'Making tradition': healing, history and ethnic identity among Otjiherero-speakers in Namibia, c. 1850–1950 - British Library Research Repository
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'Making tradition': healing, history and ethnic identity among Otjiherero-speakers in Namibia, c. 1850–1950

6 June 2003


For at least the last century and a half, Otjiherero-speakers in central Namibia have engaged in healing rituals played out around the Holy Fire and involving a resolution of tension through appeal to male patrilineal ancestors. These ceremonies are part of traditions that have increasingly come to define Herero ethnic identity, and that have been deeply affected by the historical developments of the period. The first part of this article traces these changes and their effects on the development of healing within a broader ritual tradition, arguing that the genocide of Herero in 1904 and the burial of Samuel Maharero at Okahandja in 1923 were defining moments in this history. It is possible, I argue, to detect traces of change in healing practices by interweaving this evidence with a broader historical narrative. Healing at the Holy Fire has not, however, been the only source of medical care for Herero, who have also relied on herbal medicine, massage, midwifery and the skills of specialist doctors and diviners (as well as biomedical care), and have frequently crossed putative ethnic boundaries in their search for healing. Oral testimony tends to stress those healing practices that are seen as specifically Herero. Ethnicity must, however, be understood as a historical artefact, not as a natural phenomenon. Thus, the definition of healing around the Holy Fire as the essence of Herero healing is one way in which a specifically Herero identity was constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On the other hand, 'Herero healing' (in the sense of ritual healing) may not have been the preferred option for many Herero, and choices of healing were made within the context of the dynamics of power played out between ethnic groups in central Namibia. Conversely, the study of indigenous medicine and ritual reveals evidence about the nature of ethnic and regional relations within Namibia, illuminating the dynamics of power and exclusion, and the struggles for the control of resources. These discourses have also, arguably, played a part in shaping the current historiography of Namibia.


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