Contextual readings of Exodus in Africa: Negotiating identity amidst contending narratives of origin and migration in Africa

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Contextual readings of Exodus in Africa: Negotiating identity amidst contending narratives of origin and migration in Africa

Hendrik Bosman (University of Stellenbosch)


In Africa the Book of Exodus is not only read as a liberating text in oppressive socio-political and economic contexts, but also as a constructive influence in the ongoing process of negotiating identity in different cultural contexts. This paper reports briefly on a two year research project in Namibia (Witboois), Nigeria (Tiv and Yoruba) and Zambia (Ngoni) where: (a) indigenous narratives concerning origin and migration were identified and described; (b) empirical research done amongst the Ngoni and Tiv to establish to what extent knowledge about local narratives about origin and migration can facilitate insight in the interpretation of the Book of Exodus and in the ongoing process of identity formation.


There are numerous narratives concerning origin and migration found all over Africa and there are fascinating similarities amongst them. This phenomenon gave rise to the development of research project the addressed the following questions:

  • What do African narratives concerning origin and migration consist of?

  • How do these narratives impact on their respective cultural identities?

  • Do these narratives have any influence on the interpretation of the Exodus narrative?

The National Research Fund of South Africa approved the project and funded the subsequent research projects:

  • Me Funlola Olojede (Nigeria) wrote a M Th thesis on: The Exodus and identity formation in view of the origin and migration narratives of the Yoruba.

  • Rev Jonathan Weor (Nigeria) has embarked on a D Th dissertation on: Appropriating the Exodus tradition amongst the Tiv as polemical narratives concerning origin and migration.

  • Dr Edwin Zulu has succeeded under very trying circumstances in Zimbabwe and Zambia to make good progress with his research on: Exodus and identity formation among the Ngoni.

  • Hendrik Bosman has done research in Namibia and South Africa on the topic: A Nama ‘Exodus’? Assimilation and resistance according to a postcolonial reading of the diaries of Hendrik Witbooi.

2. The Exodus and identity formation in view of the origin and migration narratives of the Yoruba (F Olojede)

Her literature study and personal interviews examined aspects of the exodus event (prose and poetic renditions of the passage through the Re[e]d Sea) and its impact on identity formation in the light of the origin and migration narratives of the Yoruba people of South-Western Nigeria.

The Yoruba people account for their origin in at least two different ways:

  • The first is through cosmogonic myths. These myths claim that the creation of the earth took place at a place called Ile – Ife when Olodumare, the Supreme Deity, assigned the task to some of his ministers. A number of ministers were assigned to be responsible with creation – such as Obatala, Oduduwa, Orunmila, Esu and several others.

  • The cosmogonic myths co-exist with several migration traditions and they can be organized into four groups due to the identification of different places of origin:

  1. Mecca

  2. Egypt

  3. Somewhere to the North – East

  4. A secondary ‘exodus’ from Ile – Ife.

Therefore it is clear that both cosmogony and migration point to Oduduwa as the progenitor and common ancestor, while Ile – Ife is seen as the common ancestral home.

The close reading of Exodus was limited to the prose and poetic versions of the Sea Event and Crossing in Exodus 14 – 15. Using literary theories concerning narratives and characterization, she came to the conclusion that both prose and poetic traditions focus on YHWH as the key role player in the Sea events.
The similarities and dissimilarities between both the processes involved in Yoruba and Israel’s identity seem to foreground Yahweh’s fundamental role in Israel’s memories and testimonies concerned with who they were and where they came from.
3. Appropriating the Exodus tradition amongst the Tiv as polemical narratives concerning origin and migration (J Weor).

Rev Weor discovered during structured interviews with the individual members and focus groups of the two most important Tiv clans (the Ityuluv and Turan) that they both traced the origin of the Tiv back to Takuruku an African who originated from Congo the place where Tiv and many other Bantu tribes originated and/or migrated from. The clans also share a similar view on how the Tiv gained entrance into Benue province and settled as permanent occupants of that area. Both clans claim that the Tiv fought and conquered the original residents of Benue before they finally settled there. The exact time of both the migration of the Tiv and their arrival and/or settlement in the Benue province (Nigeria) cannot be determined with any certainty because prevailing oral traditions seem to transmit different points. Members of both clans seem to agree on a time of origin somewhere during the 16th century (1540 was mentioned by several respondents).

The two clans also claimed the Congo to be the place where Tiv patriarchs first lived and migrated from with other Bantu tribes. A second locality of origin in common is Cameroon, the country neighboring the Tiv living across the border in Nigeria. The clans also acknowledge the fact that Tiv people did not all migrated to Benue and that some are still living near the Swem mountain in the present Cameroon .
Both clans also had knowledge of the Zulu people living in South Africa. These memories about the Zulu are embedded in sayings about Shaka, the famous Zulu king, as well as warlike songs mentioning the Zulu people. How the Tiv are linked to the Zulu in terms of origin of both place and blood lineage, no one could venture any opinion with any certainty – respondents said those who knew about the Zulu passed away long ago!

