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Beliefs and Rites  

Water is such an important element in the lives of the Kunene basin people that it is an integral part of beliefs and rites. The box below describes the ancient tradition of rainmaking in the basin:

Green covered Serra Cafema after rainfall.
Source: © Ostby 2007
( click to enlarge )

Rainmaking Rituals in the Middle Kunene

The most powerful of the supernatural abilities of a Khumbi chief is that of “rain-making” (okulokesa), a talent which may not always be limited to the chief alone, and may also be found in his close relatives. God is seen as the potential Lord of the rain, but to make it fall and fertilise the earth the intervention of intermediaries is necessary. These intermediaries know how to employ the proper “remedy” and keep away the noxious influences that tend to prevent the earth from being blessed with this gift from God. The sacred and indispensable intermediary between God and the dry earth is therefore the chief or a member of his family. The ceremony used in the court of the "Nkumbi (Mutano)" to make the rain fall from the heavens traditionally included the libation stone called onthwei (“bull”), as well as the ritual pan. Among the Khumbi there was also a belief that rain-making power was connected with the marrow of the shoulder and shin bone of the reigning chief. After the death of a chief they therefore would wait until the body decomposed so that they could separate the bones of the right arm and leg and extract the marrow from them. This, mixed with butter, served as the ritual unguent for anointing the body of the heir and transmitting the aforesaid power, so that he would be capable of producing the beneficent rainfall.

Source: adapted from Estermann 1979

An important aspect in the culture of the Himba settling in the Lower Kunene basin are ancestral gravesites which are usually located along the banks of the Kunene River. The proximity of graveyards underscores the permanence of villages. They are focal points for defining identity and relationships to the land as well as gathering places for religious ceremonies (ERM 2009).

Himba graves.
Source: © Rasetti 2003
( click to enlarge )

The following text box cites a text of the NGO International Rivers highlighting the cultural importance of riverine gravesites in the Lower Kunene:

Riverine Gravesites

For the Himba, a grave is not just the location of the physical remains of a deceased person – it is a focal point for defining identity, social relationships and relationships with the land, as well as being a centre for important religious rituals. The preference for riverine locations is partly a practical one –– alluvial soils are usually deeper and easier to dig. But riverine areas are also heavily loaded with emotion, as the points where communities congregate, the starting points of the annual cattle migrations, the places where people struggled to survive droughts, and the sites of graves of other family members […].

Because graves demonstrate a continuity of settlement, they determine the influence of the "owner" of the land. The "owner" of a particular area is usually the oldest male member of a family who has been present there for generations. He does not normally have the right to exclude others entirely, but he will usually have the power to prevent outsiders from placing an unreasonable burden on scarce resources, and he will have an important say in communal decisions. The "owner" of the land will found his claim for political power on the numerous graves of generations of ancestors in the area. A family with only two or three generations of graves in a certain place will be "outsiders" who were allowed to use the land but have no right to change patterns of land tenure or to represent the interests of the area to those outside of it. Those who can demonstrate the longest connection with the land will have the strongest say over key land-related matters such as rights of access and control over resources. Because graves are so important in the land tenure system, senior elders can recall the location and identity of even the most ancient graves.

For example, in debates about issues such as naming a chief, permitting a trader into the area, or taking a stand on a development […], the Himba will point to the number of their ancestral graves as the major indicator of their right to influence a decision. Speakers will ask rhetorically, "Whose ancestral graves are older, ours or theirs?" The key point is not the physical fact of the graves themselves, but the connection between the graves, the family’s history and the community’s system of land tenure and decision–making […]. When told that the Epupa dam will flood large numbers of grave sites, many Himba have asked, "Who will then know who is owning the land?"

Source: International Rivers website 2010

The following box describes the washing rites traditionally practiced in the middle reaches of the Kunene basin by the Khumbi people:

Washing Rites

When a Khumbi woman lost her husband, the first part of the purification rite (okuliwaouya) consists of washing. The ceremony is performed on the banks of the Kunene River directly or the river water is carried to the place where the purification is to be performed. There are five magical ingredients that enter into the composition of the purifying water. In addition to this, the medicine (wo)man brings strings of white beads and a new hoe and marks the client with ritual chalk. An assistant sprinkles the purifying liquid over the widow's body while the medicine (wo)man proceeds to wash all the parts of the body, including the tongue. When the washing has been completed, the doctor gives the client a little of this same liquid to drink. After the cleansing, a symbolic conjugal act is performed. Once the ritual washing is completed, the body of the widow is rubbed with a powder made of omupanda bark. When the body is cleansed of all filth, the medicine man or medicine woman gathers all the accumulated crust which has adhered to the skin and forms it into a ball. He or she then puts the string of white beads around the client's waist. To conclude the ceremony, she/he takes the ball of dirt and buries it in a termite hill. The Khumbi call this final act of the ceremony okupata, a term meaning “close”, or “button up”; they consider that this rite locks away the time of bad luck, so that an era full of prosperity can begin.

Source: Adapted from Estermann 1979




Explore the sub-basins of the Kunene River

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