Women Rule: Kavango Female Chiefs

Romanus Shiremo

People of the Kavango region have, traditionally, followed a matrilineal system where issues of succession and inheritance follow the mother's line.
This means that women within the royal family have the right to succeed a deceased ruler in contrast to many societies where women were excluded from power.
If we look at history, at least five women became chiefs among the VaKwangali, four among the VaShambuyu and two among the VaGciriku were women whilst a third was assassinated by a male rival. There may also have been other women leaders in VaMbunza  and Hambukushu communities. One informant told me that women were remembered positively because they had been less interested accumulating personal wealth (even through the sale of people) and had not followed the practice of male chiefs of claimimg other men's wives as their own. Rulers who were remembered as having taken wives of others included Kandjimi (1910-1924) and Sivute (1941-1958) of the Vakwangali and Nyangana (1879-1924) and Shampapi (1924-1944) of the VaGciriku. It was also claimed that women leaders did not resort to assassination to gain power. In contrast, Kandjimi is believed to have killed his own blood brother, Sirongo, his cousin, Siteketa, in order to succeed Chief Himarua. Another example is Nyangana who, in his bid to succeed Muhera, is said to have assassinated his own aunt, Princess Kunyima. The lives of three women leaders will be considered in some more detail, Chiefness Kanuni of the VaKwangali, Chiefness Maria Mwengere of the VaShambuyu and Princess Kunyima of the VaGciriku. When Kandjima died at Grootfontein in 1924, Mbuna, her younger brother, was to succeed him, but because he was still young, Kanuni acted as Regent and then became the ruler in 1926 following the death of her brother. It was said during her reign she was mistreated by her brother, Sivute. One day he severely flogged her maid on the river bank whilst she was fishing. Kanuni went to the scene armed with a stick and physically fought with her brother, whilst 'commoners' afraid to intervene in a royal dispute, watched. They admired her courage. It was reported that after this Sivute collaborated with white Native Commissioner in a smear campaign against Kanuni.
The Commissioner, Mr. Eedes, accused Kanuni of allowing child prostitution in her kingdom and not sufficiently encouraging men to join the contract labour system. In 1941 Kanuni, hearing that she was about to be deposed by the administration, went into exile in Angola - only returning to rule again in 1958 following the death of Sivute. When Chief Mbambangandu II of the Vashambyu became blind he asked his headmen to select a new ruler. They selected the young Mwengere who would rule for forty years  (1947-1987). Today a school, a youth camp and a road in Rundu are all named after her. In the mid-1970s it was said that she verbally confronted a white female teacher who was reported to be mistreating her learners.
I remember as a small boy, in about 1985, hearing the Chief talking about the way Koevoet were mistreating people. She said "Anwe va kukuti-vakukuti, mwasha pumaghuranga vantu mavoko-voko" (You Koevoets should not beat people without any reason). Princess Kunyima was a sister of Chief Muhera. Following his death, both Kunyima and Muhera's nephew, Princess Nyangana, competed for the Chieftainship. In the war of words that followed, Kunyima was said to have rallied the support of the VaGciriku, whilst Nyangana gained the support from the VaShambyu and VaKwangali. One early morning, whilst Kunyima was still sleeping, Nyangana went to her hut and asked her to come out and reconcile, but then when she put her head out of the door, he shot her between the eyes. Nyangana became the Gciriku Chief. It is said that after taking power Nyangana invited warriors from the Batawana of Sekgoma to dispose of Prince Kanyetu of the VaShambyu who had married one of Nyangana's wives who had fled to his territory. As many Batawana were killed in the battle with Kanyetu they decided to take revenge on the Gciriku Chief and this resulted in the Lishora Massacre of 1893. Would this tragedy have taken place if Kunyima had been successful in her campaign for the chieftainship. It is clear that such examples from history should help inspire women of today for the highest positions of leadership, even the Presidency, after all there has been a positive tradition of women leaders in Namibia.


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