Evangelists of Namibia

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Gustav Kamatoto

Gustav Kamatoto

Josaphat Kamatoto, Job Katire, Christian Mupurua, Elifas Karamo, Elifas Kukuri, Johannes Mupurua.

War and Extermination 1904 until 1908

On the wagon box of the ox wagon, next to Evangelist Josaphat Kamatoto, sat frightened missionary August Kuhlmann; behind the tarpaulin was his wife with her newborn and their two toddlers. Alongside them, hundreds of armed Ovaherero soldiers moved through the bush towards the Waterberg. While the soldiers would have known the Ovaherero, Kamatoto, by hearsay, in this critical situation the presence of the European missionary triggered mistrust and Kuhlmann sensed the hatred of the angry crowd.
There were different reasons why the two got into this situation. At the beginning of the war, the Evangelist and his extended family responded to the call of his Ovaherero chief Samuel Maharero to gather at the Waterberg and to discuss the further course of the war against the German colonial power. The German missionary and his family, on the other hand, had fallen behind the front line through the turmoil of the war at their mission station Otjiseva and were now fleeing to seek refuge. Here, at the foot of the Waterberg, where thousands of Ovaherero warriors were gathering, the two met by chance. Kamatoto took the missionary under his protection and, in the following weeks, saved his remaining property, and possibly his life. Likewise, missionary Wilhelm Eich had already been rescued by the Evangelists Job Katire and Josaphat Kamatoto, when he fled with his family and two settler wives from Otjozondjupa to Okahandja.
Eyewitnesses reported how Evangelists and their Christian congregations were involved in this phase of the war. Thus, the Ovaherero Evangelists and their congregation members gathered in their own camp, during which time they held regular services, before the battle of Ohamakari. They were the minority, but they were asked for their opinions and were actively involved in the decision-making during the numerous war meetings of all Ovaherero. Those gathered included the Evangelists Julius Kau­raisa from Okahandja Christian Mupurua from Otjiruse, Elifas Karamo from Otjimbingwe, Elifas Kukuri from Otjosazu, Josaphat Kama­to­to from Otjiseva and Johannes Mupurua from Okahandja. The war brought Christians from the different congregations together once more, before they were decimated and the rest scattered over the whole country.
All were Ovaherero Christians of the first or second generation, who enjoyed a high reputation as Evangelists in their congregations and all had had their special experiences with German missionaries. Christian Mupurua, for example, ordered his congregation only to call him Omuhona and knew just how to prevent the missionary from making too many rules for him. Just a few hours before the uprising in Okahandja, Johannes Mupurua had warned Philipp Diehl of the impending danger. The memory of the courage and fighting spirit of the Christian participants in the wars of the 19th century would still be awake amongst the Ovaherero and would give special significance to the presence of these families. Here, in the war camp below the Waterberg, the last meeting between Ovaherero Evangelists/elders and Kuhlmann took place. Only the missionary’s version of this historic event has been recorded, but it adequately expresses the concern that was the subject of this meeting:
Soon several elders and many members of the assembled Christian congregations who had gathered there came and asked what would become of them. “Muhongo,” they point out, “why do all our teachers depart from us in this war? In the past in the Nama Wars, the old Ovahonge moved with us, proclaimed God’s Word and comforted the dying. Why should we now be without God’s Word? We Herero do not wage war against God, nor do we throw God’s word from us. Should our children no longer be baptised and our young people, when they want to marry, no longer be blessed into marriage? You are now the last missionary among us; we ask you, do not leave us! Keep the Lord’s work among us in this time of war, so that the congregations do not degenerate. And if, as you say, your family cannot stay here, take them to Okahandja and return to us. You can then wear a badge so that every Herero recognises you.”
With a heavy heart Kuhlmann rejected their request, pointing out the lack of approval of the praeses and the uncertain war situation. According to Kuhlmann’s own words, before his departure, he gave all Evangelists and elders the right to “give emergency baptism to adults and children and solemnise marriages.” He also proposed that for the time of war, one of the Evangelists be appointed or chosen as the “head of the congregations”. Kuhlmann did not, however, speak of the right to the most important sacrament of this hour, the right to administer Holy Communion.
It cannot be abstracted from the available sources in which way the Evangelists were involved in the ensuing battles against the German military. There were only seven months between the last reports of Kuhlmann and Eich about Evangelists in the ranks of the Ovaherero before the Battle of Ohamakari in March/April 1904, and the next occasion that RMS missionaries met Evangelists in the assembly camps/labour camps by November 1904. These months, like no other time in the history of the country, determined the fate of the people and thus also of the mission church forever. There are no autobiographical reports about the battles or details of the flight to the Omaheke – at least not documented directly after the events.
