Oshikwanyama this was known as Ediko lopulopale. The sleeping area of the 'principal wife' was located next to the sacred fire as it was her duty to ensure that the fire never went out. Whilst the holy fire still seems to play a significant role in Herero tradition and culture it seems to be rarely mentioned in discussions about the traditions of the Ovambo kingdoms. One might ask whether architecture still places the fire at the heart of the homestead and whether the only fires maintained are used for warmth and cooking, rather than spiritual purposes. On this plan, a line of horns taken from oxen were hung near the fire.
It was clear that the division of space in the homestead was important with each area having a clearly identified function. The traditional polygamous marriage of a wealthy Kwanyama man is reflected in the separate living areas given to each of Ndjukuma's three wives.
In this plan it is interesting that the cattle were still kept in kraals attached to the homestead - presumably as a protective measure. It is also interesting to note that a small area was still being identified as the 'slaves quarters'. Indeed the name Omihandjo dovapika was reportedly given to an area in some homesteads in Oshikwanyama. One might ask whether the English word 'slave' is the most accurate translation of this term.
The description of other homesteads also identifies particular spaces reserved for particular functions such as frog-eating (Onduda jomafuma) or beer-drinking (Onduda Jokunuina omalodu) with a special beer-drinking place reserved for the head of the household and his guests (Onele jomalenga jokunuuina omalodu).
An account from 1935 claimed that it was common for Kwanyama homesteads to contain an 'emblem of luck' with one example being described as "an Omusati (Mopane) stick, a shorter, but thicker, piece of green Ombo wood and some Oshinanganamuari twigs. These are planted before the actual construction work of a kraal is commenced and are said to bring much luck to those who will occupy the kraal."
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