|Dr Martin Rautanen|
Dr Martin Rautanen (‘Nakambale’)
– Apostle to the Ovambos
by Pastor Joachim Rieck
The written history of South West Africa ( today ‘ Namibia’ ) has spanned barely more than 200 years . In many ways South West Africa was spared for many years from the colonialisation attempts of the European nations due its remote and inhospitable location and distance from major trade routes .
Europeans had been known to have traveled in these remote areas - particularly hunters , explorers and Portuguese slave traders . A fourth category of Europeans to set foot on our soil were the missionaries . The first missionary society in our country was the London Missionary society ( 1806 –1830). The Wesleyan (Methodist ) Missionary society operated between 1820-1867 , the Rhenish Missionary society between 1842-1957, and the Finish missionary society between 1870 – 1954.
Our focus will be upon the Finish missionary society , and its most prominent missionary , Martin Rautannen whose life work spanned 50 years , and who lies buried at Olukonda- the tribal land of the Ndonga people in Northern Namibia.
Professor Matti Peltola ( who is my major source) says that Rautanen together with Carl Hugo Hahn ( 1818-1895) are the most influential missionaries to have worked in the present Namibian territory . Kalle Elonheimo, a contemporary Finnish preacher named Martin Rautanen “ the apostle of the Ovambos “, hence the title of my biographical sketch . The Ovambo people named him “Nakambale “ – the man who wears the hat .
Martti RAUTANEN (1845-1926) as he was properly known , was born in Novasolka, Finland (near the border with Estonia) on November 10, 1845. His father died while he was only 11 years old. It appears as if he drank himself to death . His mother struggled to raise the three children of which Martin was the oldest . Martin Rautanen recounts that his mother had to shed many tears , but the hard life lead her to trust in Christ , and she was truly converted. Thus she was able , with God’s help to carry her burdens. He never heard her complain - on the contrary , she always praised God and diligently prayed on her knees. She was instrumental in leading her son into the true faith . His mother died at the ripe old age of 83 in 1906 . He described her as a “priesterliche Mutter” - a pastoral mother! His mother was a mission minded believer. It appears that this had rubbed off on young Martin .
In August 1862 the Mission magazine of the FMS carried the announcement : “Next October a Mission School will be opened in Helsinki and those who wish to become missionaries are requested to send their applications to the board . The School will admit young men between 15 and 25 years of age. They are required to have : an awakened conscience , a good knowledge of the chapters of Christian doctrine , talents and good health.” The Missionary society would take care of the costs , and thus poverty was no hindrance.
Rautanen , starting in 1863 spent 5 years in the Training School for Missionaries. Apart from Bible subjects , they learned languages like German , Latin & Greek. Contrary to popular expectations he eventually proved to be an outstanding linguist . He spoke Finnish, German, Ndonga, Herero, Dutch- Afrikaans , English and Russian. He could also read Latin and some Greek. He eventually translated the New Testament and a large part of the Old Testament into Oshindonga . At the Training School they were also taught practical subjects like wagon making and tailoring. Music was also considered an important subject.
By 1867 it was known where the young men would be sent. The annual meeting of the Missionary society in June 1867 determined that they would be sent to the Ovambo people south of the Kunene river . All this was initiated by Carl Hugo Hahn , a Baltic –German missionary in 1861 . He was a friend of Rautanen’s principal , Sirelius.
At this stage Carl Hugo Hahn had been working among the Herero people for almost 20 years and happened to be on furlough at this time when he appealed for Finnish missionaries to be sent. The question arose whether Martin Rautanen could be included in the group. Rautanen’s progress at school had been slow because of his humble background. He had also started at the School one year late . He was eventually included because he did show some promise. Contrary to popular opinion (particularly the opinion of his principal , Sirelius) Martin Rautanen also became the most outstanding amongst his contemporaries .
He and 4 other men were ordained at St Nicholas Cathedral in Helsinki in June 1868. On June 24th, 1868 they left Helsinki . Spending a few months in Germany in Barmen (under the auspices of the Rhenish Missionary society 9 Finnish mission workers and 9 Rhenish missionaries left on October 1868 by ship for Cape Town .