The survivors were stunned into silence with horror. Evangelists, who had close and trusting relationships with some missionaries both before and after the war, only responded evasively to questions about this time. The Evangelist Erastus Nikanor is said to have answered the question about his experiences during the military operation to hunt down the Ovaherero in the Omaheke, by saying to the missionary: “Muhonge, leave; don’t ask me about it. It was too horrible. I don’t like to think about it.” An Ovaherero woman of the Groenfontein congregation answered the same question by a missionary with the striking answer: “The wind has blown sand over the tracks and the tears, but it cannot be recounted.”
The Ovaherero’s collective response to defeat, expulsion, destruction of social and physical structures can, in retrospect, be divided into two distinct phases.
In the first phase, immediately after the war and the subsequent annihilation, a strong movement to Christianity could be observed. Jan-Bart Gewald explained this process, which he termed the “re-coalescence of Herero society through the mediation of Christianity”, as the self-discovery of the Ovaherero people under the leadership of the new elite of the Evangelists. After the original elite of Ovaherero chiefs were forced into exile by the war, it was now the Evangelists who, because of their role in the collection camps, were able to take the lead in this process of reorganisation. As Gewald put it: “Under the leadership of their Evangelists and in accordance with the teachings of Lutheran doctrine, the Herero [again] began to establish themselves as a nation.”
Gewald emphasises that it was the origin of the Evangelists from the families of the leading chiefs that gave them the authority as a new elite. Gewald’s observations are of great importance, as he is the first historian who wrote the Evangelists out of obscurity and assigned them great importance for the period after 1904. He overlooks, however, that the profile of the Evangelists had changed since 1870. In 1903, not all Evangelists were from a chief family by any means or took their authority from their relationship with important chief families. Often the Evangelist’s validity and recognition grew precisely through the demarcation from the traditional power structures.
The second phase began barely a decade later. Now the movement, which had been welcomed by the missionaries because of the many conversions, turned against the structures of the RMS and its missionaries. In both phases, Evangelists played different but significant roles.
The RMS statistics show a total of 21 employed Evangelists together with 59 elders in Ovaherero congregations in 1903. This was the highest number of co-workers since the Herero mission was started, if teachers are not considered. Ovaherero congregations were shattered, because the congregation members, their elders and Evangelists were killed, driven away, and scattered. To demonstrate the extent of destruction, the Okazeva congregation may serve as an example. Before January 1904 this congregation had 87 baptised and registered congregation members, four elected elders and one Evangelist. In spite of all his efforts and intensive investigation, the former station missionary August Kuhlmann could only trace one single survivor. In addition to Okazeva, other mission stations were completely destroyed, like Otjihaënena (481 former members), Otjosazu (656 former members), Otjo­zondjupa (319 former members) und Om­bu­ro (230 former members). Their congregation members – as well as all the countless unbaptised residents – were killed, dislodged or died fleeing.
The sources are too inaccurate to be able to reliably say which Evangelists died in the war or while they were fleeing. In the desolate post-war situation, even the missionaries probably did not know. There are references that the well-known and important Evangelist Josaphat Kamatoto died of thirst in the Omaheke while fleeing with his father and his own wife and children. The Evangelist Eliphas Karamo, formerly from Otjimbingwe, also died while fleeing. Other Evangelists, such as Zacharias Kamaituara Kukuri and Paulus Plaatjie, were shot by German courts martial. Many names of Evangelists no longer appear in the sources after the war, so it must be assumed that they too died during the war and the genocidal phase. What happened to the others? Biographical data will be used to reconstruct the events in the months after January 1904.
In December 1904, RMS co-worker Nathanael Kakunde and his companions were shot dead by free-living Ovaherero near the Omatako Mountains. He had been on a dangerous mission. On behalf of the RMS missionary of Omaruru, he was supposed to persuade the surviving Ovaherero in the bush to hand over their weapons and surrender to the German military. He carried with him two letters: a letter from the military with the request to surrender, the other a “pastoral letter” from the missionaries to the Ovaherero. Kakunde had remained on the mission station Omaruru during the war – it is not known under which circumstances – and was not on the run, as most Evangelists were beyond the 250-kilometre-long military cordon in the Omaheke. That was the reason why he was available for such a dangerous mission for which he paid dearly with his life. The missionary abandoned the effort and travelled back to Omaruru without having achieved anything.
