A common history made possible by a remarkable Nama woman who married a German missionary is finally shared by a family from two continents, writes John Yeld.
Cape Town - Half a century ago, a young German boy would lie tucked up in his bed in the evenings, mesmerised by the voice of his beautiful grandmother lulling him to sleep with haunting songs that were full of strange clicking sounds and images of a far-away land.
Last week, the boy – now a late-middle-aged medical doctor from Cologne – stood at a gravesite in that land, on another continent halfway around the world, recalling the songs that were sung by his grandmother, Mathilde, and sharing with his extended family his understanding of the pain she must have endured while singing them.
Because Mathilde was a Namibian of Nama descent, and she had taken her Nama language and songs to Germany so that she could marry across the colour line – an illegal act in her then home country of German South West Africa, now Namibia, because she wasn’t racially “pure bred”.
In 1914, the magistrate in Karibib had refused to marry her to a German trader because her great-great grandmother was the Nama woman, Zara Schmelen.
The “boy”, Mathilde’s grandson Dr Rainer Heller, was speaking at a ceremony in a graveyard in the dusty mission town of Komaggas in Namaqualand, about 50km west of Springbok.
Here, the mortal remains of early 19th century German missionary Hinrich Schmelen lie beneath a tombstone. Next to his grave is a new memorial stone, recently erected to the memory of his wife, Zara, who died en route while the couple were returning from Cape Town in 1831 after checking the proofs of their translation of the Gospels into Nama – the first translation of the Bible into any southern African indigenous language.
The ceremony at the grave was part of a six-day programme commemorating the 200th anniversary of the 1814 marriage between Hinrich and Zara, who is now widely recognised and celebrated as an exceptional Nama woman.
The commemoration was organised by two of the couple’s descendants who both live in Cape Town – Struggle veteran Horst Kleinschmidt and his journalist cousin Kenneth Makatees – and drew members of what is now a large and complex family extending through seven generations. They came from as far afield as northern Namibia, the US, England, Germany and Finland (where some live as far north as a city within the Arctic Circle in Lapland) to join local relatives from Komaggas and other Nama communities in nearby places like Onseepkans and Steinkopf.
One of the overseas relatives who arrived was German literary scholar and historian Ursula Trüper from Berlin, who wrote about Zara in her book, The Invisible Woman.
The commemoration was planned to honour the contributions of Zara and Hinrich, and as an opportunity where different branches of the family that had been apart for generations – sometimes through ignorance, sometimes through secrecy because of racial shame – could finally meet face to face, acknowledge their common heritage and initiate the perhaps very difficult task of reconciliation and understanding.
Heller explained that grandmother Mathilde had been a grandchild of Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt junior, in turn the fifth child of a missionary couple Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt and Hanna who was one of three daughters of Zara and Hinrich Schmelen.
“So Mathilde was a direct descendant, and she planted a dream of Africa into my soul,” Heller said in a moving address at the gravesite.
He explained that, as children, he and his sister Inge had lived with their cousins while growing up, and Mathilde had made a huge impression on them all.
“She was an extremely beautiful woman with this bronze complexion and prominent cheeks. She used to sing lullabies to us in a very strange language, and Christian chorals and godly hymns. And while she was singing she was clicking her tongue, and for us as children it was amazing.
“There were so many times that she sang us to sleep – a deep and happy sleep. And that planted this dream for me to come back (to Africa) for her, because she couldn’t. I’m very touched. Thank you very much for making this dream come true.”
Another descendant who spoke was Namibian Peter Müller, who recalled his very vivid memory as an 8-year-old of standing at a different gravesite, this time in Namibia during the the 100th anniversary of the burial of their great-great-grandfather – also the missionary Kleinschmidt.
Kleinschmidt, who worked for the German Rhenish Missionary Society, had named Rehoboth in 1845 when he established a mission among the resident Nama, but he and his family and all the other residents had been forced to flee in September 1864 when they were attacked by the Orlam Afrikaners (a mixed-race sub-tribe of the Namas). The Kleinschmidts had ended up on the banks of the Swakop River where the missionary had died, Müller said.
“My mother spoke at this (anniversary) event and every sentence had to be translated into Nama and then into Herero. It was a long slow process, but for me as a child, it made a lasting impression. So I’ve known about the (family) connection for a long time, but I only recently discovered that we had cousins and uncles in Namibia. It’s incredibly interesting for us.”
His daughter Anna Müller attended St Paul’s College in Windhoek, and long after she’d left school she discovered that her cousin, Gerwel Uirab, had been in the same grade as she had for two years, although they didn’t share an actual classroom.
“I always knew we had a bit of Namibian heritage, but this was very very interesting, I never would have expected it,” she said.
Anna also discovered that she’d spent five years of high school with two other girls from the Uirab family and had only later found out that they were cousins – “It’s really cool to figure that out.”
Speaking in Afrikaans, Otto Uirab of Namibia told the gathering that he was the fifth generation of descendants of the Schmelens.
“My mother’s name was also Zara, and she was named after Zara (Schmelen). For us to come to Komaggas and to walk where our ancestors walked, it’s very emotional. But in the same vein, we have a happy feeling in our hearts. It’s a very emotional morning here in Komaggas – this is our first visit, and I’m feeling very humbled and touched.”
UCT history professor Nigel Penn, who has a particular research interest in Namaqualand, had given a “brilliant” lecture to a packed community as part of the commemoration, Kleinschmidt said.
“It triggered a heck of a conversation, with people saying ‘We didn’t know this about our history, we didn’t know that about it...’”
However, a forum the following day had been “far more emotional” when participants had tackled a difficult topic – “Truth, acknowledgement, reconciliation and justice – the national objectives of South Africa and the as yet unfinished business and attempts to overcome the past in one family that was divided by colonial and apartheid laws and conventions”.
“I made a long formal statement about why history is remembered, and I spoke of what I needed to acknowledge in terms of my own personal socialisation in my own parental home, where my understanding of black people was diminished by it,” Kleinschmidt said. “It was quite a teary occasion for some people, with some of them hearing for the first time about how whites live.”
The Namibian branch of the family in particular had raised questions, asking through a representative what the aims of the organisers had been in arranging the gathering and “Why now?”, although the representative had also brought a “very reconciling message”, he added.
“It was a conversation about family members talking about their experiences, and we were encouraged by the black members who said to us ‘Your job is to go to those (other family members) who refused to come here and to ask them ‘What is your problem?’.
“That was the challenge that was thrown out.”
The Namibians had also said that while they welcomed the gathering, they believed the “truth and acknowledgement” conversation was too wide and they wanted a tighter discussion with just family members, Kleinschmidt said – “So we want to take that forward, but it won’t be right away.”
Makatees said he had found the commemoration “wonderful”.
While they understood and accepted that not everyone was interested in the issue of family, they believed it was important to try to record the history.
“And we’ve already started talking informally about having some form of foundation, not only for Komaggas but also for the broader Namaqua community.
“The whole history in this country is distorted and it’s distorted here in Namaqualand, and that’s why it was important for me that we should get this (family history written) down and that we tell the story of Zara Schmelen and also the stories of other women as well that aren’t recorded anywhere.
“A lot of the information was written by the missionaries and they had their own interpretation, but there is also the other histories that the Nama chiefs are telling, and that’s not written anywhere. And just talking to people this weekend, there are so many other stories that I didn’t know and that I think should be recorded.
“There is an interest in claiming back this history... The really important part is that the next generation should know this history and what has happened.”