Namibia is purported to have some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world. But what’s more fascinating are the stories behind the artful images they depict—plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with her.
This month we delve into the history and significance of headdresses of two Namibian cultural groups.
As elaborate as the ekori headdress is, it’s far from a fashion statement. Traditionally worn by the women of the OvaHimba, it tells the story of the woman wearing it.
Individual variations in style notwithstanding, the ekori is made of tanned sheep or goatskin, has a rolled up veil and three prongs resembling cattle ears, and is reinforced with iron beads to keep the prongs vertical.
In the past young women constructed their own ekori under the tutelage of older women. Once married, women wore it until the first child was born or a period of 12 to 18 months had passed. During this time they were subject to a number of taboos—like food restrictions and special rules of conduct specific to the husband’s onganda (homestead).
When the village head considered the taboo period over, he’d invite the woman to a meat-tasting ceremony after which she was regarded as a full-fledged member of her husband’s patrilineage.
Near the same time, while milking cattle, the village head would sneak up, tear the ekori off her head and hide it. Ashamed, she was given the erembe (signifying she was married) headdress instead which she wore for most of her life.
Later in life, the ekori was worn during periods of mourning or related ceremonies.
Today it’s rarely worn, and then only during ceremonies.
In another tradition now reserved only for ceremonies, Rehoboth Baster women once wore a long dress and a unique headdress called a kappie. Worn partly as a costume and also to protect their complexion from the sun, kappies became a symbol of independence.
Descendants of white fathers and Khoekhoe mothers, Basters originated in the north but a group of about 300 migrated and settled in Rehoboth in 1870. Initially loyal to the German colonizers, relations deteriorated in 1915 when they feared their open liaising with the Germans would threaten their independence and land ownership. Things heated up and soldiers and civilians were killed in a battle at Tsamkhubis in May 1915.
In 1924, having just been granted the right to vote but still banned from leadership roles, the kappie wearing women organized an annual event to commemorate the battle. Hoisting the Baster flag, the women became known as the kappie-commandos.
The original headdress consisted of a piece of ordinary cloth wrapped around the head and a bonnet known as a kappie, worn over the cloth. The ordinary cloth was never removed but the kappie was donned only in public.
Usually, it was decorated with ostrich feathers and could be intricately constructed with quilting, and made from a variety of fabrics and colours.
Some of the ancient kappies are kept as heirlooms and some older women still have the skills to make them.
Source: Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012.