Mbalantu – The eembuvi-plaits of the Women

The Mbalantu live in the extreme northern parts of the Omusati Region and part of their tribal area extends into southern Angola. As they take a rather insignificant position among the OshiWambo-speaking groups, they were neither frequented by early traders during the nineteenth century nor did they participate in the agreements, which were signed between the German Government and various OvaWambo chiefs in 1908. Mission stations were also only founded much later, which contributed towards the Mbalantu having retained some of their traditions, e.g. the skills to make handsome pottery and the rather spectacular headdresses of their women, for a much longer period of time than some of the other tribes. At the age of approximately twelve years, Mbalantu girls started preparing their hair for later headdresses. As among the Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi, the Mbalantu girls also covered their hair with a thick layer of finely ground tree bark of the omutyuula tree (Acacia reficiens), which was mixed with oil. The mixture was applied to improve hair growth. A few years later the thick fat-mixture was loosened so that the hair became visible. Subsequently, fruit pips of the bird plum were attached to the hair ends with the aid of sinew strings.

Mbalantu, issued in 1997, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

Mbalantu, issued in 1997, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

If a girl had reached the age of sixteen years, the headdress consisting of fruit pips was discarded and instead long sinew strands, which often reached the ground, were attached to the hair. According to reports dating to the early 1900s, some 80 strings of sinew were sometimes used.

Just before the girls could enter the ohango initiation ceremony, the long sinew strands were converted into two or four thick plaits, which were known as eembuvi. They were hanging down on the sides of the head and at the back. Sometimes small ornaments, which were adorned with white porcelain beads, were attached above the forehead at the base of the plaits. If one considers that the plaits remained part of the head of the girls for day and night, one can imagine the extreme exertion the young girls had to go through during the initiation ceremony, which was just about to commence.

The eembuvi-plaits of Mbalantu women. Photo: CHL Hahn, Collection Antje Otto

The eembuvi-plaits of Mbalantu women. Photo: CHL Hahn, Collection Antje Otto

If the girls had managed to proceed through the initiation ceremony, they were called “brides” (ovafuko). At this stage another thick layer of ground tree bark and fat was applied onto the head. Various ornaments made from beads were attached on top. Finally, the long plaits were taken up and arranged in a specific manner along the sides of the head and at the back, where they were attached. According to historical reports this headdress was a “mighty coiffure” and its weight was of such nature, that the upper ends thereof were often attached to a piece of rope or skin, which was fastened around the forehead in order to distribute the weight more evenly. The front edge of the coiffure, which was known as omhatela, was often decorated with a band of large, white beads (omawe gomupolo). At the back just below the omhatela a leather strip decorated with cowrie-shells was also sometimes attached. The young girls were now regarded as married. The omhatela-coiffure was often worn long years after marriage

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OvaHimba – The Ekori-Headdress of the Women

In contrast to all other Namibian culture groups, the OvaHimba have retained their age-old prescribed sets of skin clothes, headdresses and ornaments due to their natural conservatism and geographic isolation until fairly recently. Traditionally, the OvaHimba are pastoralists and the majority still follows a semi-nomadic way of life. They are OtjiHerero-speaking and live in the arid northwestern parts of Namibia and in South Western Angola. Their social structure is characterized by the practice of double descent, which means that a person’s kinship ties are traced both matrilineally as well as patrilineally.

Himba, issued in 2002, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

Himba, issued in 2002, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

Upon marriage, a young woman will leave her parents’ homestead (onganda) and will move to that of her husband. Both, men and women wear various headdresses, of which each symbolizes a specific position within the community and a specific phase in life. Girls of pre-puberty age wear a variety of plaitlets, while slightly older girls wear loose-hanging strands, which are tied backwards after the initiation ceremony, thus denoting marriageable age. In the past, all newly married women wore the so-called ekori-headdress, which was worn until the first child was born or until a period of twelve to eighteen months had passed. However, already during the 1980s, the wearing of the ekori had become increasingly uncommon, possibly as a result of the effort involved to make it, and today it is seldom seen except during ceremonial occasions. The ekori is made of tanned sheep- or goatskin and has three leaf-shaped prongs, which resemble the ears of cattle.

The young woman, instructed by older women, makes the ekori herself. The upper section of the ekori is kept in its vertical position by reinforcing parts studded with iron beads. The structure of the ekori can vary considerably but the rolled-up veil in front and the three prongs are always retained. Women wearing the ekori, are subject to a large number of taboos, such as food restrictions and the observance of special rules of conduct in the husband’s onganda. After a woman has given birth to her first child or when the village head considers the taboo-period as over, he will invite her to participate in the meat tasting ceremony (makera) one day. Once she has participated in this ceremony, she is regarded a fully-fledged member of her husband’s patrilineage. Closely related to the makera-ceremony is another ceremony whereby her ekori is removed. One morning, while she is milking, the village head enters the cattle enclosure unobserved and tears the ekori off her head.

Ekori headdress (1930s). Photo: CHL Hahn (Collection Antje Otto)

Ekori headdress (1930s). Photo: CHL Hahn (Collection Antje Otto)

He hides it somewhere and the young woman, obviously much ashamed of being without a headdress, is given the erembe-headdress instead. In recent times, women generally wear a strip of brown cloth or leather during the period between the first and second child’s birth. It is attached above the forehead and its loose end points to the back. The erembe-headdress, which is made of the head skin of a sheep or goat, is worn throughout most of a woman’s life in everyday life. Even old women may wear the erembe, which indicates that they still play an active role in their communities. An essential part of women’s headdresses are the plaits, which are gradually lengthened. For this purpose they may even buy hair from other women. Red ochre paste (otjize) is applied to all body parts, clothes and blankets. It is obtained from red ochre stones, which are found at a local mine and ground into a fine substance. The powder is mixed with fat and carried in ox horn containers (onya). During her later lifetime a woman wears the ekori-headdress only during times of bereavement or mourning, e.g. upon the death of her husband or during certain other ceremonies. If a woman passes away, her corpse is taken to the grave in full dress, including her ekori, which is only removed together with necklaces and clothing just before the funeral. Her ekori is handed back to her family as a visual sign of her death.

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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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