On December 30th 1868 they arrived in Cape Town . They stayed in Stellenbosch for a month . Immediately they began the study of the Herero language - which would be useful , for the Herero and Ovambo dialects are related .
The next stop on the long sea journey of the Finnish missionaries , was Walfish Bay – a natural harbour and the gate to South West Africa . This happened on the 14th February 1869 . At that stage it was only a natural harbour. There was no infra structure and there were no people living there. Upon arrival they had to fix some of the desolate buildings that had been left there by early traders and hunters , and had to wait for three weeks before word was brought to Carl Hugo Hahn at Otjimbingwe , who arrived on March the 5th with 8 ox-wagons . The Finnish brothers being all good musicians greeted him with their horns, blowing “ A mighty fortress is our God”
Eventually they arrived in Otjimbingwe on 23rd April . They were to stay in Hereroland over a year before they journeyed to Ovamboland .
Martin Rautanen and one of his colleagues became boarders in the household of the widow Johanna Kleinschmidt . She was the daughter of Johann Heinrich Schmelen ( 1777 -1848) the best known pioneer missionary of the London Mission society – the first missionary society operating in Namibia . Schmelen had married a Nama lady by the name of Zara. She was a devout Christian and she taught him the difficult Nama language and helped him in his translation work . He founded the mission station at Bethanien in 1814 . Four children were born from this marriage . Johanna was the second child , and she married Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt who was a missionary in Bethanien and started a mission station in Rehoboth . After his death his widow stayed in Otjimbingwe .
The main occupation of the new missionaries was to study Herero under the leadership of Carl Hugo Hahn. Again , it is interesting to note that Hahn felt that Rautanen did not make good progress in language studies . Some of his colleagues made far better progress . In the meantime Rautanen fell in love with the youngest of the Kleinschmidt daughters , Friederike (Frieda) Kleinschmidt , who at this stage was only 15years old! As you may imagine , the young couple had a tough time to persuade the authorities , particularly Carl Hugo Hahn (Frieda’s guardian) who was entirely opposed to Rautanen. He angrily declared: “The Finns will not take even one of his daughters”
In the meantime Rautanen and his colleagues learned the basics of mission work in Otjimbingwe and by the beginning of 1870 they had mastered a good deal of Herero so that Hahn gave them an opportunity to do gospel preaching among the Herero under chief Kamaherero in Okahandja .
It was on Friday the 27th of May 1870 that the Finnish missionaries finally left for Ovamboland . Hahn was supposed to go with them, having visited Ovamboland on 2 earlier occasions. Several kings knew him, and he had promised them to send them missionaries. However , at that time he was needed in the peace negotiations between the Nama and the Herero. An English hunter, Frederik Green who had been travelling in the country for about 20 years offered to help . They arrived in Ovamboland on the 9th of July 1870 ( 2 ½ month trek) at Omandongo close to the place where King Shikongo shaKalulu had his court. The King came to meet the travelers the next day and agreed to have the missionaries. The mission station was called Omandongo . This is seen as the date of origin of the Finnish mission in Ovamboland .
Ovamboland 1870 -1874 : First Challenges
Omandongo thus became the first base of the Finns in Ovamboland. The first group of missionary workers in Ovamboland consisted of 6 ordained men and 2 laymen. It strikes me as a sound mission policy that missionaries should be sent as teams and not as individuals . Apart from providing a variety of natural and spiritual gifts , they also serve as an encouragement to each other .
The missionaries started their mission amongst 4 tribes :
(i) Omandongo mission station among the Ndonga people under king Shikongo ;
(ii) The Elim Mission station among the Kwambi under king Nuyoma ;
(iii) Rehoboth mission station among the Ngandjera under king Theya and
(iv) the work among the Kwanyama people .
Rautanen started his missionary work at Elim among the Kwambi’s in 1870. Two years later he was forced to leave the territory of King Nuyoma . In fact , all the mission stations except Omandongo were abandoned by 1873 , and for the next 30 years the Finnish mission was focused on the Ndonga area.