A focus group was conducted with 8 participants selected from the designated clan to take part in the group discussion. These focus group discussions lasted approximately an hour during which the discussions were recorded, to be transcribed and interpreted at a later stage.

Three texts were selected from Exodus to be read and interpreted by the respondents according to their own tradition and understanding. The researcher first reminded the respondents of the Tiv narratives about origin and migration and then read the texts (Ex. 14:21-29; 19:10-20; 20:1-17 dealing with crossing of the red sea, wilderness wandering, and the commandments), using the Tiv version of the Bible (Bibilo I ken zwa Tiv). After the reading the researcher asked the respondents probing questions to establish how they interpreted these texts in their own way.

Exodus 14:21-29: This passage describes how the Israelites crossed the sea on dry ground and how the Egyptians perished due to the intervention of God.
The researcher asked his respondents whether they have found any similarities between the Exodus narratives and the migration experience and/or story of the Tiv people. Many respondents laughed and said that the story of the Tiv people is exactly the same as the story that was read from the Bible. The Tiv also crossed the Mkoomon river at the back of a green snake that stretched itself like the stick of Moses to enable Tiv people to cross over to the other side. The enemies of the Tiv like Chamber, Ugenyi, Ukwese, and Ndir who were pursuing them from behind, also followed on the same back of the snake and the snake withdrew itself and let all fall into the river and they drowned. They claimed that the green snake acted in the place of God to save the Tiv people. They also said their Moses in those days was Karagbe from Masev who was a God fearing man and leader of the Tiv people.
The researcher also asked his respondents to tell him what Exodus 14: 21- 29 communicates about God. They all said in a chorus that God loves his people and he hates those who seek to maltreat others due to the power they had. Some added that God do side with the oppressed against the oppressors. God supported the Israelites in the Bible and supported the Tiv people throughout their migration episode until they secured Benue to settle down.

Exodus 19:10-20: The Lord asked Moses to consecrate the Israelites before they would meet him on Mount Sinai for the giving of the commandments. Only Moses was permitted to go to the top of the Mountain to meet God.
The respondents were asked about the reasons behind the ritual of cleansing which the Israelites were asked to perform before meeting God on Mount Sinai. The first respondent who was a traditionalist and among the older men in the group said God wanted to initiate people into his holiness before they would meet him. He further commented that it seemed quite similar to what the Tiv practitioners of akombo rituals do. When an uninitiated person came near an akombo festival, he/she had to remove their shoes to avoid defiling the akombo place that was considered as holy ground by the practitioners.
Other respondents simply said God is holy thus He wants his people to approach him with clean hearts before He would accept them. An older male respondent commented that God is clean and hates anything dirty such as adultery, murder, stealing, disrespect, disobedience and hatred. He looked up in the sky and said to prove that God likes cleanliness where he is dwelling is also colourful and that he does not want his feet to touch the ground like ordinary people that is why he is staying high in the sky above human beings.
The researcher reminded his respondents that the Israelites according to the text were given the commandments on Mount Sinai after they had crossed the river Jordan. He then asked them to tell him the relevance of such commandments to the Israelites. The respondents’ contributions on this matter shows that rules are guide to people since human beings have different thoughts and minds that acts differently. They also said if there are no laws there will be no order and no order implies that no one would fear God. Some further said that God wanted to tell the Israelites what he likes and dislikes and what will happen to them if they obey and/or disobey him. That is blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience just like parents and children at home where obedient children are hardly beaten but disobedient children are subject to hard discipline in the home. Some of the respondents added that even among the Tiv people every home has rules guiding its members and visitors for the sake of discipline and safety.
Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments

The respondents said Tiv people have not gotten laws which are written down formally as it is the case with law courts and the Bible. However, there are laws that are formulated by each head of a family meant for maintenance of order. It follows subsequently up to the Tiv main court of appeal call ijir tamen chaired by the overall chief of the Tiv people = Tor-Tiv in the present day Tiv. In the olden days they said the voice of elders were taken serious more than lay down laws and people were more obedient to elders than now thus Tiv were guided by prescribed laws of elders at the nuclear family, extended family, and clan.

The researcher asked his respondents which commandment they considered most relevant to the Tiv tradition. Female respondents first mentioned adultery since virginity is held with pride among Tiv mothers. The men at this point supported their wives saying, adultery can bring hatred and remove love the greatest of the rest of the commandments. Amongst the Tiv you are not allowed to go to the battlefield for your enemy will kill you in revenge if you have committed adultery.
Other commandments considered important were that of murder and bearing of false witness against a neighbour. The Tiv people believe that any death has a cause thus when you kill some one the elders would curse you saying the blood of the deceased go with you from generation to generation. Other respondent said Tiv people hate a lie that is why they have a Swem divination pot for oath taking: when you tell a lie after sworn by the Swem divination pot then your legs and abdomen will swell up and you will subsequently die.

