Missionary work has turned Finns and Namibians into sister nations
Even forenames have echoes of Finland
By Jenni Frilander and Jukka Harju
In former times, people in Namibia believed that heaven was in Helsinki. The reason for this was the fact that Martti Rautanen (1845–1926), the first missionary to Ovamboland (now Northern Namibia), came from Helsinki in 1870.
Since then, the relations between the two countries have become more realistic.
However, Namibia has sometimes been referred to as Finland’s colony, describing to what a great extent Rautanen and other Finnish missionaries in Namibia - as well as the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari as the UN Special Representative - have contributed to setting up the Namibian society and its subsequent independence.
Another fact bearing witness to how close the cooperation has been is that the most commonly-found first names in Namibia include a large number of Finnish names, with Martti being the most popular.
”We have had a strong desire to come to Finland, a place that has brought us happiness”, says Immanuel Elifas, the King of Ondonga, a region in Namibia.
It is difficult to imagine that there might not have been any missionary work in the country.
”Then we could not read and write, and we would not have a saviour”, says the king’s spouse Secilia Elifas.
”Without missionary work we would not have become an open country that can come into contact with other nations”, she adds.
The greatest challenge faced by today’s Namibia is the HIV/AIDS epidemic pestering the country.
Nearly one-fourth of the people are infected with HIV. There is still room for education.
Ignoring the disease just encourages its spread, notes Seppo Kalliokoski, who has been working as a missionary in Namibia for nearly 20 years.
”Young people do not believe that there is any risk, claiming that they are just being told not to have sex”, Kalliokoski says.
Because of the epidemic, more and more churches are being built in Namibia.
”We keep praying that God would help us”, Secilia Elifas says.
The royal pair were in Finland last week, attending the annual Mission Gathering in Tampere between June 5th and 7th.
BACKGROUND: 150 years of Finnish Lutheran missionary work
In 2008, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM) had about 165 missionaries working in 22 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
The Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs has embassies in 77 countries, with a staff of 594 persons.
Even though the representation of the Foreign Ministry clearly outnumbers that of the church, the scope of missionary work could still come as a surprise. If one sticks a pin in each country with a mission, the entire southern hemisphere is largely covered.
Moreover, the church’s work has much longer traditions than does that of the Finnish diplomatic missions abroad.
FELM, an official missionary organisation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, was established in 1859, and the first missionaries arrived in Ovamboland (now Northern Namibia) in 1870. The founding meeting and the first missionaries thus date back to well before Finland gained independence - a special dispensation was sought from the Russian Czar - and well before Finland even had a Foreign Ministry, let alone diplomatic missions abroad.
The year 2009 marks the 150th anniversary and a jubilee year for FELM.
The organisation has sent abroad more than 1,500 missionaries. The organisation also has a YouTube channel of its own, on which it has started distributing its movies free of charge.
The operations of FELM are financed by the Finnish congregations. Some 30 per cent of the income comes from private persons, offertories, and other collections. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs supports development cooperation.
But what is the result? How many people has FELM managed to convert to Christianity? ”The word ’convert’ is totally banned here”, says Director for Communication Eeva Kemppi-Repo with a laugh.
”After we have served people with the Gospel, they are completely free to make their own religious decisions”, she notes.
Kemppi-Repo points out that the purpose of FELM’s activities is also to improve people’s living conditions.
Helsingin Sanomat / Edited from an article first published in print 6.6.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Ahtisaari emphasises role in ending apartheid (26.1.2009)
A reference to pioneering missionary Martti Rautanen on Namiweb
The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM)