The late Aaron Shihepo, pictured at a time he served as Swapo deputy secretary of foreign affairs during the Swapo Consultative Conference on Namibia’s independence held at Kabwe, Zambia, October 1988.
Birth brings new arrivals whom we grow to know and like. Death robs us of friends and loved ones. The celebrated life of Aaron Shihepo started on October 17, 1939 – the year 1942 that appeared on his documents was adopted in 1964 to secure a scholarship when Swapo sent him for tertiary education.
While it is not customary for me to write about the accomplishments of people close to me, I have to break tradition in the present case, lest part of Namibia’s history remains untold. I am paying tribute to an unassuming man, but great in deeds – Aaron Shihepo.
His peers called him Mbwalemwene, meaning ‘the great one’. Yet, he remained humble. Natural arrangements that I have no control over attached me to him. Mbwalemwene was the youngest brother of my beloved mother.
Our common denominator was, therefore, the blood of my grandfather, Reverend David Shihepo, affectionately known as ‘Nadihokololwe’ and the umbilical cord connecting us to my grandmother, Mukwaudimbe Eva Tomas, affectionately known as ‘GwaNakoonde’, whom I will henceforth refer to as tatekulu and kuku, respectively.
Mbwalemwene’s debut in Namibian politics came early on. Tatekulu had an elder sister, Elina Ndatala Shihepo, after whose death her son, Joseph Mateus, well known as ‘Joburg’, was brought up by tatekulu. Joburg had a friend, Herman Ya Toivo, now Honourable Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, with whom they started political activities and established businesses in the north.
With the two politicians as tatekulu’s homeboys, his family inevitably became Swapo members at its inception in 1960. Two years later, in December 1962, Mbwalemwene left for exile and found his way to Dar Es Salaam, Tanganyika.
Following the successful completion of his studies in the USA – a BA degree (1968) and a Master of Public Administration degree (1970) from the University of Syracuse, Mbwalemwene was appointed deputy chief representative of Swapo in Algeria from 1971 to 1973.
In that role he deputised former president of Namibia Comrade Hifikepunye Pohamba, whom I would like to thank on behalf of the family for the true camaraderie and support he showed during the mourning period and throughout to the funeral, demonstrating statesmanship.
From 1973, Mbwalemwene was appointed chief representative in Algeria. In 1976, Mbwalemwene was elected member of the central committee of Swapo and deputy secretary of foreign affairs, positions he held until independence, when he was appointed as a member of the Public Service Commission.
During his tenure as the longest serving deputy secretary of foreign affairs, Mbwalemwene oversaw Swapo’s diplomatic contingent comprising 27 diplomatic missions. He attended sessions of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on more than 10 occasions and further attended meetings of the UN Security Council, arguing the Namibian case before the international community.
Similarly, he attended summits and ministerial conferences of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on more than 25 occasions. Other meetings include ministerial meetings and summits of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the General Conference of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), meetings of the Association of Western European Parliamentarians for Action Against Apartheid (AWEPAA) and of the Socialist International, among others.
Mbwalemwene further accompanied then president of Swapo Comrade Sam Nujoma on numerous missions, soliciting international solidarity and support for the cause of Namibia’s independence. He also served as vice president of the Afro-Asian Solidarity People’s Organisation (AAPSO) for four years.
Mbwalemwene was part of the seven-persons team appointed by Swapo to negotiate with the Western Contact Group on the question of Namibia’s independence. Other members were Comrades Sam Nujoma, Theo-Ben Gurirab, Ngarikutuke Tjiriange, Hidipo Hamutenya, Kapuka Nauyala and Greenwell Matongo.
There, Mbwalemwene demonstrated his abilities and exceptional aptitude as a seasoned diplomat, launching calculated diplomatic strikes, shrinking over-sized giants of the West and levelling them to the ground from his coordinated angle of attack.
He was also instrumental in drafting statements for the negotiation rounds and numerous UN resolutions on Namibia, including the oft-quoted UN Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978.
Mbwalemwene’s unassuming character, unruffled disposition and encompassing attributes exemplify a true freedom fighter, whose sole purpose was to liberate his country and never concerned himself about his contribution to Namibia’s independence.
In life and death he remains a composed leader, an accomplished diplomat and, above all, an unassuming man, but great in deeds!
During his exile days, Mbwalemwene remained in constant contact with tatekulu. Bishop Leonard Auala, who travelled abroad on many occasions served as their emissary. When tatekulu visited Finland in 1970, Mbwalemwene travelled to Helsinki to meet with him to receive political boost – for tatekulu was both a clergyman and freedom fighter, who together with Reverend Vilho Kaulinge, testified against the flogging of political activists with makalani branches, in the case of Wood and Others v Ondangwa Tribal Authority and Another 1975 (2) 294 (AD).
Following the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 435, Mbwalemwene returned to Namibia on September 14, 1989 aboard the same flight with the then president of Swapo, Comrade Sam Nujoma, after spending 27 years in exile. The rest is history.
Regarding his personality outside politics, Mbwalemwene since his childhood days loved nature a great deal. Tatekulu and kuku told us as a child Mbwalemwene was fond of playing with ants. His house in Windhoek was an attraction to birds that he generously provided with food. At one time he kept a turtle, which he fed with lettuce and greens.
Growing up tending tatekulu and kuku’s cattle, Mbwalemwene also loved and owned cattle. The mention of cattle reminds me of Mbwalemwene’s traditional praise-song that tatekulu fondly called him: “Waimbudu wa kanif’ onhana, we i dimbwa komalondo, we i yongola to kande”.
God did not promise honey always sweet, milk always white and diamonds always shining. This giant of a man both in terms of physical stature and liberation credentials was not to be in our midst for ever. We thank God for his celebrated life.
Go well son of the soil! Till we meet again!