According to the mission literature, the news of the death and the contents of the letters found by the Ovaherero on Kakunde’s body, spread rapidly throughout Hereroland. In the following weeks, hundreds of Ovaherero reported at the Omaruru mission station. With these events, the efforts of missionaries and Evangelists began to create a chance of survival in the Omaheke for the fleeing Ovaherero. In coordinated actions, Evangelists were now able to move into the bush as messengers to trace the scattered Ovaherero and persuade them to join them and report at the so-called collection camps. Numerous “helpers” accompanied the Evangelists in support; to confirm their instructions, they carried letters with them.
Until the beginning of December 1904, the German commander General Lothar von Trotha had categorically rejected any negotiations with Ovaherero chiefs and the possible participation of the RMS in a peace process. On 8 December 1904, Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow revised this decision and asked the RMS for its mediation services. On 8 March 1905, the first negotiations between Praeses Wilhelm Eich and Lothar von Trotha took place in Windhoek under these new conditions. Eich was able to negotiate an undertaking by the colonial army that RMS Evangelists and teachers, who were kept in military prison camps, would be “handed over” to the RMS if it could be proven that they had not committed any crimes. How little the military felt bound by these agreements became clear, for example, in the banishment of the Evangelist Hendrik Witbooi. The promise by the colonial army to the Ovaherero that, after their surrender, they would be allowed to settle at their former mission stations was also not kept. After all, how would an Evangelist have been able to identify himself to a settler soldier, who had been incited against the mission? There were no standardised identification documents, notwithstanding the fact that the extreme conditions of escape were mostly only a matter of sheer survival. Thus the first contact after the war between Evangelists, elders and congregation members on the one hand, and the representatives of the colonial state and the missionaries on the other hand, took on various forms. From one Mbanderu Evangelist it was said that only his 20-year old attestation about his activity as an Evangelist, which he always carried with him in his New Testament, saved his life when he was arrested by German troops.
After March 1905, time and again former co-workers personally contacted the missionaries, many of them emaciated beyond recognition or bloated and seriously ill, so that the missionaries often no longer recognised them. Other Evangelists tried to get in touch with the missionaries through other ways. Thus out of desperation the Evangelist Manasse Kaukutua wrote a short message to the missionaries at the collection camps, because he himself was too starved, weak and sick to make his way there. He asked for something to eat, a shirt, tobacco and “women’s stuff” because his wife was naked and only he could cover his nakedness with a springbok hide. Nevertheless, according to what he wrote to the missionary, he had been doing his duty as an Evangelist by ministering to the fleeing Ovaherero.
The following Evangelists were involved in the collection campaign: Trau­gott Kauapirura (January 1905 in Epukiro), Friedrich Tjiharine and his brother Gottfried Tjiharine (1905 in Omburo), Willfried/Arefried of Okatjapja (1905 in Epukiro), Erastus and Gustav Kamatoto (1905 in Otjihaënena), Heinrich Kavari (1906 in Otjihaënena), Alfred Kukuri (1906 in Otjihaënena), Erastus Nikanor (1906 in Okomitombe), Christoph, Elihu and Barnabas. The assembly camps were run in Omburo (c. 40 km northeast of Omaruru at the Omaruru-River), Otjihaënena (c. 150 km northeast of Windhoek at the White Nossob), Otjozongombe (ca. 10 km east of Otjozondjupa) and Oko­­mitombe (ca. 150 km east of Otjihaënena).
The Evangelists had general helpers (sometimes also called messengers) who moved into the bush with them to make contact with the Ovaherero. At the collection camps, attempts were made to create conditions similar to those on the traditional mission stations. Church services, schooling and gardening were part of the self-image of the Evangelists and missionaries, even though the hundreds of Ovaherero refugees were in the collection camps purely for the sake of survival. Although the original agreement between the missionaries and the military leadership stipulated that the missionaries had sole sovereignty over the collection camps and only they decided which of the “recovered ones” were called upon to work, the military ultimately seized the decision-making power by force. The removal of the prisoners from the collection camps and their fate in the labour camps of the military show that despite their charitable motivation, the mission could not prevent the death of countless Ovaherero.
The extent to which the collection activity depended on the active help of the Evangelists was already clear during a first attempt by Praeses Eich at the beginning of 1905. Without Evangelists, his journey with a military “provision column” to Epukiro in the east was completely ineffective. The only verifiable result was that he learned from an Ovaherero women about the Evangelist Arefried of Okatjapa, who was said to have agreed to take a letter to a “settlement near Okozonguendje”, but Eich’s work on his own came to nothing.
