As neighbours, the relationship between the ‘Vanyemba’ and the ‘Vakavango’ kingdoms was characterised by both co-operation and conflict. For example, the issue of ‘Vanyemba’ immigration into Kavango kingdoms and vice versa thus need to be contextualised into periods; pre-colonial, colonial and even post-colonial.
In pre-colonial times, the immigration went both ways and was caused by internal conflicts, intermarriages, trade, hunting or other factors. Evidence to this is a Rukwangali song that plays in the NBC Rukavango Radio Service to this date about a woman “Simbara ga zire moNyemba, ga ka reta makundungu” (Simbara who went to Nyembaland and who as a result had brought the whirlwind/storms).
In around 1896, when the royal feud between Hompa Himarwa and Kandjimi Hawanga against their relatives of the Mpande dynasty, namely Princess Nasira and her brother Prince Siteketa got to dangerous levels, and fearing for their lives, the latter fled to Nyembaland (Kampungu, R: 1965, p. 223).
There could be also be cases where there were conflicts and even cattle and slave raids between the Vanyemba and the Vakavango groups. As for the Gciriku and Nyemba kingdoms’ relationship, yours truly (Shiremo, R.S: 2009, pp. 63-68) has in Master’s degree dissertations pointed out the co-operation and the conflicts they had. It must not be forgotten that the Vanyemba and Vakavango traditionally regard each other as cousins, the Ovaherero and the Ovawambo being the only other groups that the Kavango accords the same status.
It must then also be mentioned that the nature of Portuguese colonialism affected both the Nyemba and Kavango kingdoms in a profound way.
To mention but a few, the Portuguese’s forced hard labour on the natives, heavy beatings and killings of native suspects, rape of native women, heavy exertion of tax, etcetera, from the Vanyemba and Vakavango natives partly forced them to flee in a southerly direction. The majority of the Vakavango crossed the middle course of the Kavango River by around 1908-09 to escape Portuguese reprisals.
It is important to observe that when the Vakavango population and their royal heads crossed onto to the southern bank of the middle course of the Kavango River, they simply, for convenience and safety purposes, shifted to the other part of their kingdoms where the Portuguese were barred by international law to pursue or harass them.
It must be stated that even when this exodus happened, the Angolan side of the middle course of the Kavango River remained populated by the same people.
However, some of the Vanyemba who did not flee the Portuguese reprisals, also remained stationed in their old kingdoms to the north of the Kavango kingdoms; safe to say, to the north of the Kwitu River.
It is for this reason, the Kwitu River is known among the Kavango elderly population as ‘Mukuro waNyemba’ (The river of the Vanyemba people).
Years later into Portuguese colonialism in Angola, many of the Vanyemba who fled did not just flee as Vanyemba subjects but increasingly as Angolan migrants and refugees, and the closest country they could flee to was Namibia, mainly in the Kavango regions where they could easily be hosted by their traditional cousins but few of them fled into Ohangwena Region.
The other country they fled to was Zambia. To this date, there is a song in NBC Rukavango Radio Service sung by late George Mukonda in Runyemba language saying: “Kwimbo lyetu mwaAngola, Kwimbo lyetu mwaAngola. O Kaputu twatjila, o Kaputu twatjila”. (Our home is in Angola, our home is Angola, we fled from the Portuguese, we fled from the Portuguese”.
One must also note that during the same period (1909-1975), a few other Angolan nationals, namely the Ovimbundu and Vachokwe also fled into Namibia via the Kavango regions and also to some extent the Zambezi Region. Apart from the citizenship right to which many of them are entitled, the Ovimbundu and Vachokwe Angolan migrants and their descendants have never been heard to seek for any sort of recognition or privileges in Namibia.
It must also be mentioned that the biggest exodus of the Vanyemba, Ovimbundu, and Vachokwe as Angolan refugees into Namibia via the Kavango regions was as from the 1960s and the peak being in 1974, 1975 and 1976 and then onwards until around 2003. This was the period of the Angola liberation war and then from November 11, 1975, the civil war.
There is also a shiwingi song in the Runyemba language that goes: “mwaAngolee mwatunda yita ee ee kayando, mwaAngola mwatunda yita”. Loosely translated as, (war comes from Angola, sufferings and war originates in Angola).
