About the San of the western Okavango region of Namibia in the late 1950s and early 1960s
Jantunen, Tuulikki
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Author: Tuulikki Jantunen
Translation: Krista Sands
Original Finnish title: Pähkinänsydän
Namibia Scientific Society (NSS)
Windhoek, 2004
ISBN: 99916-40-20-7 (Namibia)
ISBN: 3-936858-65-9 (Germany)
Soft cover, 15x21 cm, 170 pages, 20 bw-photos, 3 maps


Kernel tells about the San (Bushmen) of the western Okavango region of Namibia in the late 1950s and early 1960s - a period when the education system was being extended to include these earliest indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa.

As a young teacher in 1949, the author, Tuulikki Jantunen, had moved to Namibia (then known as South West Africa) from her home country, Finland, to teach in the Okavango mission fields - a stint of work which continued for over thirty years.

In Kernel we are introduced to a small San community living according to its own rules of behaviour in the settlement of Mpungu in the Okavango region.

These people, formerly hunter-gatherers, now face a new cultural phase. Following the example of their neighbours, they have become sedentary farmers and have sown their first seeds.

However, they do not want to abandon their nomadic way of life entirely and cannot bear to remain in their fields for long. They have to get back to the forest now and then. Some also want to go to school and the mission station offers them the opportunity to do so.

It is this stage in the history of the San community that the author describes. There is no other written information about the San at the applicable time and place, thus Kernel is a new and valuable source for research into the cultures of Namibia.

The book is also a fine read. It provides a personal and expressive description of the life of the community and conveys a humane close-up picture of San culture. Through it also the San will lie able to obtain new knowledge about their own background and cultural heritage. The publication of the book in English by the Namibia Scientific Society is a commendable cultural deed.


Finland has a long historical and special relationship with Namibia. The first workers from the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission arrived in the northern part of Namibia as long ago as 1870. During the Namibian struggle for independence, Finland provided humanitarian, educational and other aid for refugees through the national liberation movement, the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO). Many Finnish civic organisations likewise demonstrated their solidarity with Namibia's cause.

The Government of Finland supported Namibian independence through diplomacy at the United Nations. This culminated in the operation of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia in 1989 under the leadership of Martti Ahtisaari. Since achieving independence in 1990, Namibia has been one of the main beneficiary countries in Finland's development cooperation programme.

Over the decades Finns have done surprisingly much ethnographic work in Namibia, usually through participative observation. Some of the earliest observations of Namibia which have been preserved were made by the Finnish adventurer H.J. Wikar, who spent several years among the Nama tribes in southern Namibia in the 1770s.

From the outset of their presence in Namibia, Finnish missionaries colleted and published ethnographic data, mainly in the Ovambo and Okavango regions where they worked. The first of the missionaries whom I should mention is Martti Rautanen, who spent 56 years in the country and kept a diary that is nowadays of inestimable value.

Other names deserving mention are Toivo Tirronen, Erkki Hynonen and Terttu Heikkinen, the latter two having conducted particularly detailed studies of San culture. Unfortunately most of the published material is thus far available only in Finnish.

An interesting detail is that Finnish peacekeepers under the direction of Dr Martti Eirola conducted an ethnographic study of the village of Mupapama in the Okavango region during their stay in Namibia in 1989. The study is a good example of the strong tradition of cultural co-operation between Finland and Namibia.

Numerous artefacts reflecting the material culture of northern Namibia have likewise been collected and preserved for the enjoyment of the wider public and posterity Since the last century missionaries have brought many objects to such institutions as the Finnish Missionary Museum and the National Museum. The Nakambale Museum of Eicin, which was built with Finnish support, was opened at Martti Rautanen's old mission station in Olukonda in 1995 and is a popular destination for tourists and school groups.’

From the first chapter:

The jeep jolted up from the deep ruts of the sandy forest track and took a sharp turn to the left. From the back noises were heard of shifting baggage, women's squeals, children's laughter, and the fatherly, reassuring voice of Erastus. Then, as the landrover proceeded to cross the grass savannah smoothly and at a noticeably greater pace, came the sounds of increasingly enchanted twittering, lip smacking and clacking.

The elephant grass, taller than man, bent under the wheels so that Martta, the driver, always had a clear view two to three metres ahead, but it bounced up again behind us with hardly a stalk broken. One would have to hear an oncoming car to avoid a collision on this road, I thought.