Only with the following event, Eich had the opportunity to have direct contact with Ovaherero: at Epukiro, the colonial military unit with which Eich was travelling encountered an armed Ovaherero group. As it later turned out, it was the group around Willi Maharero, the nephew of Samuel Maharero. It was probably only the presence of Eich that prompted the accompanying major to proceed as follows: he gave permission to convey a letter to the Ovaherero requesting them to send a negotiator. It is significant that the Ovaherero sent the two Evangelists Traugott Kauapirura and Theobald Kandjii. Putting their lives at risk, only they were trusted to move between the fronts. After the two had accepted the conditions of the surrender, they returned to their armed Ovaherero group to deliver the message. After some time, only Traugott Kauapirura returned to the German military camp. Under the pretext that he returned to negotiate more favourable conditions of surrender for the Ovaherero, he managed to gain more time, because the assault by the German military unit on the Ovaherero group was imminent. After 45 minutes of delay and fruitless negotiations the Germans attacked, just to find out that the Ovaherero had used the time to escape. After this sobering experience, Eich and Traugott Kauapirura – who surrendered with four rifles – were then led away from the military area, back to Okahandja.
Erastus Nikanor was also one of the Evangelists who must have heard of the special regulations for Evangelists and thereupon surrendered in Windhoek in 1905. Just skin and bone, the hardships he had endured in the war and on the run were visible. He was originally from the important Mbanderu chief clan of Kaivara Nikanor and grew up in the household of RMS missionary Ferdinand Lang. He was baptised by Lang in 1896 and soon occupied an important position beside his mentor. Lang saw the reasons for the great “revival” among the Mbanderu – more than a third of all baptisms for the year 1900 were reported from their settlement area in the east of Hereroland – in Nikanor’s work alone. Together with other co-workers, Lang trained him as an Evangelist. At the same time, a close friendship developed between the two on the isolated mission station. At the beginning of the German-Herero War this friendship manifested itself in the protection Erastus Nikanor gave to the missionary and some settler women who had managed to flee to the mission station. With his commitment, Nikanor probably saved the life of the group of Germans. In this situation, Nikanor even risked his own life by staying with the vulnerable group, until shortly before the German colonial troops arrived on the mission station. However, he could not fall into the hands of the German soldiers, as this would have cost him his life. The Evangelist safeguarded the missionary from marauding Ovaherero soldiers only through his presence, something that the missionary could not guarantee the Evangelist after the arrival of the German troops.
When clemency was offered to the Ovaherero after the final battle, Erastus Nikanor gave himself up to the German colonial administration and was handed over to the RMS. Accompanied by Wilhelm Diehl, Nikanor moved to the former site of his ministry in Otjihaënena in December 1904 to take part in the collection campaign. Not only as an Evangelist, but above all as a family member of the former Chief Nikanor of Otjihaenena, his word would have had decisive significance for the scattered Ovaherero of the surrounding area – more so than the documents he carried with him on his treks through the bush. But even in his new role as a leading figure, he would not be able to promise the refugees anything more than temporary refuge and food. He would probably not have trusted the promises of those in power.
The fate of the prisoners in the camps of Lüderitz, Swakopmund and others would not have escaped him. Nevertheless, in the first two months of his activity, he brought more than 2,500 Ovaherero to the assembly camp in Otjihaënena, 70 percent of them women and children. The remaining men handed over only 77 rifles upon arrival. This limited response by Ovaherero men and the skirmishes against an armed Ovaherero group under Andreas in the Onjati mountains, were indications of the strong resistance to the collection campaign. The situation at the collection camp in Okomitombe showed that the action would have been unsuccessful without Evangelists like Nikanor. When Okomitombe, the last collection camp, closed in March 1907, and the RMS withdrew its direct responsibility for prisoners of war,
Erastus returned to Windhoek and became a native policeman, a position that he sometimes moped about. He came to me [RMS missionary Friedrich Meier] dejected, if I could not help him, that he would not get this post. I told him, “No, Erastus! Take it out of God’s hand! You must not refuse, and who knows it might be good for you. What you learn now can be very useful to you, etc.” That’s how Erastus became a policeman. The rifle hung over his shoulder, the revolver in his belt, and the then inevitable sjambok in the right hand – but which he made little use of; for with him the people worked without lashes, how many times have I seen him move along with his captives, mostly for road construction! For several years he did so until he finally managed to get away from the police after all prisoners of war had been released. He was dismissed. [...] Erastus received the best testimonial from the police for his work, only for meeting out lashes he would not have been considered, because Erastus would not strike hard enough.
