Secret rendezvous of faith

December 20, 2003
Hilifa Andreas Nekundi and Gerda Aiff at the jubilee celebrations in Namibia. Photo by Brigitte Aiff.

WINDHOEK, Namibia — The first Namibian to become a Baha'i told participants at jubilee celebrations here about how he joined the Faith after secret meetings with the person who brought the teachings to this country.

Hilifa Andreas Nekundi said that because he was black and Englishman Ted Cardell was white, they had to have their meetings in secret to avoid becoming victims of the oppressive apartheid policies then in force.

Mr. Nekundi told his dramatic story as part of a gathering held from 19 to 21 December 2003 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Baha'i Faith in Namibia (then called South West Africa).

Mr. Nekundi (also known as Tate Hilifa) first heard about the Baha'i teachings in 1955 from Mr. Cardell, who had arrived in the country two years earlier.

The first Baha'i to settle there, Mr. Cardell received the accolade Knight of Baha'u'llah from Shoghi Effendi.

Mr. Cardell first encountered Mr. Nekundi while looking for someone to translate a Baha'i pamphlet from English into Kwanyama, the language of one of the biggest tribes in the country. Mr. Nekundi, an official police translator, agreed to help.

Over a period of six weeks the two men would drive to an isolated place outside the city in the evenings and work on the translation by torchlight.

The Baha'i writings attracted Mr. Nekundi, and shortly afterwards he sent a letter to the then-head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi.

Some of the participants at the jubilee. Slideshow
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Some of the participants at the jubilee.

"I am one of the smallest seeds of which the sower had sowed in the garden of South West Africa," he wrote.

"I am still a baby in this Spirit [Faith] I have no roots yet. But to do my best is just to pray to God for it, and give myself into thy hands to guard my prayer to him who is the Divine God."

Shoghi Effendi replied: "Assuring you of a most hearty welcome into the Baha'i Faith and of my loving and fervent prayers for your success and spiritual advancement."

Mr. Nekundi later served on the first Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Windoek, and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Namibia.

Today Baha'is live in 247 localities in Namibia, and there are 25 Local Spiritual Assemblies.

At the jubilee celebrations there were many local Baha'is, a prominent representative of the government, and Baha'i guests from Malawi, South Africa, Botswana, Germany, United Kingdom, and the United States.

The participants also heard reminiscences from Gerda Aiff, who settled in Namibia with her husband, Martin Aiff, and their six young children in 1959.

The family lived a life that was split in two parts because of the need to protect the Baha'i community, Mrs. Aiff, 82, told the gathering.

If it were known that white and blacks were mixing, there would have been swift and devastating repercussions for a community whose fundamental teaching, the oneness of humanity, ran directly counter to the racist policies then prevailing.

"While the (white) women were sitting in front of the house pretending to be relaxed, in the background the men would hold study classes with the African friends."

Mrs. Aiff said that meetings of white and African Baha'is were generally impossible because of the segregation laws, so the Baha'is had to find a way of communicating with each other.

A courier between the two groups was found in Martin Onesmus, an African Baha'i who was an employee of the Aiff's.

Because he lived on their premises, he could take messages from them to the African Baha'is.

In 1965 Mr. Onesmus was elected as one of the members of the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Windhoek.

"Now seeing so many friends, free to teach (the Baha'i Faith) and be together -- my family, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren -- is an overwhelming joy," said Mrs. Aiff with great emotion.

A guest of honor at the jubilee was a member of the local Baha'i community, Sandra Tjitendero. She read the speech of her husband, Dr. Mose Tjitendero, the speaker of the Namibian parliament, who was ill on the day he was due to speak.

Dr. Tjitendero praised the principles of the Baha'i Faith and said that they not only gave personal inspiration to him but they are also the highest aspiration of the government of Namibia.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this jubilee celebrates, among other things, the power of faith, the courage and spirit of those early Baha'is in Namibia, who despite the hostile political and social environment that existed at the time, persevered to demonstrate the principle of unity and oneness," Dr. Tjitendero said.

Dr. Tjitendero recovered from his illness and joined the festivities the following evening.

Also present at the event was Maina Mkandawire, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Africa who resides in Malawi, and Lally Lucretia Warren, a former member of the Board and now a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Botswana.

Baha'i youth from different regions of the country entertained participants with musical and dance performances.

The 40-member Omaruru children's choir, from the Erongo area, sang songs in English and Otijherero. Also performing was a dancing choir from the Kavango region of Namibia.

A slide presentation portrayed the history and growth of the Faith in the country. It told of the encouraging visits during the apartheid years by Hands of the Cause of God Ruhiyyih Rabbani, Adelbert Muhlschlegel, Rahmatullah Muhajir, and William Sears.

Namibia television covered the jubilee during a Sunday morning religious program.

Satellite celebrations were also held in the coastal towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.

(Jubilee photos by Haynes McFadden and Brigitte Aiff.)