Ancient kingdom’s rise and fall on the fate of National Museum artifact

An artifact taken by Finnish missionaries in Ovamboland in the 1800s is finally being returned home.

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Part of Namibian power stone from National Museum in Helsinki, on display for visit of Vice President Nangolo Mbumba, September 2019 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

A piece of stone imbued with mystical powers is to be returned from the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki to Namibia, where it was appropriated by Finnish missionaries more than a hundred years ago.

This week, the small stone from a traditional kingdom in northern Namibia was on display when that country’s Vice President paid an official visit to Finland. It will be formally returned in 2020.

When Finnish missionaries first arrived in Ovamboland in the 1870s they found a barren landscape ruled by six different tribal kings. The terrain had so few stones, that any rocks were treated with reverence and became symbols of the traditional power of the clan chiefs.

“Some of the kingdoms have been without a king for decades, one for a hundred years. But all these kingdoms have a power stone, and this particular piece of stone is for the Kingdom of Ondonga” explains Martti Eerola a diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who spent his childhood in northern Namibia, where his father worked as a missionary.

“The king and the kingdom need the power stone for the survival of the kingdom. If the stone is removed the kingdom will collapse. That is the idea” says Eerola.

Part of Namibian power stone from National Museum in Helsinki, on display for visit of Vice President Nangolo Mbumba, September 2019 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

A plot to take the stone  

The story of how this particular piece of stone ended up in Finland sounds like the plot of an Indiana Jones film, but betrays a lot about the colonial attitudes of the era.

Back in 1886 a Finnish missionary called Martti Rautanen was living in Ovamboland and the stories of the power of these stones – hidden in the court of the king – grabbed his attention.

Together with a Swiss botanist friend, Rautanen was able to get a part of the larger sacred stone for each of them.

When the tribal elders found out what the pair had done, they wanted to kill them. The king, however, supported the work of the missionaries and intervened. Their lives were spared, but the Swiss botanist was exiled from Ovamboland while Rautanen was allowed to continue his work.

Somehow, Martti Rautanen managed to stay in the king’s good graces, and even kept his piece of the stone which eventually found its way back to Finland, where it was part of a collection for many years in the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Museum before being donated to the National Museum when it closed.

So why would a Finnish missionary and a Swiss botanist want to take a piece of a stone so steeped in ritual and symbolism from the Kingdom of Odonga?

“These missionaries were tasked with converting people, so they liked to take things which symbolised the [local people’s] power” explains Heli Lahdentausta, Keeper of Ethnographic Collections at the National Museum.

“We have almost 9000 objects donated to us from the Lutheran missionary museum, and they have been accumulated by people who have been doing missionary work around the world. Ovamboland was the first missionary field expedition, and Rautanen was the very first to go there in the 1870s. Later in the early 1900s, Finnish missionaries started to go to Asia and China” Lahdentausta says.

Another stone in Finland powered a kingdom

The idea that the stones give power to these traditional Namibian kingdoms can be seen most dramatically with another Finnish connection.

In 1915 King Mandume of the Oukwanyama kingdom was killed by South African soldiers in colonial fighting, and his tribe’s power stone was giving Finnish missionaries for safe keeping.

The stone also stayed in the collection of the Lutheran missionary museum until 1995 when President Martti Ahtisaari made a state visit to Namibia and took the whole stone back with him and gave it to his Namibian counterpart.

The stone was returned to the Oukwanyama traditional authority and they used it to restore the kingdom. A few years later, a new king was crowned.

Prime Minister Antti Rinne (L) meets Namibian Vice President Nangolo Mbumba (R) in Helsinki, 9th September 2019 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

Returning museum artifacts 

There are thousands of objects in the permanent collection of the National Museum, and several stones have been returned to Namibia over the years.

“When we consider repatriations from our museum, a lot of importance is attached to the rituals, symbolic value, and the important part of their history, and it just doesn’t hold the same value for us here in Finland” explains the museum’s Director General Elina Anttila.

A photographic exhibition about the museum’s collection was displayed in Namibia, and when Vice President Nangolo Mbumba – who visited Finland this week – saw the exhibit he asked for the Ondongo ritual stone to be returned home.

“In this case it was quite obvious that we would be willing to give the stone back, but always when we talk about repatriation we have to take it case by case, the way collections have been collected, this item specifically was the kind of item we had no intention of keeping here” she tells News Now Finland.

File picture of Finnish Lutheran missionary Martti Rautanen / Credit: WikiCommons Media

What became of Martti Rautanen?

Besides acquiring sacred tribal objects, Martti Rautanen had a long career as a missionary in Namibia.

An Ingrian Finn, Rautanen grew up in a poor family and later studied for his missionary work in Helsinki.

When he departed Finland for Ovamboland in 1868 with four other missionaries, it would take the group more than two years to reach their final destination after an arduous voyage by boat to Africa, and then inland to Ovamboland.

Rautanen stayed there for more than 50 years running a missionary station, translating the Bible into the local Ndonga language, and working in education.

He was given the local nickname of Nakambale which means “someone who wears a hat” because he habitually wore skullcap, and he married the daughter of a German missionary. The couple had nine children, although sadly five of them died of malaria.

Martti Rautanen himself passed away in 1926 aged 81 and is buried in Olukonda in northern Namibia, the same place he started the first Finnish missionary post more than five decades earlier.

The church he founded is still sometimes used for weddings, and the mission house itself contains a museum. Both buildings were declared national monuments of Namibia in the early 1990s.