Some further comments are necessary here. Starting his work in Uukwambi , under king Nuyoma was a real challenge . We need to understand that the kings did not invite the missionaries for the sake of the gospel , but for political and economic gain. When this did not happen , the kings were disappointed, and actively worked the missionaries out of their tribal areas. Furthermore the kings were generally known for consuming too much alcohol and trading in slaves – something which the missionaries ( like David Livingston) did not approve of . Portuguese traders brought king Nuyoma alcohol in exchange for slaves . Peltola comments : “ Because of missionaries, Nuyoma had diminished his open slave trade . However , this only lasted for a short while , until the missionaries were forced to abandon the work."
Martin Rautanen decided to move to the Ngandjera in May 1871 under king Tsheya . Some little anecdotes from Rautanen make interesting reading as he deals with this pagan king . Once when he wanted to buy an ox from the king , he got the answer: “ Omukwetu ( my relative) we live in the same house. My oxen are your oxen and your oxen are my oxen." Rautanen added to this : “And may the Lord then also grant that my God would be your God ". In another instance , Rautanen was preaching upon Ps 36:6,7 on God’s love and righteousness, when the king started to laugh loudly and disturbed the service . Rautanen stopped him and said that in God’s eyes there was no difference between a chief and a herdsman and he ordered Theya to be quiet.
It needs to be said that Rautanen was never disrespectful to the kings. Quite on the contrary , he was among them as a humble servant. Rautanen was a true Lutheran in recognizing that Christians were still the kings subjects, and therefore he regarded himself as a loyal subject of the king.
We also need to understand that, on this occasion the king, congregation and Rautanen were sitting under the word of God , and thus under the authority of the King of kings. Earthly kings must be silent when the King of kings speaks by His word.
This story reminds me of another king , James the 6th of Scotland who was notoriously rude when attending worship services. The Presbyterian minister Robert Bruce was preaching , and in his usual manner , king James began to speak to those around him. Robert Bruce paused , and the king fell silent . The minister continued preaching , and the king started talking again. The preacher stopped him and addressed him directly :” When the lion roars all the beasts of the field are quiet’: the lion of the tribe of Judah is now roaring in the voice of His gospel , and it becomes all the small kings of the earth to be silent”
In the meantime Rautanen had received permission from his mission society to marry Frieda Rautanen, who had by now turned 18 . On September the 11th, 1872 Carl Hugo Hahn married them in Otjimbingwe. Martin’s home-language now became German , since Frieda was German speaking . We did already mention that he had exceptional language skills and spoke Finnish, German, Ndonga, Herero, Afrikaans, English and Russian fluently .
Upon returning from his honeymoon , Rautanen and his young bride returned to Ngandjera (or “Rehoboth” – named after the mission station that his father in law Kleinschmidt had founded in central Namibia) only to find that his mission station had been vandalized. King Tsheya of the Okandjera , as in the case of king Nuyoma of the Kwambi’s had made life very difficult for missionaries , for the missionaries seemed to offer no prospect of improvement in economics (liquor and slaves) . We had already observed that the kings, by and large, were fond of drink and some were habitual drunkards. The Portuguese had a lot to do with this , for they exchanged alcohol for slaves.
The Finnish missionaries did not condone this , and neither were they fond of engaging in politics and trade . They had come to preach the gospel . In fact, some of the Finnish missionaries were so poor that they had to beg the king for food at times. One aspect that apparently comes out time and again in Rautanen’s diaries is that their mission was chronically under-supported for the task at hand.
These poor white missionaries did not suit the kings . There was nothing to be gained from them – except … the gospel, which at this stage they did not want .
The Portuguese slave traders suggested to the kings at times that if they allowed the missionaries to continue to influence the peoples minds , their lucrative trade would cease. This brought the Finnish mission work into great jeopardy . Rautanen had to withdraw from the Ngandjeras and subsequently settled in Omandongo , where the mission work began among the Ndongas . This was in July 1874 .
1874 - 1885 :
In the 1870’s the European colonial powers started the “scramble for Africa “. In Namibia the British took possession of Walvis Bay on the 6th March 1878 , and the Germans sought to bring the rest of present Namibia under its influence in 1884 .
