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Defying the elements, Felsenkirche (the Church on the Rock) has been overlooking the small harbour town of Lüderitz for exactly 100 years.

The German evangelical church in Lüderitzbucht. Source: 25 Jahre deutsche evangelische Kirche Lüderitzbucht, p. 20 (DELK/ELKIN archive, photo: J.C. Hubrich)

The church is an architectural gem, built onto the granite of Diamantberg (Diamond Hill). Whether the patrons wanted to express that the Christian church is based on the belief in Jesus Christ as firm as a rock is subject to guessing. Probably Saint Peter the Apostle also acted as godfather when Felsenkirche was given its name, because Peter is derived from the Greek word ‘petros’ which means rock or stone.

When Felsenkirche was consecrated on 4 August 1912, Lüderitz was a thriving little town of some 1,100 white inhabitants, most of them German. Diamonds had been discovered four years earlier during construction work on the narrow gauge railway line to Keetmanshoop. Since then Lüderitz had rapidly developed from a modest settlement with a few barracks into a rather prosperous town with a flourishing commercial harbour. Diamond mining increasingly turned into an industry, fortune hunters flooded into the country and Kolmanskuppe was built close to Lüderitz as a result of the diamond rush.

At the foundation assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran congregation on 10 May 1909 the 42 parishioners confirmed their membership in writing. In the months which followed there were heated discussions about the costs of building a church for themselves until the opponents finally gave in to the advocates of the construction project. The church was to become the colonial congregation’s refuge in Lüderitz. On 19 November 1911 the first stone was laid with a ceremony and a prayer service: “(…) We are building this house of worship to bear witness that we have not forgotten what our prosperity and our fortune is based on; that we are aware of our responsibility to provide a haven for the sons and daughters of the German home country where heart and soul look for tranquillity and are able to find peace in God (…).” (Rust, p. 15)

The church was designed and built by German architect Albert Bause. Shortly before laying of the first stone he was instructed to save costs by reducing the overall height of the church and keeping the interior somewhat smaller. Despite the saving efforts Felsenkirche turned out as a formidable building with seating for 140 worshippers. This church has a natural air of exaltedness about it because you always look up at it from below, no matter from which side you approach.

The architectural style is neo-gothic with Victorian elements which Albert Bause probably became familiar with while living in Cape Town before moving to German South West Africa. Total construction costs amounted to 46,000 Goldmark.

A large part of the costs was covered by donations, mostly from Germany, which Pastor Alexander Metzner gratefully acknowledged in his consecration service 100 years ago. By then, within just two years, his congregation had increased to 800 members. “Associations and private individuals have generously provided for us. […] How richly the interior of our house of God is furnished; […] each single piece of the furnishings represents experienced brotherly and sisterly love, from the precious gifts of German princes and benevolent friends of considerable means to the donations which accumulated from small amounts.” (Sörries, p. 38)

Some of these gifts can still be admired in the windswept church today: the large stained-glass window at the altar, portraying ‘Jesus calming the storm’, was donated by Emperor William II. His spouse, Empress Augusta Victoria – colloquially nicknamed Church-gusta – because of her dedication to working for the church – sent a valuable, richly ornamented altar bible with a personal inscription to the faraway colony in southern Africa.    The stained-glass triptych Luther window was donated by Prince Joachim Albrecht of Mecklenburg. At the time he was president of the German Colonial Society which in turn had donated the site for the church.

The generous donors not only provided material support with their gifts but also spiritual support for the colonialists’ difficult mission. Living conditions in the thriving harbour town wedged between the desert and the ocean were tough. Either the sun beat down relentlessly or a storm was howling, flies were a pest and so were sand fleas. In a letter which Pastor Metzner wrote in connection with construction work on the parsonage in 1910 he mentioned that conditions were “the most awkward imaginable,” especially for children. “No water, no milk and subsequently a high rate of child mortality. And given the exorbitant prices a family with many children simply would not be able to make it here (…).” (Kauffenstein, p. 79)

Even though the congregation still had to pinch and scrape, congregational life began to flourish. Soon enough it all came to a sudden end, however, when the First World War broke out in 1914 and German South West Africa was invaded by South African troops. The German colonial troops were outnumbered by far and capitulated in July 1915. Administration of the former German colony was taken over by the Union of South Africa.

The pastor and the congregation were deported, most of them lost all their belongings. Part of Felsenkirche was ransacked. On his return in 1919 the pastor pressed charges for church robbery which came to nothing, however. That year the congregational council took stock and concluded that “as a result of repatriations the congregation suffered considerable losses in membership numbers. Numerous churchgoing public servants as well as many families and bachelors left the country either by force or on their own account. Rampant influenza has inflicted more losses on the congregation.” (Kauffenstein 1983, p. 82)

From 1920 diamond mining shifted further south and Lüderitz increasingly lost its significance as a commercial centre. The town had a modest fishing industry and several boat builders’ yards. There were also a few small carpet weaving mills which used the wool of Karakul sheep, then termed the ‘black gold’ of Namibia’s south. Despite these changes Felsenkirche maintained its exalted position as the landmark of Lüderitz. It witnessed the resistance that the pastor and the church council put up against the instructions received from the National Socialists in Germany, and how the congregation helped internees during the Second World War. Felsenkirche was declared a National Monument on 21 September 1978.

