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Ottilie Abrahams: passionate about education for liberation.

For Ottilie Abrahams, principal of Jacob Marengo Secondary School in Katutura, the liberation struggle is far from over. She firmly believes that education is key to the development of self-esteem and critical thinking, which she sees as the foundations of development still lacking in a country dominated for so long by apartheid and patriarchal rule.


No wonder she views her own educational path and the establishment of the Namibian Girl Child Organisation as the two major achievements of her life.

Having grown up in the former Old Location in Windhoek, she says "getting a degree, at the time when I got it, was something exceptional for people living on this side of the railway. One of the reasons I went to university was to show people that black people can achieve things, and also that a woman can achieve anything she really wants to achieve. And of course I wanted to show my parents that they did not waste their money by putting a girl through university."

Despite living in a segregated society, she describes the Schimming family home as cosmopolitan, and this becomes a recurring theme throughout her life. "I remember when black people came from abroad and landed at the airport, not realising that hotels were not open to them under the apartheid system, the police would bring them to our house. It was a house in which discussion and critical debate was encouraged. I grew up in the shadow of relatives and friends like Hosea Kutako, Clemens Kapuuo, Bethold Himumuine, Mbuende and Theo Katjimuine, who were the politicians of the time."

Ottilie learnt at an early age that education is a terrain of struggle in an oppressive system, and this fuelled her interest in politics. "I had a marvelous teacher from standard four to standard six in Windhoek. His name was Martinus Olivier. One thing that made me love history and fervent debate is the way he taught us. He would always introduce his lesson by saying: "Now I will teach you what you must write in the examination," and after that he would say: "Now I will teach you the truth." It is impossible to come from that background and not be consumed by politics. So already from the age of twelve I can clearly remember that I took an active interest."

Her political interest developed into activism during her years of study in Cape Town, where she started in standard seven at the age of fourteen. "For my standard nine and ten I went to Trafalgar High School, which was known as the school of politics. Our teachers were very radical politicians who vigorously opposed the Bantu Education System. As a result of their political activities, some of them were banned by the South African Regime. I became a member of the Cape Peninsula Students' Union and later graduated to the Society of Young Africa (SOYA). I was also a member of the Non-European Unity Movement. In these circles the culture was one of 'fighting ideas with ideas', and the debates we had were very stimulating. If you could not discuss Marx or Engels you were regarded as not being really human!"

She went on to the University of Cape Town (UCT), where she did a BA degree and a teacher's course. "During that time I became a member of Swapo. I also belonged to an underground organisation known as the YU CHI CHAN or YC3 CLUB (which is Chinese for guerilla warfare). This was a secret organisation operating cells in South Africa to prepare for the armed struggle against the South African Government. For us, at the time, South West Africa was not really regarded as a separate country in the sense that the oppressive ruler in both countries was the South African government." During this time she also met and married Kenneth Abrahams, who had completed medicine at UCT.

When the underground cells were uncovered, the couple returned to South West Africa. Together with Andreas Shipanga and other comrades, they established the Rehoboth branch of Swapo under the big white bridge leading out of Rehoboth. Hoping to melt into the background, Kenneth Abrahams began work as a doctor. "But one morning about 10 trucks of soldiers came to arrest my husband." Ottilie chuckles as she tells the story: "Those soldiers never reckoned with the people of Rehoboth, which was a semi autonomous 'state' where black people were allowed to own guns! There was actually a revolt, people came with their guns and said 'If you touch our doctor, blood will flow today!' Oom Maans Beukes sent a telegram to the UN to ask them to intervene! It was very dramatic and the police were given the order to withdraw. But of course we knew that as soon as the people dispersed, they would come back for us."

As they were returning to Rehoboth one Sunday evening after spending the day tending to the sick and dispensing medicine in the surrounding villages, emissaries warned them that the police had come back to arrest Dr Abrahams. And so the couple was forced to go into exile. "When I left I had two children, one was one year and six months and one was six months, she was still suckling on my breast. I could not take them with me since I was disguised as a young Herero girl who was expelled from Augustineum Secondary School for being pregnant. Leaving my babies behind was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life."

Ottilie Abrahams served as the first Swapo Secretary for Education while in Dar Es Salaam, but while on a mission to Kenya a few months later received the news that she and her husband were suspended from the party, ostensibly for 'for disrespecting the leadership'. "How can you disrespect yourself?" she asks as she continues her story.

In order to continue the struggle and assist their South African comrades languishing at Robben Island, the Abrahams managed to gain asylum in Zambia and lived there for 5 years, joined by their children. Ottilie taught at Kabulonga Girls in Lusaka, Chizongwe in Fort Jameson and then moved to the rural areas where she joined other teachers in opening a new school, Petauke Secondary School.

But their fortunes changed again in 1968 when she was imprisoned in Lusaka following the infamous meeting between South African President Vorster and Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, which led to attacks against political parties and the targeting of leaders of the liberation movement. "I was never told why I was arrested and eventually I was let out. With the help of a lawyer my husband was also released from Isoka prison and this time we found asylum in Sweden, where we lived for 9 years. We also lived in England for a year, where my husband did a degree in tropical medicine."

