Traditional jewellery – rich in symbolism and style

A breath of the ocean – Seabreeze Guesthouse Swakopmund
August 28, 2012
Namibia – Back to living off nature
August 28, 2012
A breath of the ocean – Seabreeze Guesthouse Swakopmund
August 28, 2012
Namibia – Back to living off nature
August 28, 2012

by Amy Schoeman

In Namibia, as in other countries, the tradition of adorning the body goes back thousands of years. Evidence of this is found not only in rock art, but also by archaeologists during excavations. An example is an oval ornamental piece found by Namibian anthropologist/ archaeologist Dr Beatrice Sandelowsky in a grave estimated to be between 250 and 300 years old in the Rehoboth District. The piece is about 8 cm by 5 cm and consists of iron beads arranged in a row with a border of red and green glass beads of the type referred to as cane beads. These are beads made from strings of glass that have been cut into smaller sections. An interesting aspect of this kind of bead is that it has a different colour on the inside than on the outside, and probably came from Europe or India. The iron beads were trade beads and could have been made locally, in all likelihood by nomadic people speaking the Khoi or San languages.

Himba necklace

The title figure in the Brandberg’s famous White Lady rock painting is wearing several adornments, including a decorative head-dress, bands on the upper arms, a belt down to the legs and bands on the legs down to the ankles. In all probability these bands consisted of leather decorated with ostrich eggshell beads.

A wide range of pendants has been found in archaeological deposits, mostly consisting of ostrich eggshell and bone, sometimes engraved or incised with geometrical patterns consisting of lines, circles and dots. Copper beads dating back hundreds of years left by nomadic people, Khoisan as well as Bantu-speaking, have also been found.

Today it is primarily the Himba people of Kaokoland who still adorn themselves with traditional jewellery according to ancient customs. Both men and women wear large numbers of necklaces, arm bracelets, sometimes almost like sleeves, made from ostrich eggshell beads, grass, cloth and copper and weighing as much as 40 kg, as well as bracelets around the legs. Iron oxide powder with its shiny effect is worn as a cosmetic like western glitter, while ochre mixed with fat is rubbed into the skin to give it a warm terracotta glow.

The tradition of the ornamental hairstyle

Elaborate hairstyles were particularly prolific among the Owambo-speaking peoples, and differed from tribe to tribe. They mainly characterise the different stages of a woman’s life. For example, there were hairstyles worn by girls long before puberty, just before puberty, during puberty and after puberty. When the girls in the largest Owambo group, the Kwanyama, reached the age of approximately 12, a mixture of fat and olukula (a powder obtained from the crushed root of wild teak, Pterocarpus angolensis) was rubbed into the hair. When they reached the age of 16, another mixture of fat and olukula was rubbed onto their heads and the girl’s hair was lengthened with the aid of leaf fibres. This hairstyle was referred to as the elende style, and cowrie shells, originally obtained from Angola, were fixed to the ends of these strands of hair, also combined with strands of sinew. Sometimes the girls wound bands of sinew round their foreheads, often adorned with porcupine quills, to indicate their exalted position in the community.

When Kwanyama girls reached marriageable age, they underwent the initiation (efundula) ceremony, which took place every three or four years when a number of girls from noble families were of the right age. The efundula would last up to four days, and at this time the elende hairstyle would be dismantled. Additional fibres were attached to the existing hair and fibre strands, and the ends were decorated with berries or beads. The girls also wore a tail-switch (efungu), an overskirt made from ostrich eggshell beads and rattles around their ankles, and were referred to as brides (ovafuko).

San jewellery

When the initiation ceremony came to an end, the brides were prepared for their eight-week excursion into the veld, and the headdress worn by married women, the omhatela, was put on. Made of plant fibres and hair rubbed with fat and olukula, it was characterised by five horn-like points fastened at the top, the two front horns and middle horn representing a bull, and the two rear ones a cow. Then the girls were rubbed with ash and in earlier times had to wander around in the bush for two months on their own, supporting themselves. They were well armed and men in particular had to stay out of their way. They wore aloe stems around their torsos, strings of beads made from grass around their necks, and a skirt made from fibres. When they returned from the bush the ash was washed off and they were received by their bridegrooms, after which they were considered to be married.

One of the best-known ornamental artefacts developed by the Owambo people is the ekipa, a button shaped like a beehive made from ivory or bone, which was traditionally worn by women on leather belts down their backs.

In the Himba culture ornamentation of the head and hair also featured prominently, and in many parts of Kaokoland still does. A young girl typically has plaits (ozondato), the form being determined by the oruzo membership (patrilineal descent group). Girls belonging to some groups have their hair shaved off except for a small bush on top of the head. The shaved-off hair is then used to make plaits, which are woven into the remaining hair and hang down over the face. Just before puberty the hair is converted into long plaitlets worn loose around the head. This takes on various forms and sometimes wigs are worn over the hair. When the girls have completed their puberty ceremony, the so-called ekori festival takes place and she receives the ekori headdress made from tanned sheep’s or goatskin with three leaf-shaped points, often decorated with iron beads.

When she has been married for about a year or has had a child, the ekori head-dress is replaced by the erembe headdress made from the skin of a goat’s head and fastened under the hair at the back of the head by two thongs. From then on the ekori is worn only during ceremonial occasions. The large white shell worn on the breast by Himba (as well as Owambo and Herero women) is called the ohumba. The traditional ekori headdress of adult Herero women consisted of a three-pointed leather cap with a veil in front, usually worn rolled up. The cap was lengthened at the back with a band of leather thongs sometimes covered with tin tubes. This ekori differs in shape from that of the Himba, and has higher points. After the advent of the missionaries, an older Herero woman’s ekori was replaced by the otjikaeva, a headscarf made from fabric. This headscarf is still worn today as a triangular otjikaeva by older Herero and Dama women.

Himba males also wear different hairstyles, such as the single plait, the ondato, worn by young boys down the back of the head, two plaits, ozondato, worn by Himba men of marriageable age and the ombwiya headdress, a scarf made from fabric covering the hair and decorated with an ornamental band.

The inhabitants of Kavango also wore particular hairstyles, usually long thin plaits decorated with beads. In contrast, to the San (Bushman) women, hairstyles were a matter of taste, often designed purely with practical considerations. This varied from weaving ostrich eggshell beads and copper ornaments into the hair to a simple mop or clean-shaven head rubbed with soot and fat as protection against the sun. Today traditional or so-called “indigenous” jewellery made by the San can still be found at settlements and in curio shops. It consists primarily of bracelets, necklaces, leather aprons, skirts, bags and headbands decorated with glass and ostrich eggshell beads.

This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.


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