Scheppmannskirche – the church in the desert

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Text and Photos by Andreas Vogt

Turning off the airport road between Walvis Bay and Rooikop, after some twenty kilometres, you reach the water-extraction station of Rooibank, where Walvis Bay and Swakopmund obtain their drinking water. About one kilometre before Rooibank, on the top of a hill on the right side of the road, is a small church. What is the story of this church that was built right in the middle of the desert?

I n 1845 the Rhenish missionary, Heinrich Scheppmann, founded a mission station at Rooibank. This first stopover for ox-wagon traffic lay along the route from Walvis Bay to Rehoboth in the interior. It offered grass, wood and water, all scarce commodities in the Namib Desert and for many kilometres into the interior. Although missionary Scheppmann was active for barely two years (1845–1847) before succumbing to fatigue and exhaustion, his name will always be attached to the former mission station under the huge palm trees near Rooibank.

It was also missionary Scheppmann who built the first church in Rooibank. Measuring only 18 by 12 feet, this tiny building constructed from reed and wood was built in only four days and inaugurated on 28 June 1846. A small church bell from Cape Town was fitted into a huge ana tree close by. On 13 December 1846, the first Holy Communion was celebrated in the new mini-church. Attended by only seven people, it was nevertheless the beginning of the parish of Walvis Bay.

Missionary Heinrich (1818–1847) had left Germany at the age of 26. Since he had died from exhaustion only two years after his arrival at Rooibank at the tender age of 29, the board of the Rhenish Mission in Germany decided to name the new mission station Scheppmannsdorf in his honour. The original monument was washed away, but in 1971 was replaced by a new monument, which can be seen under the huge palm trees. The name Scheppmannsdorf, however, didn’t stick, and the settlement was renamed Rooibank.

After his death, the mission work continued unabated. His successors were missionaries Jan Bam (1847–1856), Engelbert Krapohl (1857–1859), Simon Eggert (1859–1868), J P Baumann (1879–1883), Johann Böhm (1881–1904) and J A Schaible (1904–1921). From 1921–1928 the Rooibank parish was administered from Swakopmund. Carl Schmitz (1929–1953), Walter Kuhles (1953–1965) and Walter Moritz (1965–1972) were the most recent missionaries in Rooibank.

It is also interesting to note that the first printed item saw the light at the former mission station in Scheppmannsdorf/Rooibank. During the period of missionary Jan Bam in 1855, the Lutheran Catechism in the Nama language was printed here under the initiative of missionary Franz Heinrich Kleinschmidt (1812–1864). Kleinschmidt and his wife had joined missionary Bam after serving a spell in Rehoboth. This humble Christian publication was the first item to be printed in Namibia.

In 1895 the old church had decayed so much that a new church had to be built. It lasted until 1953. By then, the roof had collapsed and builders and visitors used its remains as firewood. Its final collapse signalled the end of the history of the old Rooibank.

As a result of the growth of Walvis Bay during the 1960s, Rooibank was developed as a water-supply station. This included a new settlement for its workers. The inhabitants of the new settlement and the Rooibank Topnaar parish put in a request for a new church building. A stand for the new church was identified and the church was inaugurated in August 1970. It was named Scheppmannskirche (Scheppmann’s Church) after the founder of the original mission station at Rooibank.

Ever since this small sacral building, etched against the picturesque backdrop of the dunes south of the Kuiseb River in the middle of the Namib, has served the Topnaar communities living along the Kuiseb as a church. To the east it has wooden panelling reminiscent of the first wooden churches at Rooibank, the forerunners of Scheppmann’s Church. A small wooden cross on its eastern gable, suggests that this is indeed a church, as does the rudimentary bell tower in the form of four poles, welded together and carrying the original bell.

Rooibank Community Chairperson, Rudolf Dousab, points out that because of its unusual location, the peculiar little church has served as a special wedding venue for many young couples, some even from abroad. Inside, it sports a few wooden benches and a wooden table serving as an altar. A large, yellow-tainted glass window on the northern side allows subdued light to flow into the church, giving it a festive and sacral atmosphere. But it is the six Romanesque-shaped stained-glass windows on its southern and northern sides that arouse a visitor’s interest most, since they seem somehow out of place.

They are an interesting little relic for lovers of Namibian cultural history and our built heritage. Just before Scheppmann’s Church was built, the Christuskirche in Windhoek underwent major renovation and upgrading. Not only was the altar section revamped and fitted with wood panelling and the altar, baptismal font and pulpit replaced, but a ventilation problem was solved by replacing the lower sections of the top and all the bottom stained-glass windows with yellow louvres. Thus the original stained-glass windows were fitted into Scheppmann’s Church at Rooibank, where they can still be viewed today.

All in all, after 36 years of uninterrupted use, Scheppmann’s Church is still in fine shape. However, due to the proximity of the sea, and as a result of the harsh desert climate, some of the stained-glass windows have suffered and are in need of restoration. Considering these stained-glass windows were originally a gift from no one less than the German Emperor William II to the German fledgling parish in Windhoek in 1910, these almost hundred-year-old artefacts are indeed quite extraordinary. They, and the unusual church they adorn, have survived in the desert for almost forty years.

This article was first published in the Flamingo January 2006 issue.

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