7 Mar 2022
Owambo in north-central Namibia might not be on the travel itinerary of most Namibians or visitors to Namibia, but it is a fascinating part of the country. As soon as you cross into Owambo at the Oshivelo checkpoint you get the feeling that you have entered a completely different world. It’s time to take off your watch and move over into the slow lane to enjoy the vibrancy and rhythm of Owambo and its people. The Aawambo are friendly people and you can be assured of enjoying their hospitality.
The Aawambo consists of eight communities that are closely related historically, culturally and linguistically. They arrived in the area in the 1500s after a long southward migration from the Great Lakes region and converged at Oshamba. The leader of one of the groups said, “ndonga oompaka,” translated as “until here” and they became known as the Aandonga. Various groups split off from the Aandonga and established themselves elsewhere as time when by. They are the Aakwambi, Aangandjera, Uukwaluudhi, Aambalantu, Ombadja and Ovakwanyama (whose kingdoms are divided by the boundary between Angola and Namibia) and the Aakolonkadhi and Eunda, two small communities who occupied the same area in western Owambo.
The urban centres are a curious mixture of modern shopping complexes, government offices and small businesses, workshops, cuca shops and hair salons clustered along the streets. There’s a continuous coming and going of vehicles, crowds of people at open-air markets, vehicles driving erratically and animals crossing the road.
Away from the urban centres, the people live in homesteads surrounded by small fields where they cultivate mahangu and other crops. Traditional homesteads are typically surrounded by a palisade of poles, while the inner area is divided into separate enclosures.
Contrary to the popular perception that Oshiwambo is a language, it is the collective name for the closely related dialects spoken by the different communities. Oshindonga and Oshikwanyama are the two most widely spoken dialects and are generally understood.
Unlikely to escape your attention is the large number of informal drinking places, locally known as cuca shops, with their often entertaining names. This is where people meet to socialise and to exchange news about events in the villages over a beer or two.
Agriculture in Owambo centres on the cultivation of crops and livestock farming. Mahangu (pearl millet) is the staple crop and the flour is used to make oshithima or mahangu porridge and mahangu pancakes (oshikwiila). Ontaku, also known as oshikundu, is a refreshing and nutritious beverage made from fermented mahangu. Beans, cowpeas, melons are among the other crops cultivated.
Cattle are considered as a symbol of wealth and are usually slaughtered for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. Beef is sold at roadside ‘bush’ butcheries and open-air markets where kapana (strips of meat grilled over the flames and spiced with kapana powder – a mixture of chilli powder and salt) is a popular on-the-go meal. Cattle also serve as a security for when money is needed to pay for the tuition fees for children or other emergencies. Oxen are used to plough, draw sleighs and other demanding tasks.
Donkeys serve as beasts of burden and often act as self-appointed speed calming measures on the roads. Typical of their stubborn nature, they simply refuse to move out of the road, so do take care when driving in Owambo. Also be on the lookout for goats grazing alongside the road and have the tendency to dash to the opposite side of the road at the last minute.
Owambo’s legendary ‘Marathon Chicken’ is said to refer to the running about of children before they finally manage to catch a chicken. These free range chickens have a distinctive taste unlike chickens that are reared commercially and are usually prepared for special occasions and to serve for guests.
The Aawambo still live close to nature and supplement their diet with a variety of indigenous fruits and plants. Fruits are either eaten fresh or dried and stored for later consumption. The fruit of the marula tree is used for a variety of purposes such as making oshinwa, a refreshing drink made by adding water to the flesh of marula fruit that has been squeezed out for the juice and letting it stand overnight. The fermented juice is used to make omagongo wine, a popular traditional beverage in Owambo, while the oil extracted from the kernel inside the marula nut is used to flavour dishes.
Annual plants like omboga (Owambo spinach) are harvested in the mahangu fields. It is served as an accompaniment to dishes, either fresh or boiled, dried and patted into flat round cakes that are boiled later.
So, tempt your taste buds when you visit Owambo. And if you are very adventurous you might even be tempted to try some mopane worms.
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