The People's Republic of Ombalantu

The article is reproduced with a permission from the author Dr. Meredith McKittrick, a history lecturer at the University of Georgetown, USA.

Today a debate rages in Ombalantu about whether to restore the kingship, and people have very different opinions about the desirability of a king.
Yet historical records indicate that in the past decades, there was much more agreement among Ombalantu people about their status.
Oral history, records in the National Archives and accounts written by missionaries now stored in Finland all portray Ombalantu's kingless status as a central feature of the people's national identity and something which they valued in the years after King Kamhaku kaHuhwa's death.
In the late 1930's or early 1940's, a Finnish missionary named Kalle Himanen wrote a manuscript titled Ehistori lj'Ombalantu. But Himanen relied upon the knowledge of a man named Shigwedha Alwendo, himself an heir to the Ombalantu kingship, and seems to have written from Shigwedha's perspective. For example, the history accuses missionaries and colonials of destroying ''our'' Ovambo customs.
This manuscript confirms many of the events recited in oral histories today but offers details that have perhaps been forgotten over the years. For example, most people know the history of how King Kamhaku made people cultivate the soil with their bare hands. Ehistori lj'Ombalantu reports that he also invited his omalenga, or advisers, to a beer drink then ordered some prisoners-of-war to lock the omalenga in a hut, set it on fire and stab anyone who tried to escape.
Ehistori lj'Ombalantu also relates the well-known story of how poor people carried a thatched roof over King Kamhaku's head as he travelled, but one day put down the roof, trapping him inside and set it on fire. But this story reports that there was once another account of King Kamhaku's death. In this version, important men, including the King's own relatives, got King Kamhaku drunk and then trapped him in a hut and set it on fire.
In other words, he was killed in exactly the same way that he had killed his omalenga. Finally, the report of a colonial official who visited Ombalantu in 1918 provides yet another story about how King Kamhaku had died: that he had been allowed to starve to death.
Most historical sources state that after King Kamhaku died, his heir declined to seize power and instead became a religious leader. In addition, according to Ehistori lj'Ombalantu, the people changed the community's name from Ohamuyala to Ombalantu, meaning ombala/-ntu (people's royal house) to reflect a people who no longer had a king above them. Surrounding kingdoms said the new name with scorn and also labelled the people of Ombalantu with the name aakwanakatati, meaning people of the bow (because each person could take up arms without a permission of a ruler).
It was intended that these names would be derogatory, but the people of Ombalantu, used these titles with pride and saw the absence of a kings as a central part of their identity.
The story of King Kamhaku and his death served as a unifying feature in a society which, without a king, had very few other sources of unity. Taken together, the different stories of King Kamhaku's death implicate everyone - rich and poor, royal and non-royal, powerful and weak - in his death and thus give everyone a stake in the idea of a society without a king.
In addition, each story offers a sense of vengeance for a party harmed by the king's power-mad ways: if he starved to death, it avenged the common people who had to cultivate with their hands and thus endured famine the following year; if he died in a fire, it avenged the important people he killed to avoid sharing power.
Thus it is ironic that the Ombalantu people, long united by the idea of not having a king, are now divided by the possibility of having one. But there is an even bigger irony.
Another oral tradition states that when colonial officials came to Ombalantu, they tried to find the royal heir. People claimed there was none, fearing that Europeans would kill the real heir, Hishitile, as they had recently killed Mandume.
The existence of this heir seems to have been hidden for many years.
But far from wanting to kill the heir, the colonial authorities probably wanted to re-crown him as king - the very thing people in Ombalantu advocate today. Officials found it very difficult to rule a society like Ombalantu, where apparently ''no one was in charge''.
Throughout the colonial period, officials, especially Native Commissioner Hahn, known popularly as Shongola, claimed that the Ombalantu people were the least amenable to colonial rule and the most likely to break colonial laws. The administration wanted to have a strong leader in the region and gave a great deal of power to a senior headman, Aipanda (followed by Kalipi and Kaimbi), despite opposition from those who insisted they did not want a ''master'' over them and they were capable of running their affairs in the absence of centralised authority.
Indeed, much of Hishitile's popularity seemed to come from the fact that he did not exercise political authority. As Ombalantu residents debate whether or not to have a king, they need to ponder the message contained within the various stories about King Kamhaku and its relevance today.
The history of Ombalantu awaits further research and there are many questions which are not addressed in existing history books. What did the name Ohamuyala mean? Were there kings before Kamhaku and what were they like? If Kamhaku was the first king, as some traditions assert, and came from either Ombandja or Nkhumbi, why did people agree to let him become king? And has there really been agreement about the value of uukwanakatati in Ombalantu for the past hundred years or do the records mislead us in this respect? Is this debate over whether to restore kingship older than it currently seems to be? Did the royal clan really agree voluntarily to surrender power and remain happy with this decision? And who decided to name the Uutapi hospital after Kumhaku?

Ombalantu Baobab Tree

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