Who are the unsung heroines of Namibia, the women of substance that we can look up to with reverence, respect and amazement at the very mention of their names?
This is a one-million-dollar question that needs a common yardstick to realistically measure the achievements of Namibian women who have moved mountains… the women of substance.
In our attempts to find the true woman of substance, we forget that she could be a neighbour who goes out of her way to offer companionship, help or just comfort you with a friendly smile when you need it most.
She could be a teacher, a police woman, an artist, a musician, a mother, a social worker, a sportsperson, a veteran, a fire-fighter or a health worker, who has gone the extra mile to provide public service for years. Perhaps she is your cleaner, or nanny, who is invisible like your own shadow in the house.
But women of substance need not to be known. They are often unsung heroines, ‘ordinary’ women who do extraordinary things but are often recognised and fully appreciated only by those closest to them.
Of course, these ‘ordinary’ women are not really ordinary at all. They are women who stand up to be counted. They are the women who go out there and correct an injustice as a commitment to look after the vulnerable members of their community. Here are some of the top ten attributes of women of substance:
- She is a woman of power and positive influence and therefore a role model to the youth.
- She is normally someone who follows her heart and never gives up on her dream.
- She is a woman who inspires, motivates and energises you to do something significant in the world.
- She is emotionally balanced and spiritual, but not necessarily religious. Wise, but compassionate, well-read and educated and a lover of art in its many forms.
- She is a woman of extraordinary courage and is sometimes fearless.
- She is well-travelled, either globally or regionally, but doesn’t see herself as a tourist.
- She surrounds herself with beautiful and meaningful things and there is a peacefulness inside her that draws others in around her.
- She is financially prudent, but still gives to charity.
- A woman of substance values her family relationships, which are built through the hard and good times and she does not quit when things get rough.
- Her children respect her for her kindness and firmness. She tries to spend time with her children and be there for their school and extracurricular activities.
For those who have not come across such a woman, Namibia has many women of substance, whose biographies can fill a national library. But the IUM Voice has selected only four of Namibia’s women of substance for this edition to explore and celebrate them.
The motif behind this story is to explore their experiences in order to motivate, inspire and energise IUM female students, who desire to follow in their footsteps.
We want to get to know the source of their courage, depth of their personality and the cradle of their wisdom. I have selected the following women for this weekly column: Otilie Abrahams, Dr Libertine Amathila, Virginia Namwandi, Gwen Lister, Johanna Benson, Bience Gawanas, Nora Schimming-Chase, Dr Becky Ndjoze-Odjo, Lady May and Kovambo Nujoma.
Otilié Grete Abrahams, an educator par excellence
Ottilié Grete Abrahams (née Schimming) was born on September 9, 1937 at Windhoek. Her parents were Otto Ferdinand Schimming and Charlotte Schimming, née Freiser. She received her primary school education in Windhoek and attended secondary school at the Zonnebloem College in Cape Town, South Africa.
She matriculated from the Trafalgar High School in Cape Town in 1954 and obtained a BA degree and a Higher Primary Teacher’s Certificate from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1961.
She joined the SWA Student Body as a founding member in 1952, which was reconstituted 1955 as the SWA Progressive Association (SWAPA) to campaign for improved “black” education facilities. Its newspaper, the South West News, was banned for its nationalist content in 1960.
She became a member of the Cape Peninsula Student’s Union and joined the Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC) in 1957 and Swapo in 1960. In 1961 Ottilié Schimming married Kenneth Godfrey Abrahams.
After the completion of her studies in South Africa, the couple moved to Rehoboth in 1962, where Kenneth opened a medical practice, but Kenneth later decided to go into exile and the couple then settled in Lusaka in Zambia, where Abrahams practised as a medical doctor and Ottilié taught at Chizongwe Secondary School and Lusaka Girls’ School.
Political pressure eventually led to the couple’s migration to Sweden, where they lived until 1978. While in Sweden Ottilié continued her university studies. She obtained a MA degree from Stockholm University in 1974. However, she did not complete her Ph.D. thesis at Stockholm University (1974-1978).
In 1985 – shortly before Namibia’s independence, she became the director of Jacob Marengo Tutorial College in Khomasdal. She was also active in the Namibia Nationhood Co-ordinating Committee and a member of the Namibian Educational Forum (NEF). After the Namibian independence she did not play a prominent role in Namibian politics any more.
An interview with Abrahams
This gallant lady does not care much about whether it is morning or night. She can get up with a smile, knowing that her work motivates her to be joyous about what she has achieved the previous day, as an incentive to tackle what she could not achieve the previous day. She believes that there is purpose in all our actions, which is why she is optimistic.
“I’m optimistic about life, but get slightly frustrated by seeing our youth not taking opportunities that have been availed to them through our hard-won-struggle. We did not have these opportunities when we were growing up.”
What is it that she fears she did not achieve?
“My fear is fear itself, because if it catches up with you, you become helpless. How can I fear anything besides God, if we could confront the mighty South African brutal police force without arms to defend ourselves during the early stages of the struggle?”
Abrahams, a social democrat, feels that some of the theoretical models that they used to debate as students in Sweden with the likes of Neville Alexander, Moses Katjiuongua and many others, could not be ‘wholesale’ applied to the Namibian political context.
Her failure might have been to package all the social democratic principles that she learned in Sweden with the intention of piloting them on Namibia. “This was not possible. Namibia, as a society recovering from the deep scars and ravages of a brutal political system presented a totally different context from what we learned at the university.
“This is why what I could not complete my PhD dissertation… with the practical experience that I gained hands-on [I realised] you need to gain the experience I have now before enrolling for a PhD, not the other way round.”
As long as the theories learned at university are alien to conditions on the ground, the degree will not make any dent in changing society. As an example, communities in southern Namibia were not only affected by destitution, but by lack of inspiration to adapt to the brutalities of an apartheid system that has robbed the southerners of their soul and livelihood.
But as soon as she introduced self-reliant agricultural and women’s projects, the community reception of her ideas inspired her as the architect of the intervention to be more committed to rehabilitation projects. This had a spiralling effect. As far as she is concerned, the South presented a ready-made fertile breeding ground for communalism and socialism.
“Of course, I kiss Kenny for his birthday. Our relationship dates back to the day when I was 18 years old at a university in Cape Town. Our lives are intrinsically and intellectually linked, so that there is almost nothing that we could plan and do without talking.”
Otillié grew up in Windhoek in a household in which discipline was the main value that they preached. Every child in the house does something that mom does not like. Things like stealing mom’s sugar, sneaking out in the evening to play with other children, missing out on classes… some of the mischief associated with childhood.
But Otillié liked to play football with the boys and that made her become physically and mentally tough and ready to fight them. She did not shy away from “a good fight” against any boy during the football games.
Her father told her never to be intimidated by bullying boys. But just like all the cheeky girls at that tender age, she would once in a while sneak from home and return late. “My father would not miss the chance of giving me pakslae for that!”
What is it that Namibians know most about her?
“Jacob Marengo Tutorial College in Khomasdal.”
Although this is all she could say, there are many people out in the community who know both Otillié and her late husband Kenny for their big hearts. Their philanthropic life and love for ordinary citizens have made them stand tall as a couple of substance.
Many people can testify to the free medical treatment and free education that this couple have offered, even before such services were pronounced “free” by government.
Even though they decided to take a low profile far from the limelight, as has been their manner, their good deeds will speak volumes.
Ottilié Abrahams is indeed a woman of substance.