Behind the Memory of the Finnish Missionary in Namibia

Kim Groop

The image of the European mission in Africa has often been overshadowed by Europe’s political and colonial past. This also holds true in the case of Namibia. For instance, the German Lutheran missionaries from the Rhenish Missionary Society will be remembered for the most part in relation to German colonialism. The Finnish missionaries from the Finnish Missionary Society (today the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission) have also been accused of using power in northern Owambo. Indeed, Andimba Toivo ya Toivo once mockingly stated that “you Finns colonized us”. However, more commonly the Finnish missionaries have been remembered in relation to their dissociation from German, British and South African colonial agendas. In Aawambo cultural memory, the Finns are (rightly or wrongly) remembered as having been invited, and as friends against hostile surroundings and as those who “became a part of society”. In some of my earlier research, I have studied the work of the Finnish Missionary Society in Owambo in northern Namibia, predominantly from a cultural memory perspective. I have thus taken particular interest in older Finnish work, which no one can remember in person, but of which stories are still told and retold, and which is communicated through various culture carriers such as mission buildings and mission related memorials, literature, hymns and so on. In this essay, I would like to “go behind” some of these memories. I wish to draw attention to the fact that there were a number of favorable societal and political circumstances in and around Owambo, and in particular the Ondonga Kingdom, that has favored a positive memory of the Finnish work.

Remembering the Helping Hand

The Owambo kings and chiefs wanted the missionaries to provide them with goods and services, such as weapons and ammunition, in order to help them compete with their adversaries. They also sought alcohol and tobacco. In this respect, the missionaries may have been a disappointment to the Owambo leaders. The early missionaries provided the chiefs with a number of guns, but missionary trading policy did not permit large-scale trading. They gave them tobacco, but persistently refused to provide them with alcohol. However, the missionaries were valuable in other ways. For instance, they provided the kings and chiefs with healthcare and medicine. However, more importantly, they served as mediators between, on the one hand, the Owambo leaders and, on the other hand, the colonial administration and various European agents visiting Owambo. Indeed, the missionaries may have been influenced by German culture and German protestant ideas, but they were still against the idea of a German military presence in what they regarded as their domain. Because of Finnish advice to the Owambo leaders, Owambo largely remained a peaceful region during the era of German sovereignty and the colonial government found no reason to station troops further into Owambo than at Namutoni, where a fort was built. During British, and later South African rule, after World War I, this relative isolation would change. Owambo would in due time become a war zone between white apartheid rule and the SWAPO liberation movement. However, by this time, the Ondonga kings and some other Owambo chiefs were already Christians and the Finnish missionaries had established a good reputation.

While the Finns have sometimes been criticized for their intolerant attitude towards parts of the local culture, many Aawambo are rather unsentimental as regards to old culture, which they view as “a thing of the past”. There is generally a sense in northern Owambo that Finland helped Namibia in terms of human development. This development included schools, hospitals and church work, as well as the development of Owambo grammar and writing. It also indirectly included the establishment of postal services, telecommunication and roads to northern Owambo. In an interview with Nangolo Mbumba, in 2016, who is currently the Vice President of the Republic of Namibia, he stressed the importance of developmental aspects in the work of the missionaries. He also flagged the support that he and other politically-active church members felt that they obtained during the liberation struggle between 1966 and 1990. Mbumba even credited Finnish missionary work for national independence in 1990. Due to their active participation in the liberation struggle, the Aawambo would experience colonization and violence very concretely and in negative terms. This experience, along with a past of poverty, sickness and internal unrest, provides a vivid backdrop against which the Finnish developmental efforts and the Christian faith is viewed today. In the midst of political tension, cultural change and the longing for development, the missionaries appeared as friends and reliable (though not always powerful) allies.


Martti Rautanen and other mission workers visiting the king’s house. Photograph: Hannu Haahti (1911). The Finnish Heritage Agency.


Transcultural Dimensions on Cultural Memory

I would like to draw attention to the hybridity of the missionary encounter, and, by extension, its legacy. The Finnish missionaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from diverse cultural settings and language groups. Most were Finnish speakers, others spoke Swedish, and some spoke both languages. The field leader, Martti Rautanen, who was born close to St. Petersburg in Russia, spoke Finnish and Russian. He also learned to speak many other languages in Africa. Moreover, he married Anna Friederike Kleinschmidt, the daughter of a German missionary, whose grandmother came from the Nama ethnic group, and he wrote his diary in German. The missionaries were Lutherans, but most of them were also influenced by Pietism. In terms of specific doctrine, they considered the evangelical and Pietist theologian Gustav Warneck to be an authority and his influential book Evangelische Missionslehre was a well-read book in Finnish missionary circles. Although Pietism has often been criticized for its individualistic tendencies, and, consequently, of a certain isolation from the “fallen world”, it can also be regarded as facilitating a highly transcultural environment if studied, for instance, through its global reach and transfusion. Warneck, for example, did not view Western culture as crucial to Christianity. In line with this, it was natural for the Finnish missionaries to ally themselves with the Ondonga kings and acknowledge them as their rulers even before they had become Christians. Martti Rautanen called Kambonde kaNankwaya (who died in 1883), for instance, “our king” and “my friend”, though Kambonde was a “pagan”, a heavy drinker, and, for many other reasons, could have been described in rather unflattering terms.