We move on rapidly through the developments of this period . In Ondonga , the chief missionary area of the Finnish mission , three men ascended to the throne in rapid sucession after king Shikongo who had invited the Finnish missionaries to Ovamboland had died in 1874 of alcohol poisoning.
He was followed by king Kambonde the first ( 1874 - 1883) , who was succeeded by king Iitana yaNkwiyu ( ruled for less than a year i.e. 1883-1884) and who was succeeded by king Kambonde II or (Kambonde kaMpingana) whose rule lasted a quarter of a century . Kambonde II died in October 1909.
The first spiritual breakthrough came in 1882 when 6 young men asked to be baptised . (i.e. after 12 years of labour !) The situation of the Namibian mission field is thus more than comparable to the Baptist missionary William Carey’s experience in India , having laboured for 7 years without a single convert!
King Kambonde Mpingana brought a total change of attitudes of the people towards the Finnish mission. This can be attributed to the fact that the new king had confidence in Rautanen. Rautanen had a very specialm relationship with this king as he became his personal friend , adviser and doctor . Even some of the chiefs family believed and were baptized.
1883 was also the year of the founding of the Omandongo congregation - the first congregation among the Ovambo people .However, even this period of spiritual advance was not unaffected by sorrow. On the 4th of May 1880 the Rautanen’s firstborn , Heinrich , died. In fact , only three of the Rautanen’s 9 children reached the age of majority ! Six of their children died before their parents ! The Rautanen’s were well acquainted with grief , and yet one never gets the feeling that Martin or Frieda became bitter against their God. They continued to love, serve and worship God with all their heart. When Ludwig , their 4th child became very sick , Martin wrote in his diary : “ At half past five in the afternoon our Lord took him in his arms. ‘Lord teach us to say from the heart “ The Lord gave , the Lord took away , may the Name of our Lord be praised.”
I am greatly humbled by such faith. We modern people do not know how to deal with death anymore – mainly because we do not want to understand that God is the Giver and Taker of life. Death becomes a lot more bearable when we understand that our lives are in God’s hands. The Rautanen’s understood that in the taking of their children’s lives , God was still the good and faithful God . In the midst of such losses Martin and Frieda frequently battled themselves with severe bouts of malaria and other sicknesses, which made them weak and often unproductive for weeks, if not months . Martin Rautanen himself nearly died in 1890. The words of Revelation 12:11 were true for these missionaries : “They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death “ .
1885 - 1900
In June 1880 the Rautanen’s moved to Olukonda – the place where Rautanen would live for over 40 years . King Kambonde 1 who was often sick ( due to excessive alcohol intake) came to regard Rautanen as his personal physician. However , as I have already mentioned , Rautanen’s influence was particularly significant in the life of Kambonde II , the king who reigned for almost 25 years. Rautanen , as observed earlier always treated the king with respect. The king soon learned that the Christians were his most faithful subjects.
The time had now come for Rautanen to go on furlough in his native Finland . Not only had he not been home for 23 years , but his family’s health had deteriorated so much that they desperately needed a break . King Kambonde II did not want to let Rautanen (Nakambale) go , but he left on February 18th, 1891 . The customary sea journey from Cape Town to England which lasted over 2 months now lasted only 19 days due to the fact that sailing vessels were being replaced by steamships . They arrived in Helsinki in June 1891 . Sadly, the mission did very little at that stage to welcome him back home . One gets the impression that the mission was very removed from its missionaries. Time forbids me in this paper to comment much upon this . But what joy it was for them to meet their oldest son Reinhold, whom they had sent to school in Finland six years earlier . And what joy it was to meet his aged mother Annikka Rautanen again after 23 years of separation . Once it was known Rautanen had plenty opportunities to speak about the mission , and the meetings were generally packed. He mentions that at Tyrvaa there were 15 000 – 20 000 listeners ! He had brought a good number of displays from the Ovambo culture and traditional way of life and this attracted the interest of a good number of Scientific societies, who asked him frequently to speak. He was even made a member of the Geographic Society in Finland – a rare honour bestowed on a non-academician.
