Traditional Leaders: A Body Most Welcome

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By Andrew Matjila ONE of the hallmarks of the Namibian Constitution and the Government of the past fifteen years is the establishment and the recognition of a Council of Traditional Leaders, as laid down in Article 102 (5). When ordinary citizens need to settle squabbles outside of the political arena, they can take heart and turn to traditional jaw-jaw. Traditional leaders, traditional law, customary law, tradition, all remind us of our origins, our sojourn throughout the ages, and our future as embodied in the aspirations and ambitions of those who lead us in modern day. Luckily, Namibia did not fall into the uhuru trap like many countries in Africa, who, while accepting the cornerstones of western culture hook, line and sinker, threw everything African overboard. Today they are worse off than they were during colonial rule. Beautiful countries in Africa south of the equator, whose capitals were the showpieces of the so-called imperialists and colonialists, fell into the hands of soldiers of fortune. They made draconian laws and policies to instil fear in the hearts of their citizens, and ruled over them with an iron hand. The social life of the people was dealt a severe blow by warlords, whose main ambition was to lord it over all they surveyed. Ironically, the one and only side of African social life that was respected by colonizers, especially in Southern Africa, were the Traditional Authorities. These structures, although tempered with to reduce the power and influence of chiefs and headmen, were allowed to co-exist with the white man’s laws. It is difficult to comprehend the loss Africans suffered in terms of cultural and social development because of the coming of the Vasco da Gama’s, the Jan van Riebeeck’s and the David Livingstone’s during the second millennium AD. The slave trade did immeasurable damage to African culture from north to south. The greatest challenge facing our traditional leaders and authorities of today is no doubt to research our past one thousand years in Southern Africa. The arrival of colonizers and missionaries stopped/delayed/the direction of African culture and development dead in their tracks. There is a school of thought that argues that should colonialism never have taken place, Africa would still be the ‘dark continent’ of ignorance, backwardness and savagery. This argument does not hold much water. There were civilizations in the America’s and in Africa that reached a very high standard of development while European nations still lived in caves. True, many tribes in Africa are still behind, but the coming of colonizers with guns, soldiers and the cry of ‘might is right’ definitely overturned the African development ‘applecart.’ To this day, it is not easy to make a reasonable assessment of what the situation could have been like today, should Africa never have been colonized. Given that formal education in particular crossed borders from nation to nation, it is anyone’s guess that given time, the process of formal education would have been carried across Africa without colonization. The movement of people southwards, from the Great Lakes area and elsewhere in West Africa, was influenced by many factors, including destabilization of settlements mainly by Arab slavers, population growth and tribal squabbles. The growth of populations went hand in hand with the growth in livestock numbers. This latter aspect created the need for better grazing, and our people discovered that birds migrated south during the northern summer, and not north. Hence the movement southwards to where there was food for everyone. This history of our ancestors’ movement southwards is dealt with very superficially in historical records. This is indeed where we lost our origins, our culture, our pride, our development and our identity through the ages. Today, our children probably know more about Genghis Khan or the French Revolution than they do about their own leaders of barely a thousand years ago. However it is a known fact that our ancestors, even without knowledge of the written word, recorded their own history for thousands of years by mere word of mouth. Villages had sages who were walking encyclopaedias. From them radiated the knowledge that guided the people from age to age. It was the coming of colonialism that saw to the demise of part of our history. Why? Book knowledge and the written word replaced old traditions and ignored the so-called illiterates and backward, to usher in dependence on professors and teachers. The great chasm (missing link) of our history occurred during this period. No one, if any, recorded the knowledge of those ancestors of old in books. What missionary would waste his time consulting an ‘ignorant’ old man in the village to search for historical facts? In those days, the old man had to be converted to the Christian faith and do what he was told by someone educated, period. The priority was to convert the headman or chief, and then the people would follow suit. Granted, there was nothing wrong with the arrival of the Christian faith, and our people embraced it hook, line and sinker. But the fact is, with it came the period when we forgot ourselves entirely – our origin, beliefs, culture, development, pride, the lot. Slavery was part and parcel of spreading the gospel, with the colonizers using the Bible to lull the people into submission. A good slave had to accept the predicament he/she was in as though it was prescribed from above. The worst was still to come – the period of de-Africanization. Black people all over the continent became the subjects/property of colonizers. France owned some countries; Germany owned a few, Great Britain owned countless, while little Portugal also boasted a handful. There followed a long mournful period of oppression, de-Africanization and apartheid. Only during the twentieth century did the tide begin to turn in favour of the Africans. The so-called winds of change, sown by Prime Minister of Great Britain Harold McMillan in Cape Town South Africa in 1960, unshered in the period of great revolution