By Kaleni Hiyalwa
Tatekulu Wilhem Shinima Niilenge “aka” Shelengane was born on 6 April 1894. He is still alive at 113 years and living in a village called Elondo in Uukwaludhi in the Omusati Region in northern Namibia.
Born before the turn of the 19th century at Okalonda village in Uukwaludhi, Tatekulu Niilenge has lived across three centuries.
He is 17 months older than Japan’s Tomoji Tanabe, claimed to be the world’s oldest man who celebrated his 112 years on 18 September, 2007.
Tatekulu Niilenge was among the more than 90 legends of the Namibian liberation struggle who were conferred with honorary military ranks and medals during the Heroes’ Day commemoration on 26 August 2007 at Eenhana in the Ohangwena Region by the President of the Republic of Namibia, Hifikepunye Pohamba.
Tatekulu Niilenge received the honours as one of the pioneers of the liberation struggle of Namibia.
Namibia was engaged in a protracted war against apartheid colonialism that lasted for more than two decades, under the umbrella of the South West African Peoples’ Organisation (SWAPO) – a liberation movement that brought about the country’s independence on 21 March 990.
Tatekulu Niilenge joined SWAPO in 1964 and he was initially involved in the distribution of membership cards and dissemination of information about SWAPO to the local communities. He later joined the South West Africa Liberation Army (SWALA) – SWAPO’s military wing that preceded the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) in 1965 when he was 69 years old.
He received his first military training at Otamazi, specialising in infantry. At 70, Niilenge was part of the group of first fighters who participated in the battle that marked the first step of the armed liberation struggle against the South African apartheid military force at Omungulu Wombashe, in northern Namibia.
According to a booklet: Trials and Tribulations of the Pioneers of the Struggle for the Liberation of Namibia 1960 – 1973, (2007), published by the Ministry of Defence in Windhoek, Tatekulu Niilenge was captured in 1966 and incarcerated in prison in Pretoria, South Africa.
Two years later, he was found guilty under the Terrorism Act in the Pretoria court and sentenced to life imprisonment and banished to Robben Island where South African political icon, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for close to three decades.
Tatekulu Niilenge was released from Robben Island in May 1984 at the age of 90 years, together with one of the living legends of the Namibian liberation struggle, Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, who spent 15 years on Robben Island.
Like most of the men who joined the struggle for independence, Tatekulu Niilenge had worked in the central part of the country.
Tatekulu Niilenge returned to his home at Elondo, from Robben Island, where he reunited with his wife, Petrina Eeru, his children and relatives. His wife died a year later. He had eight children, five of whom are still alive. His last-born child is 18 years old and lives with him at his homestead at Elondo.
Tatekulu Niilenge is a grandfather of more than 20 grandchildren.
When he returned to his motherland, Tatekulu Niilenge began to organise meetings with learners in his community to educate them about the political situation in their country.
Tatekulu Niilenge lives about 8 km from Outapi. The old man is in good health and enjoys eating all kinds of Oshiwambo traditional food such as pap, meat, fresh and dried spinach and drinks the non-alcoholic oshikundu (a traditional soft drink made from a mixture of millet and sorghum flour).
In addition, the family tries to get some fresh food for him from shops whenever they can afford it. Although he has lost memory of some events, friends and members of the community, including teachers continue to seek wisdom from him on the political history of his time.
Mpingana Simon Niitembu is Tatekulu Niilenge’s great grandniece (his sister’s granddaughter). She is 25 years old and is the elected spokesperson of Tatekulu Niilenge. She went to school up to Grade 10 and dropped out due to financial problems.
Mpingana said her great grand uncle enjoys talking about politics. She said he told them stories about his life in the Robben Island prison.
“He told us that they were always stripped naked and showered with cold water at 8 o’clock in the morning and again at 7 o’clock in the evening, before they would be beaten up and tortured with electricity,” Mpingana said.
Recalling the time when her great grand uncle returned home from prison, the family received him with mixed feelings because he was brought home by “Koevoets” in a “Casspir”.
“He was happy and felt so free to greet us but we had doubts because he was brought home by the enemy,” Mpingana noted, adding that “but we realised later that those who brought him home were not happy with him because they harassed him.”
“We welcomed him. He began to talk about politics of the liberation struggle. He told us he was a freedom fighter. He would also talk about members of the family who have died and we did not know them,” Mpingana recalled.
Tatekulu Niilenge is in touch with a few of his old friends and inmates on Robben Island. One of them is Tatekulu Gaus Shikomba. He also talks about his inmates, Toivo Ya Toivo and Kaxumba Kandola. The last time Shikomba visited his comrade was in July this year. During these visits, the war veterans talk about their ordeal in prison and what the Government of Namibia has been doing for them.
Tatekulu Niilenge benefited from a housing scheme of the Government for war veterans, Robben Island prisoners and brutalised persons. The house was handed over to him in July 2006. He survives on the old age pension of N$370, out of which he pays for water and other core needs.
Describing his delightful moment when his honorary military rank was disclosed to him as Colonel, and was presented with his medal, which was brought to him at home by Mpingana who represented him at the Heroes’ Day commemoration, the great granddaughter said the old man was very happy.
“When I came back home from Eenhana, I dressed him up in his military uniform and decorated him with his medals. He kept on touching them and expressing his appreciation,” narrated Mpingana. She said that Tatekulu Niilenge displayed his sense of humour by making a joke as to what would the enemies have called him if they infiltrated the country and found him without a gun. Tatekulu Niilenge often goes out of the hut and sits outside in the sun to feel the warmth. His vision is very blurry.
He has a female cousin who is aged 108 years and lives in her own homestead, attended by her granddaughter. His mother, Naambo Nekwaya and father, Niilenge Kenuukwao, died when he was a little boy. He had two sisters and two brothers who also passed away when he was still young. His second wife, to whom he got married in 1987 and is the mother of his 18-year-old daughter, Julia, died in 2004.
Mpingana remarked that the old man tells the story of his family with sadness. Although he is blessed by God to live long, he feels lonely because his sisters, brothers, wives and parents have all died.
Tatekulu Niilenge is being cared for by his grandniece, 65-year-old Albertine Gebhard, the mother of Mpingana. Gebhard’s four of her five children live with her at home and one of them is enrolled at the Vocational Training College (VTC) in Windhoek.
He worships at ELCIN church at Etambo village. He was baptised by the name Wilhem, while he was in prison on Robben Island.
– This article was originally published in the September 2007 issue of the Government Information Bulletin.