[Focus group interviews were also held with members of the Turan Clan – since very similar responses came from them, it will not be reflected in this paper.]

Synthesis of focus group interviews with Ityuluv and Turan Clans

From the results analysed, there were some similarities in responses from participants representing both clans. For instance the clans both pointed out that in the Exodus tradition Moses was the leader of Israel during their migration episode just as Karagbe of Masev was a leader of the Tiv in their migration period. The Israelites crossed the red sea on dry ground with their enemies all drawn as it was the case with the Tiv who also crossed river Mkoomon at the back of a green snake (ikyarem) with their enemies also drawn in attempt to cross over to attack them.

The Israelites were given the Ten Commandments as a guide on Mount Sinai through Moses just as the Tiv had the Swem pot collected by Karagbe on the Swem Mountain serving as a guide to the Tiv then and now. The clans also pointed out that God is holy and expects his people to approach him in holiness that is why they were asked to consecrate themselves before meeting him on the Mount Sinai. Tiv people also did same to their idols that represented God on earth. Before entering in an idol house one has to remove his/her shoes in most cases to maintain holiness. Menstruating women were also not allowed to visit idol shrines and/or go near their husbands while preparing to go for a war. This shows that they Tiv people also had the idea of the holiness of God in their own ways just like the Israelites in Exodus.
Only Moses was allowed to meet with God on Mount Sinai just like Karagbe who alone met a sprite or shape changers (adzov) on Mount Swem to collect the Swem pot. The above clans also pointed out that Tiv people consider so importantly the third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eight, and ninth commandments found in Exodus 20:1-17 but not neglecting the rest. The Tiv people as pointed out by the two clans do not have central laws guiding them formally like the Ten commandments are to the Exodus people though Swem pot is used in law courts to ascertain truths amongst the Tiv people.
Looking at the above one would conclude that the two clans though situated in different geographical regions and belonging to different lineage families of the Tiv yet they do understood the Exodus texts read to them and interpreted it in their own context using their past experiences. That then helps the researcher to ascertain his hypothesis and aim of his studies that the indigenous interpretive means of the Tiv people can be used for the appropriation of the Exodus tradition amongst them.
Rev Weor has returned to Nigeria to do some follow up empirical research. He now focuses on the role of the Passover in the Exodus narrative and how it impacted on Israelite and early Jewish identity. Focus group interviews will also probe how the Tiv first fruits (like yams) create a fruitful intertext with the Exodus narrative in an investigation of the impact of migration narratives on identity.
4. Exodus and identity formation among the Ngoni (E Zulu).

The initial empirical research targeted 200 people (100 female and 100 male) mostly from the rural area. Only 110 interviews were done and the others despite sending the interview questions in advance at their request, they were not able to respond by the time the initial report was being compiled. The response rate was not very much impressive from women, only 30 of the intended 100 respondents were willing to give an interview. However, 80 male responded to the interview positively. Most respondents came from the age group (40-50) largely due to the fact that many in this group had tertiary education. It needs to be pointed out that there was also less responses from people from other denominations like Pentecostal.

4.1 Narratives of origins and migrations

4.1.1 Origins of the Ngoni of Zambia

The Ngoni of Zambia has a South Africa origin which traces them back to the Zulu in KwaZulu especially between Drakensburg Mountains and the Indian Ocean at the confluence of Tugela and Mpisi rivers. Interestingly, some respondents indicate a Swazi origin of the Ngoni. The Ngoni were part of the groups that run away from the clashes in the 1800s in Zulu land and migrated north under King Zwangendaba. A varied of reasons are given as to why the Ngoni under Zwangendaba left Zululand. Some of the reasons are:

Firstly, the rise of King Shaka in the 1800s in Zululand created a climate of panic and fear among the various peoples. His supposed ruthlessness threatened many who chose to leave the area.

Secondly, during the same periods other peoples were also moving in the area, therefore, one reason given is that there was external pressure from the British and the Afrikaners who were moving north occupying their land.

Thirdly, the area between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean were fertile lands. This attracted many people who eventually overpopulated the area leading to land disputes. This forced other people to migrate up north in search of other areas for settlements.
We need to argue then that it would be difficulty to give one specific reason for migrations given the various political and social dynamics in the area around the 1800s. Therefore, it is only fair that there is a combination of various reasons cited above as to why there was this major human movement to the north.
It was this time when one of the Kings, Zwangendaba led a group up north. The genealogy of King Zwangendaba is traced to from Lonyanda, Logalera, Magaleli, Cenge, Mangangati, through to Hlaewayo (of Ndandwe origin) who was the father of Zwangendaba. Zwangendaba is the father of Mpezeni (Bruwer 1945:1).The mother to Zwangendaba was Ntombazi. After a number of succession struggles in the tribe. Zwangendaba became King when he defeated King Zwindi.
4.1.2 Securing the area where they are presently

The movement north meant, they were to be in touch with other tribes. The Ngoni group defeated many tribes on their way north; the Tonga, Ndebele and Karangas.

