Ngandjera – the oshikoma and iipando Headdress

For centuries the Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi have occupied the western regions of the area formerly known as Ovamboland.  In the past the coiffures worn by their girls and women were of such stunning beauty that they were known far beyond their tribal areas. The Ngandjera were also known as blacksmiths and as traders of iron products. With the exception of the Kwanyama, women of the western and southern OvaWambo groups all used ox sinews for lengthening their hair. The differences that existed merely applied to the specific structures of headdresses. Especially the headdresses of Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi women were very similar.

Already at the age of ca twelve years young girls started to prepare their hair for later headdresses. For this purpose they covered their heads with pasta made of finely ground tree bark of the omutyuula-tree (Acacia reficiens) and oil of the fruit of the oshipeke-tree (Ximenia caffra). The headdress was known as onyangha.

Ngandjera/Kwaludhi, issued in 2002, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

Ngandjera/Kwaludhi, issued in 2002, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

Shortly afterwards the pasta was removed and, in order to straighten the hair, the fruit pips of the wild date (Phyllogeiton discolor) were attached to the hair by means of ox sinews. The headdress was referred to as omulenda.

Once the girls had reached the age of ca sixteen years they were called omufuko (pl. aafuko) and entitled to participate in the ohango initiation ceremony. After removing the fruit pips of the previous headdress the existing sinews were lengthened with additional sinews, which were suspending down over the back. Just before Kwaluudhi girls entered the ohango ceremony, their sinew strands were converted into at least four arched, hornlike structures, which were wrapped with red-coloured palm leaf strips. The colouring was achieved by leaving the palm leaf strips for some time in a mixture containing finely ground particles of the root of a half-rotten Rhodesian Teak, which had coloured the mixture red. The “horns”, known as oshipando (pl. iipando), were dangling over the shoulders. Ngandjera girls instead left their sinew strands hanging loosely and a special hairpiece, the so-called oshikoma, was fastened on the back of their heads. It consisted of a thick bushel of hair, which was kept in position by red palm leaf strips, which were wrapped around it. In order to increase hair growth, the hair bushel was sometimes covered with the pasta of finely ground tree bark and oil. Some girls also attached ivory buttons to the back of the head, which were worn as pendants.

Ngandjera woman. Photo taken by A. Scherz (1940s); source: Collection Antje Otto

Ngandjera woman. Photo taken by A. Scherz (1940s); source: Collection Antje Otto

Once the Ngandjera girls were adorned with the oshikoma and the Kwaluudhi girls had the iipando made, the ohango ceremony could proceed. According to historical sources the term “ohango” can be translated as “time of suffering” or “to suffer” as it was regarded as a fitness and pregnancy test for the girls. In the olden times the ohango ceremony lasted at least four days. During this time the aafuko-girls had to sit squeezed together tightly in blazing temperatures in a palisaded enclosure. The only food they were allowed to consume were two drops of corn juice, which they were given on the fourth day. Apparently the ceremony was formerly of such harsh nature that some girls succumbed. However, during the 1960s, it only lasted two days und was no longer accompanied by the extreme harshness of the old days. Apparently in those years the ceremony did no longer take place in the Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi areas, but in the neighbouring Ombalantu-area.

After the ohango was over, the girls were regarded marriageable. The Ngandjera girls converted their long hanging sinew strands into two “horns”, which were also known as iipando. The oshikoma and the iipando were worn by married women for many years.

As a result of the increasing activities of missionaries, migrant labour and the influences of the Administration, the old dress pattern gradually disappeared and already during the 1960s very little was left of it. The oshikoma and iipando headdress of Ngandjera women was still worn during the 1970s in the form of wigs. The palm leaves had been replaced by shiny, red plastic band.

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Warmbad’s Mission House – the oldest Building in Namibia

Little does the uninformed visitor realize, which fascinating history lies hidden behind the white washed walls of the old mission house in Warmbad. Its old base walls and foundations make this house the oldest existing building in Namibia. Yet, sadly it has never been declared a national monument.

The origin of the old mission house dates back to the year 1808, when the brothers Abraham and Christian Albrecht of the London Missionary Society and a colleague Bastiaan Tromp built three tiny dwellings at this very site. Their mission effort was short-lived though as Abraham Albrecht died in 1810 and his brother Christian had to flee from Warmbad in 1811. Shortly afterwards Jager Afrikaner – the father of Jonker Afrikaner – destroyed the entire station. However, in 1812 the reverend Schmelen found the burnt walls of the houses still intact. The reverend J.L. Ebner, who came to Warmbad in 1818 and built a rush hut inside the burnt remains of Abraham Albrecht’s house to serve as temporary shelter, confirmed this.

Mission house and church of Warmbad in 1876 (Photo: W.C. Palgrave)
Mission house and church of Warmbad in 1876 (Photo: W.C. Palgrave)

In 1834, the reverend Edward Cook of the Wesleyan Mission Society arrived at Warmbad. He immediately set out to build a house on the existing ground walls of the old mission house of Abraham Albrecht. The teacher and mason Peter Links assisted him. The wood for the house was fetched from the Orange River, while the rushes were obtained a day’s journey from Warmbad. By September 1834, a two-storied house, built according to the so-called ‘kapsteilhuis’, had been finished. Typical for this type of home were the massive chimneystacks of the open hearths situated at both ends of the house. The house had two rooms on ground level, while another one – the loft – was situated above a reed ceiling and a thick layer of mud. It was accessible via an external staircase through a doorway in one gable. The directly adjoining remains of the house of Christian Albrecht were soon re-built into a church. The roofs of both buildings were thatched.

As Warmbad was situated on the main wagon road connecting the Cape with Great Namaqualand and areas further north, the mission station became an ideal stop-over for many missionaries, travelers, hunters and scientists. Among the first were Sir James E. Alexander in 1836 and the reverend J. Tindall in 1840. He not only assisted Cook by extending and improving the mission house and the church but also became one of his successors in 1851.

The backside of the old mission house in Warmbad today (photo: Gondwana Collection)

The backside of the old mission house in Warmbad today (photo: Gondwana Collection)

During the Nama war, German soldiers occupied the mission house. When the Dutch reverend Herman Nyhof arrived at Warmbad in 1907, the buildings were in a desolate condition and it took him a long time to repair all the damage. During the First World War, the mission house served as barracks for the Union troops. After reverend Nyhof’s death in 1936 the buildings were, once again, in a sad state of neglect and some of them were so disintegrated that they posed a danger. Part of the mission house – probably the loft – collapsed later and it was resolved to close it. With the exception of a few years during the 1960s, the mission house stood empty and was only occasionally occupied by visiting missionaries and evangelists.

During the course of a clean-up and restoration action in Warmbad in 2005, the old mission house was also upgraded. It is hoped that it will soon find a caring occupant, who will restore it to its former glory and that the National Heritage Council will finally proclaim the building a national heritage site.

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