in Africa. Country after country stood up to the colonizers to get out. The African leaders who took over were a new breed, educated in institutions of the white man. Educated according to the norms of western civilization and religion, they unfortunately started to ape their colonial masters. There was no “turning back” in history to investigate the past, where we came from, or where we had started prior to colonialism, slavery and other setbacks Africans experienced when they emerged from the forests of evolution. None of this. The universities on the continent did not immediately harness their best brains to focus on our past and where we should be guided to go. Things happened fast, with the new leaders (politicians) taking over and making draconian laws similar to those of the colonial past. There was nothing thought out strictly along African norms and vision. Parliament had to be designed according to the western values of the colonial period. Ministers, officials, servants, police, judges, you name it, had to be selected, appointed and administered according to the laws made along the same lines as during the colonial period. Tragically, there was no one who could take the lead to establish an African facility that could specialize and delve into our past and design an African future for Africans. This would be a future that would be embraced throughout the continent as a product of African ingenuity, forged on the continent, for the people of this continent. Unlike Africa, Asia pursued its own cultural and political future. Even with colonialism in India, China, Japan, Pakistan and many other South-East Asia nations, they did not follow western norms and values slavishly. They promoted their own languages as official languages of their respected countries, used in their own parliaments, and of course in their schools. Even though the colonial English dominated, local languages were developed to the extent that on freedom day, the official language was the local language. African nations still have to develop their own languages to the official stage. Whether this will ever happen, remains to be seen. In the meantime, in Africa high praise is showered on a black man who is said to be articulate in English. That the same black man is incapable of expressing himself with confidence in his Herero, Zulu, Shona, Ndonga or Lozi language is not an issue. Someone must still come to mourn the tragedy of the African people before a new blood of intellectuals will come to forge Africa’s own road ahead. Who knows? African inventors are perhaps still a few hundred years ahead, with inventions still undreamed of in modern day. But fortunately, in the midst of all these hang-ups, we in Namibia have established an organ to serve the needs of our people through traditional leaders, the very people who held our lives in their hands when the colonial conquistadors rode the waves on sail-ships, aiming for the African continent. There are scary stories told about what happened then: – Ten to twenty young men sold for a muzzle-loading gun; – Five beautiful girls given away for a mirror; – A hundred herd of cattle given for a great coat for the headman; – Ten servants to carry heavy boxes around Africa on a safari, for a pipe and tobacco. And many other stories of battering which were practised from Cape to Cairo. Up to the nineteen seventies and eighties , some of the muzzle-loaders of old were still to be found in certain regions in Namibia. It must be borne in mind however that battering in those days was as acceptable as the word” deal” is today. They made their deals. The chief or headman was proud that he could sell twenty young men for a gun, and they in turn accepted it as his right to do so. They were led away often tied together to show that they were owned by somebody. Today’s generation needs to dig into that past. This is where our Traditional Authorities of today come in. They are enlightened and educated, and must dig deep to set the record straight. That history must be re-written, and made known to new generations, in the same way as all nations around the world, especially the indigenous nations, are trying to sort out their history. The Council of Traditional Leaders must not be a talking Marula-tree-shade-snuff-sharing exercise. The taxpayer as it is, must fork out Nam-Dollars to keep that Council afloat. It must not be money down the drain. Traditional Authorities, as I see them, have a role to play: – They must be involved in the search for our valuable past. And here I’m not talking about the past of 1959, 1904, or the German occupation. Great stories we see on TV, such as Julius Caesar, King Henry, Alexander the Great, George Washington and many others, show us mostly what the ancestors of the Europeans looked like and what they did. Our stories also need to be told. – We want our children to know what their ancestors did, in order to instil some pride in their hearts. And this will be the ultimate triumph, when our children feel proud. Lack of this pride is a recipe for confusion, lack of vision, lack of self-motivation, lack of self-esteem, HIV/AIDS, poor performance at school, lack of discipline, crime, and demands for children’s rights even where they abuse the rights themselves. – Traditional Authorities must unite Namibia even better and faster than politicians can do it. Marriages across tribal lines bring different people together, and cement the bonds of brotherhood. Regular visits by Traditional Leaders to each other like Heads of State do, should take place regularly in Namibia. And the word “Unity” must be on the lips of every King, Chief, Headman and Traditionalist. Tribalism must not be allowed to interfere with national aspirations and goals. – Traditional Authorities must be deeply involved in the resuscitation of moral values among the youth. The present trend of unchecked moral decay is partly responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS, which has gained ground particularly in traditional/communal areas. Today, even quacks claim that they can cure AIDS prescribing the bizarre rape of infants as a remedy for HIV/AIDS. We