March 2013, Helsinki: I had the privilege to interview Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland and Nobel Prize Laureate, for my documentary film From Windhoek to Washington. From 1977 through 1981, Ahtisaari was the United Nations Special Representative for Namibia, and eventually the UN Special Representative, directing the United Nations Transition Assistance Group which administered the first free elections in Namibia in 1989, ushering in the post-apartheid period with independence on 23 March, 1990. His work in Namibia and later in Kosovo led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

He began our interview as follows:

If there was ever a place where we [Finland] had a special relationship with . . . it was Namibia. It is remarkable to witness, even today, that when an old teacher is having her 80th birthday party, Namibian ministers who used to be her students come to Finland to honor the person. That’s the sort of warmth and depth of relationship which I don’t think that we have with any other country in the world.”

The Finnish Missionary Society (Suomen Lähetysseuran) was founded in January 1859, after a degree by the Emperor of Russia (which was occupying Finland at the time). In addition, the FMS was Evangelical Lutheran in confession, differentiating it from the Russian, Swedish, and German missionary organizations. The society was originally focused on furthering the faith within the borders of Finland, though it eventually started work in China and South West Africa/Namibia. Its endeavors were published in the annual Suomen Lähetyssanomia (Finnish Mission Journal).1

By the 1860s, most of the missionary work in China were abandoned, and it was voted in September 1867 that the FMS would choose Ovamboland (north-central Namibia) as its primary mission field.2 In the early days of missionary work, these first five Finnish ministers, led by the famous Martti Rautanen, joined up with Carl Hugo Hahn of the German Rhenish Mission Society, based in Otjimbingwe, central Namibia. It was not until 9 July, 1870 that the first mission station was founded in Ondonga Kingdom at Omandongo, eventually moved to the more permanent station at Olukonda in 1871.3

Finnish Missionary Martti Rautanen in Olukonda, South West Africa, 1899

Finnish Missionary Martti Rautanen in Olukonda, South West Africa, 1899

The Finns proselytized only in Ondonga until 1903, when several peripheral mission stations were founded in other Ovambo polities: Ongandjera, Uukwaluudhi (1909), and Ombalantu (1925). Because Ovamboland was not formally occupied under the Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika administration, the Finns became the go-to officials within north-central Namibia. The Finnish mission stations became some of the few sites of colonial education in Ovamboland, and crucially, as Meredith McKittrick has pointed out,4 they were sites of security among increased cattle raiding and rinderpest. These stations became gathering points for those Ovambo traveling to central Namibia on migrant labour contracts.

Furthermore, these ministers and lay missionaries were regularly contacted by the Germans, and their South African successors for information and statistics on Ovamboland. For these reasons, the archival information, missionary diaries, and published accounts of Northern Namibia by these men and women from the founding of the first mission station in 1870 to the present is voluminous, but highly difficult to access.

As anti-apartheid solidarity movements spread throughout Europe, a few Finnish radicals began to revisit the history of Northern Namibia by consulting archival records of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Missionary Society (Suomen Lähetysseuran). In addition, diaries and journals of individual missionaries, such as Martti Rautanen and Emil Liljeblad were consulted as well. Because Finnish is such a isolate language, only related to a few others in Eurasia, these Finnish graduate students found themselves in a unique place. They could write the history of Northern Namibia, primarily Ovamboland, without having to access the Windhoek State Archives, which because of colonialism were off-limits except to individuals with impeccable apartheid credentials. Furthermore, Finnish missionaries such as the Helsinki-trained anthropologist Maija Hiltunen (née Tuupainen) had completed significant oral research during here thirty year mission service in Ovamboland; she spoke fluent Oshikwanyama as well.5


