The grave of Zara Schmelen lies hidden, somewhere beneath an untidy tangle of renosterveld that covers much of the graveyard at the foot of the Heuningberg on a wheat farm in the Piketberg region, north of the Berg River.
But last week, two dozen red roses placed reverently on the verge of the rough track leading to this historic burial site were eloquent witness to the deep respect and affection that this remarkable Nama woman still commands today, 183 years after her funeral in 1831.
Zara was not exactly typical of her 18th and 19th century contemporaries: she and her German missionary husband, Johann Hinrich Schmelen, compiled the first Nama grammar, inventing a written form of the different “click” sounds, and they translated the four Gospels into Nama, making it southern Africa’s first indigenous-language Bible.
The broad outlines of her personal history are instantly familiar, replicated a thousand-fold in the rich but challenging kaleidoscope of race and culture of this sub-continent.
To hide the “shame” of family relationships across the colour line, stories like hers have all too often been denied by those claiming superior social status due to pigmentation or physical features.
As a result, families have been divided, relatives kept apart, and the role of women has been severely downplayed.
Now, thanks to the determination of some of Zara’s descendants – notably struggle veteran Horst Kleinschmidt of St James, his journalist cousin Kenneth Makatees of Sunset Beach and their German cousin from Berlin, literary scholar and historian Ursula Trüper who wrote about Zara in The Invisible Woman – not only is her story being told and publicised, but it’s also being celebrated.
Last week, members of Zara’s extended family through seven generations from as far as northern Namibia, Oregon in the US, England, Germany and Lapland arrived to join this celebration with local relatives and others in Nama communities at Komaggas, Onseepkans and Steinkopf.
It was the realisation of a dream that had been born seven years before – the dream of a gathering where branches of the family that had been apart from or ignorant of each other for generations could meet, acknowledge their common heritage, and where reconciliation and understanding could start.
Appropriately, it happened during National Heritage Month and just a few days before National Heritage Day, today.
Zara was of Khoekhoen (Khoi) origin, born in 1793 into the Hendriks//Xeigas family who were Namaqua people living in the Bysondermeid/Steinkopf and Pella areas of what is now the Northern Cape, and she spoke several of the Khoe dialects.
In 1814, she married Hinrich who was working in Namaqualand for the London Missionary Society.
He would have been well aware of the social prejudice against mixed marriages at this time, Kleinschmidt explained.
“Such prejudice also existed in the London Missionary Society. In 1817, after he made his explanation, the society expelled him on grounds of ‘immorality’, but in copious letters Hinrich defended himself and eventually the suspension was lifted.”
After some time in Bethanie, southern Namibia, the couple settled in Komaggas, some 50km west of Springbok, where they established a permanent mission.
During 16 years of marriage, Hinrich and Zara collaborated and committed to paper the first written grammar of the Namaqua’s Khoe language.
This enabled them to translate the Gospels and many psalms into Nama.
Zara’s daughter Hanna married another German missionary, Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt, in Komaggas in 1842, and they had eight children.
After Zara’s death, Hinrich remarried, this time to an Elizabeth Bam from Cape Town, whose two brothers arrived in Komaggas to join the missionary venture.
One of them, Christian Bam, married Hanna’s sister Friederika, starting another branch of the family whose descendants include the Makatees family.
Over the following 170-plus years, other marriages and liaisons – some kept secret – saw Zara’s descendants grow into a large and diverse group who are today related to the Weich, Van Reenen, Swartbooi, Cloete, Dixon and Muller families, among others.
Some Bam and Kleinschmidt descendants moved to Namibia where they established relationships with the local Uirab family and with other European missionaries from the Bjorklund and Rautanen families.
Today, the furthest known “geographical relative”, Anu Rautanen, lives inside the Arctic Circle in the city of Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland.
Hanna is Horst Kleinschmidt’s great-great-great grandmother.
He had himself known about Zara since he was a schoolboy, he said.
“But the sad truth is that during most of the intervening years, great efforts were made to hide and deny this link.”
Ursula Trüper discovered the family “secret” on her father’s side when she was about 13.
“My mother, even though she had promised my father never, ever to tell us children, revealed that we had an African ancestor,” she said.
Her subsequent book, based on an investigation into this “invisible” relative that including a search of the London Missionary Society archives, was published in 2007.
Speaking at the launch of Trüper’s book, Kleinschmidt spelled out his dream: “I imagine the Schmelen-Kleinschmidt clan meeting the Hendriks’ clan in Komaggas sometime this year, the 200th anniversary of the union of Zara and Hinrich.”
It was that dream that became a reality last week, with a visit to the graveyard.
At Heuningberg, 9-year-old Anna Makatees, daughter of Kenneth and Valda and the seventh generation descendant of Zara, read a verse from the biblical book of Hebrews – the same text that missionary Zahn had read at Zara’s funeral in 1831.
Speaking at the graveyard, Olle Eriksson, leader of the Finnish delegation that included descendants of Zara and latter-day missionaries, pointed out that Zara’s family would have been standing at a “place of sorrow”.
“We are standing here, 183 years later, not so much mourning, as we did not know Zara personally, but we are standing here thanking the Lord for her,” he said.
“Events of the past and out of history are important, also today and into the future. While living in the present and looking into the future, it is of the utmost importance that we build on the past.”
- The Invisible Woman, by Ursula Trüper, is published by Basler Afrika Bibliographien, ISBN 3-905141-91-4.
The tale of the missionary, his Nama wife and their Bible
Johann Hinrich Schmelen was born in Hanover in 1778, but fled to London to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s army after the French general had conquered the German duchy in 1803.
Arriving in the English capital, he joined the London Missionary Society that had already sent missionaries to southern Africa and into the “wild” territory north of the Gariep (Orange) River.
He was also sent south and landed at the Cape in September 1811, travelling later that year to Steinkopf in Namaqualand.
Here, in 1814, he baptised his first parishioners – one of whom was Zara Hendriks-//Xeigas, whom he later took as a servant when he travelled into Great Namaqualand north of the Gariep in what is now Namibia.
In that same year, somewhere on the plains of Great Namaqualand and in front of a large group of Nama people trekking with them, Hinrich performed the church’s marriage service rituals and declared: “I herewith marry myself to Zara.”
By then they had already had two girls, Anna and Hanna, and would later have another girl, Friederika, and a boy who died young.
It was only several years later that the German missionary sent a letter from their then home in Bethany, now southern Namibia, to his superiors in the London Missionary Society, explaining in a carefully scripted missive the circumstances in which he had come to marry Zara.
The couple’s Nama translation of the four Gospels was finally published in Cape Town in 1831, after several major setbacks.
When they first took their effort to Cape Town by ox-wagon to have the work printed, they found on their arrival that termites had got into the box and eaten the paper of their pioneering work.
Then, when they returned with a new manuscript, the printing had to be delayed for several months while the Bible Society printers had new lead symbols cast in Europe, to represent the “click” sounds of the Nama language.
Finally, in April 1831, the Schmelens were able to set off for home – by then they were living in Komaggas– with their precious translation.
But three days out of Cape Town, Zara, who suffered from consumption (tuberculosis), died at the establishment of farmer Lodewyk Botma at the foot of the Heuningberg, and was buried in a ceremony presided over by another missionary, Gustaf Zahn from the Steinthal mission in Tulbagh.
Her daughter Hanna recorded her mother’s last days: “Towards the end of our sojourn in the town (Cape Town), our dear mother, who had been suffering from a dangerous cough since a long time, became sicker; and when the printer had sent the last sheet and Father and Mother had corrected it, Mother said: ‘Now I am finished my work on earth, now I can die’ (and this she said prophetically).”