The Ngoni crossed the Zambezi River on the 20th November 1835 at Zumbo. The occasion has been well documented due to the fact that on that day there was an eclipse of the sun. When they saw the eclipse the Ngonis thought this was sign from God that they could cross the river.
There are many stories on how the Ngoni crossed the river and today four versions of the crossing are still being told (Bruwer1941:10):

Firstly, it is believed that one of the witch doctor Umsomathwapa, took some medicine and put it on the walking stick, he then placed the stick on the water and the water was separated (Bruwer 1941:10). Consequently, everyone held together and they crossed the river.

Secondly, it is believed that the King Zwengendaba hit the river with his walking stick and the water separated making it possible for the Ngoni to cross the river – it is unlikely that this was due to exposure to the Exodus narrative.

Thirdly, the other story is that the Ngoni crossed on the boats aided by the local people, Chikunda people. After the crossing of the river the Chikunda were killed by the Ngoni.

Fourthly, the other view is that a witch doctor or Sangoma by the name of Sobatwapa Nyawau prepared some concoction of medicines so that King Zwangendaba can use for bathing and drinking. The sangoma then took a shield made of cow hide and put some medicine on it. As soon as King Zwangendaba drank the concoction and started to bath (not swim!) the water dried up and it was possible for the Ngoni to cross the river on the dry land.
The Ngoni conquered the local tribes in East of Zambia; Nsengas, Chewa and went through Malawi up to Tanzania and reached the Fipa Plateau in 1840s. When Zwangendaba died in 1848 at the Southern tip of Lake Tanganyika, many succession disputes followed leading to splits. The Ngoni broke into five groups; Tuta, Gwangara, Maseko, Mpezeni, a group under Gwaza Jere.
The Ngoni secured their area in the Eastern part of Zambia through war by displacing the original inhabitants (Chewa, Nsenga, and Tumbuka). This was under the leadership of Mpezeni one of the sons of Zwangendaba around 1835-40. Ngonis were excellent at making war and this ability was due to their fighting skills believed to have originated from Shaka.
4.1.3 Role of Oral Culture in Ngoni narratives

The Ngoni narratives of origin and migration that describe their identity, culture, religion, traditions are primarily transmitted orally. This explains as to why to a large extent the influence of oral culture among the indigenous people across all age groups (under 40-70) interviewed is predominant. Mostly traditions and customs are transmitted orally thereby suggesting a significant role played by the oral transmission of information. What is amazing is that even among the young people (respondents under the age of 40); oral transmission was the vehicle through which they have come to embrace their identity, culture and religion. In addition, culture ceremonies like Nc’wala play a role to cultivate and propagate the memories of the Ngoni tradition. It needs to be pointed out that, some respondents indicated a number of written sources (some in the vernacular language) to which they got information of their identity, culture and religion.

A number of questions could be raised over the role of memory and its reliability. However, it seems to me that every generation of the Ngoni try to entrust the memories of their culture, identity in some elderly men.
What is difficult to comprehend is the fact that the Ngoni migration which started in South Africa took the group to three countries before they finally settled in their presented day areas. With the interactions with other people and marriages, it is believed that when the Ngoni left Zululand, they were mostly men and often married the women they captured on the way through warfare. Many commentators have argued that the most weakness of the Ngoni was that they married many women from the different peoples they defeated. This means that, they had also to accommodate their cultures and traditions. In the long run it affected the Ngoni culture so much so that some memories could be lost.
4.1.4 Role of religion in identity

The Ngoni have a strong belief in the ancestors, all good things come from God. Ancestors are the mouth piece of God. However, it needs to be mentioned here that in talking about God, there is no clear distinction between God and ancestors.

4.2. Interpreting Exodus among the Ngoni people

4.2.1 Christianity among the Ngoni

Firstly, Christianity came to the Ngoni around 1900 through the Dutch Reformed Church Missionaries of Orange Free State, South Africa. The first mission station among the Ngoni people; Madzimoyo was established in 1903.The most frequently used Bible translation has been the Revised Standard Version (RSV). This was translated into Chewa in 1922. The use of this version of the Bible is due to the fact that the early missionaries who came to evangelise the Ngoni land in Zambia, came from Malawi where Chewa was the many language spoken. Initially, it meant that for one to be a Christian, one had to learn this ‘language of the church’ to be able to read the Bible. In fact, earlier literacy classes were done using the Chewa Bible as the basis of instruction. Most literate adults at that stage had to read the Bible before any other literature.

