Ulla Pirkko Nenonen – longest serving missionary of our times


Some people live for others, sacrificing good opportunities and enduring hardships in order to make others better off. Ulla Pirkko Nenonen, who died on March 9, is one such person.

Born in Kuusankoski, Finland, on March 31, 1933, she received secondary education at Imatra High School where she matriculated in 1954. She pursued tertiary education, graduating with a Master degree in Theology from the University of Helsinki in 1960. Like some other young Finnish ladies of her time, she left the luxuries in Finland and set for Namibia, then South West Africa. Upon arrival, she studied Afrikaans, a colonial language in use by that time and started working at the church print shop. She subsequently went to teach at Okahao Teacher’s Seminary, and later Ongandjera Secondary School, from 1963 to 1979. From 1980 to 1982, Nenonen taught at Oshigambo High School.

In a twist of academic versatility, the Helsinki-educated theologian ventured into teaching mathematics, and believe me, wonders never ceased to happen. She performed to the level of excellence. While many teachers would eagerly wait for school holidays to take a break from books, pens and chalks – and not to mention troublesome learners – Nenonen was not your teacher to go for holiday picnics and joy rides. She cared so much about her learners that she would forego countless holiday leisure in order to have extra classes for her learners. What a call for duty, what a commitment. 

From 1983 to 1993, Nenonen served as liaison secretary between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN) and the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM). The position of liaison secretary was previously chief missionary and the holder was, therefore, the head of all missionary workers in Namibia. It was a position of trust only given to persons that possess exceptional leadership qualities. Nenonen was the first woman to be entrusted with such responsibilities more than 100 years after FELM came to our country. It is further worth noting that the liaison secretary was a member of the ELCIN Church Council and quite powerful, ranking the fourth highest in the order of precedence, after the Bishop, Assistant Bishop and General-Secretary. Yet, Nenonen was never overwhelmed by the prestige and power that came with the position. She came forth as an ordinary servant of the Lord and unassuming church envoy. She espoused humbleness and lived a life of a modest leader.

Nenonen got along well with people and had completely assimilated in the Namibian society. Illustrating this is the fact that many parents turned to her to be a godmother of their innocent cute babies. I further observed her on a number of occasions travelling from Opuwo, where she settled in 1994 after her retirement, to attend funerals in northern Namibia, demonstrating a strong bond of friendship.

This soft-spoken woman was the embodiment of selflessness, voluntarism, and was true to her calling. She lived in Opuwo for 11 years translating the Bible for the Ovazemba people. It is while serving there that I last met her in 2012. Though ageing, she was formidable as she has always been.

Nenonen served in Namibia for 54 years, the longest-serving Finnish missionary of our times. In the history of FELM, she is second only to the indomitable Reverend Martti Rautanen, affectionately called Nakambale, whose dedicated services lasted for 56 years. In fact, she had expressed a wish to remain in Namibia, in order to die and be buried here, and be raised from death together with Namibians who were very dear to her.

What is in a name? Ulla is a Scandinavian name meaning wealthy. Pirkko means high goddess. Though she was not wealthy in terms of material possessions, Nenonen was wealthy in terms of the fruits of her labour. A countless number of her learners are making a meaningful contribution to the socio-economic development of Namibia. Like ancient goddesses, Nenonen was revered and held in the highest esteem by many, but spare her the idolisation. Her track record speaks volumes and her dedication to church service inevitably elevates her to sainthood. She will forever be missed in our midst. Menee hyvin! Olet onnistuneesti päättänyt kilpailun!

* Dr Peya Mushelenga is the Minister of Urban and Rural Development and a Member of Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.


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