Friday, December 18, 2009

A Fly On The Kuta Wall

On Wednesday I was asked to drive the local indunas (village chiefs) to the regional chief’s royal establishment for a meeting (the place where ‘Movin’ Muchembelles’ was held). I thought it was just a meeting to discuss chiefly things, but I arrived to find they were being called to tribal court (kuta). Before I’d left that morning they had told me to bring a tshirt and shetenge (traditional cloth wrapped as a skirt), but they had forgotten the part about the head covering until we’d arrived. To avoid being fined by the regional chief, some quick thinking led to wrapping my tank top around my head. We waited and waited outside the court building until finally one of the chief’s summoners came out and “clapped” to signify that the court was ready to be in session.

Now this is not really clapping as you or I would normally think of it, but rather, in this culture, its where both hands are cupped and put together softly to make a light clapping sound as a sign of respect, greeting, and/or thanks. The more respect being given, the louder it is (lightly audible instead of silent) and the farther you kneel down to the ground while doing it. According to the tradition of the tribal court, all must kneel at the door and ‘clap’ 5-6 times before entering and then get down and do it again after being seated. This particular day it was the 2nd in command to the regional chief that led the court and the clapping and kneeling occurred again when he entered.

In the front of the court sat 4 officials with the 2nd in command sitting on a wooden throne ornately carved with a hippo just above his head. The rest of us, about 20 indunas and other respected elders of the region, sat on benches. It was a rather short court session (only 2.5 hours) because those that summoned the court did not even show up. But the session still continued, just in the favor of those present. Part of it actually concerned the land where our children’s home is and the surrounding riverbanks, which are locale to several tourist lodges. Whenever someone either wanted to speak or was summoned to speak, he had to go up to the front, kneel/clap, and then sit on a reed mat with his legs straight out, just like a child would sit playing in the sand.

The allowance for cell phone usage within the court was something unexpected. Whenever someone’s phone would ring, the person would get up, kneel/clap, go to the door, kneel/clap again, then carry on with the phone call outside. They did the same kneeling/clapping ritual upon returning to the courtroom once finished. But it didn’t matter who it was…those leading the court or those in the court, I lost track of the number of times they went in and out after having their cell phone ring in the middle, but they left and entered respectfully at least.

After the court was over I was called over and asked if I would bring them back again the following day for an address by the chief himself. I wasn’t really left much choice to say no to such an official, so off we went again the following day. This time, I brought all the proper garb, especially since I would be in the presence of the regional chief himself. The 8 o’clock meeting began promptly…at 11. As always, it was hurry up and wait.

Everything was the same when entering the courtroom, but this time there was also respect given when the chief’s throne was carried in and again when the chief actually entered; each instance was kneeling with now 2 rounds of 10-12 ‘claps.’ This meeting was an official Chief Address. He had just been in Windhoek (the capital) with his 47 other colleagues, all the Ministries of Namibia, and the newly re-elected President of Namibia for a week-long, year-end meeting. Now he was to share with all his local indunas what was discussed. For both times I had the great privilege of a personal translator so I could know what was going on, but to sum up a 5 ½ hour meeting will be tough.

They started by giving a synopsis from what was said from each Ministry. The biggest of which being that there must be a stop to electing chiefs with no ancestral heritage and no chief must rule in another chief’s territory. This was emphasized many times. Additionally, each chief is only permitted to give 20 hectares of land to each person and that they must each now have a certificate of ownership. Then if they wanted more they had to apply for it. The chief did a new thing of opening up the floor forum style and things got a little crazy for a couple of hours, with there having to be order brought several times. Another tense discussion topic was about compensation from wild animal damage. All the prices were reported depending on what animal it was and what the damage was. For example, if an elephant crushed this much of your corn, you would get this amount.

Lastly there was a discussion on the weight of the tribal courts. Namibia, recently (1990) established as a democracy, has a co-existence in its justice system between civil and tribal courts. Though there are elected officials in civil positions, there is power still remaining in both the tribal leaders and their court systems. The chief spent some time reassuring them of that and motivating them of their responsibilities within their people and to bring appropriate things before the tribal court. I really knew I was amongst tribal Africa when they read off all the tribal court punishments and fines in terms of number of cattle and whippings. In a rather conservative fashion, everything from insulting your parents to theft to adultery to rape each had a cow amount to it. He emphasized this by pointing to the jail cell out back where the offender will stay until the full number of cattle was paid off. The biggest thing I didn’t expect in a tribal chief address was a beginning and ending prayer and even a Bible reference in one of his explanations!!

Though a very long 2 days, what a more unique privilege and way to learn to local culture than to get to sit in on the dealings of the tribal court system with all the local indunas and the head regional chief!

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