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Honouring the man who gave Namibia its name

Avatar of inke inke - 18. March 2016 - Discover Namibia

Professor Kerina was instrumental in coining the name ‘Namibia’. At the age of 83 he visited the Namib Desert for the first time.

One of the greatest wonders and geological treasures in the world is the Namib Desert, which stretches for 2000km from the Olifants River in South Africa to the Carunjamba River in Angola through the entire western flank of Namibia. It is no wonder that the country is named after such a vast and ancient desert. Very few people know, however, that the person who was instrumental in coining the name ‘Namibia’ is still alive. Even less know that he had never visited the iconic desert, until recently at the age of 83.

In October this year, the Gondwana Collection Namibia, which is a custodian of a piece of this spectacular desert, had the privilege of inviting Professor Mburumba Kerina into the heart of the Namib Desert. 

On top of the fossilised dunes at Namib Desert Lodge, Professor Kerina had a chance to relate the story and the part he played in giving Namibia its name. It was while studying political science on a scholarship in Indonesia that Professor Kerina was invited to the home of President Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president after gaining its independence from the Netherlands. Over tea, Sukarno asked the young Kerina: “My son, what is the name of your country?” Sukarno wasn’t satisfied with Kerina’s answer that it was called South West Africa. “Slaves and dogs are named by their masters, but free men name themselves,” he said. He suggested Kerina write an article proposing a name and publish it in the journal for the ministry of foreign affairs. His words remained with Kerina for many years.

When he completed his studies, Kerina joined the UN at the bequest of Chief Hosea Kutako, petitioning for an independent country. He was reminded of the importance of a name for the country when one day British missionary Rev Michael Scott showed him an article from the Sunday Times newspaper. It described how Texan industrialist John Collins had harvested the offshore diamonds of SWA. This made Kerina realise that the country’s coastline could easily be annexed by South Africa, leaving it landlocked. “At the time we were establishing the Owambo People’s Congress, the grandmother of SWAPO,” Kerina says, “and I thought that perhaps I should find an Oshiwambo name to represent two thirds of the population.” But, he realised that it wasn’t wise for one group to have supremacy over the others, even in a name. He then thought of a Herero name, and realised that it too would shift the balance. He finally decided on a name from the Nama language to equalise the disparate groups. He decided on the ‘Namib’, the ‘vast place’, referring to the swathe of coastal desert that shields the countryon its western border. Kerina suggested that when the country gained its independence, it be known as the ‘Republic of Namib’ and that the country’s nationalism be known as ‘Namibianism’. The name filtered into the ranks of SWAPO and the UN, and was adopted by the nations of the world, finally evolving into the name Namibia.

When Gondwana’s MD, Mannfred Goldbeck, interviewed Professor Kerina at his offices in Windhoek, he discovered that not only was this a story that needed to be told, but that the professor, who spent 40 years in exile, had never had the chance to visit the Namib Desert. He immediately invited him and his family to Gondwana’s Namib Desert Lodge, which lies at the foot of a 20 million-year-old fossilised dune belt and has some of the most superb scenery in the Namib Desert. Professor Kerina gladly accepted and a few weeks later spent the night at Namib Dune Star Camp surrounded by the rich, golden landscape. Kerina explained how he had travelled all over the world, met notable people including dignitaries like Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, but had never had the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the Namib, our natural heritage. While the sun lit up the landscape, he described what it meant to him: “This invitation is one of the greatest honours, completing the cycle of my life.”

Although the professor has no thought of retiring at this stage and is still busy working and writing books, among many other things, this is one circle that has been completed. The man who wisely suggested the country be named after the great and ancient desert has both been acknowledged for his role and has finally felt the burnished Namib sand flow through his fingers.

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