The introduction Chewa as the language of the Mission Church had a number of impact on the Ngoni. Firstly, it meant that the Ngoni had to adopt as the official medium of communication the language of the people they defeated. Their language was to become subordinate to Chewa.
Secondly, the use of language meant that the Ngoni had to incorporate Chewa culture and a language also communicates some culture.
4.2.2 Interpretation of the Bible

The most interesting aspect of the Ngoni is that they used two languages in their Churches; Ngoni and ChiNyanja. This term that is used to refer to a hybrid term referring to a language combining a number of Eastern Province languages; Chewa, Ngoni, Tumbuka, Nsenga, Kunda. This is the official language in which the Bible has been interpreted. My findings are that there is a difference in the language used in the text and what they use in everyday communication. For example, during the service, one would read the text in ChiNyanja and preach in Ngoni. There is no doubt all that the use of Chewa in the Church, for those Ngonis who belong to Churches that use Chewa as official language, has impacted their language and culture. We need to indicate here that in other Ngoni areas other languages are used in the Church such as Nsenga, Tumbuka and Kunda.

Exodus 14:21-22 This passage talks about the crossing of the Re(e)d Sea by the Israelites. Under the pursuit of the Egyptians, Moses stretched his hand over the sea, the water drew back and all the Israelites miraculous crossed the sea on dry Land.
Interesting comparisons were established between the Biblical narrative and the Ngoni traditions:

* Both Israelites and the Ngoni crossed an expanse of water to get to their new land; The Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Ngoni crossed the Zambezi River (19/12/1835).

* God provided the Israelites passage by facilitating the crossing of the Red Sea on dry land in a miraculous way. The Ngoni were aided by the locals; the Chikunda people, by carrying them in their canoes to cross the river

* The Egyptians perished in the sea; the Ngoni killed the Chikunda after aiding them.

The general picture of the passage was the view that, it indicated that the Lord God is in charge over all; including nature and fight for his own. It was still not clear whether the reference to God is simultaneously used to refer to ancestors as well.
Exodus 19:10-20 The passage describes the events at Mt Sinai preceding the giving of the law. Moses goes up the mountain to meet god and when he descends he is instructed to tell the people to concentrate themselves because God was to appear before them. They had to clan themselves up and one of the acts was to abstain from sex.
There are number of rituals done before meeting God (through the ancestors). A similar one is the annual ceremony (N’cwala). During this ceremony, the Ngoni people come before God to pray and offer sacrifices for the good harvest and sustenance in the previous year. The leader (paramount Chief) undergoes seclusion a day before the ceremony. On the day of the ceremony, a bull is slaughtered and the chief drinks law blood and eats meat roasted from the beast.
We need to note here that whilst the Biblical story indicates that there is consecration of the whole populace, in the Ngoni case only the Chief has to be consecrated. However, among the Ngoni, there is also a general tendency to consecrate oneself before any big event, i.e. war in the past, Hunting it was expected that one had to abstain from sex.
In all this, the ideal of ritual cleanliness or holiness is propagated - Holiness in the context of the Ngoni refers more to a status usually in existence for a specific period. It is achieved by abstaining for example from sex (Kujigura). Consequently, the biblical story in this text is understood comparatively in that context. God was holy therefore; people have to be holy to meet Him.
Exodus 20:1-17 This passage describes the giving of the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. In this passage the commandments are elaborated.
The laws guiding the social, cultural and religious lives of the Ngoni people are embodied in their myths, proverbs and the traditional courts under the Kachere tree. There are no written laws similar to the Ten Commandments, but through proverbs, idioms, the Ngoni are taught what is right and wrong. In addition, the structural arrangements of the household, the family where the father is head, the Village Headmen(manduna), Chiefs and the Paramount chief all issue decrees of conduct and see to it that the society is kept in harmony. In this context of regulating its ethos, the community are bound by their allegiance to the tribe to adhere to these laws.
It is important to note that when asked about the commandment most relevant to the Ngoni tradition, so far many have indicated, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. In most of these laws, 5 was outstanding followed by 8, and 10. In I trying to find an explanation as to why commandments 1-4 seem not be seen as relevant to the Ngoni tradition and to establish as to why commandments 5, 8, 10 are preferred with commandment 5 being dominant, a number of explanations were advanced.
The commandments 1-4 were not very popular among the Ngoni, many reason are given. The most reasonable was that these commandments speak of the relationship with God that seems not to fit in the Ngoni worldview. It is often not envisaged that the Ngoni can have a direct relationship because a relationship with God. Any relationship with God is better understood as being done through an intermediate figure (ancestor in this regard). The other reason is that among the Ngoni people the aspect of ancestor worship has no office bearers .i.e. priests, diviners like other African tribes. The ancestral veneration is often done at family level. The Public worship is a national event done in a form of commemoration e.g. N’cwala when the ancestors are invoked.
The fifth commandment was most popular due the strong emphasis of the Ngoni on genealogy. Everyone among the Ngoni belong to some lineage of some kind. There is no one who is not connected. This connectedness is strengthened through strong family ties. In all these ties, the parents; mother and fathers are significant. There is great respect for ones' parents.
The other commandments (6, 7, 8, 9, and 10) are relevant in terms of the need for good neighbourliness (Kunkharirana bwino). There is always an emphasis that one needs to stay in harmony with one’s neighbour, perhaps due to the connectedness often found in these communities (rural areas).
4.3 Evaluation and Conclusions

Firstly, there is seem to be a clear understanding of the origins of the Zulu with most of the respondents so far so some facts still need to be checked with the secondary sources.

