Bishop Joseph Gotthardt: A determined missionary along the Kavango River (1880-1963)
22 Jul 2011 - Story by Shampapi Shiremo
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Before 1909, all missionary attempts to get a foothold in the Kavango Region failed to materialise due to a spirited refusal and resistance from traditional leaders and their people. In his unpublished paper, Kletus Likuwa argues (2010) that this uncooperative behaviour and resistance towards the missionaries began around 1883 when English missionaries were refused permission to establish themselves amongst the Hambukushu by Fumu Diyeve.
Despite the missionaries having established themselves amongst many other Namibian communities at the time, the kingdoms along the Kavango remained defiant towards missionary activities which they viewed in similar terms with colonialism and foreign domination.
This defiance reached a boiling point in 1903, when the Kavango Kingdoms were united in repelling Catholic missionaries and other German agents from the region.
This is despite the fact that the German Schutztruppe, led by Lieutenant Richard Volkmann from Grootfontein, were called upon by the Catholic missionaries to punish the Vakwangali under Hompa Himarwa Ithete and his nephew Kandjimi Hawanga zaShikongo whom they accused of treason against the German imperial government.
Despite the recorded six casualties on the Vakwangali side, the fight on the 16 July 1903 had to be quickly abandoned when the Germans faced annihilation as they were about to be encircled.
During this period, contact with Hompa Nyangana of the Vagciriku was avoided at all costs by the missionaries due to his international well-known reputation of being a sworn opponent to missionary and other European agents in his area. However, even though the German Imperial government gave permission to Catholic missionaries to establish Mission Stations along the Kavango River since 1896, this could only materialise in 1910.
Buys & Nambala (2003:121) writes that Father Joseph Gotthardt started his ministry at Grootfontein in 1907, but became well-known after April 1909 for successfully launching the 6th and 7th missionary journey into the Kavango.
Through his influence, Nyangana and Andara missions were established in 1910 and 1913 respectively.
This happened when Father Joseph Gotthardt together with Father August Bierfert founded a station among the Vagciriku of Hompa Nyangana on May 23, 1910.
Increasingly weakened after the Vagciriku-Lishora Massacre of 1894, isolated and vulnerable to foreign attacks, Hompa Nyangana being persuaded by his son Klemens Mbambo invited Father Gotthardt and his team to found a station amongst his people.
The fact that he responded positively to this invitation, despite the known character of Hompa Nyangana within European circles since the 1870s demonstrate the bravery of Joseph Gotthardt as a missionary.
It is for this reason, that one cannot be wrong if Father Joseph Gotthardt is to be called 'the Father of Catholicism' in the Kavango Region.
Partly, it is for this reason that Father Heinz Hunke (1996:18) highly wrote about the pioneer Catholic missionaries in Kavango: "The establishment of the Catholic mission in Kavango, in northern Namibia, is a story of missionaries who were filled with religious zeal and joyful commitment, and who would not fear any danger.
"From the depth of their religious conviction, they fully accepted all the hardship of their mission's vocation and total renunciation of their homeland â€" if necessary, to the point of surrendering their life."
Heinz Hunke (1996:39-49) also credits Father Joseph Gotthardt, a pioneer of the Kavango mission, as the first critic of the dominant colonial and mission model in an article he published in 1923 entitled; 'The awakening of Africa and the duties of the Catholic church.' He analysed the rise of the black freedom movement under the Marcus Garvey slogan, "Africa to the Africans".
With the benefit of hindsight of the crushing of the Bondelswartz revolt in 1923, inter alia, he condemned the way the South African military regime was treating the Africans in Namibia and called for the education of the African masses.
In his article, Father Joseph Gotthardt showed that he recognised the unhappy entanglement of colonisation and mission and thus, he condemned it.
He saw just as clearly the expansion of a racist attitude against the blacks in many missionaries, both men and women, and in the church in general, for example in the USA.
According to John Eugene Brady (1981:193-193) in his Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol. 4, Father Joseph Gotthardt was born on December 16, 1880 at Thalheim, Westerwald in Germany.
He entered the Oblate Congregation at Limburg, Holland, in 1900 and was ordained priest in 1905. His priestly labours began as professor in Oblate Juniorate in Holland but after a few years, he was appointed (1907) to mission workwhich he undertook in various mission stations in Namibia.
After many difficulties, he founded the first mission station at Nyangana, in the Kavango Region in 1910 and Andara in 1913.
When the northern territory was established as a prefecture in 1921, Father Gotthardt was chosen as prefect apostolic, introducing the Benedictine Sisters to do hospital work, while the Sisters of the Holy Cross undertook teaching in the schools. From what had been an almost penniless territory in 1921, Father Gotthardt developed new areas and set up mission stations â€" Oshikuku, the first in the former Owamboland being established in 1924. In 1926, he was appointed the first vicar apostolic of Windhoek.
The progress of the Church during his period of office may be seen from these statistics: in 1921, there were 25 schools and 295 pupils in a total population of only 3 402. By 1950, thee figures had increased to 54 schools and 4000 pupils while the Catholic population had grown to 21 125.
During these years, six hospitals, 13 new mission stations and over 30 churches and chapels had been built.
In 1924, Father Joseph Gotthardt was ordained as Bishop at HÃ¼nfeld in Germany and on his silver jubilee, the Pope appointed him as Archbishop. Father Joseph Gotthardt,
The author of a book, 'Auf zum Okavango' (Let us go to the Okavango) had more than 50 years of selfless active spiritual and socio-economic service to the Namibian people. He only retired on May 20, 1961 at the age of 80. At the age of 82, he died at Swakopmund on August 3, 1963.