SOME RELIGIOUS IDEAS AND CUSTOMS OF THE OVAHERERO

(Contributed by the Rev. H. Beiderbecke, Missionary at Otyozondyupa.)1

[Extracted from Folk-Lore Journal, vol. 2, pt. 5 (1880), pp. 88-97.]

Part I.

(Ideas about God, Creation, &c.)2


When seven years ago I was on a visit to Kamureti, a Chief of considerable influence, who lived formerly in the Kaoko, near the Ovambo, he was vexed when I asserted in the course of conversation that the Ovaherero had no God (Mukuru), and he said: No, we are not so bad as that, we also have a God, whom we call Karunga. That was the first time that I heard the name Karunga for God. I thought, however, that these Ovaherero from the Kaoko had taken over this appellation from the Ovambo; and though I found afterwards that the name Karunga was generally known by the Ovaherero, and that they consider it to be a Herero name, I still am inclined to think that they derived it from the Ovambo to whom they are so nearly related, while they sojourned amongst them, or were their neighbours.

When five years ago the heathen party had so far prevailed, that the Ovaherero left Otyozondyupa and some of them expressed to their Chief, Kambazembi, their desire to remain with me and the Word of God (Omambo oa Mukuru), they were answered: What can Mukuru do? We [p.89] believe in Karunga. Look at our oxen and sheep; is it not Karunga who made us so rich?

A standing form of speech for an Omuherero, when he has been preserved from danger (for instance from a snake in the path) is: "Hi tu, mba hamburua, mba takamisiua i Musisi na Karunga" (I do not die, I am taken care of and held by Musisi and Karunga). On being asked: Who is Musisi? who is Karunga? they answer: Ndyambi; and upon being further asked: But who is then Ndyambi? they say: The same that you call Mukuru3 we Ovaherero call Karunga, who has also the names Musisi and Ndyumbi.4 Upon inquiry: Where does Karunga live? they have no answer, at least not the common people.

The etymology, if applicable at all to these proper names, suggests but little. There can be no relation between the words Karunga God and Erunga thief, as the former is considered a good being; we therefore rather look to the word Omurunga, the fanpalm-tree, which is considered a holy (sacred) tree amongst the Ovambo, from this palm-tree the [p.90] Otunyare or the holy sacrificial dishes of the Ovaherero are made.

In his Comparative Grammar of South African Languages,5 Dr. Bleek shows the identity of some of the words for God met with among the Eastern and Western Bantu nations. Beginning from the Unkulunkulu of the Zulu, he comes to the Mulungulu in Inhambane, the Mulungu in Ki-hidu, Ki-hamba, and Ki-nika, the Murungu of Sofala and the Murungo or Morungo of Tette. Had he been acquainted with it, he might have added the Kalunga of the Ovambo, and the Karunga of the Ovaherero.

Now as regards the etymology of Musisi, I only know here the two different verbs okusisa = to produce something similar (which word is for instance used if a child takes after his father or mother), and ohusisa = to winnow in the wind (hlunga in Kafir). A northwestern branch language has for God the word Obasi, which is probably plural, and the singular, therefore, possibly Musi or Mosi. (In Otyiherero otyimhosi also means ghost.) In Sesuto, the word liriti exists for "shadows of the dead," which, with a different prefix, and changing the letters r and t into s, becomes Musisi in Otyiherero. As to Ndyambi, it naturally suggests a connection with ondyambi, reward, payment.

