Kwanyama Iron Working

Eugenia W. Herbert

Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA 01075

Kwanyama Iron Working

Wirklich, ich staunte, ein solch emsiges Leben und Treiben vorzufinden, waren mir bisher doch die Ukuanjama immer nur als fauler Räuberstamm geschildert worden.[1]
--Karl Angebauer, 1927.

Of all the major indigenous African iron working traditions, that of the Kwanyama Ovambo (Ambo) of southern Angola is probably the least known. This may well be an accident of colonial and post-colonial history, reflecting a tendency by Anglophone and Francophone scholars to marginalize areas of Lusophone Africa. And yet in its heyday from at least the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War, the industry counted hundreds of smelting sites producing raw iron for a market which atttracted smiths from a wide area of present-day Angola and northern Namibia (Travassos-Valdez 1861:359; Duparquet 1953:181; Angebauer 1927:111). What is more, the technology has been documented not only by several firsthand observers but also recorded on a 16mm film made by the Powell-Cotton sisters in 1936. It therefore constitutes an important chapter in the expanding history of African metallurgy and at the same time confirms the recent reassessment of Bantu-Bushman relations, for the two groups were closely involved in the activity.
A sub-group of the Ovambo, the Kwanyama straddle the present-day border of Angola and Namibia between the Cunene and Cubango Rivers and north of Etosha Pan. In the past, they lived in intimate association with the Bushmen who were probably autochthonous inhabitants of the area (Loeb 1962:9).[2] There has been some debate about the precise relations between the two groups. Capelo and Ivens, passing through the region in 1884 on their coast-to-coast expedition, declared that the Bushmen lived in peace with the Ovambo "e numa espécia de servidão" (n.d. 1979?[1886]:194). But what did "servitude" mean? It does not seem to have meant slavery so much as a sense of obligation on the part of the Bushmen and at the same time a recognition of their dependence on the Kwanyama for supplemental food, for tobacco and cannabis, and for objects they did not make for themselves such as metalwares and pottery. Living in a harsh and unpredictable environment, the Kwanyama served as a sort of safety net for the Bushmen, especially since the season of greatest penury for the hunter-gatherers coincided with the agriculturists' harvest . In return the latter had the right to demand services of them, such as assistance in the harvest labor (Estermann 1976:4). Kwanyama often took Bushmen boys into their homes from the time they were six or seven until about sixteen. While they worked for their host, the boys seem to have been treated like members of the family, were able to make visits home, and were free at the end of their service. At the same time, the Kwanyama depended on the Bushmen for game and other products of the forest, such as lukula, the red powder used as a cosmetic and in rituals; honey; and beeswax (Guerreiro 1966; idem 1968:129-42). In the nineteenth century Bushmen served Kwanyama and other Ambo rulers as hunters and sometimes as executioners (Estermann 1976:122, 145).
A prevalent Bushmen term for their Kwanyama neighbors was "friend" (Guerreiro 1966:225; Powell-Cotton 1937), a term they apparently used without irony. The Kwanyama might simultaneously express disdain for the Bushmen and treat them as equals in many situations. In Guerreiro's words, the relationship, however ambiguous, reflected "an economic interdependence with a greater dependence on the part of the Bushmen, along with a progressive aculturation and an evolution of peaceful social relations, not lacking in reciprocal human sympathies" (1966:226).
In fact, Bushmen dealings with the Ovambo as a whole were generally much more amicable than with any other Bantu, Khoi or European settler groups. During droughts Bushmen often moved in with Ovambo families, particularly those with whom they had commercial connections, for Bushmen dominated the mining and trading of copper from Otavi to the south, as well as the salt trade from Etosha Pan (Gordon 1992:26-7). Already by the mid-nineteenth century, they frequently wore Ovambo dress and carried Ovambo weapons. They never stole Ovambo cattle and would often return strays. The surest sign that Ovambo relations with Bushmen were free of the extreme forms of discrimination that characterized those with their other neighbors was the relative frequency of intermarriage at all social levels (Heintze 1972; Gordon 1992:26ff; but cf. Crosby 1931:353; Estermann 1976:2). This history of interdependence and mutual assistance makes much more understandable the participation of Bushmen in Kwanyama metallurgy, a participation which would otherwise seem incongruous in view of the older hunter-gatherer stereotype.