While living in Sweden Ottilie worked on a doctorate in English literature: "I finished all my exams; all I had to do was just to complete my thesis. Then one day in 1978, we were informed that we were granted political amnesty [during the deliberations on UN Resolution 435]. Within 27 hours my husband and I were on the plane from Stockholm to Windhoek. We left the children and everything else we had in Stockholm. For 16 years in exile, I had lived for the day when I would set foot again in Windhoek! My thesis was locked in a cupboard and since that day I have been involved in implementing the ideas discussed in that document!"

Back in Namibia they joined the campaign for elections, and Ottilie served as Secretary General of the Namibia Independence Party, a member party of the Namibia National Front (NNF), of which she was also Secretary General. In 1990 the NNF gained one seat in the newly elected parliament; Ottilie was second on the list but has no regrets that she did not become an MP.

"There was so much other work to do," she says with vigour. "We had formed different associations and organisations because we said 'we can never wait for the South African government to do things for us, we will do it ourselves.' We also supported a number of projects based on participatory democracy from here almost up to the South African border, in places like Snyfontein, Abrahamspos and Aroab, where people were motivated to start projects which they controlled themselves."

Much of Ottilie's time and energy went into starting educational projects, including the People's Pre-Primary School in Rehoboth and the People's Primary School in Katutura. She also acquired funding for a pre-school in Aroab and Grunau. In 1985 she started Jakob Marengo Secondary School through the Khomasdal Civic Association, and has been its principal ever since. "All of these projects were based on the philosophy of a childcentred approach, teaching children critical thinking, participatory democracy and non sexism to counteract the effects of the Bantu Education System. We thought from the pre-schools our children would go to People's Primary School, from there to Jakob Marengo and then on to Khanya College in South Africa. We never had student representative councils, but introduced a system of school management where every learner is a member of a group that carries a specific responsibility, so that you do not have an elite and others are just people who do what they are told. It goes against civic participation in your own governance."

Ottilie stresses that learning self-discipline through self-governance is especially important for a school with no resident parent community. "When we started Jacob Marengo, a quarter of our students were from South Africa where schools were burned down--highly politicized children; and the other group came from northern Namibia, where the secondary schools had to operate under the watchful eyes of the occupying forces. So we saw our job as preparing children for an independent state, for the development of the country. I must say in those years people would come and say 'What do you do to these children? When you speak to them they actually discuss!' We just told them we have a system of participatory democracy and children are free to say what they think. But these children also had a responsibility toward their community to study hard. Many of our former students got good jobs, others are working in the labour movement in South Africa. The school has been an inspiring project and still is. Today half of our students come from Angola, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo."

Beside all her educational projects, Ottilie Abrahams has been a stalwart of the women's movement, speaking out on almost every issue and finding time to run the Namibian Women's Association (NAWA), which was formed in 1979 as the first women's organisation that was not party political or an ecumenical body, but an autonomous organisation of women for women.

"Especially since the Namibian Government passed the Married Persons Equality Act, it has been possible for NAWA to really help a lot of women with issues of maintenance and divorce," she explains. "When women are faced with divorce, they do not want to speak to anybody about it, they feel ashamed, because usually it's the woman who is blamed for the failure of the marriage; people never question the man. So women find themselves very lonely, and don't know where to go for advice, because even if the man cannot pay fifty dollars for child maintenance, he can find five thousand dollars to employ a lawyer. Now the woman, because she's given up her schooling to look after the children and be homemaker, usually does not have the kind of job that enables her to employ a lawyer. With the assistance of Legal Aid and the Legal Assistance Centre we have really been able to ensure justice for women in divorce and children who need maintenance."

Not enough with empowering women, Ottilie Abrahams developed the Affirmative Action for the Girl Child Project in 1993, which she showcased at the NGO Forum at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Over a hundred girls from all parts of the country are now enrolled in this project, and every term holiday they come together for training in project development and leadership. Parallel to this came the establishment of the Namibian Girl Child Organisation, which now has 186 girls' clubs across the country. "The whole idea is to unite girls throughout Namibia, beyond tribalism and party politics, and to get girls involved in the solution of their own problems so that they don't sit and wait for somebody to come and solve their problems for them. We are preparing for the launch of the African Girl Child Movement together with the SADC Girl Child Movement," Ottilie is proud to report.

She is critical of the women's movement, stating that there is little collaboration between groups and not enough involvement of rural women. "I think women need to learn that when there are issues concerning women and children, and the development of the country is discussed, having a tidy house is not the most important thing on earth. If women came to a point and said 'the future of our children and the status of women are the most important things for us,' then we would really get somewhere, because once women commit themselves to a goal, they will be able to move mountains. Women must also stop insisting that they should always speak better English or have higher qualifications than men before accepting leadership positions. This country also belongs to us and we demand to play a full and equal role in its development!"
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Title Annotation:principal of Jacob Marengo Secondary School in Katutura
Author:Frank, Liz
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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