The Contribution of Finnish Missionaries Towards the Development of Oshiwambo Language and Culture

Petrus Angula Mbenzi

Oshiwambo is a Bantu language which belongs to the larger Niger-Congo phylum. According to S. Shifidi, Oshiwambo is one of the major indigenous languages in present-day Namibia with about a million speakers across the country. The Aawambo people make up half of the Namibian population, which is approximately 2.4 million. Furthermore, W. Zimmermann and P. Hasheela, Shifidi (2014) and P. Mbenzi confirm that the Oshiwambo language consists of about twelve dialects (Oshindonga, Oshikwanyama, Oshingandjera, Oshikwambi, Oshikwaluudhi, Oshikolonkadhi, Oshimbandja, Oshimbalantu, Oshivale, Oshikwankwa, Oshikafima and Oshindombodhola). Speakers of these dialects understand each other because the morphology, syntax and semantics are similar. The differences are only in pronunciation and intonation. In addition, Oshiwambo has been serving as a medium for religious, socioeconomic, educational and some other administrative purposes for years. The Oshindonga and the Oshikwanyama dialects have been accepted as standardized written languages.

In ancient times, Oshiwambo was mostly used in oral form, but the arrival of Finnish missionaries led to the genesis of Oshiwambo in written form. The first group of Finnish missionaries arrived in Owambo on 9 July 1870. The aim of the Finnish was to convert the  Aawambo to Christianity. Despite their primary aim of preaching the gospel, the absence of literature in Oshindonga prompted them to graphize, standardize and modernize Oshiwambo in order to use it to attempt to convert the Aawambo to Christianity. In addition to evangelizing, the Finnish missionaries offered training to the Aawambo in various fields, such as nursing, carpentry and education. The Oshindonga language was used as the means of instruction in these training programs. This article focuses on the efforts by the missionaries to graphisize, standardize and modernize the Oshiwambo language in general and the Oshindonga variety in particular.


Pietari Kurvinen developed the first Oshindonga primer. Photograph: F. Springmeier. The Finnish Heritage Agency.


The Graphization, Standardization and Modernization of Oshiwambo

The first Oshindonga primer was developed by Pietari Kurvinen, one of the first missionaries to arrive in Ondonga in 1870. This primer was called Okaambeendee and appeared on 19 January 1877. It became available in Ondonga on 8 October 1877. Pietari Kurviven handed a copy of Okaambeendee to King Kambonde kaNankwaya of Aandonga, who was very pleased with the publication.

Another missionary, Liina Lindström, developed a grammar of Oshindonga in which she explained the morphology and the syntax of Oshiwambo. This was a pioneering contribution to the linguistics of Oshindonga. In 1942 Birger Eriksson also wrote a ten-page article in which he proposed a grammatical structure for Oshindonga that could be taught in schools.

The greatest contribution to the areas of lexicography, phonology, syntax and morphology of Oshindonga was made by Emil Toivo Tirronen. Tirronen produced an academic paper entitled Phonology of Oshindonga in 1958. In 1954 he produced an Oshindonga grammar book called Elaka lyoomeme II. In the ensuing years (1958–1960), Tirronen produced a series of Oshindonga grammar books for standards 1 to 3. During the same period, Tirronen, produced a new series of Oshindonga grammar books entitled Elaka lyOshindonga. This new series was produced for standard 1 to 6. The desperate need for Oshindonga grammar books for the junior secondary phase prompted Tirronen to develop a grammar book of Oshindonga for forms 1 to 3 (now grades 6 to 8) entitled Elaka lyoomeme. This book appeared in 1965.