Secondly, the issue of oral as the medium of transmission of the customs is subject to a number of tests; originality, historical distance, developments, etc. Though there are written sources, some were not primary sources but secondary sources based on what others have cited elsewhere. It would be interesting to see to what extent can oral culture has been sustained.

Thirdly, the other thing has to do with traditional structures that sustain the Ngoni identity, culture and religion; Headmen, Chiefs, to what extent would they survive (post)modernity.

Fourthly, most interpreting of the narratives in the Bible is done through a comparative method whereby biblical stories are compared to Ngoni stories i.e. battles, oppression, persecution, in terms of similarities. Whilst one would argue that Identity, cultural and religious ideas enhance the understanding of biblical texts, the question still remain how sustainable are these values in cosmopolitan, multicultural, religion context and with the overshadowing impact of Christianity on many cultures.

Fifthly, the question as to whether the Ngoni can reconstruct their narratives in the light of the impact of Christianity and other cultures remains to be ascertained

5. A Nama ‘Exodus’? Assimilation and resistance according to a postcolonial reading of the diaries of Hendrik Witbooi (H Bosman).

The Witbooi diaries are a unique repository of 19th Century African Christianity responding to colonialism, be reinterpreting the Exodus narrative in a remarkable way. Therefore this project attempts to interpret the personal diaries of Hendrik Witbooi in view of postcolonial criticism. It is argued that Witbooi’s diaries indicate how he responded to colonial discursive practices by means of assimilation and resistance. Special attention is given to the possibility that an ‘exodus theme’ was employed as a rhetorical strategy to mobilize the Witboois to relocate to new territory and eventually used to resist by inciting an uprising against the German authorities.


The following brief biography provides some background against which this postcolonial reading takes place:

  • Hendrik Witbooi was born circa 1830, south of the Gariep (Orange) river, at Pella.

  • The Witbooi group settled in Namibia in 1863 and had contact with several missionaries from different missionary societies (Dedering 1993: 57). The name Gibeon was chosen by the Witboois as an indication that they were still on their way to a more final destination, somewhere towards the north.

  • Received a ‘Christian education’ from Rhenish missionary Johannes Olpp from 1868 – 78. At first as part of baptism classes and later as elder of the church at Gibeon.

  • In 1880, after an almost lethal skirmish with the Herero, he heard a voice calling out: ‘It has come to pass – The road lies open – lay on you a heavy burden!’

  • In 1884 Witbooi and 200 of his compatriots embarked on the first of three attempts to journey to a fertile land with few but friendly people, to the north of the territory occupied by the Herero.

  • On June 24, 1884 at Onguheva a battle takes place with the Hereros and a peace is negotiated allowing Witbooi to return to Gibeon (with his rifle and horse!).

  • During the middle of 1885 Witbooi again attempts to reach his promised land – but in October of 1885 he is ambushed at Osana by Maherero and two of his sons are killed.

  • After another (third) futile attack on the Hereros, he decides to embark on a ‘small war’ by resorting to guerilla tactics. From 1888 he left Gibeon and resettles in a mountain stronghold at Hoornkrantz, to the west of Reheboth. This was a well organized community with its own church and central administration.

  • The German military, captain Curt von Francois, tries for several years to convince Witbooi to accept an offer of protection from Kaiser Wilhelm – a so called ‘Schutzvertrag’! (Protection money?) Hendrik Witbooi does not agree to forfeit his freedom by signing the proposed treaty and shows a clear and remarkable understanding of international politics and colonial rhetoric.

  • Von Francois eventually looses his patience and unexpectedly attacks Hoornkrantz on April 12, 1893 – 78 Witboois are killed, most of them women and children.

  • The new German commander, Major Theodor Leutwein, convinces Witbooi to sign a ‘Schutzvertrag’ on September 15, 1894. Witbooi returns to Gibeon and builds a house at nearby Rietmond – for about ten years peace is maintained with the German authorities. Not only was peace maintained, but Witbooi collaborated with the German military by supplying troops for numerous campaigns against local warlords.

  • In 1904 Witbooi suddenly starts an uprising – not only against the Germans, but also against local white farmers.

  • He was joined by several Nama / Oorlam chiefs and fights for more than a year, till he is wounded at Vaalgras / Tses and dies on October 29, 1905, buried in an unmarked grave.


