The first missionaries to reach Namibia were from the Anglican London Mission Society coming from the Cape region of South Africa. They operated in southern Namibia at the beginning of the XIX century and were soon joined by Lutheran Missionaries. Missions became trading posts and meeting places, and had an ambiguous role during the wars against the local population.
Catholic missionaries arrived in December 1896. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were allowed to minister among the Europeans and among Africans not reached by a Protestant Mission. The first expansion was at Klein Windhoek, and at Swakopmund. After 1905 they were allowed to open stations among the Herero and Damara. The Kavango area was reached in 1910 and Owambo in 1924. From 1948, the apartheid legislation imposed by South Africa negatively affected the mission work of all the Churches. In turn, the Catholic Church took a very definite stand in favour of human rights in the 1970’s and 1980’s, favouring independence.
Today, the Catholic Church is present with the Dioceses of Windhoek and Keetmanshoop, and the Vicariate of Rundu. According to the last census, 90% of the population are Christians, 65% are Lutherans and 25% Catholics. Anglicans and Evangelical Churches are a minority. There is a fair movement from one denomination to another, especially in the urban areas. “There is still evangelization work going on. However, most of the pastoral work is concentrating on catechesis and following the life of the communities. We run many schools, and youth ministry is also important”, says Father Bernard Afunde, Vicar General of Windhoek.
Sr Maria Lena works at the Catechetical office at the Episcopal Conference. “My work is to train catechists – she says – and provide them with the resources they will later share with the people they work with. At the moment we follow children and students, from next year we shall start a few programs for adults. All our catechists are volunteers, all of them work part-time. This is a value in so far people take responsibility within the community. On the other hand, it means that there is much turn over. The negative consequence is to start training of catechists all over every year. In our classes we tackle the liturgical year, the basics of faith, we give specific workshops for each sacrament, and so on. Because of the distances, I usually organize meetings in a central parish, where catechists from neighbouring parishes can also attend”.
The Church is also committed in development and social issues. Besides the work in the health and education sector, the Churches are engaging the government on poverty relief strategies. In one pilot project, the Churches offer a minimum income to all. Each family receives Namibian $100 per month (approximately £10). The first results are positive. People live better, have better health and food. Also local business increased, as the new income is used to purchase mainly food sourced locally. The government recognizes the value of the project, but refuses to adopt a similar strategy nationwide because they do not see this as a valid solution to poverty. “We agree this is not the solution, but we know it helps”, says Father Afunde.
Namibia is one of the countries hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The virus arrived in the 1980s. By 1995, it had become a major health issue. By the early 2000, the Church had a very organized program on the ground. Health facilities distribute antiretroviral medicines to help people to live reasonably healthy lives. Creating awareness is another approach. In all health centres people can watch videos on HIV/AIDS, access to counselling and follow courses on health and prevention.
The Catholic Church in Namibia runs 4 district hospitals, 5 health centres, and seven clinics throughout the whole country. “All together we have 880 employees, 10% of whom work for the HIV-AIDS program – says Sister Angela Bock , director of the Catholic Health Services – which makes us the largest health services provider in the country, after the government. Where we have facilities the government is not present, or it is starting a presence only now. The government is very committed in this field and subsidizes our structures. The government supports the running budget, and we have to find the funds to run programs and outreach activities not contemplated by the government. We never turn down anyone, and we work for every person who comes to our structures. Yet, at times, it is difficult to cope with all the requests”.
“Our Church is moving towards self reliance in terms of human resources, says Father Afunde. Missionaries built a Church solid in its structures. It is our duty to continue. We cannot betray the work done in the past”.