Two men slapping each other silly might not be everyone’s ideal view of the highest standard of being macho but in most parts of northern Namibia, that is exactly the case.
This exercise is called Onghandeka and for its participants, there is no higher form of manliness. Its origins aren’t known. What is clear is; from the dawn of ages when man discovered he had biceps and that other men had them too, he has been on a mission to prove who’s are bigger.
When boys were sent out to herd cattle and fetch water from the Oshana plains, they would gather at a pre-determined spot in preparation of this exercise. Boys from one village would meet up with those from another village to confront one another. One boy from each side eventually would step into the ring for the ultimate test of pride.
Onghandeka is not for the feeble and squeamish. The chances of one leaving the circle with a high pitched ringing ear, a bloody nose or a swollen eye are very high.
Fabi Moses (34) recalls leaving with red hot hand-marks on his face, reminiscent of what Bugs Bunny would give his archenemy, Elmer Fudd, the hunter. Moses, who hails from Enana in Ohangwena Region, is a painter and a construction worker. He last played Onghnadeka three years ago.
“I wish Onghandeka was an official sport. Many Namibians’ love for boxing is derived from their initial love for Onghandeka and boxing is its closest associate. Many of us would be national champions if that happened. As it is, some of us are already feared from the villages we hail from,” Moses beams.
Kids can enter the Onghandeka circle from as young as eight years, usually with their peers. It all depends on the participant’s courage and belief in their capabilities.
“I have seen a 15-year-old boy slap a man so badly it looked like he had been stung by a swarm of bees,” Moses says.
Lukas Johannes (27) who lays interlocks and tiles for a living has played Onghandeka about 30 times. He has won five matches, lost 15 and drawn the rest.
As in any other sport, Onghandeka has its own rules and code of conduct. You cannot brag about your victory to girls in public; it is a breach of the code. It can be done in secret, though. Participants also pay close attention to health risks. There is no use of fists and once defeated, a loser may not seek retribution outside the set sporting hours or location, lest they be banned forever. Thus, no heavy injuries to the body occur often in Onghandeka.
In the same token, the game is for men only and has nothing to do with women. Women are not even allowed to watch as the two participating men passionately grapple each other under the heat of the sweat-provoking sun.
Onghandeka has had its brief spell in Windhoek. In Ombili and Goreangab, there were once unofficial gatherings, a couple of years ago, but were broken up by police.
“I don’t understand why they stopped us. Even back in the day in school, our teachers would allow us to play during break time, as long as we finished up by the time classes resumed,” Johannes argues.
Some fractions of Onghandeka enthusiasts are now starting to play the sport for monetary gain by bidding bets, which Johannes contends as a distortion of the nature of the game.
In the meantime, Onghandeka devotees remain scattered in certain parts of Omusati, Oshana, Ohangwena and Oshikoto.