7 December 2012

Namibia: Life in the Name of Liberty

CHILDREN are blissfully enjoying themselves on the playground. Suddenly a deep rumbling sound fills the air.

Several warplanes fly low over the camp. Children, women and staff immediately run for cover under the nearest trees.

They all know the drill and respond in a calm and disciplined manner. The rumbling sound is not followed by an explosion or gunfire – thank heavens. But what if the planes come back? The chief physician, a petite but energetic woman, decides to evacuate the camp. About 10 000 women, children and elderly people move into the thicket of the forest for a week.

This happened in 1976 at the Nyango Health and Education Centre in Zambia, situated between the capital city Lusaka and the Angolan border. Thousands of Namibian refugees found shelter there during the armed struggle for independence. The doctor in charge was Dr Libertina Inaaviposa Amathila, who worked in several refugee camps before independence and became known as ‘Meme Doctor’. A name which she couldn’t possibly have dreamt of in her childhood.

She was born Libertina Appolus on the 10th of December 1940 in Fransfontein, north of Khorixas. Her mother wanted to name her Liberty, but the priest advised her to use the more feminine Libertina. She was raised by her Herero grandmother whom she loved dearly and had great respect for. Her grandmother was a very caring woman. After church she visited the elderly and the sick, bringing them food and keeping them company.

In Standard 1 (Grade 3) Libertina moved to Otjiwarongo where she attended Augustineum Primary School and lived with her mother and stepfather. When she was about 13 her mother fell ill. Without examination by a doctor she received treatment which had no effect. At around the same time one of her teachers broke his leg. A few days later he died in hospital because no doctor had attended to him. It was then that Libertina decided to become a doctor.

She attended Augustineum High School in Okahandja with the likes of Hage Geingob, Ben Amathila and John Ya Otto. Since high school ended with Standard 8 for Africans, Libertina enrolled at a high school for ‘Coloureds’ in the Cape Province of South Africa. But science classes, the prerequisite for studying medicine, were not offered there. Libertina left school after her second-last year and started to work for the journey abroad.

Her Afrikaans colleague laughed at the idea of her studying at university because – as she put it – the intellect of black people is as short as their noses. On 10 December 1959, Libertina’s 19th birthday, 13 people were killed at the Old Location in Windhoek during the protests against forced resettlement to Katutura. Like many others, Libertina joined Swapo.

In 1962 she left the country without telling her mother or grandmother. Helped by Swapo comrades she followed the long route to Tanzania and received a scholarship to study medicine in Poland.

After seven years of hard work Libertina graduated as a doctor. During her one-year internship at a hospital in Tanzania, she married her former schoolmate Ben Amathila. She also discovered her love for children.

Libertina received a World Health Organisation scholarship to study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in order to deal with the diseases she encountered. From there she continued to Sweden to specialise in paediatrics. Shortly after passing the first module in paediatrics with the Swedish National Board of Health, Libertina met up with John Ya Otto who updated her about the deteriorating political situation in the then South West Africa and the increasing number of refugees in the neighbouring countries. She subsequently abandoned her studies to go where she was needed most. In 1975 she arrived in Zambia, which supported Swapo and sheltered refugees from South West Africa.

Dr Libertina Amathila became chief physician at the Nyango Health and Education Centre in western Zambia. One of her goals was to improve hygiene by erecting pit latrines. She was also relentlessly striving to empower young women and educated them about sexual matters. The house which she built for herself became a sanctuary for numerous children.

During her four years in Nyango she had to face many obstacles. She dealt with critical situations such as an outbreak of measles, possible attacks by Rhodesian fighter planes as well as threatening behaviour on the part of young rebels.

In September 1979 Dr Amathila was sent to Angola. More than 35 000 Namibian refugees lived there at the time. Swapo leader Sam Nujoma asked her to stabilise the health situation in the same way as she had done in Nyango. For five years she was commander of the Mavulu Centre in Kwanza Norte in Angola, taking care of 600 children, 350 women and several dozen ex-combatants. With fighting between Unita forces and the Angolan army going on in that area, Dr Amathila was extremely vigilant and avoided any risk of clashing with the Angolans.

Dr Amathila was transferred to the main refugee centre in Kwanza Sul in 1984. She saw that many children were dying there and identified the problem not as malaria, which is what people had thought, but as an overdose of the treatment chloroquine. She then implemented a training programme for nurses and dismissed those who did not pass the tests.

In the late 1980s the worldwide winds of change were also felt in southern Africa and smoothed the path to Namibia’s independence. On a bright morning on 18 June 1989 the first Namibian leadership group boarded a plane back home. Libertina Amathila wished for only one thing that day: She prayed that if the plane was destined to be shot down, it should be on Namibian soil.

Returning safely, however, she had to come to terms with the loss of both her grandmother and her mother. After 27 years in exile, she had not forgotten where she came from. She reconnected with her roots and at the holy fire met the spirits of the loved ones whom she had to leave behind without farewell so as not to endanger her mission for the country.

(To be continued on Friday, December 14 2012).

Note: This account is drawn from an interview with Dr Amathila and from her memoir ‘Making a Difference’, UNAM Press, Windhoek, 2012.

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