These days the German Evangelical-Lutheran congregation in Lüderitz has some 50 members and is part of the congregation in Swakopmund. A church service is held once a month. The centenary will be celebrated on 19 August.

Felsenkirche is open to visitors once a day for an hour before sunset (16h30-17h30 in winter, 17h30-18h30 in summer). Late in the afternoon the atmosphere is at its best when the setting sun is flooding through the precious stained-glass windows and illuminates the church with glorious light.

The Gondwana History series is a selection of memorable glimpses of Namibia’s history. Collections of the stories are also published as several small volumes in English, German and Afrikaans. The latest one, Gondwana History III, is available since early June at the offices of the Gondwana Collection in Klein Windhoek (42 Nelson-Mandela-Avenue), all the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops.

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With over 2000 columns and more than forty books written, Doc Immelman is a prolific and successful Namibian author.

At the age of 84 years Doc Immelman is writing up his memoirs. (photo: Gondwana Collection)

His subject matter and titles are steeped in the land that he loves and Afrikaans-speakers countrywide have grown up with Doc’s books lining their school library shelves. With names like ‘Ruacana tot Rosh Pinah’, ‘Wind oor die Khomas Hochland’ and ‘Die wit hings van die Namib’, his writing is quintessentially Namibian. Boys and girls have been inspired by his books that accompanied them through high school years like good friends, capturing the mood of the time, and spurring them on their paths in later life. And Doc, at age 84, surrounded in his office by his collection of books, an old map of ‘Südwest Afrika’, elephant tusks, a buffalo skull and old hunting photographs, is still writing. Establishing major turning points in his life is not easily accomplished, as Doc, the true storyteller that he is, begins to tell story after story, so much so that eventually he realizes that if he continues, we’ll be there for supper and although a pot of ‘gemsbok sop’ (oryx soup) is simmering on the stove, there might not be enough to go around.

Peppering his account with humorous anecdotes, keeping everyone entertained with his quick wit, Doc recounts parts of his life. His story began in the Cape, where he was born as Daniel Ferdinand Immelman, only to be nicknamed Doc by colleagues later on. He attended Maitland High School and chose German as a subject, enraging his school principal for choosing the language of the enemy during wartime, and unknowingly preparing for his life in Namibia. His writing ability was realised when he was thirteen years old and a teacher encouraged him to write a poem for an Afrikaans weekly newspaper. This he did and posted it away, amazed at the end of the month to receive a letter with a post order for 7 shillings and 7 pennies. Doc didn’t realise he would be paid for the work!

After completing his schooling with a first class matric, receiving top marks in History and German, he worked as a telegraph operator in Cape Town where he specialised in Morse code. After a bout of pneumonia, he was advised by his doctor to move to drier climes and he moved to Beaufort West in the Karoo where he continued to work at the post office. A few years later, in 1950, he requested a transfer to South West Africa as a telegraph-operating clerk and radio operator in the South West African Administration, Post and Telecommunication – following his dream to travel  – and easily found a replacement, swapping positions with a colleague who couldn’t speak German and was eager to return to the Cape. In 1953, Doc moved to the Tsintsabis area for a year, hunting game for a farmer, where he learnt the language of the Hai//om people. It was his experience and knowledge gleaned there that formed the basis and material of many stories and books Doc would write in his lifetime and increased his love for the natural world.

Doc’s position at the post office in Windhoek was reserved for him and he returned the following year. It was here that he met his future wife, Rya. The couple were later married, had two daughters and like many Namibians, enjoyed numerous family holidays at Henties Bay.

Doc Immelman in younger years with his hunting rifle on a farm. (photo: collection Doc Immelman)

In 1954, Doc’s first short story ‘Ses Dooie Bees langs die Grensdraad’ (Six dead cattle next to the boundary fence) was printed in Huisgenoot magazine, beginning Doc’s career as a fiction writer. His first book, a compilation of short stories entitled ‘Verhale uit Suidwes’ (Tales from South West) was published in 1959. Although his writing career has spanned more than half a century, Doc continued to work at the post office for more than forty years until he retired in 1988. His weekly column appeared in the Republikein newspaper until 1993.

With an intense love for languages, Doc asks us, switching from language to language with lightning speed, if we can speak the various lingos and eventually gives up, disappointed that we are not conversant in the many languages he has learnt to master in his life. With a forest of pens and pencils in front of him, Doc is presently busy writing up his memoirs of a life and work that encapsulates South West.