The Kwanyama were among the last groups in southern Angola to be effectively subjugated by the Portuguese. The chaos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century encouraged outbreaks of banditry throughout much of the territory. The last independent Kwanyama chief, Mandume, had an especially fiercesome reputation which may find its echo in Angebauer's comment on the Kwanyama that heads this essay. While most of the Ovambo and Cubango populations were brought under effective Portuguese rule in the period 1906-1909, the Kwanyama resisted until conquered by a large contingent of metropolitan troops in 1915, on the eve of a devastating famine that engulfed the entire region in 1915-1916. Mandume himself was finally killed by a South African expedition in 1917 (Clarence-Smith 1979:77-81).
Since there was little in the region to attract white settlers or investors, the primary Kwanyama contacts with Europeans before and after conquest were Lutheran missionaries and the Holy Ghost Fathers who established "mission theocracies" in the area. Like the Jesuits in the Americas, some of these missionaries took an interest in indigenous cultures but at the same time considered them inferior and in need of improvement, especially in the areas of sexual morality and marriage (ibid. 89). Nevertheless we are indebted to one of them, R. P. Carlos Estermann, for the most complete ethnography of the region and, more specifically, for the fullest written account of iron working in the 1920s and 1930s when the industry was still in operation, albeit in decline.[3] By the time of Bruwer's fieldwork 1958-60, smelting was entirely extinct and smiths relied on scrap iron (n.d.:92). What follows is a summary of Estermann's material, then a comparison with the filmed version, and finally a discussion drawing also on other sources.
Kwanyama Iron Smelting
The main iron mines near the Kwanyama were at Mupa (Omupa), the region known locally as Osimanya. This was apparently considered !Kung Bushman territory and required their consent to exploit, although the Bushmen themselves apparently camped in the forested area some three or four kilometers from the smelting sites (Loeb 1962:192; cf. Estermann and Cunha e Costa 1941:151). Mining was a dry-season activity, but it was also linked to the Kwanyama ritual calendar, for, like other crucial enterprises, it could only take place after the epena ceremony. This was a festival that brought together the old warriors of the chiefdom to perform dances mimicking the sounds of the forest animals and took place at the ruler's court toward the middle of the dry season. Once the epena had been performed, families could build their huts in new locations, cattle could be turned loose among the stubble of the fields, and miners were free to depart for the mines. During the colonial period, their departure still followed the old schedule although the court no longer had the same ritual importance, and more distant smiths living in South West Africa could no longer cross the border and gain direct access to the mines (Hahn 1966[1928]:35). Entire families, with their cattle, migrated to the mining areas and built temporary villages for the duration of their labors.
Mining in the sandy soils was relatively easy. In many places ore could be found practically on the surface, requiring only that women hoe away the light covering of organic material to expose it. Men then pried loose blocks with a sort of crowbar consisting of a wooden handle and a large iron point. Next, women crushed these blocks using two stones as a sort of rough hammer and anvil. They were also responsible for transporting the ore to the furnace using the same basket-traps that they used for fishing. Charcoal was furnished by one or two charcoal makers attached to each camp. They favored a species of Burkea which they called omutundungu.
Smelting furnaces and forges were about ten minutes distant from the mines. In contrast to the mining sites, their precincts were considered sacred and enmeshed in secrecy: "Ici," wrote Estermann, "tout est mystérieux, tout est sacré." (1936:112) A stockade of branches protected the enclosure from the profane. Those who worked within were required to sprinkle their feet with a medicinal liquid placed at the entrance.
Smelting furnaces were in fact pits in the ground.[4] At dawn the master-smelter outlined the form of the hole in the sand; each was about 40 cm in diameter and in depth, in the rough shape of a cylinder flattened on one side. Opposite this flattened side, he placed two bellows whose extremity was extended by a clay tuyere. In the small space between the opening of the bellows and the tuyere, he inserted a rounded blade of iron horizontally before the double opening of the bellows. In front of this blade and taking its form was a sprig of special grass whose sole purpose was to produce a noise that would warn those approaching about the activities within. Opposite the bellows, the master piled charcoal in a semi-circle around the rim of the furnace and, behind this, the ore (figs. 1-3).
Before smelting could begin, however, there had to be a ceremony known as okuhakula omamanya, literally "curing the stones." Once the master smelter had lighted the furnace with a glowing piece of charcoal brought from the village hearth, he faced the east and, with arms raised, offered a prayer to the spirits which climaxed with an invocation to the stones themselves:
I pray, I pray, I pray!
All ye spirits from the other door [from the other side],
May the grudging one stay away!
