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Coming home – a wedding to remember

Avatar of inke inke 11. May 2017 - Culture, Discover Namibia

Professor Mburumba Kerina and his wife Naomi (Kikii) Zauana.

‘Welcome’, the heart-shaped sign above the gate of the homestead beamed in bright yellow. It was the first thing I spotted as we arrived at the homestead in Okomumbonde in eastern Namibia for the 3-day traditional Herero wedding. The red sand of the Kalahari spread out like a carpet between the abundant green grass of a good summer and the gnarled camelthorn trees, the namesake of the area.

For 84-year-old Kerina, who spent decades in exile petitioning for an independent country, his wedding was one of the most significant times in his life. “This is the weekend that makes and restores me,” he said.

Prof. Kerina had been instrumental in naming Namibia. He had a chance to sit with us in the sandy yard before he delivered the two young cows and the sum of money requested by his wife’s father for the ‘lobola’ (dowry). Huge cooking pots, used to feed his guests, sizzled on the fire and several tents were dotted about, their occupants still finishing off their lunch. He reminded us how when he was a young man studying political science in Indonesia, President Sukarno had asked him: “My son, what is the name of your country?” Sukarno wasn’t satisfied when the young Kerina replied that it was called South West Africa. “Slaves and dogs are named by their masters,” he said, “but free men name themselves.” He suggested Kerina write an article proposing a name and publish it in the journal for the ministry of foreign affairs. The words stayed with him for many years.

Their time came when Kerina had completed his studies and joined a team at the UN - at the suggestion of the well-known Namibian leader, Hosea Kutako - petitioning for an independent country. He remembered Sukarno’s words and tried to think of a neutral name that would encompass all the country’s ethnic groups. After much deliberation, he came up with the name ‘Namib’, ‘the vast place’, a name that refers to the ancient desert that shields the country on its western flank. He suggested that when the country gained its independence, it be known as the ‘Republic of Namib’ and that the country’s nationalism be known as Namibianism. The name filtered into the consciousness of SWAPO and the UN, and was adopted by the nations of the world, finally evolving into the current name ‘Namibia’.

After Namibia gained its independence in 1990, Kerina returned to the country. He now had a chance to get to know his birthplace, to come to terms with his origins and to return to his people. This culminated in his wedding to Naomi (Kikii) Zauana on a sunny Autumn weekend in the Omaheke, the area where his mentor, Hosea Kutako, had once lived.

It was enough talking for the moment. The cows were becoming increasingly impatient in the back of the vehicle and the wedding car was waiting to transport the groom for the first part of the ceremony. This was not simply a matter of his representatives delivering the lobola. As was customary in Herero tradition, it involved much bantering between the family groups. “The cows are not red enough.” “They are wild.” Why are you driving in, you can park at the gate.” And so on. It was all expected and in good spirit. Eventually, the cows were unloaded, the cash counted and the ceremony proceeded with ‘outjina’ – traditional singing. 

As the golden afternoon sunshine lit up the homestead, women - dressed flamboyantly in the long traditional dresses and characteristic ‘cow-horn’ headdresses of the Herero - sang, clapped and stamped their feet in the sand, sending dusty tendrils into the air. A wedding ring was delivered by the groom’s cousin and placed on the finger of the bride, who had sat patiently for most of the week in a room in her father’s house, specially decorated in white and gold. Before the sun set and everyone returned to their camps for the night, a contingent from the bride’s family carried a chair, burning branch, pillow, blanket and cooking pot to the groom to comfort him during the lonely night.

When the roosters and the cows began to greet the day, it was time for the groom to select two cows from his father-in-law’s cattle to be slaughtered for the ceremony. With this done, the festivities were now underway in earnest with the meat cooking over the fire for the guests. And, as befits a culture which revolves around cattle, several rich rituals followed, with the rib and a piece from the upper back of the cow taken to the bride and groom during the course of the day to symbolise the joining of the families and the bonding of the couple. The guests could now mingle freely to celebrate and dance the night away to the lively tunes of Namibian singer, Big Ben. The music floated under the night sky that glistened benevolently with the constellations of the southern hemisphere.

There was one last tradition to conclude the wedding ceremony on the Sunday morning. The couple listened attentively to advice given by the bride’s father and uncles, after which they were finally allowed to depart the homestead as man and wife.

As we made to leave the wedding venue, there was an aspect of the wedding that strongly remained with me. It ran like a deep stream below the surface. It was also something that Prof. Kerina had mentioned. “My family is married into virtually every ethnic group in the country,” he had told us as he sat, dressed immaculately in his wedding suit. And, I had seen many of the various cultural groups present at the wedding, testament to his family’s fascinating history. The diverse guest complement was entirely appropriate for the man who had unified the country by giving it the name ‘Namibia’, the name that has identified and inspired a nation.

And, importantly, as he had wished, the wedding marked the return to his roots, his people and his country. He had finally come full circle. He had come home.

The ‘Welcome’ sign painted in the heart above the gate was the last thing I saw as we drove away from the wedding on Omaheke’s dusty red roads.

Ron Swilling

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