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Letter - Who said Ovahimba offer free sex?

2020-06-05  Staff Reporter

Letter - Who said Ovahimba offer free sex?
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Recently, social media has been abuzz with disquieting extracts of articles, blogs and video clips portraying the Ovahimba/Ovaherero people as perverts who offer free sex to cousins and best friends – so much so that one blogger jokingly mocked: “if you want free sex, go to Namibia.”

The issue goes deeper than sexuality. It speaks to “cultural subjugation or cultural engineering”, and that is in direct breach of the UN Declaration on the Rights of IPs (UNDRIP, 2008). UNDRIP states that IPs have the rights to freely preserve and pursue their cultural development. Cultural engineering is simply undesirable and would automatically negate international human rights provisions. 
Namibia is a signatory to the UNDRIP from 2008, yet IPs’ rights are brutally violated by researchers, individuals, media and tourists every other day with no reaction or retribution. 

This article is written to ensure that when Africans read it, they have a sense of pride, and when Westerners read it; they have a sense of understanding.
It is disheartening that Western media choose to feed the world half-baked information and regard African IPs as children of a lesser god. Information must be presented in its full truth, to preserve the   history and protect IP rights. 
In the West, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Thus, one is not surprised that the Western media continue to propagate sensational content and not the facts on the ground. 

These blogs, articles and video clips are usually centered on an ancient traditional practice of ‘wife lending’ known as Okujepisa (wife lending) among the Ovahimba/Ovaherero traditional people. 
Let me hasten to dismiss that Okujepisa is tantamount to “wife swapping”. Wife swapping is a Western practice where couples exchange sexual partners, sometimes while others are watching. They even have wife-swapping clubs.
There is no abjuration that the concept “Okujepisa” once existed, but the manner in which it is presented to the world, is deficient of the “whole truth and context”. Not only is it highly misunderstood, but it is old fashioned and misdirected. 
Firstly, it is difficult to have sex right away with a traditional Ovahimba/Ovaherero woman, as culturally you have to (I repeat) you have to literally beg for every removable ornament on her body before sexual intercourse. Surprisingly, this is also applicable even to one’s own husband or boyfriend. 

A man has to literally beg for those ornaments one by one; for example, “can I have your back apron (Ombanda), or front apron (Oruhira) or waist belt (Epando or Epateka for young ladies)?, can I have your skin scarf (Otjijambura), up to the last accessory. At her own volution, she would (or would not) take off whatever a man has courteously asked for. Note, over 80% of the Ovahimba women’s clothing is made out of pieces of cattle pelt and accessories. In retrospect, this simply means, apart from a yes to a man’s proposition, a woman will have to say “YES” even up to eight times in a single night for each removable item a man would have to ask for before sexual intercourse, if any. It is not acceptable for an Ovahimba woman to undress herself and be found naked in bed as it is in other cultures, as that is viewed as “looseness”. 
Secondly, and to demonstrate that Ovahimba women are not forced into sex, one has to return all ornaments asked for earlier by saying “Ouna wetu owo mbwi (here are our stuff).” Isn’t that a form of “mutual consent”? The skeletal understanding of this practice also gives birth to phenomenally detrimental misunderstanding.

These “free sex” postulations are not new, and Western media erroneously relate it to wife swapping and sado-masochism to achieve veiled ulterior motives. Sado-masochism can be defined as deriving sexual pleasure from inflicting pain or humiliation on a partner. It is viewed as an enhancement to sexual intercourse. 

Take note; the Ovahimba women have been socialised never to gossip about their men among friends or spread rumours between the family into which she was married and that where she came from. Worth noting, culturally one’s parents scarcely intervene in their children’s marital affairs. It is mostly the role of best friends, cousins (the so-called Tjiramwes), maternal aunties and uncles (Ozongundue) who take up the responsibilities of advising, counselling, reprimanding and mediation.  

Therefore, in an event where her husband is abusive and unfaithful, spending a night with his husband’s best friend or his husband’s main cousin (omusia wopeue), was an arrangement meant to help her loosen up, to someone who would eventually go back to her parents and maternal uncles to tip them off on underlying issues in the relationship or use the information to advise her husband on how to spice up things. It was also a time the wife used to express her level of satisfaction in her marriage. As time went by, this socio-cultural function naturally evolved. 

For this cousin, it was also a good opportunity for him as the ultimate heir of his uncle’s wealth (and possibly the wife as well) to get to know more about her and his uncle, his herds of cattle, the number of cattle posts he has, etc. 
Hence, the Okujepisa practice was not a carte blanche for free sex, neither a friendship-sex tradeoff, but a cultural instrument of rehabilitation, hospitality, social welfare services and information sharing. The husband also did not take delight in participating or deriving pleasure from Okujepisa, thus, dismissing the notion of sado-masochism. The motivation behind Okujepisa was simply sociological. 
It was also the discretion of the wife to have sex or not have sex with her husband’s best friend. Rape and sexual harassment, if any, were always dealt with. 

In conclusion, tolerance is a virtue. There is no keener revelation of cultural tolerance than to shelve away one’s chauvinistic stereotypical mindset and contempt for other people’s cultures.

*Rhingo G.K Mutambo is a public relations officer in the Office of the Prime Minister, he writes in his own capacity as Omuhimba. 

2020-06-05  Staff Reporter

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