Kwanyama Iron Working
Eugenia W. Herbert
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA 01075
Kwanyama Iron Working
staunte, ein solch emsiges Leben und Treiben vorzufinden, waren mir bisher doch
die Ukuanjama immer nur als fauler Räuberstamm geschildert
--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
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?: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
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
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
1966:35). 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
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
I pray, I pray, I
All ye spirits
from the other door [from the other side],
May the grudging
one stay away!
May the generous
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
May the quantity
of iron be like a mountain of [edible] caterpillars,
A cloud of
A big, big head
[block of iron]!
Much molten iron!
Cunha e Costa comments that the smelter delivered this invocation in a
highly dramatic manner, as one possessed, cutting a "figure difficult to
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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 1966:35).
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
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
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.
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
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
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
metallurgical samples have turned up at the Powell-Cotton Museum, nor as far as
I am aware, in Portuguese and Angolan ethnographic
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
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.
Rather than adultery it may signify that the furnace and the smelter's spouse
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.
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
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
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
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
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
J., D. J. Killick, E. W. Herbert, and C. Kriger. 1999. “A Study of Iron
Smelting at Lopanzo, Equateur Province, Zaïre.”Journal of
Archaeological Science (in press).
Antonio de. 1965. Bushmen and Other Non-Bantu Peoples of Angola.
Johannesburg: Institute for the Study of Man in Africa.
Karl. 1927. Ovambo. Fünfzehn Jahre unter Kaffern, Buschleuten und
Bacellar. 1960. Notas sobre a Siderurgia dos Indigenas de Angola.
Bruwer, J. P.
n.d. The Kuanyama of Southwest Africa. N.p. [Stellenbosch?].
Capelo, H. and
R. Ivens. 1979?. De Angola á Contra-Costa. 2 vols.
Terry. 1998. “‘Find the ekijunjumira.’ Iron mine
discovery, ownership and power among the Toro of Uganda.” In Social
Approaches to an Industrial Past. The Archaeology and Anthropology of
Mining, edited by A. Bernard Knapp, Vincent C. Pigott and Eugenia W.
Herbert. London: Routledge: 123-137.
W. G. 1979. Slaves, Peasants and Capitalists in Southern Angola,
1840-1926. New York.
1931. "Notes on Bushmen and Ovambo in South West Africa." Journal of the
African Society 30:344-60.
J. 1991. Pleasing the Ancestors: The Traditional Art of the Shona People of
Zimbabwe. Ph.D dissertation, Indiana University.
Charles. 1953. Viagens na Cimbebásia. Ed. by G. S. Dias.
P. Carlos. 1936. "Les forgerons kwanyama." Bulletin de la
Société Neuchâteloise de Géographie 44:109-116.
P. Carlos. 1976. Ethnography of Southwestern Angola. Edited by Gordon D.
Gibson. Vol.1. New York.
P. Carlos and Elmano Cunha e Costa. 1941. Negros. Lisbon.
Lima, M. Helena. 1977. Naçao Ovambo. Lisbon.
J. 1992. The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass. Boulder,
Candice and Eugenia Herbert. 1995. "The Blooms of Banjeli: Technology and Gender
in West African Ironmaking." In The Culture and Technology of Iron Production
in Africa, edited by Peter Schmidt. Gainesville, FL.
Manuel Viegas. 1966. "Ovakwankala (bochimanes) e Ovakwanyama (bantos): aspectos
do seu convivio." Portugal em Africa 23:221-6.
Manuel Viegas. 1968. Bochimanes !Khu de Angola. Lisbon.
Hahn, C. H. L.
1928. "The Ovambo." In The Native Tribes of South West Africa. Cape
Beatrix. 1972. "Buschmänner unter Ambo--Aspekte ihrer gegenseitigen
Beziehungen." Journal of the South West Africa Scientific Society
Eugenia W. 1993. Iron, Gender, and Power. Rituals of Transformation in
African Societies. Bloomington, IN.
François J. 1983. Traditional African Iron Working. African
Occasional Papers No.1. Dept. of Archaeology, University of Calgary.
1948. "Transition Rites of the Kuanyama Ambo." African Studies
1962. In Feudal Africa. Bloomington, IN.
Peter August. 1974. Journey into Africa through Angola, Ovampoland and
Damaraland, 1895-1896. Edited and translated by I. and J. Rudner. Cape
Dr. Diana and Miss A. Powell-Cotton. 1937. Mining and Smelting: Angola
H. 1974. "Prehistoric Metal-Working in South West Africa." Journal of the
South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy 74:363-6.
Hermann. 1911. Ovamboland. Berlin.
Francisco Travassos. 1861. Six Years of a Traveller's Life in Western
Africa. 2 vol. London.
“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.”
I have followed Gordon (1992)
in using the term “Bushman” since there is no alternative word by
which they collectively designated themselves.
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.
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
. Cunha e Costa says the
bellows were made of wood and covered with antelope skin: 1941:156.
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).
See the movie film list
prepared by the Powell-Cotton Museum, Quex Park, Birchington, Kent
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
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
. 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).
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.
David Killick and Kyle
Ackerman have recently examined iron bloom smelted in a pit furnace at Lopanzo,
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.
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.
Estermann and others
discuss the rituals following a girl’s first menstruation but do not deal
with menstrual beliefs and taboos more generally.