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Review of Aawambo Kingdoms: History and Cultural Change


By Will Jackson

Aawambo Kingdoms, History and Cultural Change. Perspectives from Northern Namibia. Lovisa T. Nampala and Vilho Shigwedha. P.Schlettwein Publishing, Switzerland, 2006. Pp.275. ISBN 3-908193-16-8 (pb). CHF 48.00

In 1851, Francis Galton encountered King Nangolo dhAmutenya of Ondonga, one of the seven kingdoms of, what is today, Northern Namibia. As was customary, the white man came bearing gifts, in this case a theatrical crown that Galton had purchased in Drury Lane. According to Galton’s account, Nangolo accepted the crown with alacrity, though Nangolo’s own gift to Galton of his niece – “offered, presumably, as a temporary wife” – was received with less enthusiasm.

This is a minor anecdote but its inclusion in this volume is illuminating. As explorers, missionaries, and, later, the officers of the colonial state, arrived in Africa, they brought with them constellations of belief and practice alien to socio-cultural formations already in place. By offering a European crown to an African king, Galton was subverting indigenous tradition, and yet Nangolo, seeing the opportunity that such novelties presented, did not hesitate to take the prize.

Vilho Shigwedha and Lovisa T. Nampala here set out to reconstruct the social and cultural effects of the arrival of Europeans in the Aawambo kingdoms of Northern Namibia. In so doing, they seek to retrieve the ‘authentic’ significance of pre-colonial African culture, for so long dismissed or misunderstood; as ‘heathen’ by the missionaries, as ‘primitive’ by the anthropologists and as ‘savage’ or ‘backward’ by the colonial officials who came to rule over them. Guided by an overarching intention to refute the mistaken assumptions of colonial ethnography, Shigwedha and Nampala depict the intricacy and sophistication of African cultural practice before and during a century of transformation.

While Shigwedha and Nampala share the (unsurprising) belief that the missionary and colonial presence contributed to the decline of indigenous African culture, they also show how African cultures have resisted, responded to and adapted themselves towards the arrival of the Europeans. The two accounts, presented side by side, offer fresh perspectives on the colonial encounter.

Yet more significant, however, is the role this research may play in the process of decolonization still ongoing in Africa and elsewhere. Namibia, it should not be forgotten, did not gain independence until 1990. The University of Namibia was not founded until 1992. These two authors, the first Namibians to have obtained a Masters degree in history from the university, are at the front-line of a new historiography; written by Namibian historians and researched from oral sources.

Nampala’s study examines the impact of Finnish missionaries on three kingdoms in Northern Namibia in the century since their first arrival in 1870, aiming to show how traditional ceremonies common to all three kingdoms were ‘challenged and transformed’ following the introduction of Christianity. In doing so, Nampala sketches the contradictions at the heart of the civilizing mission, locating tensions at the fault line between the missionary project to ‘convert Africans into Europeans’ and the reification of ‘tradition’ by the colonial state as the necessary means to upholding indirect rule.

Nampala’s most original contribution, however, is his recovery of meaning embodied within Aavawambo cultural practice, for so long misconstrued by the Western gaze. Focusing in turn on marriage, rainmaking, circumcision, burial of the deceased and the naming of infants, Nampala provides an ‘authentic’ anthropology. A second chapter, dedicated to Ovawambo religious belief, draws parallels with Christianity, reclaiming a right to ‘truth’ and avoiding the binary distinctions between Europe and Africa; then and now; ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Shigwedha’s thesis develops Nampala’s work by narrowing the analytical focus to examine the contested cultural meaning of clothing. Like Nampala, Shigwedha’s initial intent is one of rebuttal; Africans were no less ‘naked’ than Europeans simply because they did not wear European clothes. By documenting the social value of ‘traditional’ clothing, Shigwedha offers insights into gender, wealth, status and identity in the pre-colonial Aavawambo world before examining how such social value was undermined, not only by the cultural imperialism of the missionaries but also by the economic exigencies of the colonial state. Finally, Shigwedha considers ways in which cultural change was instrumentalised by Africans themselves. Opportunities to mimic European styles offered increased social mobility for some, while providing new ways to display old power for those most able to seize the white man’s crown.

At base, both Shigwedha and Nampala are dealing with ‘tradition’ - that thorn in the postcolonial side. In places, the word alludes to a ‘pure’ African culture. But there are dangers here; of essentialising the African past and positing a fixed and coherent cultural world. Elsewhere, the authors talk of tradition as the vital link between past and present and thus not only capable of change but meaningless without it. In this regard, the book would have benefited from a clearer conceptual statement of what tradition might be taken to mean. Nevertheless, these two theses, as the first of their kind, do much to reclaim a Namibian past.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 88-90]

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