His work was best described by Andre P Brink: “Through the years Doc Immelman built a reputation as a story teller, stories especially about South West Africa. Stories where passion and contrast are summonsed against a brute and raw contrast. Hunting stories and funny stories, mournful stories and woman stories, snake stories and scary stories, tales of love, hate, jealousy, fraud, resourcefulness, sacrifice and violence, whenever with underlying tension and mostly with a healthy and controlled sense of humour. In the domain of leisure fiction, outstanding!”

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Twyfelfontein: The Fountain of Doubt

Long before the Twyfelfontein engravings became a popular tourist destination and received recognition as a world heritage site, the land was visited sporadically by Damara people watering their animals at the trickling spring (or ‘fontein’ as it’s called in Afrikaans). It was named Twyfelfontein (‘doubtful spring’) by the farmer, David Levin, who settled on the arid land in the late 1940s with the hope that the spring’s water could sustain them.

When he first enquired about the piece of land in north-western Namibia, south of the Aba-Huab River, he was told that no farmer could survive there, it was desert. The Land Board clerk explained that it was his duty to ensure that people did not settle at places where they couldn’t make a living. David argued that although the piece of land with the spring was small, the entire Namib Desert around it lay uninhabited.

Its Damara name was Uiais (spring) and it draw him like a moth to a flame. The year was 1946 and David was passing through Windhoek with his pregnant wife Ella, his two children and his father-in-law, Dirk de Beer. They had travelled from Nuichas in southern Namibia and were en-route to Dirk’s new home in Dobbelsberg. The Levins joined the trek north with their animals, hoping to make their home in the Kaokoveld. The South West Administration had been issuing grass licenses in the Kaokoveld since 1942 but David didn’t have the means to apply at the time, and by the time he did, there were only remnants left that could not be allocated until the land was surveyed. He was upset but ensured that before they departed he received permission to visit the spring to ascertain if there was the possibility of farming there.

The eye of the spring underneath a rock. (source: Michiel Levin)

It was two months before David and Dirk managed to extricate themselves from the demands of Dobbelsberg and travel the 300 km. They investigated the small spring that seemed to be blocked by rock, debated its source and the possibilities of increasing its flow, and camped out in the mopane bush, listening to the sounds of the Kaokoveld – the jackals and the barking geckoes. On their return they visited the farms along the route, organising watering points and overnight stops for the long trek out.

At the beginning of 1947, the Levin family made the journey north-west. They waited at the farm Blaauwpoort while David and his worker went ahead to the spring to prepare for the arrival of the animals. They dug under rocks to increase its flow and excavated a furrow to clay hollows for watering the animals. The family then made their way with their meagre possessions to their new home of bleached grass edged by huge red table-top mountains. They had 230 sheep and goats, six chickens, two horses, four donkeys, a horse cart, a donkey wagon, a square tent and some household items.

The battle for water began. It took careful planning to ensure that animals and humans would survive.  Each animal could only drink every second day, grazing in between. The watering process consumed everyone’s lives. When neighbours visited, Ella would inform them that David was at the spring and every time Andries Blaauw from Blaauwpoort arrived, he would find David on his knees digging. When Andries asked after David’s health, he would inevitably receive the reply that he was well but that he doubted the spring would make it to October when the first rains would arrive. Andries soon referred to him as David Twyfelfontein, David ‘Doubtful Spring’. By the time David had to register a name for the land (he had finally convinced the Land Board to grant him a grass license), the name had stuck.

Ella and David Levin with their children Christina, Susan and Michiel in 1951 (source: Michiel Levin)

For the first few years, all household water had to be carried from the spring, and later from the well to the house, until David was able to connect metal piping. When the family arrived at Twyfelfontein, goods were in short supply after the war and the road to the nearest town of Omaruru was impassable in a horse cart. At difficult times the family learnt how to dig up ant nests and harvest their grass seed stocks. Ella made her own soap from animal fat, baked bread in a clay oven and cooked on an open fire. She continually suffered from health problems.

The Levins main source of income was from karakul pelts sold to farmers’ co-operatives that would later sell them at auctions. Goats were occasionally sold and animal bones and skins were often directly exchanged for flour, sugar, maizemeal and household necessities. When David bought a truck at the end of 1947 and struck water on the farm in 1948, he was slowly able to increase his flock.  The stifling tent was replaced by a reed hut and eventually a house as he made clay bricks and extended the house, room by room. The farm was surveyed in 1952, and in the same year Ella gave birth to twins.