May the generous one come!
The stone [the ore] runs like the tortoise. [Smelting is slow work.]
Run fast, like a girl going for water!
May the stone bring us luck [permit us to acquire] a slave, an ox, a goat, beads, bracelets and anklets.
May the quantity of iron be like a mountain of [edible] caterpillars,
A cloud of locusts!
A big, big head [block of iron]!
Much molten iron! (Estermann 1976:147)
Cunha e Costa comments that the smelter delivered this invocation in a highly dramatic manner, as one possessed, cutting a "figure difficult to describe" (1941:157).
After the prayer, the smelter sprinkled the medicinal liquid on the furnace, the ore, and the bellows. Next, he manipulated each of the bellows sticks several times before handing them to the two bellows-operators. Finally he took white chalk and drew two lines on his own forehead, nose, and across his stomach, then on the forehead and arms of the bellowsmen. While the latter began to work their bellows in rhythmic movements, he cast a melange of roots and herbs into the furnace, calling on a single spirit each time to accept it. The ritual ended with an offering of tobacco: several puffs exhaled above the fire, several pinches of snuff thrown onto the hearth. All of these acts assured the goodwill of the spirits, the success of the smelt.
Charcoal and ore were added gradually in the course of the smelt which lasted 10-12 hours. Anyone could operate the bellows--young men, women, or even children to give the adults a break in the arduous work. Since the smelt began at daybreak, it ended at dusk. The smelter inspected the incandescent bloom and announced simply, "It is burned." The bellows operators withdrew their implements and two women cleared away the sand from the block of iron so that it could be pried out by means of two wooden levers. The women filled in the hole with sand while the master-smelter used a hoe to strip off the layer of black (presumably charcoal) that adhered to the still glowing bloom, which was left to cool during the night.
The smelt concluded with a triumphal procession back to the village, everyone involved singing a song of praise tinged with self-mockery. They feasted on a meal prepared by a young woman of the family consisting of meat and millet porridge. The women and children ate separately; the master-smelter ate alone unless he wished to honor a young man who had distinguished himself by an invitation to dine with him. The day ended with a final ritual to "put the forest [to sleep]." A boy strikes the ground with a ceremonial axe, conjuring the beasts of the forest to let the people in the camp pass the night in peace. Cunha e Costa makes more of this rite than does Estermann, referring to it as "an impressive scene" in which the boy petitioned each animal by name except for the lion, whose name one dared not even utter. He also sees it as the complement to one at dawn that also invoked the "lords of the forest" to allow the smelters to work in peace (Estermann and Cunha e Costa 1941:153-5).
Smithing often took place alongside smelting (figs. 4-6). More precisely, the preliminary forging removed gross impurities by pounding the bloom with a heavy stone. By far and away the most important products of the forge were hoes since many Kwanyama continued to prefer the indigenous implement to imported ones. In addition the four hoes that were standard brideprice payments to the mother-in-law of the future bride had to be of indigenous workmanship. Kwanyama smiths did not stock their wares; they worked only for individual clients. When business was slack, they made up the iron into small cubes which could be taken back to the permanent villages for future working. This routine of smelting and smithing lasted until the first rains when the family groups left the forest for their home villages. Sites quickly disappeared under encroaching vegetation, recognizable only by mounds of slag; mines filled with water.
The film made by Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton, just two years after Estermann's second visit to the Mupa mines in 1935, not only fleshes out the summary written account but differs in several respects. First, it shows Bushmen playing a much more integral role. Estermann noted only that the smiths of Simanya (Osimanya) had good relations with their Bushmen neighbors of the forest (whom he identifies as !Kai !kai, a sub-group of the !Kung) who exchanged game, wild fruits, and honey for tobacco, arrowheads, and millet flour (1936:116; Estermann and Cunha e Costa 1941:150-1). In the film, however, the Bushmen "friends" arrived at the camp before smelting began, shared a gourd pipe, were marked with chalk, and eventually took their turn at the bellows. They traded food for finished iron objects. Cunha e Costa, who visited the mines with Estermann and another companion, specifies that the Bushmen furnished the charcoal for smelting, presumably using axes made by Kwanyama smiths (Estermann and Cunha e Costa 1941:151), a point Bebiano simply repeats (1960:23). The Powell-Cotton film does not show the actual preparation of charcoal, only women scooping it into baskets and carrying it to the furnace. Angebauer's description, though based on firsthand, albeit brief, observation, does not provide any information about work roles or interaction between Kwanyama and Bushmen (1927:111).