Hendrik Witbooi has been interpreted in remarkably divergent ways:

  • For some colonial historiographers he was a calculating, if not cunning, negotiator (Vedder 1938 / 1966). Brigitte Lau (1995: 1-16) wrote a devastating critique on ‘Vedder and Namibian Historiography’, with the title ‘Thank God the Germans came’. She argued that a highly partisan reconstruction was made of Namibian history prior to the arrival of the German missionaries and colonial administrators. The social unrest and ongoing fighting between different groups and factions – what Vedder (1938/1966: 289) summarized as ‘…evil, murder and horror…’ – created a situation that had to be rectified by German missionaries and colonial administrators.

  • While postcolonial historiographers have considered Witbooi to be a pioneering Africanist and a champion of independence from colonial hegemony. Witbooi became an icon of the struggle against colonialism and a symbol of the resistance against imperial hegemony (Hillebrecht 2004).


A postcolonial reading of the events leading up to the German involvement in Namibia indicates a distinct contrast between the official rhetoric and what eventually happened.

On the one hand, the Berlin-Congo Conference pledged in 1884 – 85 that the conferring (colonial) powers considered it their duty to:

  1. Preserve the aboriginal races of Africa.

  2. Watch over their interests

  3. Cultivate their moral and material advancement and development.

On the other hand, Dr Paul Rohrbach (important official in the German Colonial Office) commented at the end of the nineteenth century: “The decision to colonise in South-West Africa could after all mean nothing else but this: namely that the native tribes would have to give up their land on which they have previously grazed their livestock in order that the white man might have the land for the grazing of his stock.”

To answer why Germany became involved with Namibia in 1884, one has to briefly look at the relationship between colonialism and imperialism as the underlying motivation for the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the case of Namibia initial colonial involvement was not primarily due to economic reasons but was triggered by the imperialistic aspirations of the German Reichskanzler, Bismarck, as Baumgart puts it: ‘als Mittel Bismarkscher Staatskunst und Herrschaftstechnik…’ (Bühler 1994:12).
Against this background, we can now turn to Hendrik Witbooi in more detail. In a recent article by Werner Hillebrecht (2004: 144 - 153) Hendrik Witbooi is described as an icon and inspiration for anti-colonial resistance in general and for Namibia as an independent country in particular. Hillebrecht (2004: 144) argues that the nineteenth century Oorlam migrations from South Africa to the north of the Orange / Gariep can be interpreted as “ein Mittel, ihre Unabhängigkeit und ihre Lebensgrundlagen zu wahren beziehungsweise neu zu etablieren.”
Of particular importance was Witbooi’s staunch resistance to become party to any “Schutzvertrag” with the colonial authorities. His well reasoned decline of these unsolicited offers of German protection is a good example of his remarkable insight in international politics, but few of his fellow Oorlam / Nama leaders followed his example (Willebrecht 2004: 146).
The sudden attack by von Francois on the Witbooi stronghold at Horingkrantz on April 12, 1893 leaves Witbooi with almost 89 dead and no option but to sign a “Schutzvertrag” with the German authorities, now under the persuasive leadership of Landeshauptmann Theodor Leutwein. These traumatic events lead to 10 years of relative peace and collaboration between Witbooi and the German colonial authorities (Willebrecht 2004: 147 – 148).
One can speculate as to what factors triggered the eventual uprising in 1904. In an evocative letter to Leutwein on November 3, 1904, Witbooi tries to argue that God was responsible for the breaking of the ten year truce that existed with the colonial authorities.

Can postcolonial theory help the latter day reader to make some sense of the complex and even contradictory figure Hendrik Witbooi obviously is? Let us consider a few basic concepts used in postcolonial theory:

‘Postcolonial theory’ is often a generic term that entails many and even diverging concerns and practices. According to Musa Dube (1999: 299) one of its ‘defining characteristics is that it emphasizes the pervasiveness of imperialism and relates imperial expansion, impact and response…’
It is the contention of this contribution that Hendrik Witbooi’s often confusing behaviour can be interpreted against the postcolonial concepts of assimilation, hybridity, mimicry and resistance.
Hybridity’: Homi Bhabha analyzed the relations between colonizer and the colonized. From this emerged different trends: on the one hand, it emphasizes the unconscious process of hybrid identities or creolization (of which Afrikaners and the Afrikaans speaking Namas are good examples of), but on the other hand, it also refers to the conscious and politically motivated concern with resistance and disruption of homogeneity as defined by those in authority (Post-Colonial Studies 2000: 118-121).In this regard one can think of the eventual pronouncement of the Witboois – in the beginning we needed the Bible, but now we only listen to Hendrik.’
Mimicry’: As Bhabha has shown the copying of the colonizing culture by the colonized contains both mockery and menace. There seems to be a pervasive inherent threat in mimicry due to its covert resistance by developing an identity both similar and dissimilar to the colonizer. [One could ask again why the African Initiated Churches flourish whilst the mainline churches seems to be struggling for survival?]