The late 1950s brought years of drought and the family had to take to the road trekking to surrounding areas to graze the animals, moving on when the land was depleted. The Levins’ days at Twyfelfontein came to an end in the 1960s. Ella passed away in 1962 at the tender age of 42. The Odendaal Commission investigated creating a homeland for the Damara people in the Kaokoveld and David and the farmers in the area were required to sell their land. He objected initially but finally relented when it seemed that the fates had conspired against him. He moved to Outjo in 1965 and later on to Piketberg in South Africa. Throughout the rest of his days, however, he yearned for his country, his people and his farm south of the Aba-Huab River – Twyfelfontein.

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Warmbad’s Mission House – the oldest Building in Namibia

Little does the uninformed visitor realize, which fascinating history lies hidden behind the white washed walls of the old mission house in Warmbad. Its old base walls and foundations make this house the oldest existing building in Namibia. Yet, sadly it has never been declared a national monument.

The origin of the old mission house dates back to the year 1808, when the brothers Abraham and Christian Albrecht of the London Missionary Society and a colleague Bastiaan Tromp built three tiny dwellings at this very site. Their mission effort was short-lived though as Abraham Albrecht died in 1810 and his brother Christian had to flee from Warmbad in 1811. Shortly afterwards Jager Afrikaner – the father of Jonker Afrikaner – destroyed the entire station. However, in 1812 the reverend Schmelen found the burnt walls of the houses still intact. The reverend J.L. Ebner, who came to Warmbad in 1818 and built a rush hut inside the burnt remains of Abraham Albrecht’s house to serve as temporary shelter, confirmed this.

Mission house and church of Warmbad in 1876 (Photo: W.C. Palgrave)
Mission house and church of Warmbad in 1876 (Photo: W.C. Palgrave)

In 1834, the reverend Edward Cook of the Wesleyan Mission Society arrived at Warmbad. He immediately set out to build a house on the existing ground walls of the old mission house of Abraham Albrecht. The teacher and mason Peter Links assisted him. The wood for the house was fetched from the Orange River, while the rushes were obtained a day’s journey from Warmbad. By September 1834, a two-storied house, built according to the so-called ‘kapsteilhuis’, had been finished. Typical for this type of home were the massive chimneystacks of the open hearths situated at both ends of the house. The house had two rooms on ground level, while another one – the loft – was situated above a reed ceiling and a thick layer of mud. It was accessible via an external staircase through a doorway in one gable. The directly adjoining remains of the house of Christian Albrecht were soon re-built into a church. The roofs of both buildings were thatched.

As Warmbad was situated on the main wagon road connecting the Cape with Great Namaqualand and areas further north, the mission station became an ideal stop-over for many missionaries, travelers, hunters and scientists. Among the first were Sir James E. Alexander in 1836 and the reverend J. Tindall in 1840. He not only assisted Cook by extending and improving the mission house and the church but also became one of his successors in 1851.

The backside of the old mission house in Warmbad today (photo: Gondwana Collection)

The backside of the old mission house in Warmbad today (photo: Gondwana Collection)

During the Nama war, German soldiers occupied the mission house. When the Dutch reverend Herman Nyhof arrived at Warmbad in 1907, the buildings were in a desolate condition and it took him a long time to repair all the damage. During the First World War, the mission house served as barracks for the Union troops. After reverend Nyhof’s death in 1936 the buildings were, once again, in a sad state of neglect and some of them were so disintegrated that they posed a danger. Part of the mission house – probably the loft – collapsed later and it was resolved to close it. With the exception of a few years during the 1960s, the mission house stood empty and was only occasionally occupied by visiting missionaries and evangelists.

During the course of a clean-up and restoration action in Warmbad in 2005, the old mission house was also upgraded. It is hoped that it will soon find a caring occupant, who will restore it to its former glory and that the National Heritage Council will finally proclaim the building a national heritage site.

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Get the Second Anthology of fascinating Tales from History!

Farmers armed with rockets and rainmaker aircraft, a suicidal groom in the desert, German South West Africa holds its breath at the investigation into an armed robbery at the Kupferberg road… these and other episodes from Namibian 19th and 20th century history will provide guaranteed reading pleasure and information in this second edition of Gondwana History.

Time and again we cross Namibia’s borders: the story of the ever popular Biltong brings us to South Africa, the AK-47 rifle used in the Namibian independence struggle points us to the former Soviet Union and a memorial stone in Aus takes us back to the era of the last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The 25 news flashes from the past in this anthology make ideal travel reading for guests from abroad. Namibian readers will gain insight into little known, sometimes curious aspects of our rich history and culture.

Gondwana History 2

Gondwana History II is available at the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops – in English, Afrikaans and Deutsch. The book can also be ordered from Demasius PublicationsNamibia Scientific Society and Namibia Book Marketing (nambook(at)mweb.com.na).

Gondwana Collection (Publ.): Gondwana History II, Windhoek 2011, ISBN 978-99945-72-54-0 (English), 978-99945-72-56-4 (Afrikaans), 978-99945-72-55-7 (German).

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