Omagongo Festival – An intangible cultural heritage of humanity - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection
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Omagongo Festival – An intangible cultural heritage of humanity

Avatar of inke inke - 08. May 2019 - Culture

The guard of honour for the dignatories at the Omugongo Festival. (Photo: Willie Olivier)

Willie Olivier

The Aawambo have lived in harmony with their environment since time immemorial and utilized trees, shrubs and non-wood forest products for a variety of purposes. Fruits are consumed fresh, dried, used for non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, beer, jam and oil used for cooking or as a skin moisturiser. The fruits also provide food security, especially during periods of drought, and are an important source of income for rural families who sell them at local markets and even as far away as Windhoek and beyond.

But if there is one tree that is of special significance to the Aawambo it is the Omugongo or Marula tree. It is much valued as a shade tree and is conspicuous in fields and close to homesteads and provides a variety of products. But it is especially renowned for its Omagongo, a refreshing white coloured wine made from its fruit.



A Marula tree or Omugongo as the Aawambo call it. (Photo: Willie Olivier)

The collection and processing of the fruit creates opportunities for women to socialize and to pass on knowledge about the process to the younger generation to keep the culture alive. The round to oval-shaped fruits (Oongongo) are produced for four and eight weeks between late January and April/May. They are still green when they fall off the trees and ripen after two to four days. Groups of women and girls over the age of five collect the fallen fruits in small heaps under the trees and sort them according to their quality.

The extraction of the juice usually takes place in the early afternoon and neighbours are invited to help. Brews of Omagongo, a name which means ‘water of the marula’ are usually made from single trees, but the fruits of different trees are sometimes combined. The sharp edge of a cow horn is used to pierce the fruit’s leathery skin and is then twisted around the nut to squeeze the juice into a basket or container. The juice is transferred to a clay pot which is covered with a cloth and stored in a cool, dark place to ferment for between one and four days. Sweet marula juice takes longer to ferment and is more intoxicating.

Omagongo is brewed in most households during the fruiting season and the first brew was traditionally presented to the chief or the king. It is also served to guests and the juice can be preserved for almost a year when it is stored underground in clay pots.  Juice made from the pulp and water is drunk as a beverage by women and children.

A Marula Procession at the Omagongo Festival. (Photo: Willie Olivier)

The arrival of the Marula season was traditionally celebrated separately by the eight Aawambo communities (Aandonga, Aakwanyama, Aakwambi, Aangandjera, Aakwaluudhi, Aambalantu, Aakolonkadi and Ovambadja), but has been rotated annually since 2001 when the first combined festival was held in Ongandjera. Most importantly, it was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2015. The festival brings communities together, celebrates the Aawambo’s connection with nature and reinforces their culture, customs and heritage.

This year’s festival was held over the weekend of 26 and 27 April at the ombala (palace) of Ongandjera King Johannes Mupongolitha Tweuthigilwa Tshoombe Mupiya under the theme – “Omagongo Our Heritage/Uuthiga Wetu.” The two-day programme featured talks on the history of Ongandjera and the Omagongo Cultural Festival, Oshiwambo cultural festivals, stories narrated around the fire and numerous cultural performances.  There was also the inevitable delivery of speeches by a line-up of dignitaries which included the host, Namibia’s Founding President and patron of the Omagongo Cultural Festival Sam Nujoma, Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa and Vice President Nangolo Mbumba who delivered the keynote address.

The 2020 festival will be held in the Ombalantu area. 

Impressions of the Omagongo Festival: traditional dances and the Ongandjera king Johannes Mupongolitha Tweuthigilwa Tshoombe Mupiya. (Photos: Willie Olivier)

What makes the Marula tree truly amazing is the wide variety of products that are derived from it. The flesh surrounding the hard nut has a sweet-sour taste which is suggestive of a mixture of litchi, guava and pineapple. It contains citric acid, malic acid and sugar and up to 180mg of Vitamin C per 100g – two-and-a-half times as much as orange juice. The flesh of the ripe fruit is eaten as a snack or used to make jam and marula jelly. 

The pulp and the nuts squeezed out of the skins are placed in separate containers and the nuts are dried in the sun, stored and traditionally processed after the main harvest. The sharp edge of an axe is used to open the nut, while the kernels are extracted with a needle or a flattened nail. The skins are later used as fertiliser.

The oil content of the kernels is close to 46%, while the protein content is about 28%. The kernels, which are sometimes roasted, have a nutty taste and are used in the beer-making process. To extract the oil (Ondjove), which is used for cooking, eaten with porridge or used as natural skin care products, the kernels are pounded in a pestle with a mortar. Eedi, the oil cake that is left in the mortar, is used as a food additive or eaten as a snack. It is an important nutritional supplement, especially during the late dry season and the early rainy season. The Omungongo also has a variety of medicinal uses. A root extract is used to relieve toothache, while ear infections are treated with the bark and Marula oil. The leaves are used to treat tonsillitis, the branches as a remedy for coughing and the sticks as a cure for heartburn.

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