In 1977 Tirronen produced a grammar book entitled Oshindonga shetu for junior and senior secondary phases. The book included the phonetics and phonology, syntax, morphology and semantics of Oshindonga. The last chapter of this book was also devoted to literary aspects, such as figurative language, poetic devices and literary genres. In addition to his contribution to the linguistics of Oshindonga, Tirronen made a contribution to the lexicography of Oshindonga. As a teacher and principal at Oshigambo High School, Tirronen had been collecting Oshindonga lexicon for over thirty years, which he developed into a dictionary. Sadly he passed away in July 1981 before the dictionary was published. Nonetheless, his daughter, Anni Karo, and other people prepared the dictionary for publication. This Ndonga-English Dictionary was published in 1986 and it is the most comprehensive dictionary of Oshiwambo.

The Finnish missionaries developed various religious books in Oshindonga and Oshikwanyama respectively. The first hymn book, Omaimbilo ga Piangula m’Oshindonga, was compiled by the missionaries Tolonen, Skoglund, Reijonen and Veikkolin and was published in 1877 and printed in Finland. It comprised 57 hymns freely translated from Finnish and German origins and songs from Swedish Pilgrimssånger. The second hymn book edited by Rautanen and Reijonen, Omiimbilo Noliturgia. Joshindonga was printed in 1884 in Helsinki. It consisted of 56 songs and also contained a liturgical formula and other forms of church celebrations. The book Okaramata k’omiimbilo was completed in Finland in 1892.

The fourth edition, which had a run of 3000 copies, was printed in Helsinki in 1901. It comprised 204 hymns that had mostly been translated or written by Rautanen and edited by Pettinen and Savola. Rautanen not only translated the German hymns, but he also wrote lyrics to the old songs in Oshindonga. He thus became a remarkable poet, since 67 of his lyrics are still used in the present hymnal of the ELCIN. The fifth edition, Omaimbilo gegongalo lja Kristus, was published in 1921 with 335 hymns. It was edited by Rautanen, Tylväs, Liljeblad, Saari, Petäjä, Wäänänen and Alho. The following edition of the hymnal was compiled by Heikki Saari in 1933 with the assistance of the local pastors Sakeus Iihuhua and Martin Hepeni. It was the first hymn book edition printed in Oniipa Printing Press.

This edition also had a print run of 3000 copies. The translations from the Finnish song collection Siionin Virret (The Psalms of Zion) formed a part of the above-mentioned book. Saari compiled a book that mostly consisted of songs from the Finnish Pietist movement (Herännäisyys). The book Omagalikanondjimbo was published in 1936 by Herättäjäyhdistys. Many of these translations have been retained in the present hymn collection.

In Oukwanyama, where the Finnish missionaries started their work in 1921, A. W. Björklund put a lot of effort into compiling a hymn book in Oshikwanyama. The work was based on the books published by the Rhenish Mission in 1917–1918. These editions were reprinted in 1921, 1929 and 1930. There were 144 hymns from the Germans and the remaining forty-eight were Finnish contributions. In 1944, Björklund managed to get the book printed in Windhoek in Meinert Press with a help of Major Hahn. In 1949 the first hymnal, Ehangano, meaning league, federation, association, society or union in English, was published. The name expressed the idea of the unity of different language groups. The book was a collection of both Oshindonga and Oshikwanyama hymns. It was edited by the committee of Alho, Saari, Kyllönen, Leonard Auala and A. W. Björklund, who was later replaced by K. Harjanne. It consisted of 640 hymns including 180 in Oshikwanyama and some of them written by an Owambo teacher, Gabriel Taapopi.

In 1950 Hukka wrote the entire Ehangano using this new system and thenceforth it was used in the training of the hymns in the church. The hymnal preceding the present edition of Ehangano was called Omaimbilo. It was printed for the first time in 1955 and in its final version in 1967 after several renewed editions. The work was initiated by E. Pentti, who died in 1959 in the middle of the process. It was continued by M. Kantele and G. Taapopi and was corrected by T. Tirronen, J. Mufeti and T. Ndevaetela. It was printed in Windhoek with a print run of 20,000 copies. It includes 665 hymns, including five from the Kavango hymnal that was published in 1960.