Prior studies of Ovamboland, especially those of the nationalist sort, relied heavily on SWAPO documents and research from the United Nations Institute for Namibia in Lusaka (in addition to oral research among Ovambo in SWAPO refugee camps). Harri Siiskonen, Veijo Notkola, Märta Salokoski, Martti Eirola, and Seppo Rytkönen departed from nationalist frameworks and managed to create in-depth historical studies of everyday life under colonialism; the documents they consulted emphasized this “everyday nature”. Some, like Siiskonen, emphasized labor a great deal, showing the intricate patterns of trading parties and work groups in Ovamboland, noting also socio-economic connections to other regions, especially the Cape.6 Siiskonen’s study of long-distance trade during the late pre-colonial period revolutionized the study of Ovamboland. His data and analysis eventually contributed to his and Notkola’s text Fertility, Mortality and Migration in SubSaharan Africa: The Case of Ovamboland in North Namibia, 1925-1990.7 Many of these scholars were part of the Finnish government funded research project “Cultural and Social Change in Ovamboland, 1870-1915.” This eventually culminated in a conference at Tvärminne, which laid down conceptual and methodological foundations for studying Ovamboland, as well as confronting existing debates over sources, resistance to colonial rule, and the politics of oral history in Ovamboland.8

ovmbo kingdoms cover

Namibian scholar Frieda Nela-Williams received her PhD under Seppo Rytkönen from the University of Joensuu in 1991 for her study Precolonial Communities of Southwestern Africa: A History of Owambo Kingdoms, 1600-1920.9 She focuses heavily on precolonial political issues, and gives in-depth royal genealogies.

Importantly, several Namibians were offered scholarships to universities in Finland during this period, one in particular necessitates mention. Perhaps the most well-known is Ellen Namhila, the director of the University of Namibia Libraries. Her dissertation, on native estate records and post-colonial archival practices, was recently completed at the University of Tampere and will be published by the Basler Afrika Bibliographien.11 A large degree of library science cooperation between Namibia and Finland is large due to her efforts. Her memoir, The Price of Freedom, is a sober, yet inspiring account of the Namibian liberation struggle and life as an exile in Finland.12

By and large, the Finnish contribution to Namibian historiography has been overwhelmingly on Ovamboland for obvious reasons. Some studies, however, such as Siiskonen’s and Salokoski’s give us ideas of Ovamboland’s place in late pre-colonial Namibia. In addition, they note the roles of kings and headmen in procuring labor for the emerging colonial state.13 In the post-colonial era, several Finnish Academics have produced interesting dissertations on non-Ovamboland contexts. Wolfgang Zeller (German, but based in Helsinki) wrote about Katima Mulilo and social dynamics in Caprivi.14 Julia Janis has written critically about the tourism industry in Namibia.15 Finally, Lalli Metsola has completed a dissertation on veteran affairs and the politics of memory about the liberation struggle.16

I have been accumulating and digitizing Finnish Namibiana materials as one of my projects with this Omeka website, and a few more will be completed. Martti Eirola’s dissertation,17 and bibliographic work18 are next in line. I will also digitize a biography of Martti Rautanen, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church.19 Kari Miettinen’s dissertation on Christianity will follow.20 Finally, I will be scanning the pilot study report of the 1983 Joensuu research project “Cultural and Social Change in Ovamboland, 1870-1915.”21


I had the opportunity to visit Joensuu, in eastern Finland, in August 2015 for a week of long reading, long writing, and long walks in the woods. The ultimate working holiday. I spent an afternoon with Dr. Harri Siiskonen in his office at the University of Eastern Finland (Yliopisto Itä-Suomen), talking about Namibian studies and different projects he and others were working on. He provided me with copies of some of his books and articles, including a very interesting text on Forestry in Namibia.22 He also provided me with copies of a finding aid which he and a few colleagues drew up regarding archival sources and publications on Namibia available in Finnish archives and Libraries. I have digitized this source and am putting it into the “Finding Aids” collection in the Namibia Digital Repository. Hopefully this can help others find out what is available in which archives.

