18 Sep 2020
One of the major streets in the capital city of Windhoek bears the name of a young, brave son of the soil, the legendary King Mandume ya Ndemufayo. Although he ruled the Oukwanyama people in north-central Namibia for only six years and died in his early twenties, his leadership, courage and tragic death are still very vivid in the oral and written history in Namibia and Angola.
After his death in 1917, the Oukwanyama kingdom was left without a leader for many decades. Its magic power stone disappeared and was returned only in 1995. A year later, a descendant of the royal Oukwanyama lineage was inaugurated as new traditional leader (ohamba) and the ancient kingdom thus restored, a proud moment for its people on both sides of the Angolan-Namibian border.
The oral history about Mandume was preserved for eighty years by contemporaries of the ohamba, particularly Vilho Kaulinge, who died in 1992 and was over ninety years old and had served under the legendary leader.
Caught between colonial powers
The Oukwanyama are the largest sub-group of Oshiwambo-speaking people who are said to have migrated from central Africa around the 1600s. Their oral historians have preserved the names of their kings ever since. The Portuguese colonised Angola from around 1575, however penetrated the southern parts much later. Imperial Germany took possession of today’s Namibia in 1884. The Portuguese, who had left the indigenous people southern Angola largely untouched, became alarmed as the borderline was not clear.
At the Berlin conference in 1884 European powers, who had colonised Africa, carved up the continent by defining its borders, most of which are still in place today. More European traders and missionaries came to areas near what is today the border between Namibia and Angola.
The Oukwanyama – and other groups - found themselves between two powers. Portuguese and German government officials visited Oukwanyama King Nande between 1904 and 1906. The Portuguese wanted migrant labourers and negotiated to build a fortress in the Oukwanyama area. Ohamba Nande had no choice but to sign a ‘protection agreement’ with them. The Germans also wanted migrant labourers and made the King sign a similar agreement with them.
Who was King Mandume ya Ndemufayo?
Mandume was King Nande’s nephew; his mother was the King’s sister. He lived at various homesteads to protect him, out of fear that the royal child would be assassinated. His precise year of birth is not confirmed, but local academic Napandulwe Shiweda writes he was born in 1894. Nande died on 5 February 1911 and Mandume succeeded him barely 18 years old. He established his royal residence, enclosed by palisades at Ondjiva, now in southern Angola.
The young ohamba was aware that the headmen had become too powerful under his predecessors. He changed that by issuing several royal orders and curbed their influence. No cattle raids and attacks on peaceful neighbouring communities were allowed without his permission and they thus decreased rapidly. His first order was that only ripe fruit should be harvested. A transgressor who was brought before Mandume was ordered to eat the unripe fruit until he felt ill. Mandume ordered that women be allowed to own cattle, which was previously forbidden.
The pressure of the colonial powers increased, Mandume and his warriors fought the Portuguese army at Omongwa in Angola, but were defeated. He then moved his residence across the border into then Namibia at Oihole.
After German colonial rule ended in Namibia in July 1915, it was ruled by South Africa on behalf of Great Britain. Mandume had not much choice but to sign a ‘protection agreement’ with the British-South Africans in September 1915. The Oukwanyamas involuntary became victims of a border dispute between Portugal and South Africa, when the two powers shifted the Angolan-Namibian border twice in 1916. Oihole was suddenly Angolan territory.
The two powers prohibited Mandume to visit his subjects on the other side of the border. He defied that and frequently moved across to remain in contact with his people. This displeased the Portuguese and British-South Africans.
The South Africans eventually told Mandume to hand in all his warriors’ weapons , as they would protect him against the Portuguese, which he refused. The situation for the Oukwanyamas did not look good.
A heroic death
Towards the end of January 1917, the Oukwanyamas noticed movements of European troops towards their territory. The young king, his advisors and warriors realised what this would mean.
A joint Portuguese-South African military unit attacked the Oukwanyamas in early February near Oihole. They fought back bravely but the soldiers outnumbered them, and they had modern weaponry.
According to oral history on 6 February the last fierce battle took place. Mandume did not want to fall into the hands of the enemies alive. He said his famous words: “My heart tells me that I did nothing wrong.” He told his closest three men to kill him. They did not want to do that, as a king was untouchable.
The legend goes that they suggested to Mandume to kill them one by one and then himself. This he did with a sword. Finally, Mandume ya Ndemufayo rammed the sword into the ground, the sharp point of the blade upwards, facing him and – according to the legend - the youthful 23-year old plunged his body into the sword, ending his life. The Oukwanyama kingdom was no more. Mandume died unmarried and without a child.
The European army commanders found the scene of death and celebrated their victory by taking photos of each other with the dead body of Mandume. It is said, they cut off his head and took it to Windhoek.
In 1919, a monument was unveiled near the railway station in Windhoek in honour of the European soldiers who died in the battle against Mandume. Apparently, the skull of Mandume was enclosed in the base of the monument. To this day, no efforts have been made to investigate or scan the monument to check if the skull is there.
Restoring the kingdom in 1996
After Mandume’s tragic end and his burial at Oihole, the members of the royal family kept a low profile for decades, fearing persecution. The Oukwanyamas had to adjust to living in two different countries ruled by foreign powers.
The power stone, an oval shaped stone apparently with magic powers, which was kept by the royal lineage since the 1600s, was hidden. In the 1940s it was apparently decided to entrust a Finnish missionary with it, who took it to Finland. There, the power stone was placed in a museum.
Mandume’s people never forgot their king. Each year on 6 February, they gathered at Oihole at his grave and covering it with branches of Mopane trees. When a community member passed his grave, he or she always brought a Mopane branch along.
The Oukwanyama elders said they would only restore their kingdom once Namibia becomes independent, which happened in March 1990.
Efforts were undertaken to return the power stone and that materialised in 1995. On 6 February 1996, exactly 79 years after Mandume’s death, a member of the royal family, Kornelius Mwetupunga Shelungu was inaugurated as traditional leader (ohamba) of the Oukwanyama traditional authority. Shelungu died on 3 November 2005, aged 89.
To the surprise of the community, he on his deathbed named a woman from the royal lineage as his successor. His wish was fulfilled and the first female Oukwanyama ohamba, Meekulu Martha Mwadinomho yaKristian Nelumbu, then aged 74 was inaugurated at Omhedi on 12 November 2005 during a colourful ceremony.
Monuments in honour of Mandume
On 6 February 2002, a monument was unveiled at Oihole during an official ceremony with Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos and Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma in attendance. The grave of Mandume received a tomb and a huge ring next to it with three symbolic Mopane leaves. The road from Ondjiva to Oihole was named after Mandume.
In August the same year, the Heroes Acre outside Windhoek was inaugurated. Several anti-colonial resistance heroes of Namibia received symbolic graves at the Heroes Acre like Hendrik Witbooi and Mandume.
On 6 February 2017, a century after the legendary Ohamba Mandume’s death, a centenary commemoration took place at Omhedi, and there a bust was unveiled in his honour.
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