Text and photographs Peter Cunningham
Text and photographs Peter Cunningham
O tjimbingwe, located on the banks of the Swakop River and situated strategically on the trading routes of the early hinterland, was the place mentioned by the likes of early explorers such as Andersson, Baines, Chapman, Een and Ericksson. Here battles were fought between the Herero and Nama; trade and ‘protection’ treaties were signed between the Germans and Herero; and one of the earliest mission stations in the country was established. I just had to see it.
Although originally named by the Herero leader Tjiponda as Otjizingwe, from zingua meaning ‘is refreshed’ or ‘a beautiful place’, it was later known as Otjindingwe, followed by Otjimbingwe. The first Rhenish Mission Society missionary, Johannes Rath, settled there in 1849. He initially baptised it as Richtersvelde, although this did not oust the local vernacular. After suffering many trials and tribulations, including the death of his entire family in a shipwreck off the coast on a voyage between Cape Town and Walvis Bay, Johannes Rath could show some success, baptising the first two members of his congregation in 1858.
The luckless Johannes Rath was succeeded by Dr Carl Hugo Hahn in 1864, who set out building a bigger church, which would not only save souls and serve as a weekday school, but also double up as a refuge during warring raids between the Nama and Herero. Consecrated in 1867, there were up to four services on Sundays—Herero, Nama, German, English or Afrikaans—depending on the spiritual needs in the town. This church, although slightly run-down, still serves the local community.
Hahn was obviously a far-sighted missionary and branched into business, establishing the Rhenish Missionary Trade Company, which focused on general consumer goods rather than weapons and alcohol. After continued harassment by Jan Jonker Afrikaner’s men, Hahn’s trading company built a Powder Magazine in 1872, which successfully protected the Otjimbingwe community from further attacks. This fortification was unique in that it was privately built to protect local interests and not officially sponsored.
After Germany established its sovereignty over the country in 1884, the second commissioner (after Gustav Nachtigal) of the new German Empire was Dr Heinrich Göring, father of the infamous Herman Göring, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe during WW II, who committed suicide during the Nuremberg trials in 1946.
Although located on the ‘trade route’, it was typically an eight-day journey by ox wagon from Walvis Bay to Otjimbingwe, which presented its own challenges. Axel Ericksson, another intrepid explorer, explains his first trek from the coast to Otjimbingwe in 1866 as following the Swakop River along ‘wild, desolate, mountainous terrain’ until they reached Otjimbingwe where ‘…there was great jubilation upon our arrival. Men and women gathered around the wagons to greet Mr Andersson and to get a pipe of tobacco.’
Captain Thure Een, another Swede and contemporary of Axel Ericksson, described Otjimbingwe as ‘…situated on a plain on the northern bank of the Swakop River, [it] was now the main centre in Damaraland.’ Johannes Rath described the area as full of wildlife, but following the arrival of traders and hunters, the wildlife suffered fateful consequences. As Thure Een noted ‘…when Andersson and Galton undertook their first journey into Damaraland, they found rhinoceroses and giraffes in plenty at the Swakop River, but now that it is fairly common for the natives to be supplied with guns, they have quite disappeared from these areas…’ Likewise, James Chapman described the situation as: ‘The country was much more interesting in every aspect, enlivened by giraffe, springbuck, gnus, zebras, klipspringers, ostriches and bustards. Late at night we reached Otjimbengwe.’
Dr Heinrich Göring and other officials settled in Otjimbingwe, effectively making it the headquarters of the new German Colony. Otjimbingwe unofficially served as the ‘capital’ of German South West Africa from 1884 to 1890, after which Major Curt Von Francois moved this seat to Windhoek. The establishment of the railway line between the coast and Windhoek in the early 1900s and the relocation of most of the traders to Karibib—located on the railway line—meant that Otjimbingwe fell from favour, as is evident to this day.
Another interesting and historic building in Otjimbingwe is the Old Hotel, which dates back to 1896. With its walls atypically covered in zinc metal sheeting to protect it from the elements, this structure is a unique architectural phenomenon in Namibia. The currently dilapidated and unassuming building was evidently rated as ‘a beautiful and spacious hotel that would live up to European standards’.
Today Otjimbingwe is like the proverbial one-horse town without the horse. Although I don’t know what I expected to find when visiting this derelict place, it was nevertheless a small epiphany. In the shade along the Swakop River, musing the whims of history, I was transported to a bygone era of exploration, memoirs and inimitable magnetism.
This article was first published in the Flamingo March 2011 issue.