Some of the Bantu languages to the north of the Ovaherero and the Ovambo, viz., Benga, Kongo, and Angola, respectively have for God or "the spirit above" the words Anyambi, Nzambi-a-npungu, and oNzambi (o-u-nzambi, divinity), which appellations are obviously identical with Ndyambi. By Karunga, the Ovaherero understand a good being. It is not he who kills or brings people into trouble. The death of those Ovaherero who do not die from old [p.91] age, or by poison, is believed to be brought on by deceased parents or relatives. If the parents die, the children do not inherit their riches, but are afterwards often in need, and among strange people. Now, if such a child (who may already be grown up) dies, the Ovaherero say: Its father or its mother has said: My child is badly treated, it shall come here, so that we may be together (Omuatye uandge u talumisiua u nondyara, vge ye nguno, tu hare pamuc, lit., Child-mine-it-badly treated it-with hunger-that it-come-here-[that] we-stay together).

As however the ancestors [are also supposed to] have power to punish the people for offences, e.g., the non-observance of traditionary customs, the Ovaherero live in constant dread of being brought into misfortune by them (okuhuhua i tate = being ruined-by-father, ancestor). Hence the many sacrifices, in order to appease the ancestors and to disenchant themselves. If an Omuherero becomes ill, he must be disenchanted; and if after that the patient recovers, it is said, Uapendurua i Musisi na Karunga ihelce n'omasa, i.e., He has been raised up or made well by Musisi and Karunga; his father has no power. From these words it might be inferred that the ceremonies of the oluihuhura (= disenchantment), with which a sacrifice is connected, not only take place in order to ward off the power of enchantment possessed by the departed, but also in order to make Karunga propitious to [the persons] themselves; although, otherwise, it would seem that, as a rule, the offerings are not presented to Karunga, but to the ancestors; for, it is only against the latter that one can sin and be guilty,

That the people can also transgress against Karunga, and that, on this account, they should require [to make] atonement, I have not heard. Of those people who die in old age and [when] weary of life, they say, Karunga has bid them come. The [p.92] old rich Chief, Kavingava, was mentioned to me by way of illustration. Should any one visit him now, and, in astonishment at his great age, ask, How is it that you have attained to such a great age? he would answer, Tyi ndyi ha tu, mba kamburua i Masisi no Karunga, i.e., I do not die because Musisi and Karunga are taking care of me; and were he to die in a few years, he would say, Now I am called by Karunga.

Karunga is the preserver of life, but, is he also regarded as its creator? To this question very unsatisfactory answers are received, and indeed the whole Ovaherero tradition of creation is far from clear. It would seem that Karunga has some influence on the powers of nature. Now and then, it is said that the rain comes from him, that his way is in the rolling thunder, and that it is he who hurls the flashes of lightning. In a violent thunderstorm, the chief person in a house or village may be heard to pray, Karunga, Musisi, o ya nguno, katyene m'ovipuka viohutina nfomiti, i.e., Karunga, Musisi, do not come here, go flash into the animals of the field and into the trees. They also pray to Karunga in other danger; when, for example, among lions, they pray, See my distress and anguish; and help me; show that thou art mighty and strong.6

Now let me make a few remarks on the Herero tradition of creation, and the notions of the Ovaherero about the world and its history. As to the first-mentioned, the Omumborombonga tree which stands on this side of Ondonga, plays a great part. There is nothing particular in the tree, unless it may be its looking old and antediluvian. The Ovaherero, in passing it, bow themselves [p.93] reverently, holding in the hand a bunch of green twigs or grass, which they stick into it, or otherwise throw down at its foot. They also enter into a conversation with the tree, giving the answers themselves in a somewhat altered voice.7 The Ovambo too are said to throw grass and twigs on it, but only because they believe that a great woman is buried there, which reminds one of the Nama legend of Heitsi Eibip. Now, out of this Omumborombonga,—so the Ovaherero relate,—came forth in the beginning, a man and a woman. The latter was called Karnangundu. From this Kamangundu sprung the Ovaherero, the Ovambo, the Ovatyaona (= Betshimna and kindred tribes), and the Nama. I may just mention here, in passing, that one of the clanships (canda) among the Ovaherero ascribes its origin to her, calling her the omukuru (ancestress) of their canda. The Bergdamaras and the baboons [are said to have] originated in the following manner. A discontented Herero girl ran away into the field, and there fell on a flat rock, upon which the Bergdamaras and the baboons who live in the mountains on ozoseu (edible bulbs) were born. The oxen also came out of the Omumborombonga; whereas the sheep and goats sprung from the flat rock in the Kaoko (a northern district in Hereroland).