The yearning to journey to a land of plenty somewhere to the north did not find its origin with Hendrik Witbooi, since it is clear that the idea was already aspired to by his grandfather Kido (David) and father Moses Witbooi (Hendrik was no Moses, but rather the son of Moses – and David - who continued what his ancestors began!) According to Helbig and Hillebrecht (1992: 12) the eventual calling experienced by Hendrik had the effect ‘to resume the plans of his grandfather Kido Witbooi and to move further north, into the desired Land of Promise. In Gibeon, Kido Witbooi had only “made the sun stand still”, which meant that one day the journey would continue.”

During his return to Gibeon, after being captured and released by the Hereros, while riding through the Khanigukha mountain pass, Witbooi heard a voice saying (Vedder 1938/ 1966:456]:‘It has come to pass – The road lies open – I lay on you a heavy burden. The first written reference to this event is found more then ten years later in a letter to Johannes Olpp, the Rhenish missionary who baptized and trained Witbooi as a church elder more than a decade ago. This event can be related to earlier childhood experiences mentioned in the ‘Gemeinde-Chronik Gibeon’ of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church [ELC] according to which he experienced religious visions as a young boy while herding livestock.
Subsequent attempts by Witbooi to trek to a place to the north of Herero land, seems to be rooted in this seminal calling experience. The way in which Witbooi articulated what he perceived to be his divine mission was deeply influenced by the rhetoric of the Old Testament prophets with whom he came into contact by means of missionary Olpp’s baptismal classes (Hillebrecht 2004:145).
Two important implications emanated from Witbooi’s experience of a divine calling (Willebrecht 2004: 146):

  1. The resolve to lead the Wiboois to a new dwelling place to the north, despite the fact that this would require a hazardous journey through the land of the Herero.

  2. To curtail the theft of livestock – an activity Witboois were frequently guilty of.

According to Vedder (1938 / 1966: 474) contact with the traveler Stephenson could have triggered Witbooi’s yearning to travel to the north. The scholarly Stephenson invited Witbooi to accompany him on his journey from Cape to Cairo – Vedder speculates that this exposure rekindled his father’s and grandfather’s longstanding hopes to travel to the north and that Gibeon was merely ‘a halting place on their journey’.

Another surprising manifestation of the ‘exodus motif’ amongst the Nama was the use of Christian symbolism when involved in extreme violence. Missionary reports of the events taking place during the Witbooi uprising (1904-05) report how prayers were conducted before victims were shot and ‘on one occasion they ostentatiously left and open bible on the threshold of a ransacked house – the place where it lay open was Psalm 106 that described the exodus in cultic poetry (Dedering 1999: 9).

Hendrik Witbooi was buried in an unmarked grave, but after independence in 1990 the Namibian government decided to put his face on post-independent banknotes – in indication on how he personified their understanding of national identity.

But to return to the possibility that Witbooi and his followers perceived themselves to be on an exodus like Israel of old. For some missionaries the ideal of an exodus to the north that was motivated by a presumed divine calling amounted to a form of ‘Schwarmgeisterei’ (letter by Hegner dated May 12, 1884). For others, Hendrik Witbooi assumed the role of a messianic prophet to enlarge his influence amongst his people as a type of ‘saviour’ (letter by Rust dated May 17, 1884). A poignant tribute was formulated by Theodor Leutwein (Witbooi Papers: 224):

The name of the little Captain will, however, remain engraved upon the history of South West Africa forever. His stubborn resistance against the mighty German empire at the head of a small warlike band, ragged and poor… I still see him before me… Modest yet self-possessed, loyal yet not without political cunning, never deviating from what he considered his duty or his right…’

My engagement with the research related to Hendrik Witbooi has emphasized the responsibility Biblical scholars have to face up to and reckon with our common colonial past in Southern Africa. As Biblical scholars we also have to pay special attention to the literature produced by marginalized people – of which the Witbooi diaries and correspondence is an uniquely important example (these diaries have been submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register!)

There is no doubt in my mind that the idea of a “Nama exodus’ did exist and although Hendrik Witbooi never presented himself as a second Moses, Gibeon was but a temporary stop when the sun stood still on their journey to a promised land , somewhere to the north of the land of the Herero. The extent to which the ‘exodus terminology’ was used to legitimate aggression towards the Herero and to eventually resist the colonial presence is for all to see. Perhaps, the Witbooi diaries are a reminder that Biblical scholars neglect the hermeneutics and biblical interpretation of contemporary marginalized people at their own peril in their ongoing quest to make sense of the present in terms of a complex and diversified past!

6. Concluding remarks

Due to logistical problems in Nigeria and Zimbabwe / Zambia this research project can only be concluded in 2009. Therefore my sincere apologies for this paper that obviously represents work in progress!

Besides taking note of exciting new theories about modern migrations; the respective modes of identity negotiation underlying these different contextual readings of Exodus will be interpreted in terms of acculturation (the impact of a change from traditional religion to Christianity on identity), enculturation (the way in which individuals become part of a group identity) and inculturation (the reception of the Exodus narratives by cultures who have similar narratives concerning origin and migration)

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