Second, the film enlarges on the field of ritual activity and reveals some variations. For one thing, the use of white chalk was a good deal more extensive than in Estermann's account. Thus, for example, the bodies of all the family members, even little children, were marked with chalk before they departed for the mines, two days distant from their village. The master-smelter and his son mined the first chunks of ore, and their bodies, too, were freshly chalked before they did this, as were the women and Bushmen before they took their turns at the bellows--indeed, stripes of white chalk were added to the tuyere, and the smelter kept chalking himself during the smelt proper. According to Cunha e Costa, the Kwanyama believe that "chalk serves to placate the anger of the spirits," and he confirms its extensive use in smelting (Estermann and Cunha e Costa:159). In fact, such uses of chalk are widespread in Central Africa.
Other medicines were used to protect the cattle, the camp, and those authorized to work within it, as in Estermann's description, and they were also added to the charge during the smelt. Exactly what went into them is not specified in any of the sources beyond the fact that they were plants and roots. Ore dust itself seems to have taken on medicinal properties: after the women crushed the ore with stone hammers, everyone had to be dusted with it, and the smelter circled the site offering the dust to the spirits. Once enough ore had been mined, the family left a ring of ore at the site in the shape of the future furnace and similar to the ring of slag left circling the furnace hole after smelting. This ring in turn became the boundary enclosing subsequent furnaces.
The film also makes clear from its interspersed captions that behavioral proscriptions and prescriptions applied to both mining and smelting. No eating was permitted before mining, and smelters also had to fast before and during the smelt until all the ore had been poured in. No one could greet the smelter and his helpers before the smelt began. There is no mention of sexual taboos; quite the contrary, the smelter was obligated to sleep with his wife the night before mining and before smelting. Throughout the smelting and its preliminaries, the master-smelter was shown wearing a knee-length skirt made of an animal pelt, in contrast to his helpers who were dressed simply in loin-cloths, apparently of barkcloth, drawn through the legs.
Invocations and prayers were repeated more frequently than in Estermann's account. As long as families were in the camp, the master smelter faced east every night before retiring and every morning at daybreak, beating upon the ground to awaken the all-powerful spirits of the first Kwanyama smiths and those of his own ancestors and calling upon them for assistance. (These rituals seem to parallel the morning and evening invocations to the beasts of the forest reported by Cunha e Costa, albeit with significant differences since the latter are performed by a boy and directed to animals rather than ancestors.) When the men and boys set out for the mines, two men went ahead to awaken the spirits before the master-smelter and his little son brought back the first chunk of ore. When the smelter and his wife slept together in the hut at the smelting site (and, presumably, earlier at the mining site), the spirits of his ancestors were believed to be with them. From the time the charcoal was added until the smelt was over, the master-smelter danced as he invoked these spirits.
The film adds only a few technical details to other accounts. The ore in question was an iron hydroxide, and the pulverising process served to separate the poorer quality from the richer. Although there was no furnace proper, the bellows were shielded from the fire by means of a termite mound slab into which they were fitted and entered the clay tuyere. Women made the tuyere by pounding clay, then kneading it and adding a sticky substance. It was moulded onto a wooden form smeared with ash to prevent it from sticking to the clay, and allowed to dry. From all appearances, the bellows were pots of clay with animal skins stretched across and operated with sticks.[5] The smelter recognized that the smelt was complete largely by the changing color of the fire: the flames as they died down turned a mauvish-pink and the fused bloom became incandescent. However, a great deal of slag still adhered to it, and this were removed by rough hammering once it had cooled, leaving small pellets of purer raw iron. According to the accompanying titles, smelting took place mostly early in the season, leaving time for forging. Then, if more iron were needed, smelting could be resumed before the family group left for home.
