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Recommendations for Challenging the Namibian perception of Sexuality
Subtitle: A case study of the Ovahimba and Ovaherero cultural-sexual models in Kunene North in an HIV/AIDS context
The current HIV/AIDS pandemic has reached alarming levels in Namibia, with an average national prevalence of almost 20%.
The current messages developed to encourage behavioural changes and tested on monogamous.
Christian members of society, promote abstinence, faithfulness and the use of condoms.
But are all Namibian communities monogamous and Christian?
In the relatively puritanical Namibian social environment, issues such as sex, sexual behaviour and sexual preferences are considered taboo. However, to cite Watney (1987), in order to "prevent thousands of lives from being sacrificed on the twin altars of prudery", there is an urgent need to challenge the current perception of sexuality in the country and to accept the different models of sexuality in place that exist in the Namibian society.
Based on a case study of the Ovahimba and Ovaherero in the northern part of the Kunene Region, the current sexual characteristics of monogamous. Christian Namibians are challenged in order to depict the situation more accurately. Hopefully, such an analysis will allow stakeholders to develop better strategies to tackle the AIDS pandemic in the Kunene Region in particular, and in the nation as a whole.
Philippe Talavera holds a doctoral degree in Veterinary Science from the College of Veterinary Sciences in Lyon, France and a postgraduate Certificate in Biochemistry, specialising in Endocrinology, from the University of Medical Sciences, also in Lyon. He has worked for development agencies in northern Namibia since 1997, operating in the Kunene Region from January 1999. Since January 2001, he has been in charge of the Kunene Regional Council's Ombetja Yehinga (“The Red Ribbon") programme to create awareness about HIV/AIDS.
In order to understand sex, sexual behaviour and sexual preferences among the Ovahimba and Ovaherero in Kunene North (the northern part of the Kunene Region) in an HIV/AIDS context, a survey on sexuality was launched, using formal and informal interviews and a multidisciplinary perspective.
The social organisation of the Ovahimba and Ovaherero communities is based on a double descent system whereby an individual belongs to a matriclan (from which he/she will inherit possessions, the most valuable being cattle) and to a patrician (from which he/she will access spirituality through the cult of the ancestors). One's matriclan is extremely important in terms of sexuality: marriages will take place preferably within the same matriclan. However, while the notion of the matriclan is still strong, it seems that the notion of the patrician, associated with taboos and religion, is fading among the younger generation, especially in the urban environment of Opuwo.
Although it is often underestimated, it seems obvious that the sexuality of the Omuhimba and Omuherero individual is shaped right from his/her early childhood. The sex of assignment and rearing is feminine for all individuals at birth. A young boy will attain male status, and subsequently attain his sex of rearing as male, only after his circumcision. Furthermore, from birth to the age of 4, the child lives in very close contact with its mother and the other women in the homestead; hence, it lives in a polygamous environment. Furthermore, the child appears to play a role in the sexual relation between adults, at times passively (sleeping next to the couple having sex), at times actively (used as a tool by the mother to avoid sexual intercourse with her husband).
After 4 years of age, the child is separated from its mother to live with siblings. Rapidly, the child is involved in the ouruwo game, a game whereby children recreate their environment. Some children play the role of animals and some their owners. Some, at one point or another, get involved in sexual activities with penile-vaginal penetration. This game is not considered as strictly sexual as the children lack the ability to reproduce (no ejaculation and no pregnancy). It can also involve incestuous relations between sisters and brothers.
By puberty, however, the situation changes. Girls go through a type of initiation at the onset of menstruation, and sexual activities from then on are considered as strictly sexual because they can potentially lead to pregnancy. Notably, the notion of adolescence does not exist. Children are considered strictly as such until they are independent from their parents.
Among male adult members of the Ovahimba and Ovaherero, the main form of sexuality is heterosexual and polygamous, with an intense multiplication of the sexual object; that is, he will tend to multiply the number of women and thus become "the most loved man in the region". All activities leading to penile-vaginal penetration, with ejaculation inside the vagina, are considered "real sex". The main aims of sex are reproduction and pleasure, for both men and women.
Marriage will preferably take place within the same matriclan, with the criteria for the selection of a spouse being economic. Wives are not necessarily the preferred sexual objects, but are the most performative of one's economic partners. The cultural refinement of sexuality has not, therefore, been the sublimation of love, but a combination of rational strategies to best exploit the environment, and possessive private relations within the framework of possessive societal relations.
Furthermore, because the groom pays a bride price (in the form of cattle), it is often perceived that his wife "belongs" to him. As such, gender relations between couples are not balanced. Finally, since mutual consent is not a prerequisite for the sex act, wives in particular and women in general have limited capacity to negotiate sex. [...]