The eternal questions remains, though, regarding these sorts of sources: Tiedätkö miten puhua Suomen kielen?

Visit the Namibia Digital Repository in the next week or so for a Neatline exhibit of Finnish Namibiana materials digitized in the NDR. URL:

1Martti Eirola, Namibiana in Finland: Opas Suomalaisiin Namibiaa ennen Vuotta 1938 Koskeviin Arkistolähteisiin [Guide to the Finnish Archival Sources Concerning Namibia Before 1938] (Joensuu: Joensuun Yliopisto, Humanistinen Tiedekunta, 1985), 51.

2Ibid., 61.

3Ibid., 69.

4Meredith McKittrick, To Dwell Secure: Generation, Christianity, and Colonialism in Ovamboland (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002).

5Maija Hiltunen, Witchcraft and Sorcery in Ovambo (Jyväskylä: Suomen Antropologinen Seura, 1986).

6Harri Siiskonen, Trade and Socioeconomic Change in Ovamboland, 1850-1906 (Helsinki: Soumen Histoiallinen Seura, 1990).

7Veijo Notkola & Harri Siiskonen, Fertility, Mortality and Migration in SubSaharan Africa: The Case of Ovamboland in North Namibia, 1925-1990 (London: Palgrave, 2000).

8See Harri Siiskonen (ed.), Studying the Northern Namibian Past, research seminar in Tvärminne, 2-4 December 1985 (Joensuu: Joensuun Yliopisto, Humanistinen Tiedekunta, 1986). Particularly Siiskonen’s summary of the panels, pp. 107-119.

9Frieda Nela-Williams, Precolonial Communities of Southwestern Africa : A History of Owambo Kingdoms, 1600-1920 (Windhoek: National Archives of Namibia, 1991).

11Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, Recordkeeping and Missing “Native Estate” Records in Namibia: An Investigation of Colonial Gaps in a Post-colonial National Archive (Tampere: Acta Universitatis Tamperensis, 2015).

12Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, The Price of Freedom (Windhoek: New Namibia Books, 1995).

13See Märta Salokoski, How Kings are Made, How Kingship Changes: A Study of Rituals and Ritual Change in Pre-Colonial and Colonial Owamboland, Namibia. Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 2006). Salokoski had been working on her PhD for over twenty years.

14Wolfgang Zeller, What Makes Borders Real : In the Namibia-Zambia and Uganda-South Sudan Borderlands (Helsinki: Department of Political and Economic Studies, 2015).

15Julia Jänis, The Tourism-Development Nexus in Namibia : A Study on National Tourism Policy and Local Tourism Enterprises’ Policy Knowledge (Helsinki: Department of Political and Economic Studies, 2011).

16Lalli Metsola, Reintegration as Recognition: Ex-combatant and veteran politics in Namibia (Helsinki: Department of Political and Economic Studies, 2015).

17Martti Eirola, The Ovambogefahr: The Ovamboland Reserve in the Making – Political Responses of the Kingdom of Ondonga to the German Colonial Power, 1884-1910 (Rovaniemi: Studia Historica Septentrionalia, 1992).

18Eirola, Namibiana in Finland.

19Matti Peltola, Nakambale: The Life of Dr. Martin Rautanen (Windhoek: Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, 2002).

20Kari Miettinen, On the Way to Whiteness: Christianization, Conflict and Change in Colonial Ovamboland, 1910-1965 (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2005).

21Martti Eirola, Seppo Rytkönen, Harri Siiskonen, Seppo Sivonen, The Cultural and Social Change in Ovamboland, 1870-1915 (Joensuu: Joensuun Korkeakoulu Historian, Maantieteen ja Muiden Aluetieteiden Osaston Julkaisuja, 1983).

22Antti Erkkilä and Harri Siiskonen, Forestry in Namibia 1850-1990. (Joensuu: Joensuun yliopisto, Metsätieteellinen tiedekunta, 1992).