Ondjeva, onjeje or oshindjeje are the reddish beads worn around the waist of many Oshiwambo-speaking women. For years, it has been part of the Oshiwambo culture and tradition.
However, the practice varies with different Oshiwambo clans. The oyster-shelled waist beads are usually worn by every newborn in the Oshiwambo culture, boys included; although most usually stop wearing them at around three years of age.
While children of the Kwanyama would receive the beads from their mother or mother’s relatives, the Kwambis get it from their father’s house. They call theirs ‘Oshindjeje’.
The reasons for wearing Ondjeva vary with each clan. Originally, most would wear them to keep spirits away but more widely, it has been viewed as a symbol of identity for the wearers.
Says Novatha Shalongo Ndalipo Charles on Facebook during our online survey; “I still wear mine, because an Oshiwambo woman must wear them to show that she is real. When you die far from home and your body is not brought to your family, the Ondjeva must be taken to them.”
Charles furthers that when an Ondjeva wearer is bewitched without her waist band, she will never get healed soon enough.
A woman without Ondjeva is considered naked.
Young, unmarried girls wear the beads to celebrate a certain stage in life - virginity and the crossover into womanhood.
Judy Akoomen, also via Facebook, says, “People are confused between Ondjeva and Oshilanda. There is Ondjeva (white beads), which are worn by young girls or those without children and then there’s Oshilanda, which are worn by any older lady.”
For the Kwambis, the women’s beads would only be removed at childbirth and given to the newborn, from the mother.
When a girl gets married, she eventually removes the Ondjeva and then fastens it into a necklace called Onguwo, which symbolises hope, fortune, pride, endurance and prosperity.
The beads also serve as a method to keep watch on a woman’s weight. It is believed they shape the bellies of those who wear them.
Ana Anna, via Facebook, reveals she has been wearing hers since she was a child and she is proud of it. “The reason why I wear this is to shape my tummy in a way that divides the stomach and the lower abdomen and I can say it has really worked on mine. It’s also believed that once you wear Ondjeva, bad sprits won’t affect you wherever you go. For those who say it’s removed and you get a new one, once you have a baby or get married, it isn’t that way, it may depend on the different Oshiwambo tribes.”
Ana Anna also says being a virgin or not does not play a role in who wears the beads, because her parents still wear them.
Weighing in, co-author of Aawambo Kingdoms, History and Cultural Change: Perspectives from Northern Namibia, Vilho Shigwedha says: “Traditional weddings were significantly important; a remarkable platform of transition from girlhood to womanhood and an initiation rite for marriage and adulthood.”
He adds; “A married woman was recommended to wear clothing that interpreted the different stages that she went through as she became a ‘real woman’. In Uukwanyama, for example, married women were not expected to wear the Ondjeva, an important skirt that symbolised virginity and girlhood.”
There is a ceremony associated with the handing over of these beads. When the first child is born into the family, a ceremony is held on her behalf, which includes brewing traditional beer and slaughtering a goat or traditional chicken.
It is not a requirement for the beads to be worn all the time, though, says Shigwedha. However, girls are encouraged to wear them as often as possible, although they have the liberty to remove them whenever they please, provided they wear them back soon. When the beads break, village experts can repair them.
“Back then, there was a purpose behind the beads, which is no longer the case because even those who are no longer virgins wear them these days,” says Kaquali Shikongo.
After the Finnish missionaries came to the country and convinced the locals to change their beliefs, the custom waned in doctrine, particularly the belief that the beads can protect the wearer from evil spirits.
But as people were still closely attached to the practice, the missionaries introduced an alternative, more western kind of beads with various colours including blue, green and red, which one can today spot a toddler wearing.
Along with other traditional customs, this practice is dying out, particularly in significance.