How do we account for the differences between film and written accounts? Although the film does not specify the location, it certainly records activities at the Mupa mines and adjacent smelting sites, i.e. the same general area visited by Estermann, Cunha e Costa, and Angebauer.[6] However, there still could be variations from one group to another--one would not expect absolute uniformity among the different family groups, coming from different areas of Kwanyama territory as well as from farther afield. Even the three authors vary in some details or perhaps simply in what they choose to highlight. In addition, the film has the luxury of 39 minutes to show whole sequences in detail, in contrast to the much more summary reports of the writers. Quite possibly, the Powell-Cotton sisters spent longer at the site in order to make their record. Clearly, too, they were interested in such detail since they also made films of initiation ceremonies, pottery making, and everyday life among the Kwanyama and their neighbors--indeed the iron smelting film also includes scenes of building the cattle enclosure and temporary huts, as well as milking cattle and churning butter.[7]
On the other hand, the film does not mention the ceremony of "curing the stones" specifically, nor does it provide the text of any of the invocations, both important parts of Estermann's account. Furthermore, its focus on a single family group and its Bushmen "friends" obscures the fact that this was a large-scale industry, with many families involved in the same area. Indeed, Angebauer offers a vivid picture of the "extraordinary humming and whistling, pounding and hammering" ("sonderbares Sausen und Schwirren, Pochen und Hämmern") that signalled he was nearing the Kwanyama camp. Hundreds of shelters, lined up in rows, protected the smelters working at their individual furnaces, from the burning sun. "The many small bellows [Püster] were the source of the noise which I had first heard and which like the buzz of a great factory resounded over the whole camp" (Angebauer 1927:110-11). This extraordinary sound--what Cunha e Costa refers to as the "música estridente da fundição"--was produced by the sickle-shaped piece of iron and attached blade of grass inserted at the intersection of the bellows and tuyere (and which had been intended partly to keep people like Angebauer away); it resonated for ten or twelve hours at a time without ceasing (1941:157).[8] What a pity there is no sound track to the Powell-Cotton film so that we might hear the sound of even a single furnace ensemble!
Close by the work site was a market where the smelters' wives traded raw iron to smiths drawn from all parts of Ovamboland. None of this is shown in the film, quite possibly because the industry had greatly dwindled by 1937 when the film was made. Although Angebauer does not say just when he visited the area, he speaks a few pages later of meeting the "eighteen-year old Chief Mandume" who at the time had not yet become paramount chief of the Kwanyama (ibid.:117-19). Since Mandume held the paramountcy for only six years before his death in 1917 (Clarence-Smith 1979:80-1), this would presumably date Angebauer's observations to sometime before 1911.[9] Probably by the 1930s, smelting had declined substantially; supplies of ore and charcoal may have become scarcer as well, obliging families to scatter more throughout the ore-bearing region. Furthermore, since, as we have noted, smiths could no longer pass freely across the border between South West Africa and Angola to provision themselves with raw iron, the market was substantially reduced (Hahn 1966[1928]:35).
At the same time, the visual medium cannot tell us much about the social status of the smith/smelter in Kwanyama society. Iron working was only a dry season occupation; during the rest of the year, men tended cattle and women farmed (Estermann 1936:109-10). In the family groups who decamped to the mines, there seems to have been no distinction between smelter and smith, that is, there was a master-smelter in charge of ritual and technical operations, smelting and forging, and he was distinct from his workforce of men and women, Ovambo and Bushmen. Farther afield smiths were equally common but depended on Kwanyama smelters for their raw material, as Angebauer makes clear (cf. Tönjes 1911:66). The Kwanyama, indeed, seem to have been acknowledged as the preeminent ironworkers in the entire region (Estermann and Cunha e Costa 1941:35, 147).
Whatever the earlier case, both Estermann and Loeb emphasize that by the time of their investigations, the Kwanyama recognized only two "professions": blacksmiths and doctors ("medicine men").[10] From the descriptions, they seem more like a single profession with two branches since both were assumed to require supernatural powers that could only be attained through possession and initiation.[11] Both also wore the same insignia of office, a broad banded necklace of white beads (clearly visible in the Powell-Cottton film). Typically, a boy became ill, a diviner was consulted, and the diagnosis was that the illness was caused by ancestor-possession and the boy must be initiated to recover. This is a rather typical scenario for diviners and healers in sub-Saharan Africa but less common for smiths (see however Dewey 1991:36ff). The spirit possessing a future smith, according to Loeb, had to be that of an immediate ancestor, that possessing a doctor, the spirit of a remote ancestor--an intriguing distinction for which we unfortunately have no more information. The next step was a sacrifice, usually of an ox, part of whose blood was consumed by the initiate. From then on, the spirit of the ancestor was believed to take possession of the boy and to teach him the craft. At the same time he apprenticed himself to a working smelter/smith or doctor. In practice smithing tended to pass from maternal uncle to nephew or from father to son, but there was no blacksmith clan as such, and smiths could marry freely into any clans since no stigma was attached to the profession--on the contrary, smiths were highly respected (Estermann 1936:145; Loeb 1962:122-3; Figueiredo Lima 1977:121-2).
