WINDHOEK – Uerita Johanna Gertze was born some time in 1937 – the actual date of her birth is unknown, but is presumed to have been in September – at Otjimbingwe.
In his account of Gertze, Dr H. Vedder wrote in his report of the Rhenish Missionary Society entitled ‘Uerieta Eime Schwartze Frau’ (meaning Uerieta, a black woman) that when she was asked about the date of her birth, she responded: “In the year when the English captain JE Alexander came to this country with his ox wagon and visited the Herero.” Alexander, she said, never came as far as to visit the Herero, but only got as far as Rehoboth. Her parents are only known as Kazahendeke and Kariaavihe of the Ovatjimba Herero, called so because they were “the poor ones struggling for their livelihoods” and victims of Jan Jonker’s and Tjamuaha’s taxation policies.
This group was among the people who populated the first missionary stations of the area and became retainers or followers of the missionary, wrote researcher Brigitte Lau in an abridged version of the ‘History and historiography’.
The young Gertze joined the household of Rhenish missionary, Carl Hugo Hahn, around 1848 or 1849 as a servant in Otjikango. There, Hahn founded a missionary called New Barmen, or Great Barmen, or simply also just called Barmen.
“That means that Johanna’s work in the Hahn household, right from the start, was a question of survival and not choice,” asserted Lau.
Hahn was a pioneering missionary, trader, coloniser and Herero linguist originally from Russia, who was sent to South Africa after he was ordained in the Rhenish Missionary Society.
He is considered as one of the most written about missionaries in Namibia’s history. The missing links from his story, suggested Lau, were the contributions of Gertze and his wife Emma.
“Yet so competent and talented were these two that his achievements are unthinkable without them,” said Lau. According to available records, Gertze soon learnt to speak English fluently that she learnt from Emma, and developed a profound knowledge of German that she picked up from Hahn.
She also learnt how to sew and hem, and later helped Emma as a seamstress and teacher of a sewing class of 40 by 1850.
This, according to Lau, was no small feat and could be attributed to Gertze’s arrival in the Hahn household.
Hahn had started classes in 1846 with “seven or eight” children.
“For five years of work this is not exactly a proud record,” wrote Lau, and continued: “Yet a few months after Johanna’s arrival on the scene, Emma’s sewing school numbered 40, with more applicants being turned away!”
For the next eight years, not much of Gertze is recorded, which Lau said was an unfortunate omission because of her presumed role in helping Hahn “apparently” pioneering classification of Herero as a Bantu language and “also in his impressive Herero-German dictionary”.
Hahn was recalled to Germany in 1852 to discuss his “so far rather futile” Herero mission, said Lau.
“Staking out his claims to what he probably saw as his future, be mobilised all his resources to complete a draft grammar and dictionary of the Herero language before leaving for Germany,” wrote Lau.
This was during the time that Hahn’s children were ready to enter school. Gertze, with no reason provided – and who by then was fluent in Herero, English and German – joined the family on an ox wagon trek southwards to Cape Town.
Hahn, wrote Lau, had then collected information for his main argument during a sojourn to Cape Town before he departed to Germany. There, he “apparently” had interviews with a large number of slaves from Central and West Africa.
But, suggested Lau, the “combination of facts” of this time suggests that Gertze’s language proficiency skills “would have enabled Hahn to draw up his grammar, that is, that the sole scholarly and linguistically noteworthy work by Hahn, for which he was awarded his honorary doctorate in 1873, must also be attributed to her (Gertze)”.
Some of the distinction for the dictionary, said Lau, ought also to have gone to a fellow missionary, Rath, who had produced two draft dictionaries of 718 pages at Hahn’s disposal.
More should have been said about Gertze, argued Lau, for her outstanding work alongside that of Emma during their stay in Cape Town.
When the Hahn family moved to Germany in the middle of June in 1853, Gertze remained behind alone at a mission in Stellenbosch for a few months longer, before returning to Namibia with Rath.
She then ended up at Bethanie where she worked for a missionary for four years, with whom she had a fallout. Her father went to fetch her to go back to her parental home in 1857. During her time in southern Namibia, Gertze had become proficient in Nama and Dutch.
To Hahn, who had returned to Namibia in 1857, Gertze became “indispensable” in his language studies for the next two years, and this while she continued working in his household and helping out in teaching younger children at his school.
Gertze also became Hahn’s first Herero convert to Christianity. She was baptised on July 25, 1858, and then re-named Johanna Maria. In 1859, Hahn was again recalled to German, possibly for good.
Hahn left in 1860, and almost immediately produced nine Herero books, which he published in 1862.
Gertze, who had joined the Hahn family in Germany, was sent back to South Africa with some completed draft Herero translations.
“It is astonishing that neither Hahn nor his wife ever mention the fact that Johanna helped Hahn in Germany to produce those nine books,” wrote Lau, who suggested that Gertze’s language skills were the very reason why she was asked to join the Hahns in Germany.
Moreover, suggested Lau, Gertze joined Hahn on mission journeys where he advocated to be returned to Namibia. Gertze, said Lau, although this was never acknowledged, was “being paraded in front of the German peasant crowds, a visible fruit of the successes of Hahn’s Herero mission.”
The result of these mission journeys was that Hahn had collected 2 000 thallers for an evangelical training institute in the then Hereroland, and on top of that secured long-term funding.
Gertze, who had been taken along to Germany while she was sick, and had worked on Hahn’s language projects, his mission work, as well as a housekeeper while there, later recalled her stay there: “Germany is a beautiful country, but only for those who are born there. Those who are born in Africa should rather stay in their own country.”
After Hahn had completed his language work, Gertze was sent back to South Africa on her own, and stayed with a mission family in Cape Town. She was only able to return to Otjikango in 1862.
In 1865, she married Samuel Gertze and raised his eight children from another marriage.
According to Lau, Hahn arranged this marriage.
During her 15 years of marriage to Gertze, she bore her own nine children.
She remained at Otjimbingwe after Samuel died, and worked there as a full-time mid-wife and pharmacist from the mid-1890s.
She died on July 3, 1936, at Otjimbingwe.