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Otjikaeva Headdress

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 it.

This month we explore the history of the stamp that commemorates the Otjikaeva Headdress.

untitled-22_186The Herero’s were traditional pastoral nomads, arriving in Namibia from East Africa 350 years ago with a culture based on cattle. They measured their wealth in cattle and reflected their importance in Otjikaeva’s—women’s headdresses which resembled a cow’s horn. Until the colonial period, they prospered in the central grasslands where there was plenty of grazing.

“When the first missionaries arrived in central Namibia during the 1840’s, they came across Herero and Mbanderu women clothed in hides, and wearing a unique three-“horned” or “leafed” cap (ekori) decorated with ornamental stitching and iron beads. The “horns” or “leaves” protruding from the cap (known as ozonya) symbolized the horns of cattle that were so intimately linked to the lives of these African herders.”[1]

German missionaries arriving in the 1850’s set about correcting the indigenous people’s mode of dress—or undress—and forced them to cover up to comply with their modest Victorian attitudes. Missionaries began teaching the women to sew “more appropriate” attire. Soon the traditional dress was replaced by long skirts consisting of an enormous crinoline worn over several petticoats, tightly fitting bodices, and topped by headdresses firmly wound and knotted in front.

Territorial battles with the migrating Nama reduced their numbers in the mid 1800’s but it was the German troops who almost decimated them. Between 1900 and 1905, deliberate extermination reduced their numbers from an estimated 80,000 to 16,000. Many fled to Botswana, arriving with few cattle, their means of survival. After a generation of ingenuity and resourcefulness they were able to rebuild their herds and reassert their economic independence, eventually making their way back to Namibia.

Otjikaeva headdressDespite their small numbers the Herero are economically successful and make a significant contribution to the beef industry.

Today dresses of multi-coloured cotton are preferred for everyday use, while three different ceremonial colours have evolved for special occasions:

  • red, for followers of Samuel Maharero (a national hero who led the revolts against the Germans during the Herero genocide)
  • white, for followers of the Zeraua royal house (a Herero leader during the 1860’s in Otjimbingwe, on the road between Walvis Bay and Windhoek)
  • green, worn by the OvaMbanderu (a Namibian tribe of cattleherders)

The Victorian dress and headdress ensemble is still very popular and continues to reinforce solidarity and respect for tradition.


Source: Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012, p.20

[1] Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, p.47