The Aawambo, for their part, though guarding their cultural heritage, constantly interacted with the outside world. They willingly invited foreign elements into their midst if they found them useful, thereby subjecting their own culture to foreign influence. In this respect, the Finnish missionary entrepreneurs should be viewed among a long list of cultural “influencers”. As concerns the results of the cultural encounter, the Aawambo and the Finns not only assumed “new” habits, but their customs and routines would also mutually influence each other. The Finnish missionaries learned from their Aawambo neighbours and adapted many of their practices, sometimes to the extent that they were misunderstood and criticized by Finns and other Europeans who were unfamiliar with the settings or particular needs in Owambo. The same goes for the Aawambo, some of whom, for instance, started to build houses based on missionary advice. Those Aawambo who became Christians entered a “new world” but also brought their culture into this environment. For instance, a new African-European dress style developed among Aawambo Christians and pre-Christian rites, such as the female initiation rite ohango yokiitsali, were amended and amalgamated with Christian rites such as the wedding and became a “new ohango”. In many customs within Lutheran Christianity in Namibia, the Finnish and Aawambo cultures meshed and evolved further to the extent that it is very difficult to separate them from each other today.

However, this transculturation can also be viewed as a transcultural memory phenomenon practiced, for instance, through the taking of names from the other side of the cultural boundary. To this also belongs a certain shift of meaning of, and commemoration at, previously “Finnish” sites of memory, whereby the memory has “traveled”, in reference to the theory of the mobility of mnemonic practices advanced by Ann Rigney and Astrid Erll. As an example of a transcultural memory, we can mention the old mission station at Olukonda, which was classified as a national heritage site in 1992. Martti Rautanen and his family are buried in the cemetery next to the old church. His gravestone bears not only his name, but also his nickname – Nakambale (the man with the hat). The indigenisation of the missionary’s name and its inclusion on his gravestone not only signals the Aawambo connection to the memory of the Finnish missionary, but it can also be taken as an example of how a (trans-) cultural memory is upheld and communicated to younger generations. Other missionaries had nicknames too, but the fact that Rautanen’s nickname was engraved into his tombstone has closely tied his memory to the Aawambo, and in particular to the Ndonga. The Nakambale Museum was inaugurated at Olukonda in 1995, as a joint endeavour between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, the Government of Finland and the Government of Namibia. Interestingly, it is not only Finnish history in Owambo that is presented at this site, but also, to a greater extent, the cultural heritage of the Aawambo. What makes this a truly transcultural site of memory is that most of the images and many of the artefacts presented in the museum are the result of Finnish missionaries, who documented Aawambo culture and thereby preserved parts of it for future generations. Moreover, when Aawambo people, like Vice President Mbumba, talk about a site like Olukonda they not only regard it as an old Finnish mission station and a museum displaying Finnish missionary history and Aawambo culture, but above all they regard it in relation to its role in societal development and in the winning of national independence.

Memory Diplomacy

Lastly, we should not forget that memories are constantly changing. This concerns both recent, what Jan Assmann has termed communicative memories, and distant cultural memories. For instance, the memory of the distant past is moulded by more recent experiences and events. In the case of Namibia, the work by the United Nations in the struggle for independence should be mentioned. The UN Special Representative heading the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) was Martti Ahtisaari, who would later be elected the President of the Republic of Finland. Ahtisaari had a different mandate and different tools at his disposal than the missionaries had in their era. Nevertheless, his contribution gave a new boost to Finnish popularity in northern Namibia. The continued Finnish presence in Namibia may also play a role in the bright and vivid collective memory of Finnish contributions in Owambo. In Aawambo discourse, Finns arrived in 1870 and over time many suffered, died and were buried in Namibian soil. They brought the Christian gospel and development, they helped Namibia in the fight against South African rule, and they did not abandon Namibia. This is considered alongside the other grand narrative; namely, that of independence from South Africa, in which Finnish missionaries are also viewed as allies.

We cannot know for certain what the continued Finnish presence in Namibia does to the remembrance of the Finnish past in the country. Critics could argue that it has a checking effect on the free roaming of northern Namibian cultural memory; that it has stopped alternative (more independent) reinterpretations of the past. However, there are also other factors that affect the way the Aawambo remember their missionary past. Many people that I have spoken to have mentioned the way Aawambo used to dress in hides. This serves as an example of a “primitive past” to which they are happy that they do not have to return. The Himba ethnic group still lives in a largely traditional manner. They are poor and largely uneducated and they continue to wear hides. They serve as a constant “sobering” reminder to the Aawambo about where they come from. Though many Owambo are interested in bringing back some traditions from the past, they “know” that they used to live like Himbas and they are thankful that they have undergone the cultural and developmental change that their Himba neighbours have not.


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About the Author

Kim Groop is Associate Professor of Church History and Head of Education for the theological study program at Åbo Akademi University in Turku. Part of his research has covered the history and legacy of the Finnish Missionary Society/FELM in Namibia.