The present hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia is still called Ehangano. It was published by the ELOC Printing Press in 1987 and marked the first time such a text provided both staff and tonic sol–fa notation. The book was mainly edited by Magdalena Kambudu and T. Pennanen in collaboration with T. Ndevaetela.

In addition to the production of hymnal books, the missionaries also translated the bible into Oshindonga. L. Tolonen translated the catechism (Katekismusa kashona) and hymns into Oshindonga in 1877. In 1877 Martti Rautanen (Nakambale) started his Bible translation project, which he completed in 1882, but it was only published thirty-one years later. This Bible translation is referred to by the Aawambo as Ombiimbeli yaNakambelakanene (Nakambale’s Bible). Nakambale initially translated the New Testament into Oshindonga (Matthew in 1891, Mark in 1892, Luke in 1895 and John in 1896). Nakambale’s entire translation of the New Testament into Oshindonga appeared in print in 1903. He completed the translation of the Old Testament in 1923. The whole Bible was only published in 1954, because it went through a series of revisions as several missionaries and locals called for the work to be closely scrutinized. The publication was also stalled by a reform to the orthography of the Oshiwambo language.

In 1883, B. Björklund produced a reader for Oshindonga. Moreover, in 1884 and 1886 respectively T. Reijonen translated a liturgical book into Oshindonga (Omiimbilo nOliturgia). At the same time he also translated an Easter book entitled Omeevangeli Omanene agehe gomumvo aguhe.

Furthermore, the Finnish missionaries contributed to the preservation of Oshiwambo orature and culture. Rautanen collected numerous artefacts during the 1880s when he was a missionary in Ondonga Kingdom. Helmi Haapanen compiled a book of Oshiwambo proverbs called Omayeletumbulo gAawambo, which appeared in 1958. Similarly, Emil Liljeblad collected a number of Oshiwambo proverbs most of which appeared in Matti Kuusi’s book entitled Ovambo proverbs in 1970. In addition, Liljeblad collected information on Aawambo magic, rituals and ceremonies and published his results in a book. Some of the proverbs included in this book were collected by Rautanen, Reijonen, Penttinen, Savola, Koivu, Laurmaa, Aarni, Närhi, Hynönen and Tirronen. Matti Kuusi also collected many Oshiwambo riddles and published a book entitled Ovambo riddles in 1974. Other primers and reading texts, such as Kaandje and Shimbungu, were produced by Toivo Tirronen and Joel Nakumbuata in 1962 and 1963 respectively. Erkki Laurmaa produced a history book entitled Afrikauuningininomutenya in 1949.

Another contribution in the field of literature and culture was made by Ernst Dammann and Toivo Emil Tirronen. They collected songs, praises, taboos, folktales and rituals. Their book, entitled Ndonga anthologie, appeared in 1975.

The Finnish missionaries also produced the first newspaper, entitled Osondaha, in the Oshindonga language. The first issue appeared in 1901. In the ensuing years, Osondaha was renamed Omukwetu. This newspaper was later published in two other languages: Oshikwanyama and Rukwangari.

Thus, the Finnish missionaries deserve credit for developing the Oshindonga and Oshikwanyama languages. The materials developed by Tirronen were translated into Oshikwanyama for primary and secondary schools respectively. The teaching of Oshiwambo at the University of Namibia today is attributed to the efforts of Tirronen, who developed a comprehensive grammar for Oshiwambo. We thank the Finnish missionaries for keeping Oshiwambo alive in written form and for promoting the use of Oshiwambo for instruction in various sectors, such as religion, nursing and carpentry. Their contribution to Oshiwambo continued after independence because Minna Saarelma-Maunumaa obtained her doctorate degree in Oshiwambo personal names in 2003, while Riikka Halme obtained her doctorate degree in the tonal system of Oshikwanyama in 2004.


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About the Author

Dr. Petrus Mbenzi is Senior Lecturer for Oshiwambo at the University of Namibia. He specializes in sociolinguistics and the orature of Oshiwambo.