One needs to point out also that when the largest number of the Vanyemba arrived (1974-1976) in the present Kavango regions, it was at a time when to some superficial extent, the present Kavango regions were an independent country known as Kavangoland.
By law, these arrivals were not viewed in the same light as the early Vanyemba refugees, who arrived in Kavango regions due to Portuguese reprisals but were by the Bantustan laws categorised and registered as “vatjwayuki” (refugees) from Angola.
Though this was the case and instead of putting them in refugee camps, the Vakavango chiefs, who in the main also formed the cabinet of the Kavango Bantustan government at the time, integrated these refugees from Angola within their five kingdoms.
It is obvious that even as an international rule, refugees are expected to return to the countries of origin, the integrated Vanyemba and their descendants have reached a point of no return to Angola. Perhaps that is why they are seeking recognition as a traditional community and authority within the communities in which they were integrated into. On the other hand, the Kavango Chiefs and some of their subjects view this action as a provocation of the highest order.
All the five recognised Kavango traditional authorities have so far documented their royal genealogies and uninterrupted lists of rulers since time immemorial to date and indicating their royal seats on both sides of the middle course of the Kavango River. Yours truly, has heard and read about some of the Vanyemba royal heads, who once upon a time resided north of the Kavango kingdoms in present-day Angola. The few I personally know of are: Mwene Ndumba yaTjimpulu, Kativa kaMutuva, Shilima shaMutuva and Mbambi yaKashindoro.
Whereas the first three ruled two different Nyemba kingdoms and were contemporaries, the latter (Mbambi yaKashindoro) was brutally killed by the Portuguese colonial forces in or about 1967 at the Kwitu River.
Mavengi was the royal seat for Mwene Ndumba yaTjimpulu until his death either in the 1920s or 1930s.
Mwene Kativa kaMutuva and his half-brother Shilima were at Katondo and another place on the north of the banks of the Kwitu River to the north of the Mbunza Kingdom. Only the Vanyemba elders know what has so far happened to these chieftainships and their kingdoms.
After the Angolan civil war, the Kavango royal heads started claiming their chieftainships and kingdoms on the Angolan side of the middle course of the Kavango River without much difficulty from the MPLA government. Thus, as we speak, there are 10 Kavango chiefs, five on the Namibian side and another five on the Angolan side of the river. Those Kavango chiefs in Angola have only claimed areas in Angola where their jurisdictions extended to as from pre-colonial times.
The question that begs an answer is whether their Vanyemba cousins in Angola and Namibia do not see it fit to reclaim what the Portuguese and the civil war had forced them to abandon?
In conclusion, the issue of not being allowed to profess and practise the Vanyemba culture and language is clearly redundant in this case, because such hindrance does not really exist.
The Vanyemba are allowed to use their language in the NBC Rukavango Radio Service and even at official public gatherings in the Kavango regions.
At government and private organised events, the much-liked Nyemba dances and songs are performed without complaint from anyone. Apart from including it in the school curriculum, which is not a unique case in Namibia, the Runyemba language is preached in churches and even sung at schools and funerals in the Kavango regions and elsewhere in Namibia. Why then, bringing these issues up as part of the grievances?
As part of their culture, the Vanyemba folk are allowed to circumcise their boys and to chirp the teeth and mark the foreheads and cheeks of their girls without any hindrance from anyone. Thus the question is which part of their culture are they being prevented from practising?
It is thus my considered view that the issues regarding recognition as a distinct Vanyemba traditional community and authority, language and cultural recognition are just a pretext in the place of real and perceived grievances by some individuals who have lost out on political and top civil service positions or by those who intend to use these issues as a blackmailing strategy when seeking for economic and political opportunities within the regions and the country at large.
I am therefore in agreement with Dr Elijah Ngurare, who posted on Facebook cautioning people from catching unnecessary emotions and anger over this ‘non-issue’ when we are supposed to focus on tackling very serious issues such poverty, hunger and unemployment that are ravaging our regions.
People must learn to laugh away some matters that are aimed at testing their tempers and leadership wisdom. Overreaction to the issue might lead to unnecessary strains and complications in the otherwise existing harmonious relationship between citizens.
*This author is a high school history teacher and he writes in his personal capacity.