Wife-swapping among NAMIBIA’s nomadic tribes and Ladakh tribe in INDIA has been practised for generations, but a legislator’s call to enshrine it in Namibian law stirred debate about women’s rights and tradition in modern society. The practice is more of a gentlemen’s agreement where friends can have sax with each others’ wives with no strings attached. Swinging with an African tribal touch? Or “rape”, as some critics see it.
The wives have little say in the matter, according to those who denounce the customs as both abusive and risky in countries with one of the world’s highest HIV rates.
But the NAMIBIAN Ovahimba and Ovazemba tribes, based mainly in this southern African country’s arid north, contend their age-old custom strengthens friendships and prevents promiscuity.
“It’s a culture that gives us unity and friendship,” said Kazeongere Tjeundo, a lawmaker and deputy president of the opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance of Namibia.
“It’s up to you to choose (among) your mates who you like the most… to allow him to sleep with your wife,” said Tjeundo, a member of the Ovahimba ethnic group.
Concerned that HIV could be used as an excuse to stop the ancient tradition, he and others are suggesting regulations be adopted to ensure “good practice”.
Tjeundo said he plans to propose a wife-swapping law, following a November legislative poll when he is tipped for re-election.
Known as “okujepisa omukazendu” – which loosely means “offering a wife to a guest” – the practice is little known outside these reclusive communities, whose population is estimated at 86 000.
Mainly found in the north-western Kunene region near the Angolan border, the tribes are largely isolated from the rest of the country. They have resisted the trappings of modern life, keep livestock, live off the land and practice ancestral worship.
Many still reside in pole-and-mud huts and both men and women go bare-chested.
The women wear short skirts of goat skin, carved iron and cowshell jewellery and cover their braided locks in thick red ochre paste, which they also rub on their skin as a sun screen.
Unlike any modern-day swinging, tribal members make no random draw to pair couples. They meet in their own homes, while the husband or wife of the other party is banished to a separate hut during the exchange.
Women cannot object to sleeping with a man chosen by their husbands, a point that angers rights activists like Rosa Namises who says the custom is tantamount to rape and “rape is illegal”.
“That practice is not benefiting women but men who want to control their partners,” said Namises, a former lawmaker who heads a non-governmental organisation called Woman Solidarity Namibia.
Other groups like Namibia’s Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), a public interest law firm that vows to protect the rights of all Namibians, have challenged its continued existence in a country where 18.2 percent of the 2.1 million residents have HIV, according to national statistics.
“It’s a practice that puts women at health risk,” said Amon Ngavetene, who is in charge of LAC’s Aids project. He contends that most women are opposed to the practice and would want it abolished.
But 40-year-old Kambapira Mutumbo is completely comfortable with the custom and has been asked to sleep with her husband’s friends.
“I did it this year,” she said, and “I have no problem with the arrangement.”
“It’s good because its part of our culture, why should we change it?” she added.
Cloudina Venaani, programme analyst with the United Nations Development Programme office in Namibia, is adamant that women only tolerate it because they are afraid of defying their husbands.
Traditionalists, however, insist the custom does not violate the rights of women, noting that women are also free to choose partners for their husbands – even if this rarely happens in practice.
Like opposition lawmaker Tjeundohe, Uziruapi Tjavara, chief of the Otjikaoko Traditional Authority in the Kunene region, wants the custom to continue but paired with education on HIV.
Details, however, are still vague.
“We just need to research more on how the practice can be regulated,” said Tjeundohe.
For Ladakh tribe in INDIA, wife-swapping is a tradition
If you thought kissing in public and wife-swapping have nothing Indian about it, you’ll have to do a rethink. For centuries, Dards or Brogpas of Ladakh have been indulging in both without any inhibitions.
The Dard tribe has around 2,500 members in three small villages of Ladakh – Dhahnu, Darchik and Garkun. Several historians have identified them as the only authentic descendants of the Aryans left in India.
Historians say the original Brogpas were a group of soldiers from Alexander’s army who lost their way while returning to Greece after the war with Porus or simply people from Baltistan in PoK.
They reached Dhahnu and settled there since it is the only fertile valley in Ladakh. The Dards are completely different from Ladakhis physically, culturally, linguistically and socially, says Norboo, a scholar who has done extensive study on Dards.
Dards find a mention in the Mahabharata and other Hindu scriptures. They have adopted Buddhism but their customs are very similar to those of Hindu Brahmins.
Like Hindus, they worship cow and Lha (gods and goddesses). They offer sacrifices to the gods and are fond of music, wine, jewellery and flowers.
Their costumes are adorned with flowers and jewellery. Both men and women dance together for days at the onset of spring in Ladakh.
Dards have been following the solar calendar for centuries. Based on the movement of the sun in Ladakh, Brogpas celebrate December 22 as their New Year day.
Brogpa men and women are very tall and beautiful. Unlike Ladakhis, they are fair with big, light-coloured eyes, full lips and pointed noses.
“That’s why we consider ourselves superior to others and don’t marry into other communities,” declares Tashi, an educated Dard from Garkun village in Kargil. The tribe tries to preserve its ethnicity through this insularity.
Tashi relates an interesting anecdote. “In 1979, two German ladies came all the way to Ladakh in search of Aryan partners.
The then deputy commissioner told us that the ladies wanted to bear Aryan children since Germans also consider themselves superior to other races,” says Tashi.
But the women were arrested because the area is close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and was out of bounds for foreigners. The Brogpas practise polygamy and polyandry. Pre-marital and extra-marital sax are also acceptable.
“We didn’t know what shame is. But gradually we are learning it because of modern education and giving up our culture, traditions and customs,” says Tashi.
The Brogpas have at least two graduates each in the three villages of Ladakh today. “Polyandry has vanished among the tribe, but there are instances of polygamy,” adds Tashi who has two wives and 10 children, five from each wife.
The tribe has faced censure from several quarters. The Army and civil administration as well as the urbanites of Leh town have been calling the tribe’s practises uncivilised.
“Till 1970, groups of women and men from the tribe would queue up in lines and kiss each other openly without any consideration for marital partnerships,” says Tashi. “But now we do it when there are no outsiders around,” he adds.