This perception of an Evangelist and the advice of missionary Friedrich Meier, who wrote the report, were characteristic of both his relationship with the colonial authorities and with “his” Evangelist. In general, the authorities had a need for employees who could read, write and also communicate in German. In 1911, for example, 370 police officers were employed in the colonial police service. At 30 marks per month, they earned almost twice what an RMS Evangelist did. With the existing surveillance system in place, it may have been difficult for Nikanor to evade the authority’s demand for his service in the capital. With his dismissal from the police service, a new phase of his life began – back again in the service of the RMS. Meier continues:
I employed him as an itinerant teacher for the farms. [...] It was not an easy start for him, especially since the work was still completely new. All the more gratefully he accepted every bit of advice and every instruction I gave him along the way. He had to get the workers to work and to get on with the farmers, he also had to work himself. One farmer is said to have commented on Erastus: “This is a man we need. As he arrived, I assigned him to the well – a hard job – for 10 days; but I can tell you, the man made me happy.” He learned obedience, punctuality and he also has grit which he learnt [with the police], and who would have thought at that time that he could use this some time also in our service!
Gustav Kamatoto, the brother of Josaphat, was also active as an Evangelist in the Otjihaënena and Okomitombe collection camps. Through his two year long training at the Augustineum in 1893, he became familiar with the RMS at an early age and later worked for them. During the war, he fled to the Omaheke in a group with his parents, siblings and their children. After days of strenuous treks without food and sufficient water, the group collapsed from exhaustion and lack of water. Gustav was the only one who still had the strength to get up again and search for water. After indescribable efforts, he found someone who exchanged a container of water for the clothes he wore on his body. When he returned to his family after days, all but one small child had died of thirst.
He was taken prisoner and in the detention camp in Okahandja met RMS missionary Eich, who ensured his release and sent him to the prison camp in Windhoek as an Evangelist. From there he joined Diehl and moved with him to the collection camps. His house in the collection camp became the focal point of the battered and torn families – in only the first week of his work, 60 children were found who had been separated from their parents during the flight. Despite or perhaps because of his own near-death experience, he could offer support and new orientation. His daily morning and evening devotions were attended by numerous Christians and non-Christians. The desperate plight of the Ovaherero and his own origins propelled Gustav Kamatoto into an unintended leadership role. The Christian rhetoric and piety, which became part of his personality during his training and work before the war, did not cause any offence in the collection camps, but created another identity with which the listeners could interpret their situation after the war. RMS Inspector Johannes Spiecker who was on a journey through the mission area, described as one of the most moving experiences of his journey, not the service led by the missionary, but the afternoon celebration under the leadership of Gustav Kamatoto:
Sunday [5 May 1906] in the afternoon, the werft residents celebrated the baptism of the two children who were baptised in the morning. The Christians had put together their daily ration and celebrated a common meal in the church, one can say a kind of love meal. Afterwards they sat down together, and Gustav Kamatoto first discussed the sermon of the morning with them, and then they sang one song after another. [...]
Spiecker described the impressive figure of the Evangelist Gustav Kamatoto in the midst of the singing congregation: like a surviving Camel-thorn tree in the torched Omaheke.
After the collection campaign, Gustav Kamatoto returned to work as Evangelist in the congregation. Already in his seventies, he gained great significance in church history by translating the Old Testament into Otjiherero in the 1930s and 1940s together with Kuhlmann.
After the last collection camps were closed, the missionaries were astonished to find that in the military prison camps – which they were mostly forbidden to enter – Evangelists such as Heinrich Ururua in Lüderitz, Sa­muel Kariko in Omaruru or Erastus Jahanika in Karibib had started taking care of their fellow prisoners. It was only after the missionaries had overcome their initial state of shock and accompanying helplessness after the war that they tried to establish contact with the prisoners. Amongst the prisoners were the RMS Evangelists, who proved themselves as indispensable help to overcome the deep mistrust of the prisoners. Emil Laaf, for example, only gained access to the Ovaherero in the two notorious prison camps on the mainland and on Shark Island in Lüderitz through an imprisoned Evangelist like Kariko. The same happened to Vedder when he made use of the help of unnamed Evangelists in the concentration camps in Swakopmund.
At the “fraternal meeting” of the missionaries in October 1905 – the situation was still so confusing, that they did not want to call their first meeting after the war a conference – they assessed the situation: at eight stations there were 14 helpers/Evangelists altogether, which was more than they had expected. However, most of them were still in the concentration camps. Praeses Eich was therefore requested by his missionary colleagues to negotiate with the military command the release of the Evangelists from forced labour so that they might be available to the RMS. It was decided to pay the Evangelists an allowance of 10 marks per month and arrange food for them. On this occasion they also heard that a few men had managed to escape to Botswana or Transvaal or had been able to defect early on, e.g. to work in the mines south of the Orange River.