From the air or from a tree our journeying must have resembled the progress of a stubborn motorboat in a viscous sea of light yellow ochre. But the big, heavy-winged tree-dwellers were startled to flight before they had time to form any clear opinion of us, and the greedy vultures eyed us from such height that we could not see them at all. Apparently our jeep seemed too full of life in the cold, bloodthirsty eyes of the scavengers.

Martta must have had similar, though slightly more sensible thoughts. She remarked that the village of Zone was visited very seldom, only twice or three times a year, sometimes from Mpungu, sometimes from Nkurenkuru, Zone being situated between the two. The few inhabitants had migrated from both directions, but the 20-kilometre deviation from the main track made the village distant.

Maila sat next to me in the cabin, looking at the scenery with delight and curiosity. Her cheeks were of an enviable pink hue, and she had not lost one bit of her North Karelian freshness during her three months in Africa.

"My, what a great field our Erastus has", she laughed. "Did you, Martta, think that this jeep was a combine harvester? It seems to me that the blade is a bit rusty."
Martta laughed but kept her eye on the road, which I could not even see. A driver in Africa often needed the scenting ability of a Bushman to find and follow a track.

Martta was a bit worried about us. Sure, we had taken some food from Rupara, and in Nkurenkuru we had added a big drum of water, but still.... Besides, as a pharmacist Martta had made sure that Maila's medicine box contained everything necessary from malaria medicine to snake serum.
"Whatever you do, don't settle in a Bushman hut", Martta cautioned us. "Just about every one of them has tuberculosis, not to mention everything else. Moreover, our standard of living might arouse some envy. Let people live their life in peace."
Maila and I had planned to take up the Bushman life as much as possible, but we kept quiet about this. In any case, we had to get there first by car to start our new life.

The ochre sea of grass gave way to a forest of acacias. The road under us was softer and Martta changed down to second gear. A thorny branch drew blood from my elbow. I wound up the window and had a look at the back while doing so. Our passengers had gathered in a tight group in the middle. Women protected their faces in their hands.
"Are you scared?" I shouted.
"Aue, not us men. The women are a little", Erastus answered, and Hiskia's laughing voice added, "Why should we be afraid? The trees may bite a little but they won't eat us up."
I shut the window completely, and my eyes as well.

Martta had come to Rupara yesterday afternoon to fetch us: the four students of my private school and myself, the teacher. Erastus, Hiskia and Elia had attended my veranda school, called the "Bushman seminary" in jest, since the end of February. Being grown-up men it would not do for them to start in the first class with the black children, but their knowledge and skills did not warrant a much higher grade. When Maila, who had arrived from Finland just three months before, was sent to me to learn the Kwangali language, she gladly accepted my suggestion to come and join the Bushman school.

The method had its advantages: young Bushmen, though they knew Kwangali from childhood, did not speak it in such a torrent, unintelligible to the new arrival, as the Kwangalis themselves. They hammered the words separately, but the language was no easier for them than for us. Quite to the contrary, since it was far from their own clicking mother tongue.

Besides, the teaching dealt with simple matters, repeated over and over again, and this was easy on the ear of the uninitiated. Quite an advantage was also the cheering effect that the presence of the always jolly, attractive Finnish lass had on my pupils, who often missed their families. They treated her with the benign superiority of a big brother - after all, she could not even talk yet - until one day Maila surprised them by proving to be the most advanced reader in the class. It was also astounding that she never had to attend the writing and arithmetic classes, yet her pen always moved much faster than theirs and she was able to find a hymn amongst the tangled jungle of numbers in the hymn book faster than any one of them. When they realised this, the little sister became "Nane Maila", Mother Maila, and everybody looked forward to the time when she could talk without a book.

There was no chance for complexes or frustrations to develop in the school, because just as freely as Maila and I expressed our opinions about the three little men, they clicked out their impressions of us, neither party taking offence. We all enjoyed ourselves hugely.

When I announced that the season for threshing had come, the pupils were overjoyed. They were already homesick for their wives, their children and their whole clan. I promised them a full month of holidays, beginning and ending at the same time as the holidays of the boys' school. On the following day they asked that the holidays be postponed for a while. I could not understand this, as the day before they had been very eager to leave. That was so, they explained apologetically, but they did not know our month and would not know when it would start and end. Their moon, which is up in the sky, is dead now. If they would start their journey when the new moon was born, they would know to return when it died. Indeed, they did not have any other calendar.

Maila and I discussed the problem, and suddenly it dawned on us: we would go along. I had dreamt of doing this for a long time, and now there was a reason to realise the dream. Maila was enthusiastic too. [...]