A major difference between the two professions was that women could become doctors but not smiths, although only men could be head doctors. Indeed, Loeb claims that whereas blacksmiths tended to be exceedingly masculine in character and appearance, even male doctors exhibited feminine traits, symbolized by the women's basket in which they carried their charms and paraphernalia. Furthermore, contact with homosexuals was part of the initiation of doctors--a rare reference to homosexuality in the ethnographic literature of Africa. Smiths, in contrast, were supposed to demonstrate their manhood by drinking boiling water.
Loeb's investigations were limited to Kwanyama in Namibia so that we cannot be sure that practices were altogether similar among the Kwanyama of southern Angola. The key point, in any event, is the convergence of the two professions in the arena of supernatural power. The transformation of stones into workable iron is equated with curing, hence the ritual of "curing the stones" that precedes the smelt. The smelter, unlike his casual helpers, assumes a "quasi-sacerdotal" character by virtue of his initiation and linkage with smith ancestors (Estermann 1976:145). He exercises this through his multiple ritual actions: taking charge of the whole repertoire of charms and medicines that protect the kraal (with its animal and human inhabitants) and ensure a successful outcome of the smelt, as well as explicitly invoking ancestral assistance. Finally, the supernatural character of the smelting operation is underscored by its insertion into the ritual calendar.

Technology and Belief in a Comparative Perspective
The pit "furnace" used by Kwanyama smelters contrasts with the above-ground structures more typical of African iron working, but it is far from unique. It corresponds to Kense's Type A furnace and has been documented in variant forms from areas as distant from each other as the Cameroon grassfields, East Africa, and the Equatorial forest (Kense 1983:48-9, Map 2, and passim; Herbert 1993:63-4), as well as southern Angola. What appears to have been a pit furnace was excavated by Sandelowsky (1974) near Rehoboth in Namibia. If confirmed, it would be the most southerly extension of this form, although one cannot infer that a furnace with no above-ground structure could not have been of Bantu origin. Ironically, although there are at least three films of pit or bowl smelting, we do not have sufficient technical data to measure its efficiency against other furnace types--to determine whether it really represents a more "primitive" technology than shaft furnaces in terms of labor, ore and charcoal inputs.[12] Unfortunately no metallurgical samples have turned up at the Powell-Cotton Museum, nor as far as I am aware, in Portuguese and Angolan ethnographic collections.[13]
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the Kwanyama industry is not the technology but the annual resettlement involved: at its height large numbers of families moved lock, stock and barrel from their home villages to the mining areas for much of the dry season--from August to November, according to Cunha e Costa (1941:35). The arid and sandy soils of the Mupa region clearly could not support permanent residence and mixed farming. Evidently there was enough pasturage for their cattle, but otherwise the Kwanyama metalworkers lived in a symbiotic relation with the transhumant Bushmen, who were the only inhabitants of the area, and on whom they depended for everything except the millet they brought with them and the dairy products of their herds. In view of our common image of Bushmen as desert people, it is intriguing that the sources refer to them in this case as "men of the forest", the wooded areas adjacent to the mines and smelting camps.
The migratory pattern in turn accounts, no doubt, for other exceptional aspects of Kwanyama work roles. While there is nothing unusual about women assisting in mining, preparing ore, or transporting it to smelting sites, it is highly unusual to have women even present during smelting, much less operating bellows. In most other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, smelting takes place in isolation and secrecy; women of childbearing age and unauthorized men are excluded. This is justified on the grounds that the process is extremely vulnerable to violations of sexual and menstrual taboos. The Kwanyama take great pains to keep out those who do not belong-- presumably all who are not members of the participating family group--but not their own women and children and friendly Bushmen. All who do take part must be fortified and protected with medicines, as is common throughout Africa. There is no mention, however, of taboos against menstruating or pregnant women or against sexual activity.
What all this demonstrates, I believe, is the adaptability of social and belief systems. We can hypothesize that when the demand for iron became extensive enough to make it worthwhile for extended families to decamp to the mines for most of the dry season and smelt continuously for a relatively long period, it was impossible to keep it an isolated, male-only activity. Everyone's labor was necessary, including women and Bushmen--I doubt that children really operated furnace bellows for very long (in contrast to those of the forge) because it is very hard work. It is no harder than the pounding women do day-in and day-out, however, so that it makes sense that women took their turn.
