The religious world in Namibia has always been dominated by the Lutheran Church, which arrived in the country with the German colonizers. Today, about half of the population is Lutheran. Other denominations are the Catholics and the Anglicans. In the latter days, a number of Evangelical sects and local groups of Christian influence have established themselves. This is why, Namibians think of themselves as a Christian nation. And with less than 10% of the population still following traditional religions, it may seem so. However, people who know Namibian society do not agree wholeheartedly to this description. ‘Namibians do go to Church, but many seem to have weak allegiance to a specific group. They like to move from one denomination to the other. They seem more interested in looking for priests and pastors who agree with their life-vision, more than listening to a message of life that challenges them’, says Sister Maria Lena of the catechetical office of the Catholic Bishops Conference. This means that there is still work to do to help people deepen their faith, and especially to commit their lives to build a just society.
This is one of the aims the Catholic Bishops of Namibia had in mind when they planned the national Charitas desk. They asked Sister Aida Manlucu, a Maryknoll sister from the Philippine, to take up the challenge. ‘The national office of Charitas was opened last February, she says. Before that, I was working at the Women Desk. That office has been expanded to include men’s associations and it has been renamed Gender Desk. I retain the role of coordinator of the family life ministry, which allows me to harmonize the work of Charitas with other pastoral activities. At the moment we are working on capacity building and establishing the structures’.
Meeting her in her office in Windhoek, I ask what the challenges she encounter are. ‘Caritas has two components: the first is relief and emergency response, second come aid for development. When tragedy strikes we must be able to offer relief. However, we cannot work only in case of disaster. Namibia has one of the widest chasms between rich and poor in the world. The distribution of income is not well spread. So the main challenge is poverty reduction. My goal is to promote solidarity among Namibians, so that they can help each other. We need development projects that will free us from dependence on outside funding. Yet, and perhaps most importantly, we need people to recognize that their faith has a practical component, that they have to intervene in society to change a status quo that leads to the poverty of many. In other words, we need to work to evangelize society, to make it closer to the society envisioned in the Gospel’.
So far the response has been good. The three Namibian dioceses cooperate in this program and many lay people from the parishes showed interest in this new project. A good response was also given earlier this year when, during an unusual rain season, six regions suffered unprecedented floods. Charitas went in override to offer some relief to the population. ‘We secured help from some donors – says Sr. Aida – and we asked the local people to identify what they needed most. They met, discussed and asked for food items. We bought and distributed food. People were happy with our intervention’.
Sister Manlucu has organized several capacity building seminars. To be effective, Charitas needs to establish committees in all the parishes and support the growth of people’s capacity to asses needs. ‘The grassroots level – she says – is very important. It is the local population that knows the situation, knows what the needs are, that has the knowledge to develop income generating projects’.
Yet, the work cannot only target local realities, there is need to tackle structural issues that are ingrained in Namibian society as a whole. The Namibian Council of Churches (NCC), of which the Catholic Church is a member, is discussing with the government how to tackle poverty and development. The government recognizes the work of the Churches and their ability to act well in society, also thanks to their presence on the ground. This is why it is willing to channel some of the funds for development it receives through the Churches. If this source will become available, then many local group could tap into it and support small development projects in all the regions.