OUTAPI: President Hifikepunye Pohahamba on Thursday paid a surprise visit to the Olufuko Festival, which started at Outapi in the Omusati Region on Monday.
Pohamba arrived at the festival per helicopter a few minutes before 13h00, shortly after the patron of the festival and former President Dr Sam Nujoma officially opened the activities.
The opening event was also attended by Minister of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture, Kazenambo Kazenambo, several other Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers.
About 20 young women aged between 14 and 22 years from the traditional authorities of Ombalantu (the host), Ongandjera and Ombadja in the Omusati Region are said to be participating in the highly criticised Olufuko Festival.
Pohamba, Nujoma and their entourages toured the Olufuko initiation rites homestead where they were introduced to the young women and the initiation process was explained to them.
News of the revival of the tradition, which was said to have died out some 80 years ago, has attracted heavy criticism from churches and local human rights organisation, NamRights.
In a statement signed by its Presiding Bishop Shekutamba Nambala and issued a month ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN) rejected the introduction of the Olufuko initiation rites which are said to prepare young women for womanhood.
The leadership of that church has also called on its members to distance themselves from the Olufuko Festival activities.
“We would like to make it clear to our members that ELCIN neither condones, nor supports, the traditional initiation rites for girls,” the statement read.
NamRights joined ELCIN in criticising the festival, describing it as a violation of the young women’s rights.
Abisai Heita, who has declared himself the king of the Ombalantu Traditional Authority (OTA)’s Ombalantu royal family, has also described the Olufuko Festival as “paganism”.
Heita in an interview with Nampa earlier this week cautioned church members to be prepared to be expelled or suspended from their churches if they attend the festival.
Delivering his official opening speech on Thursday, Nujoma noted that Olufuko was a cultural socialisation process of the Oshiwambo-speaking communities, especially those from the traditional authorities of Ongandjera, Uukwaluudhi, Uukolonkadhi and part of Uukwambi.
He explained how communities from the said traditional authorities would bring young brides to Ombalantu in order for them to undergo a wedding transition rite (Olufuko), marking their coming of age and readiness to lead adult lives.
According to Nujoma, a girl was not allowed to undergo the initiation rites if she had previously given birth, and tests were performed to prove that a girl had not been pregnant before.
The former President stated that Olufuko simply means going through a traditional wedding ceremony and said it should be placed in the context of the cultural ideology of gender roles and relations, with the simple purpose of reducing the number of teenage pregnancies.
Nujoma said pregnancy before marriage used to be regarded as disgraceful in the culture of the Oshiwambo-speaking communities.
“I am delighted at the idea of practically showcasing and demonstrating the traditional initiation rite of Olufuko, as well as other aspects of our traditional way of life,” he told the audience.
He then suggested that the Olufuko Festival become an annual event in order to preserve the cultural heritage and teach future generations of the tradition.
Nujoma also indicated that the brides have the constitutional right to go back to school to further their studies “even up to the higher education level” after the initiation rites.
Also speaking at the official opening, Omusati Regional Governor Sophia Shaningwa stressed that there is “nothing sinister” behind the hosting of the festival.
“Olufuko is our cultural identity, which we must never be ashamed of,” she stated, before pointing out that the young girls undergoing the Olufuko initiation rites are “not yet touched, they are not for sale” and anybody who wants to engage them should do so in consultation with their parents.
A priest from the Roman Catholic Church’s Anamulenge Parish near Outapi, Father Jose Thomas, officially opened and closed the festival with a prayer.
The Ombadja Traditional Authority is in charge of the Olufuko initiation, while the elderly Meekulu Mukwaanyoka waMwatukange from the Ombadja traditional district in Angola is its ‘Namunganga’ (director).
The Olufuko Festival runs until Monday.