Similarly, where smelting went on for weeks at a time, it would have been highly impractical to suspend sexual relations (although this seems to have been the case in Banjeli [Goucher and Herbert 1995]) and very difficult constantly to winnow out menstruating women. But this doesn't necessarily mean that beliefs about smelting and gestation had to be discarded: the prescriptive sexual intercourse between the master smelter and his wife the night before mining and smelting is, in fact, consistent with the general model noted elsewhere in Africa, paradoxical as this may seem (Herbert 1993). For, both proscriptive and prescriptive sexual activity in connection with an enterprise signify that the enterprise is at some level analogous to procreation. Where sexual activity is tabooed among metallurgists, it is because they are seen as in some sense wedded to the furnace, so that other sexual relations are adulterous and therefore dangerous to the smelt. The sexual act between the smelter and his wife, however, can be seen to anticipate and reinforce the analogous act that occurs in the furnace to produce the iron bloom--the model can work both ways even though taboos are more common.[14] Rather than adultery it may signify that the furnace and the smelter's spouse are co-wives!
The absence of the customary menstrual taboos is harder to explain on a cosmological level. Menstruation commonly represents failed conception, so that the presence of menstruating women endangers the fecundity of furnaces, just as it endangers other activities which invoke a model of human fecundity. In this case we simply do not have enough information to assess how the risks of menstruation were dealt with.[15] It is possible that the Kwanyama did not conform to common African beliefs on the subject--possible but unlikely. Some of the rituals performed by the master-smelter and the medicines used by him were probably intended to neutralize any negative effects. Perhaps that was one of the purposes of the ritual known as "curing the stones."
There are, in fact, examples from elsewhere in Africa where increases in scale in the iron industry required more labor, and societies adjusted especially by expanding the use of female labor (Goucher and Herbert 1995; Herbert 1993:29). In some cases--but not all--they modified sexual and menstrual taboos which might have impeded growth of the industry. This seeems to have been accomplished, where we have sufficient information to judge, without undermining basic beliefs surrounding iron smelting (Herbert 1993:121ff). Master smelters still maintained their domination of the craft through their monopoly of ritual as well as technical expertise, both acquired, as elsewhere in Africa, through ancestry and initiation.
Finally, the participation of Bushmen evokes echoes of Batwa (Pygmy) participation in Ekonda smelting in the Congo Basin (ibid.: 63-4). In Ekonda smelting, however, the Batwa not only supplied charcoal but also played an integral part in the smelting rituals. They were recognized as masters of the forest and owners of fire, that is, as aboriginal inhabitants whose intercession was necessary to the success of the smelt. It would be tempting to speculate that the participation of the Bushmen in Kwanyama smelting testifies to something of the same relationship to the land, but we have no evidence to confirm this.

Kwanyama iron smelting exemplifies once again the extraordinary variability of sub-Saharan African metallurgy. No two traditions seem to have been entirely alike in the total assemblage of technology, labor organization, and ritual practice. Each had to adapt to local conditions, social and historical as well as ecological, and change to meet expanding market conditions. Ultimately the intrusion of European scrap metal dealt the coup de grâce that only the most remote industries were able to resist during the Colonial Period.
For all its unusual aspects, however, the Kwanyama industry as documented in the early decades of this century shares features common to other smelting traditions. It is in the hands of a male specialist who claims authority through descent and initiation, and who shares his supernatural abilities with the "doctors" of the society. Smelting takes place in seclusion, excluding all but family members and Bushman "friends" (who well may have the status of classificatory kin). The process is heavily ritualized, with abundant use of medicines and invocations to ancestors and spirits. The ancestral link is further accentuated by the practice of leaving a ring of slag around a smelting pit which will then become the boundary for future smelting sites. Where Kwanyama smelting departs most conspicuously from the more general model is, first, in the presence of women and the absence of sexual and menstrual taboos, and, second, in the lack of any explicit genderization of the smelting apparatus. Pit smelting, like the use of above-ground structures, can be represented in procreational terms: The tuyere and bellows assemblage used by Ekonda smelters draws its terminology from male and female sexual organs to underscore the sexual analogy of the process taking place in the smelting pit. Unfortunately we do not have comparable linguistic data for Kwanyama bellows and the shield through which they pass into the pit, nor do we have information that might help us interpret the blade of iron placed before the double opening of the bellows which produced the audible signature of Kwanyama smelting.