The different colours of men (restricted of course to the neighbouring tribes), and their dispersion, have the following causes.

[p.94]

When the children of Kamangundu were born, or, as the other version has it, tyi tua piti m'omuti (when we came out of the tree), the people killed an ox. Then came a woman and fetched the liver (black) for her children; from these come the black people. Another woman took the lungs and the blood for herself and her children; from these come the red people.

Here, by the slaughtered ox, the people began to quarrel as to who should have the skin, which the Ovaherero, considering themselves to be first among the nations, naturally seized upon. Now began the enmity and separation of the people.

First of all, the Ovaherero beat and drove away the Ovambo who went to the north; afterwards they returned and made peace with them.

The Ovatyaona (Betshuana) went to the east; where they remained quiet for a long time. Subsequently they returned, and robbed the Ovaherero; but were finally repulsed by them.

Of the Ovakuena (Namas)8 they relate the following story. In olden times, it happened that the Ovakuena wished to drive their oxen into a kraal, but as these were refractory, they (the Namas) were foolish enough to shoot at them with arrows. The oxen, terrified, ran into the field, and as the people could not bring them back again, the cattle became wild in the field; they became the Koodoos, Gemsboks, Zebras, &c. The former possessors of the oxen now became Bushmen, who followed the spoor of the wild beasts, and lived on omahie9 and other wild plants. Later [p.95] they came into contact with the yellow (i.e. white) people,10 whose servants they became. From the white people they received firearms with which they robbed the Ovaherero of their oxen. In this way the Namas have again come into possession of oxen and cows.

Also about the flood, there are allusions in their tales to a time when the heavens fell upon the earth; and to this day, the expression "the heavens fall down" means with the Ovaherero an unusually heavy rain.11

I shall now mention something which was related to me by an Omunmbo who was at Otyozondyupa. According to him, Karuuga, Musisi, and Ndyambi is not with the Ovambo one and the same, but Kalunga has a wife who is called Musisi. They have two children, a girl, Tyinondyambi (Shinondyambi), and a boy, Tyarura (Shalula). The plural of omusisi: aasisi, also means, in general, "Spirits of the departed."

With the Ovambo too, Kalunga is a good being, and they say, like the Ovaherero, We are kept by Kalunga and [p.96] Musisi; Kalunga only kills very bad people. On the other hand, he gives fertility to the fields, and makes the oviria, omahangu (two kinds of Kafir corn), and omakunde (beans) to grow.12

Kalunga, who lives in the ground near the chief villages appears at times with his wife Musisi to the people. They have clothes on them, which resemble the clothes of white people, Kalunga wearing black and Musisi white stuff. Now, it often happens that a person is accosted in the field, without being able to see the one who speaks to him. The voice finally says to him, If thou wishest to see me, go and fetch a black ox. The person who heard the voice, now goes into the village and relates to the chiefs what has happened to him. These say, It was Kalunga who spoke to thee. Go and take the black ox to the spot (where he spoke to thee). The man now kills the ox at the place where he hears the voice; Kalunga appears to him, strokes him with his hand over the eyes, exhorts him to follow after that which is good, and also gives him good admonitions for the king.

As to the Omuambo's tale about creation [which follows here], it was as little clear as that told by the Ovaherero.

Kalunga, coming out of the earth, created from ouna (little things), which he set up, three couples: from the first man and woman came the Ovambo, from the second couple the Bushmen, and from the third, the Ovaherero. He also called the wife of the third couple Kamangundu. Of the dispersion, and various means of support, of the tribes, he related as follows: In the beginning, Kalunga [p.97] instituted a kind of race, the prizes offered being an etemo (Ovambo field-pickaxe), an epingo (pointed stick for digging up the products of the earth), and an onjombe (bullock). The Ovambo seized the etemo, the Bushmen the epingo, and the Ovaherero the bullock.

