Namibia Digital Repository

The Birth of Missionary Work

Nakambale: The Life of Dr. Martin Rautanen

Matti Peltola's biography of Martti Rautanen, known to the Ovambo as Nakambale

The Finnish Missionary Society (Suomen Lähetysseuran) was founded in January 1859, after a degree by the Emperor of Russia (which was occupying Finland at the time). In addition, the FMS was Evangelical Lutheran in confession, differentiating it from the Russian, Swedish, and German missionary organizations. The society was originally focused on furthering the faith within the borders of Finland, though it eventually started work in China and South West Africa/Namibia. Its endeavors were published in the annual Suomen Lähetyssanomia (Finnish Mission Journal).1

By the 1860s, most of the missionary work in China were abandoned, and it was voted in September 1867 that the FMS would choose Ovamboland (north-central Namibia) as its primary mission field.2 In the early days of missionary work, these first five Finnish ministers, led by the famous Martti Rautanen, joined up with Carl Hugo Hahn of the German Rhenish Mission Society, based in Otjimbingwe, central Namibia. It was not until 9 July, 1870 that the first mission station was founded in Ondonga Kingdom at Omandongo, eventually moved to the more permanent station at Olukonda in 1871.3

The Finns proselytized only in Ondonga until 1903, when several peripheral mission stations were founded in other Ovambo polities: Ongandjera, Uukwaluudhi (1909), and Ombalantu (1925). Because Ovamboland was not formally occupied under the Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika administration, the Finns became the go-to officials within north-central Namibia. The Finnish mission stations became some of the few sites of colonial education in Ovamboland, and crucially, as Meredith McKittrick has pointed out,4 they were sites of security among increased cattle raiding and rinderpest. These stations became gathering points for those Ovambo traveling to central Namibia on migrant labour contracts. Furthermore, these ministers and lay missionaries were regularly contacted by the Germans, and their South African successors for information and statistics on Ovamboland. For these reasons, the archival information, missionary diaries, and published accounts of Northern Namibia by these men and women from the founding of the first mission station in 1870 to the present is voluminous, but highly difficult to access.


1Martti Eirola, Namibiana in Finland: Opas Suomalaisiin Namibiaa ennen Vuotta 1938 Koskeviin Arkistolähteisiin [Guide to the Finnish Archival Sources Concerning Namibia Before 1938] (Joensuu: Joensuun Yliopisto, Humanistinen Tiedekunta, 1985), 51. [LINK]

2Ibid., 61.

3Ibid., 69.

4Meredith McKittrick, To Dwell Secure: Generation, Christianity, and Colonialism in Ovamboland (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002).