Namibian nomads have been practicing wife swapping for generations. Recently, legislator Kazeongere Tjeundo’s call for the enshrinement of the wife-swapping law has sparked a lot of debate in the country about women’s rights and modernity.
In Namibia, the wife-swapping practice is a gentlemen’s agreement where friends can have sex with each others’ wives with no strings attached. Known as okujepisa omukazendu, which loosely means “offering a wife to a guest,” wife swapping is mainly found in the north-western Kunene region near the Angolan border. Largely said to be isolated from the rest of the country, this region has reportedly resisted the trappings of modern life and keep livestock, live off the land, and practice ancestral worship.
But some critics question whether the practice is swinging with an African tribal touch or rape, because the wives reportedly have little say in the matter, according to those who denounce the custom as both abusive and risky in a country with one of the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rates.
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The Ovahimba and Ovazemba tribes, based mainly in this southern African country’s arid north, contend, though, that their age-old custom strengthens friendships and prevents promiscuity.
“It’s a culture that gives us unity and friendship,” said Tjeundo, also a 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/Aids could be used as an excuse to stop the ancient tradition, he and others are suggesting regulations be adopted to ensure “good practice.”
Consequently, Tjeundo said he plans to propose a wife-swapping law, following a November legislative poll, when he is tipped for re-election.
On the other side of the debate are those who believe the age-long practice is detrimental to women’s health. “That practice is not benefiting women but men who want to control their partners,” said Rosa 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 the wife-swapping custom in a country where 18.2 percent of the 2.1 million residents have HIV, according to national statistics.
Amon Ngavetene, another lawmaker, contends that most women are opposed to the practice and would want it abolished.
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 thinks it should be paired with education on HIV.
Details on how to do that, however, are still vague. “We just need to research more on how the practice can be regulated,” said Tjeundohe.