In the meantime Frieda his wife gave birth to a little daughter who was born sickly and who died after 5 weeks . At the beginning of 1892, the Rautanens made preparation to return to Africa. Three of the four children would remain in Finland to do their schooling under the care of one of their fellow missionaries, Bjoerklund , who had chosen not to return to Ovamboland . Only little Frieda would accompany her parents . They returned to Ovamboland in October 1892.
Germany by now had begun to make its official claim on South West Africa . Portugal made an agreement in 1886, fixing a boundary line between German South West Africa and Portuguese Angola . The boundary would divide the Ovambo tribes. The Ndongas were not affected , but the line certainly divided the Kwanyamas . Major Theodor Leutwein became the first governor for German South west Africa in 1894. It is interesting to note Rautanens feelings upon this development. In writing to his mission director he said : “ God willing the German government does not come to Ovamboland for a long time, for if earlier there came much godlessness with white people to Ovamboland , then the Germans will bring a disgusting kind that even the heathen are ashamed. Their main sin is revolting adultery and dissipation”. Rautanen based these comments on observations he had made in Hereroland , where the German influence had grown considerably over the years.
King Kambonde II in conversation with “Nakambale” on the legality of the German intention to seize their ground was amazed that the German’s did not obey God’s word – “ you shall not covet your neighbours possessions” (Ex 20:17) . Rautanen explained to him that the fear of the Lord did not depend upon learnedness or unlearnedness , but that it was manifested in one’s love for God. Then he turned the conversation about the brevity of one’s life and the life to come. With other words, Rautanen always sought the spiritual welfare of others before their material welfare . He explained to the king that the coming of the Lord was at hand , and that the gospel had to be preached to all nations , including the Ndongas . And he urged the king to receive the Word of God personally.”
1900 – 1920
The new century saw the Germans establishing themselves in South West Africa . In 1904 a tragic thing happened . On the 12th of January Herero Chief Maherero gave an order to kill all white people except missionaries , women and children . His instructions were not carefully followed , and as a result over a hundred people were killed, among them 5 women . The Ovambo’s were very tempted to join the uprising , but Kambonde II adopted a cautious view, while another tribal chief Nehale sent about 500 men against a small German garrison at Namutoni on the edge of the Etosha Pan . The Germans, despite the fact that they were only 7 men in that fort dealt Nehale a severe blow, and escaped the following night .
The next tragedy happened as the Germans engaged the Hereros in battle at the Waterberg under General Lieutenant Lothar von Trotha , chasing the Hereros through a dry desert where many of them perished of thirst . This is known as the “Herero genocide” – often referred to in current political discussions in which current political leaders of the Herero demand a restitution from Germany .
Generally speaking the Ovambos did not rise up against the Germans , and the reason for this was ascribed to Martin Rautanen who urged Kambonde not to get drawn into a bloody war with the Germans . The Ovambo tribes were joined to the German colonial empire without firing a single shot , and were ruled by the Germans until 1914 when the first World War broke out and when the Germans had to surrender to the British / South African regime . In this time “Nakambale” frequently excercised a peace-making intercessory role for the sake of the people which he loved. It goes without saying that he loved the Ovambo more than the Germans!
1920 – 1926
A few concluding remarks about the last few years of Rautanen’s life.
He celebrated his 50th anniversary on the mission field on the 8th of July 1920.He resigned in 1919 as field superintendent, a task which he had performed for 35 years . His son Reinhold was subsequently tasked by the Mission society with the job as Field superintendent .
Martin Rautanen was decorated by his country, Finland , with the order of the White Rose in recognition of the outstanding contributions which he had made in the mission field but he was unwilling to wear the decoration. This was entirely in character with a man who sought God’s approval far above the approval of men.
In 1925 the first Ovambo pastors were ordained . On that occasion Rautanen preached from the text : “ be assured that I am with you always , even to the end of the ages" (Matthew 28:20) . He related how the mission had begun with the clearing of a plot of land in Shikongo shaKalulu’s time . He asked them in that sermon, “ Where were your fathers and mothers at that time ? In the darkness of paganism. And where are they now? Workers in the Kingdom of God . Man’s strength and wisdom had not brought it about , but He who says: “ be assured , I am with you always.”
