My guide while I am staying in the Kulala Wilderness Reserve in Southwest Namibia is Jonas. He is 35 years and has two sons –Milton Marvellous who is 15 and Gilbert Donald who is an energetic 10 year old. When the boys were small Jonas’ former partner died, and as is the custom, the children were collected from her family and have been raised by Jonas’ parents in their Himba village in the far northwest of Namibia. Tribal identity is very important in Namibia and quickly establishes an individual in a social and ethnic hierarchy.
The roots of the Himba come from the isolated northern areas of Namibia and even today there are groups that practise a very basic and ancient nomadic herdsman way of life. However, Jonas’ traditional home is in a permanent village, but life in the village is still firmly rooted in tribal customs and practises.
Jonas tells me that he has a fiancée now and plans to marry her in December. The auspicious date was selected by meeting with the headman at the “holy fire” in his village. The holy fire is the focal point of the village and this is where all the important meetings and decisions occur officiated over by the village’s headman. They believe that the holy fire is the avenue by which the headman communicates with the ancestors. Jonas and his fiancée initially wanted to marry in August but the ancestors decided that the 29th December was a more appropriate date. However, this can be delayed a whole year should a close member of the family die in the intervening period, and as a matter of protocol, the wedding will be postponed to another auspicious date.
Bride price is always negotiated as a matter of protocol. The usual price is four or eight head of cattle depending on the groom’s status and how hard the negotiations go. If the bride is working or even better, if she is educated or qualified, the price can escalate. The dowry can be $20,000 Namibian dollars, which is approximately AUD $2,500. During the negotiations, the representatives of the groom approach the bride’s house and they sit down quietly on the left of the headman and elders. No one talks as they wait to be formally greeted by the headman and elders – only then can negotiations begin. Negotiations can be a protracted affair, lasting for many days, even weeks, with much to-ing and fro-ing from village to village until the “contract” is finalised.
The wedding festivities and ceremonies are held over a weekend so that the guests and family from far and wide will be in attendance. On the wedding weekend, the official party go to Jonas’ fiancée’s house where the head of the family consults with the ancestors at the holy fire and instructs the bride on her new role as wife and mother, and the expectations of her new husband and his family. He also instructs her to obey her husband and particularly the mother and father of the groom. She will leave her own family for good and now be considered a part of her husband’s family.
The procession, including daughter-in-law to be, then moves to the house of the groom where they sit before the head of the house and the holy fire to once again consult the ancestors. The headman of Jonas’ household tells the fiancé how she will be treated as part of their family and that she will be respected as a beloved daughter.
That night after partying, feasting, dancing and after much alcohol is consumed; all the guests and family retire. Once everyone is asleep, Jonas will creep into his fiancé’s bedroom and fully clothed (minus his shoes) he will get into her bed and lie with his back to her. His best man will be there to ask any questions of her regarding any issues that might be worrying the groom to be. Just before dawn, Jonas must sneak out of the house without anyone seeing him. Should he be discovered in the house he will have to pay the bride’s parents a penalty of two or three goats or a case of brandy. This ritual is repeated the next night.
Finally on the third day, the wedding formalities are conducted. Everyone dresses in their finery, a new suit for Jonas (his only suit which he will probably wear to his children’s weddings and he will probably be buried in it too), a large white wedding dress for his finance and the eight best men and bridesmaids will need to be newly suited and dressed for the occasion.
The festivities include the slaughter of two cows to feed the masses of invited and uninvited guests. The number of guests can be in the hundreds and of course there will be lots of singing, dancing and drinking of alcohol. The wedding feast will be stewed beef, lamb and goat, maize meal porridge all washed down with sour milk.
At the appropriate time, Jonas and his new bride will retire to a specially built wedding hut constructed out of mopone timber. In here, they will consummate the marriage, and auspiciously if the ancestors are smiling on them, a child will be conceived that night.