As the Ovaherero, if they want to kill a ghost, kill a black sheep at the place where the ghost appeared, in order that they may not be bewitched and killed, I asked my Omuambo informant whether Kalunga was not perhaps a ghost, to which he answered in the negative. They also had ghosts, he said, but Kalunga was quite a distinct and unique being

[Note: The text stops abruptly. There was supposed to be a continuation (in Part 2) dealing with sacrifices, etc., but this never materialised. Ed.]


FOOTNOTES

1 This Mission Station, where I, some years ago, obtained and wrote what I give here, was established in 1873, in a part of Hereoland which had not yet been under the influence of civilization and Christianity.

2 [The notes in brackets have here been added by one who is personally acquainted with the Ovaherero nation].

3 [There can be no doubt that Mukuru is in Otyiherero the name for God. When the Herero nation immigrated, about a hundred and fifty years ago, from the North, it had had for a long time intercourse with the Western nations who call God by the name Karunga. Such tribes of the Herero nation, who remained in the neighbourhood of the Ovambo, adopted, with many other Ovambo words, also that of Karunga. To these tribes that of Kamureti and the Ozonguatyindu (Kambazembi's) belong. The Ovambanderu and other Herero tribes strongly object to the name Karunga being applied to God instead of Mukuru, and maintain that the latter is the true Herero name. Quite analogous is the case with the Kafirs, who lived in proximity to the Hottentot tribes, from whom they took the name Tixo, for God, and dropped the original appellation Uuhulunkulu; which, however, other Kafir tribes, living, distant from the Hottentots, retained.]

4 Therefore we often also say: Mba hupa K'Ondyambi na Karunga "I am saved (because) Ndyambi and Karunga (is) with me."

5 Part l, Phonology. Cape Town, 1862. See pp. 88-92.

6 [The prayers mentioned here might perhaps be traced to the influence of Christianity, which was introduced into Hereroland thirty-seven years ago.]

7 [The Ovaherero generally have this form of salutation when they come in sight of the identical Omumborombonga or other sacred trees of the same species: "Tate Huhuru or Mukururume; u zera!" which means: Father or Grandfather Mukuru, thou art holy! (Zera means to be forbidden, similar to the tabu of the South Seas.) Formerly, the Ovaherero had such a reverence for the tree that they even would not sit down in its shade; in fact every Omumborombonga tree was "tabooed" to them.]

8 The Namaqua are called by the Ovaherero Ovakuena, and also Ovaserandu; the Bushmen Oukuruha (sing. Okahuruha).

9 [A wild root, containing much water.]

10 [The Ovaherero call "white man," ''yellow man," Ovirumbu. The root of this word is tumba, which means: to be indistinct or undefinable. The colour of white men being neither black (as the Ovaherero or their kindred are), nor brown or red (as that of the Hottentots and Bushmen is), nor white, they call us white people "people of an undefinable colour."]

11 [Their story runs thus: For ages past there came such an immense rain, (the heavens fell down) that nearly all the people were killed. The few remaining, sacrificed upon that a black sheep, upon which the Ovokaru meyuru "Old ones in heaven" drew the heaven back and placed it in its former position. But, round about, there, where heaven and earth meet, they placed peculiar beings as guards, to prevent people from climbing into the heavens. These guards the Hereros describe as having each but one eye, one ear, one leg, one arm, and no joints either in leg or arm for which reason they also must feed each other.]

12 [The Ovaherero chiefly attribute rain, fertility, etc., to their ancestors, at the grave of whom they pray: "Tu pu o ombura, nomahossu nomayere," &c. (Give unto us rain, grass, milk).]