In his diary he wrote afterwards : “Lord , I thank thee that thou hast allowed my dear Frieda and me to see this day…”
Thus it was that Ovamboland became Martin's home on this earth, He did not wish to go anywhere else when he retired and he was able to work for so many years, as only very few people do, in the history of Christian missions.
One of his closest co-workers Albin Savola reminisced about their years together and he said : “ For 3 years I sat at the same table with Martin Rautanen. For me these were lessons of a lifetime: Diligence, punctuality, trust in the future and a childlike faith in the Saviour…” .
In his 80th in 1925 year Martin Rautanen was granted an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Helsinki .
He died at Olukonda on the 19th of October 1926 , and he was buried there .
One of the missionaries recalls how on a moonlit night an Ovambo man stood at Nakambale’s grave very deep in thought. Then he said : “Truly , he loved us very much”
Vital lessons from Martin Rautanen’s life
1. Martin Rautanen was a devoted believer who had learned a passion for missions from his mother. This illustrates the importance of 2 Tim 1:5 – the importance of godly parents who diligently teach their young ones !
2. Despite being an unpromising candidate in the beginning (being of humble origin) he proved to be the most persistent missionary of all the Finnish missionaries sent into the South West African mission field . He excelled in linguistics and in perseverance . This reminds us of the fact that our Lord Jesus chose 12 disciples who were mainly poor and uneducated men for the great task of gospel preaching . How God shames the wise and the learned through the humility of the cross ! ( 1 Cor 1: 26-31)
3. He was a Christ-centered man of the word and of prayer . This reminds us of the mark of an apostle (Acts 6: 4) . He was uncompromising in this work and commitment to the gospel. Many demanded that he should give more attention to matters like orphanages and schools and other humanitarian schemes. Rautanen was not readily drawn to this sort of work , for he knew that the work of the true missionary was in the work of prayer and the preaching of the gospel . Everything else would follow from this . All other work needed to be built upon this foundation .He often clashed with his superiors and colleagues who sometimes were influenced by modernistic thinking on this matter .
At one meeting where his fellow missionaries addressed the importance of schools for the Ovambo nation, Rautanen asked them : “ What do we aim at with our schools and what are the means to reach it?" His answer to the first question was : "to lead people to Christ and to His congregation." His answer to the second question was : “With the Word of God” . It is the only means of the missionary work, according to the command of our Saviour. We have to present Christ both in our sermons and in our schools. All other things like geography and arithmetic etc are secondary matters…. “ This matter remained a concern for Rautanen as his years drew to a close . In a letter to the Mission director in 1924 he writes : “ In many mission fields education is in fashion now and is worshipped. There are many subjects in education that are not the gold of the gospel , but like wood grass and straw, which will burn on the last day…. “. This does not mean that he was narrow-minded in his interests. He was keenly interested in languages (philology) , ethnology , botany and even climatology . He was a member of the Geographic society of Finland. But he was supremely a God-centered , Christ centered man. Life for him begins with Christ !
4. Martin Rautanen’s chief contribution lay in the translation of the Oshindonga Scriptures. He believed that the people whom he loved and ministered to should have the Scriptures in their own language. His translation of Matthew was published in 1891, then followed Mark (1892), Luke (1895), John (1896) and the Acts (1897). The complete New Testament was published in 1908. The whole Bible was available in Oshindonga in 1924. Rautanen also contributed considerably to a mission journal, Osondaha, which had appeared in Oshindonga since September 1901. In recognition of his achievements he was awarded an honorary doctorate in theology by the University of Helsinki in 1925.
5. He was radically committed to the people whom he ministered to . His life was incarnational . He lived very humbly among the people he preached to . He respected the authorities of the kings , even when he radically disagreed with them . By and by he won the battle of faith , and before long the gospel had taken hold of many people. Today the work in Ovamboland rests on this gospel foundation.
His radical commitment to the Ovambo people is seen especially in his reply to a friend in Finland , who wanted him to stay a little longer on his furlough in Finland . He said to him : “May God protect me from that. I have two fatherlands like everybody else. You have heaven and Finland, I have Finland and Ovamboland.”
Martin Rautanen is a rare missionary these days . Like the Lord Jesus , he gave his live for those he came to save .