24 August 2012

Namibia: Olufuko Festival Attracts Thousands

Outapi — While church and human rights defenders are railing against the Olufuko initiation festival, the event is up and running and in full swing and masses of people, including the twelve prospective brides, have already turned up at Outapi.

The seven-day festival that started on Monday and ends on Sunday has attracted a large number of parliamentarians and senior government officials, as well as private citizens.

The founding president, Dr Sam Nujoma, officiated at the opening on Thursday.

Olufuko is an Oshiwambo traditional practice that turns girls and young women into brides without grooms. Over the years this initiation practice has been banned by the mainstream churches, labelling the practice pagan and against Christianity.

The Olufuko was last held 80 years ago.

In the wake of the revival of the Olufuko festival by the Omusati Regional Council in conjunction with the Outapi Town Council and traditional authorities mostly in the Omusati Region, Namrights has joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN) in condemning the revival of the traditional practice.

Namrights says Olufuko is "discriminatory and degrading against girls". Opponents argue that Olufuko will contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS, dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy and promiscuity and have called it unconstitutional.

They claim that Olufuko is an infringement of human rights, since young girls are forced into this initiation process.

Proponents of Olufuko have, however, put the foot down in defending the event, maintaining that there is no infringement of human rights and there is nothing irreligious about the practice.

Olufuko, which means wedding in Oshiwambo, is a process where girls, as young as 14 years old, are commissioned as 'brides'.

After Olufuko, the prospective bride, no matter the age, is free to get a man and get married any time.

Pregnancy before marriage after Olufuko is acceptable and is not a taboo.

People under the age of 16 are considered minors under the Namibian Constitution.

The youngest bride of the 2012 Olufuko Festival is a 14-year-old girl who is a Grade 7 learner. The other young prospective brides are between 15 and 19 years old, who are all attending school, while the eldest is a 26-year-old woman who is the only school leaver.

When New Era visi-ted the Olufuko homestead, only nine of the 12 prospective brides were present. Four more girls were expected to join the group by yesterday, since they were busy with examinations.

According to tradition, the girls cannot reject Olufuko, because it is believed that rejection would bring a curse upon them. Those that reject Olufuko face misfortunes, including falling victim to unwanted pregnancies or facing the death of a parent, as a result of the curse.

Thus, traditionally a girl who turns down Olufuko would be manhand-led, tied up and dragged to the Olufuko homestead.

The mothers of the girls who are currently taking part in Olufuko, said none of their girls were dragged to the festival and that they are eager participants.

"Some initially refused but as parents we have the responsibility to talk to our children and convince then until they give in," said Meme Helena Lebeus, one of the mothers.

Elwin Namakalu, Outapi Town Council Chief Executive Officer, said prior to the event, the participants were asked to sign consent forms. He further added that the Olufuko Festival Preparatory Committee is open to ideas if interested people wish to make further suggestions.

Explaining the whole process, Meekulu Saara Walaula, who is the wife of Ombadja Senior Chief Mathias Walaula, said the Olufuko initiation lasts for seven days and each day serves a purpose in the process. The person ordained to carry out Olufuko is called namunganga.

Olufuko commences with a day called ekoho when the brides' mothers prepare the fireplaces where the food of the brides-to-be is prepared.

This is followed by omakunde and okambadjona when the parents of the brides-to-be slaughter cattle for their daughters.

The fourth day is efundula (the wedding day).

From that day on, the girls are officially confirmed as prospective brides.

Single men and even polygamists may start to show their interest in the prospective brides, by placing jewellery or bracelets on the wrists of the women of their choice.

The woman has the right to choose any of the men or to reject them all.

The fifth day is called epitoletanda or the initiation day.

The rituals on that day include a walk around the Olufuko homestead at night when everyone is asleep and getting back to the house through a special entrance. That night the brides sleep in ondjowo, a special hut built for them.

According to the prevailing belief, pregnant brides or girls that have had an abortion can never go through the rituals and will not be able to even if they wished to, due to the influence of supernatural forces or powers.

After the rituals the girls are officially prospective brides and will be referred to as such until the time that they meet a man or when they eventually fall pregnant.

On the last day, the girls are then "cleansed" by rubbing their bodies with butter mixed with traditional red dye or ochre with oshifima (porridge).

The butter and dye mixture is also smeared on the girls at the commencement of the ceremony.

On this day, which is known as okandjibululwena, mothers and brides can leave the Olufuko homestead and go back to their homes.

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