Consequently, the main justification for concluding that beliefs about Kwanyama iron smelting were structured not only along the axis of age but also along that of male and female lies in the ritual act of intercourse prescribed for the smelter and his wife the night before mining and smelting began. While exceptional in accounts of smelting, this is more characteristic of the establishment of a new smithy, for example, with its promise of ongoing "fertility", that is, of producing the artifacts of social, political, and economic increase (Herbert 1993:ch.4). Indeed, because Kwanyama smelting took place repeatedly over a relatively long period of time, it bore some resemblances to smithing (with which it was, in fact, interspersed) in its consolidation of rituals and attenuation of sexual and menstrual taboos, just as did smelting traditions elsewhere in adapting to increases in scale and duration.
I would like to express my gratitude to Derek and Sonja Howlett for their help and hospitality during my visit to the Powell-Cotton Museum and Quex House, and for permission to make a video copy of the 1937 film by Dr. Diana and Antoinette Powell-Cotton. Thanks also to Keith Nicklin and Carlyn Saltman for earlier assistance and to Terry Childs and Duncan Miller for helpful comments.

Works Consulted

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[1] “I was truly astounded to come upon such a busy stir of activity since heretofore the Kwanyama had been described to me only as a lazy bunch of brigands.”
[2] I have followed Gordon (1992) in using the term “Bushman” since there is no alternative word by which they collectively designated themselves.
[3] There are French (1936) and English (1976) versions which largely duplicate each other but differ in some details. The description which follows is taken from Estermann unless otherwise indicated. The work of Estermann and Cunha e Costa provides additional information about iron working not found in Estermann.
[4] While only pit smelting has been documented for the Kwanyama, other Ovambo may have used above-ground furnaces. The Swedish traveller Peter August Möller, who travelled in some Ovambo areas in 1895-96, describes iron smelting in “small furnaces of clay in which ore and charcoal are packed in layers and through which a strong blast is produced by means of two bellows” (1974:124). He does not say whether he actually saw such furnaces, although it is more likely that he did not. In any case the ore was obtained from the north, presumably from Kwanyama.
[5] . Cunha e Costa says the bellows were made of wood and covered with antelope skin: 1941:156.
[6] This is confirmed by Emmanuel Kreike, who was able to compare the film with Estermann’s photographs in the Archivo Histórico Ultramarino in Lisbon (pers. comm.). The photographs were probably taken by Cunha e Costa, an enthusiastic photographer who had hoped to publish a multi-volume album with hundreds of his photographs from all over Angola (Estermann 1976:xxiv).
[7] See the movie film list prepared by the Powell-Cotton Museum, Quex Park, Birchington, Kent (1986).
[8] Cunha e Costa offers the intriguing observation that the blade of grass in the Kwanyama bellows resembled the bit of wild fruit that Ovimbundu ”fetishers” inserted into their nostrils and that produced a whistling sound (Estermann and Cunha e Costa 1941:126).
[9] Angebauer, an erstwhile farmer, big game hunter, trader, and adventurer, first went out to German South-West Africa with a regiment sent to put down the Herero uprising. This occurred in 1904 and was the occasion for von Trotta’s infamous extermination order. Angebauer fell in love with the country and stayed on till forced to leave by the British after serving in the German forces during World War I.
[10] . In earlier times hunting partook of a similar “supernatural” character, requiring initiation and close collaboration with the spirit of an ancestor through possession, but among the Kwanyama this had largely disappeared, perhaps as a consequence of the introduction of firearms (Estermann 1976:144-5).
[11] This was separate and distinct from the initiation that all boys and girls were expected to undergo: see Estermann and Cunha e Costa 1941:37ff; Loeb 1948.
[12] David Killick and Kyle Ackerman have recently examined iron bloom smelted in a pit furnace at Lopanzo, Zaïre.
[13] Bebiano (1960) includes chemical and metallographical analyses from Lunda iron smelting documented by Redinha but not from Kwanyama metalworking, although he clearly had access to Cunha e Costa’s photographs.
[14] Terry Child’s Toro informant in Uganda reported that sexual intercouse was obligatory between the discoverer of a new iron deposit and his most trusted wife until all of the ore mined had been smelted. She speculates that this may have been done “to reinforce an activity that would occur in and involve the furnace itself” since Toro smelting seemed, like other examples in sub-Saharan Africa, to invoke a human model of procreation: Childs 1998.
[15] Estermann and others discuss the rituals following a girl’s first menstruation but do not deal with menstrual beliefs and taboos more generally.