are all aware of the violence on women and children in our society. This situation calls for instant action on the part of our traditional courts. Dastardly acts must be met with the full force of the law even in traditional areas. After all, these things never happened during the reign of monarchs of old. – Unwanted pregnancies have become common place in areas where they should not even occur. Young teachers who apparently fail in the classroom, excel in daily being seen ‘canoodling’ with girls. Whereas our culture previously called for the protection of girls until they reached the age of marriage as virgins, pure and uncontaminated by sex vultures, it is not easy for any parent to present his/her daughter in marriage and say proudly: “She is a virgin.” Whatever happened to our culture? Our pride? Our African-ness? The Council has an uphill struggle in this respect. But climb they must. We cannot abandon our children at this dangerous period of child smuggling, sex slaves, drugs, prostitution, alcohol abuse, and the like. – Our traditional courts are the eyes and ears of our Government in the villages, homesteads and in the fields. It all begins with two people – couples. They grow to form homesteads, which grow to form villages, which grow to form towns, which grow to form communities, which grow to form cities, which grow to form nations of the world we live in. Traditional leaders must be involved in this process every step of the way. Proud communities always present a positive picture to visitors and tourists. Traditional leaders must work very hard to build the Namibian nation. There is no time to sit under trees blaming the colonial past, which is gone forever, never to return to our waters. – Namibia is fortunate to have become independent the last. The mistakes of others around us, on the continent and the world at large, are lessons we dare not ignore. At the dawn of uhuru, communities in many countries in Africa were broken up by wars, unjust laws, jealousy, hatred and poverty. Men, women and children, became refugees in their own God-given mother Africa. How come this only happens now when we attain independence? When it happened in the past due to tribal wars, our people were not yet enlightened to issues such as unity, education, pride, togetherness and of course godliness. Our Traditional Authorities should conduct “traditional” workshops for parents and traditionalists, to revisit the Afro-centric norms of our people, which have declined so badly. The good in our past must be consolidated into the present – Traditional Authorities should develop the work ethic among our people. It is surprising to see heaps and heaps of empty beer bottles in certain areas in the country-side, heaps that tell stories of alcohol abuse, laziness and lack of motivation. The people who live along our rivers in the north should be able to feed Namibia. They should produce all the vegetables we need. The Traditional Authorities should have headmen responsible for various activities: agriculture, education, health, forestry, game, etc., and these headmen should be schooled in their fields to know what to do among the people. The Government must not be expected to do things alone. Those who lack know-how should ask: ‘What/how and when should we do this, that.’ It is too late in the day to bemoan our poverty, ignorance, laziness and HIV/AIDS. These are weaknesses that can be overcome. What we need is the WILL to work, and the rest the Heavenly Father will do. He who watches over us never sleeps for a single moment. We want to be proud of our people to be able to live according to rules which foster self-respect, progress and pride. It is healthy to do so, but not at the expense of our Namibian unity. So, fortified with our culture, and aspiring to reach new heights as we investigate our past to build on it for a better future, we join hands as Herero, Owambo, Botswana, Kavan-go, Lozi, Nama/Nama, Afrikaner, English and German, and march forward into the future. We have to overcome our pettiness, our differences, our political affiliations. We must work hard to build a nation, and we can do it. Finally, the involvement of Traditional Authorities in the Economic Development of Namibia: Namibia like many other African countries, has farmland. The field of mineral production is limited to the use of machinery, and very few workers. On the other hand, agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry, are the mainstay of our economy, even into the distant future. Hence the need for the Traditional Authorities to train their people to produce food. Gone are the days of sitting down in the shade of trees and just wearing away time into the sunset. Communities that live along our rivers must be taken to task if they do not produce fruit and vegetables for the local market. It is a great shame that a country should spend two hundred million dollars per annum on the import of vegetables and fruit. And this is where the crucial question of land comes into the picture: “Who should have land?” And: “What should be done with?” It is a great waste if people are given land, And wait for the rains to come, while an eternal river flows by. Chiefs and headmen must now girdle up and become involved in food production for their people. A small paw-paw from across the border sells for twelve to fifteen dollars in Windhoek. In the north of Namibia, a paw-paw five times bigger sells for five dollars. Why should the Traditional Authorities not exploit such situations to benefit their people? If they accept this as a way of life, then they have a rude awakening. There are other tribes coming into Namibia now as immigrants who will cash in on this malady. Those of us who think that good money can only be made in grocery shops, need to have their minds checked. Poverty comes to a people who are incapable of producing their own food and have to depend on drought relief, with water and good soil under their own feet. It is perhaps time that we should stop talking politics when addressing this Council, and come down to real brass tacks. We can surely educate each other for our own survival.