Namibia's cultural inventions.
This article will prove the reasonable validity of the cultural invention assertion and then earn the right to ask, if invented once, why not invent again--especially in light of cultural practices that do not promote gender equality, freedom of choice and non-violence.
Culture is often treated as permanent, when it is in fact dynamic and responsive to events. Zeleza's pronouncement on the invention of African identities forces us to re-examine blanket statements such as "this is how we have always done things in our culture" in response to inquiry. In a country as culturally diverse as Namibia we would do well to examine our cultures for the good and bad therein instead of unthinkingly defending often questionable behaviour with the words, "it's my culture". What is your culture? Are you sure? We treat culture as a static reality of do's and don'ts passed on from one generation to the next despite our existence in a dynamic and ever-changing environmental, social, political, and economic reality.
Namibia officially came into existence only twenty-five years ago. Prior to German colonisation no unified territory or political unit existed by any name that could later be renamed Namibia. It was Imperial Germany that decided on the lengths of our borders, the size of our territory and precisely circumscribed Deutsch Sudwest-Alfika (DSWA) on a map on the African continent. The creation of DSWA at the Berlin Conference of 1884 and the subsequent arrival of German setders in southern Africa changed the cultural landscape of the area later to become Namibia irrevocably, and tellingly, those changes are still in existence today, reflected by the majority of cultural groups recognised in Namibia.
With the exception of the San (Bushmen), none of the existing cultural and linguistic groups in modern Namibia are indigenous to the country. The Damara is thought to be the first Bantu group from West Africa to settle in the area. The Aawambo tribes are said to have settled in northern Namibia and southern Angola during the late 1600s, after migrating south along the coast from West Africa. The Ovaherero is said to have settled in north eastern Namibia 350 years ago but the group split and a section migrated further south to central and eastern Namibia approximately 150 years ago, leaving behind the Ovahimba and the Tjimba groups still living in north-eastern Namibia today. The Lozi of the Zambezi region (previously the "Caprivi Strip") settled in the area known today as Zambia (previously North Rhodesia) after fleeing the mfecane by the Zulu in eastern South Africa. The Namaqua, indigenous to South Africa, moved north into Namibia during the late 1700s fleeing slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, a Dutch colony at the time. After the abolishment of slavery by the British in the Cape Colony, the Baster trekked and settled in south central Namibia in 1868. German settlers arrived in Deutsch Sudwest-Afrika in 1884, followed by Boers from South Africa. We all say it is our country, yet we came from afar.
Colonisation and German occupation of DSWA resulted in conflict between German farmers, the Ovaherero and Namaqua tribes, in particular, and came to a head with the proclamation of an 'Extermination Order' issued by Lothar von Trotha in 1904. It is estimated 80 000 Ovaherero and 10 000 Nama were killed as a consequence of the order, while many more perished in concentration camps. Paradoxically modern Ovaherero cultural narratives appear to be fixed in history and centre on this genocide. Only remnants of pre-colonial narratives exist in relation to the natural environment and the Ovaherero way of life as evidenced by the content of the groups extensive oral and musical tradition. Whereas pre-colonial Ovaherero groups fashioned garments from the hides of wildlife and cattle, after the genocide (1904-1908), the surviving Ovaherero adopted German colonial attire as cultural dress. Ovaherero women still wear colonial-style Victorian dresses indicative of a traumatic period in the groups history while Ovaherero men wear German colonial cavalry-style uniforms.
The Nama groups that settled in Namibia after fleeing slavery at the Cape of Good Hope were for the most part Christian and bilingual, fluent in both "high" Dutch and Khoekhoegawab. After the devastating genocide in between 1904 and 1908, the Nama were employed as workers on the farms of German settlers and Afrikaners in DSWA. Close contact with Europeans changed the lifestyles and traditional dress of women. Namibian Nama women have adopted the servants uniform and apron of the period following the genocide, as traditional attire.
The arrival of missionaries in northern Namibia in 1862 and conversion to Christianity also brought about significant changes in the culture of the Aawambo. At the time of the arrival of the missionaries, there were no textile mills to weave and print fabric in southern Africa. Textiles and fabrics for sewing garments were ordered by ship from Europe or the Far East. One such striped fabric was used to sew full-length dresses for Oshiwambo women and is known today as "ondelela" worn as traditional attire, particular to the northern groups in Namibia.
The Baster were born into slavery on the farms of Dutch settlers in the Cape of Good Hope. After the abolishment of slavery in 1834, increasing prejudice and marginalisation by the Afrikaners, the group trekked out of the Cape Colony and settled in the northern Cape and south-central Namibia. Their heritage is originally Khoekhoe and Dutch but at its annual commemoration of Sam IKhubis outside Rehoboth, the group proudly wears the Dutch-style dresses and head adornments favoured by their slavemasters and acknowledges little cultural affiliation with existing Khoekhoe groups.
Based on the examples above, it is clear that Paul Tiyambe Zeleza was correct in asserting at the 2006 linguistics conference that African identities (or "culture") are inventions. Modern Namibia was invented, created and delineated by imperial Germany. The 1904-1908 genocide and Christianity affected Namibian cultures profoundly; cultural narratives expanded, cultural identities were consolidated under colonialism and most visibly, resulted in African adaptations of European dress for the purposes of traditional attire. When the area was administered as a mandate (but actually a fifth province) of Apartheid South Africa, grand liberation narratives employed by political parties to unite the people of the country against Apartheid, evolved into "one Namibia" (a unified territory) for a unified Namibian nation, a brand-new culture.
Culture and tradition are thus not what we have always done, how we have always dressed or what our rituals have always been, but what they have become over time. Looking at the realities of climate change, being solely dependent on nature for sustenance because our culture requires it, poses survival risks. Living isolated from technological and educational advancement similarly poses its own survival threats. We have to acknowledge, our "traditional" clothes, as the most visible mark of our cultures were inventions not of our own making. Our national and tribal narratives, to a great extent, also have a recent origin mostly in relation to the coloniser. Who we have become is thus not as original and self-defining as we probably believed up to the confrontation with Zelezas claim. But. Who and what we can become in a conscious pursuit to forge an identity in line with requirements for the future, is up to us.