Toivo Kalliokoski, also known as Ambambi by those he grew up with at Onandjokwe, became an internet sensation after a video of him speaking Oshindonga fluently went viral. He spoke to Managing Editor Toivo Ndjebela about his life story.
Where and when were you born?
I was born at Onandjokwe in January 1975. I am a mbushe (namesake) of late Tatekulu Toivo Ambambi, who was also my godfather. Ambambi was an Owambo man, who was baptised as a young boy by Finnish missionaries and worked at Onandjokwe until he retired.
What is the history of your family?
In the 1960s my father, Seppo Kalliokoski, was active in congregational youth meetings and met my mother Ritva at Johannes Parish in Helsinki. Seppo was very interested in missionary work, especially in Owambo, as he came to know a missionary kid, who had been in Namibia, as well as several Namibian scholarship students. These Namibians often visited Ritva and Seppo’s new home after Ritva and Seppo got married 50 years ago. Ritva was studying medicine at that time and finished her studies in 1970. Between 1970 and 1972 the Kalliokoski family lived in Finland and prepared themselves for missionary work in Namibia.
They were sent as temporary missionaries for only two years. After a few months of Oshindonga language school in Ongwediva they moved to Onandjokwe and started to work at Onandjokwe Hospital, Ritva as a doctor and Seppo took responsibility for hospital buildings (construction and repair), electricity (Onandjokwe power-plant), water, water-purifying plant, refuse disposal, the hospital’s cemetery, ambulance service, Onandjokwe mill and gate-keeper service. Both Ritva and Seppo used only Oshindonga language in all situations and had good local advisors or nurses to help through all situations.
The temporary two-year working period lasted for 17 years. Two children had moved to Finland for high school already earlier, but Ritva moved back to Finland with the rest of the children (Toivo and Eija) in December 1989 after the elections and Seppo stayed until February 1990 to help at refugee reception camps. The whole family celebrated the first Independence Day in Helsinki on the 21st of March 1990.
The years 1972-1990
The number of Finnish missionaries was high in the early 70s, but declined rapidly as there was not that much need for Finnish nurses, teachers and pastors anymore. Also the political situation was unstable
During the years 1981-1986 the Kalliokoski family was the only Finnish family in Namibia.
The three children went to the FELM Finnish School in Swakopmund and the youngest stayed home at Onandjokwe.
The hardest years started perhaps in 1978 when travelling became more and more dangerous and the number of doctors declined at Onandjokwe. “Kuku Ritva” was the only doctor for long periods, getting some help from military doctors and short term doctors.
To be on call 24 hours, seven days a week and taking care of six wards and over 100 clinic patients per day, especially during malaria season, was hard for her, not to forget all the babies that were delivered and the operations done.
Also the nurses had a hard time then, having tasks that should have been done by doctors. Onandjokwe doctors were also captured for long periods (except Ritva), which was one of the reasons that the workload moved onto Ritva’s shoulders, not to forget the mental stress, as her close colleague was in jail.
All the prayers were heard and she got new strength for every morning and could stay until Independence was around the corner. Onandjokwe is still a very special place for the whole family, as it was so important not to give up.
What do you remember about your childhood in Namibia?
I remember a lot. One very special moment to me was when I was about to start school in 1982. My mbushe Tatekulu Ambambi bought me a bicycle. He wanted to buy me a bicycle and he did. To me it has been a huge and overwhelming act of love.
Those days it was a lot of money to spend on a “white” kid, whose parents were both alive and working. He never saw me as white and that’s why I have not either. Ongame Omundonga omutiligane. (I’m a white Ndonga).
Being born here to Finnish parents, what is your current nationality?
I am Finnish. I have a Finnish passport, which has Onandjokwe as my birthplace, and I have a plan to apply for a Namibian passport too.
Tell us about your school/academic journey
Before school age I remember going to Oniipa School, along with my friends, Penda and Josef. They were older than me and were going to school and I wanted to go with them. The teachers allowed me to participate, even though I was not officially a pupil and I did attracted a lot of attention from the other pupils.
I started school 1982 in Swakopmund. The Finnish missionaries had established the Finnish Private School in Swakopmund in the early 1950s. Teaching was done in Finnish with school books from Finland. When I started school there, we were only three learners altogether – myself, my big sister Susanna and my big brother Juha.
Our family was the only missionary family in Namibia from 1981 to 1986.
In December 1989 I was forced to leave Namibia when my family moved to Finland. I did not want to leave my country, or my friends at the time, but I was 14 years old and had no other choice but to follow my family. In Finland I finished my grades 8 and 9. It was very easy to continue the studies in Finland, because the whole teaching system was the same as in Swakopmund.
After Grade 9 I enrolled at the vocational school where I was for three years to get a certificate for panel-beating and one year to get a certificate for metal painting (car painting).
How did you learn Oshiwambo?
I learned Oshiwambo from Aawambo, because I spent my early childhood among them. My mother was a doctor and for a long period of time she was the only doctor in Onandjokwe, that’s why she was working 24/7 and I was taken care by Meme Suoma, who was a caretaker in our family. Meme Suoma is my mother. When I was not with Meme Suoma I was playing in the neighbourhood with the neighbour’s children.
What domestic chores, especially those of Oshiwambo culture, did you do as a child growing up in Onandjokwe?
When I was little I did not have many chores at home, except from looking after my father’s cattle with my siblings and our friends, and later on as a teenager I was working at my father’s farm. Because my brother Juha and I did not have so much to do at home, we often went to our friends’ homes close to Onandjokwe to participate in their home chores, like okulitha iikombo (goat-herding), okutsa iilya (pounding millet), okuteya iilya (harvesting) nokuyungula (threshing).
Did you study Oshiwambo as a subject in school, and if yes, how was your performance?
No, I have never studied Oshiwambo as a subject. Until I moved to Finland my Finnish language skills had been poor, because as a child I spoke Finnish only with my parents and the teacher in the Finnish school. I spoke Oshindonga even with my siblings.
How do people, especially Aawambo, react when they see you speak Oshiwambo?
Aawambo ihaya kala yahala okushitaambako kutya ”oshilumbu” otashipopi Oshindonga. Uunene ohaya limbililwa shaashi oaksenta yandje oyOmdonga, kayishi yomuhongi ngaashi Aawambo yiigilila Aasoomi taya popi. Aantu mba kayeshi ndje nale ohandiya thigi nomalimbililo yo ihaya kala yahala ye ethendje ndi tsikile noondjila dhandje [Oshiwambo speakers find it difficult to accept that a white man is speaking Oshindonga. They get even more confused by my accent, which is purely in Oshindonga without any links to the Finnish language. Those who’ve never met me before are often left in awe and get so hooked on me they wouldn’t want me to continue doing what I was doing].
How did society, especially people in the Onandjokwe area, accept and treat you as someone of a different race, who speaks their language?
I have been treated very well my whole life in Onandjokwe and everywhere. It does not matter where in Namibia I am, but when I speak Oshiwambo everybody accepts me as one of them.
What do you currently do for a living?
I own and run a company, named Vantaan Kiinteistöpalvelu Oy. It is located in Vantaa (next to Helsinki). It is a maintenance company. We have multiple duties, like cleaning, lawn-mowing, snow work etc. I have 12 workers working for the company.
Tell us about your immediate family (wife and kids)
I’m married and we have two kids. My wife is Margaleth ‘Meekulu’ from Oniipa. Her brother, Mazepa, is one of my closest friends since childhood, so I’ve known my wife also since childhood. We got married in Oniipa church in 2001.
Osheeli shandje oye Suoma, ndemulukila Meme Suoma ngu aputudha ndje nonkelo oye Toivo Ambambi Jr., ndemulukila mbushandje Toivo Ambambi ngu nangame ndalukilwa [My first-born is Suoma, named after my childhood caretaker Meme Suoma, and my last-born is Toivo Ambambi Jr, named after the man who I was named after].
When last did you visit Namibia?
The last time I visited Namibia was in May/June this year. I travelled with my father.
Apart from your family, do you have any Namibian friends in Finland?
There are only about 70 Namibians altogether in Finland. I do not know them all, because they are spread around the country. We Namibians have started our society, called Namibians Living in Finland, and I was chosen as one of the board members.