The stork’s nest in Windhoek - News - Gondwana Collection


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The stork’s nest in Windhoek

Avatar of inke inke - 17. November 2017 - Discover Namibia

It is the year 1907. Settler families in German South West Africa live on remote farms and in small villages far apart from one another. The means of transportation are slow and uncomfortable and there are hardly any roads worth mentioning. Serious illness becomes life-threatening in many cases because medical assistance often comes too late. Many expectant mothers find themselves in the same predicament. Childbed fever is rife and infant mortality is high. 

It was against this background that the German Women’s Association of the Red Cross for Germans Abroad together with the newly founded Women’s League of the German Colonial Society (DKG) called for the establishment of a maternity home in Windhoek. A fund-raising drive was expected to procure the necessary funds for the urgently needed facility and for equipping it as generously as possible. 

The purpose of the new building was stipulated in a special document: “It is intended as a safe retreat for the white women who live on farms and in villages scattered across the country, far away from medical assistance and left to their own resources. This maternity home is selflessly dedicated as a work of bountiful benevolence.” The appeal for donations was very well received in Germany. The Colonial Society also joined the drive and organised a raffle. Within a short time a total of 317,000 Marks was raised. A 32,148 square metre plot was bought from the colonial government for the sum of 4814.50 Marks on the undeveloped elevation west of the town’s centre.

Master-builder Gottlieb Redecker designed the construction plan free of charge and speedily completed the building together with architect Wilhelm Sander. When the first stone was laid on 20 October 1907, government physician Dr Bail recited a three-line rhyme asking for assistance for women in need, for Germans to take root in the colony and “to keep us busy and make us proud”. The structural work was finished three months later. At the topping-out ceremony the banner of the Duchy of Braunschweig flew over the building to thank the Braunschweig section of the Colonial Society for the largest single donation. The lion’s share of the funds, however, was raised “in noble contest” by the DKG sections chaired by the Regent of Braunschweig’s wife, the Duchess Elisabeth of Mecklenburg. To honour her, the new maternity home was named Elisabeth House.

Construction work ended in April and Elisabeth House was ready for its opening ceremony. Via the 'Windhuker Nachrichten' newspaper the public was invited to view the premises. A few days later the first baby was born there. She was Elisabeth Meyer, daughter to a missionary couple. The Red Cross flag was raised for the first time and henceforth announced every birth. In the early years, when Elisabeth House stood all alone on the rise visible from far afield, the flag was the signal to many a father calming his nerves with a beer somewhere on Kaiser Street (Independence Avenue).

Originally Elisabeth House consisted of less than a dozen rooms. The core of the house was a large reception room that also served as a dining room. The kitchen, a staff room and the delivery room with large bay windows were in the north wing. The maternity ward in the slightly cooler south wing boasted four rooms, each of them with several beds, and the only bathroom. Two sides of the building were lined by a spacious veranda. The clever positioning of the two wings vis-à-vis one another also contributed to pleasant temperatures in all rooms, as did ventilation of the roof space through dormers and a small ridge turret. There was no “unnecessary splendour or waste” and in the end even most of the ornaments that had been planned were abandoned in favour of modest roughcasting. 

All running costs were paid by the German Women’s Association of the Red Cross for Germans Abroad and the Women’s League of the German Colonial Society. Nevertheless the fees were kept as low as possible. The maternity home, small as it was, offered two classes of accommodation and women from Windhoek were charged more than those from the rest of the country. In 1908 out-of-town women paid three to five Marks, depending on their accommodation class, while women from Windhoek paid six to eight Marks. When rates had to be increased two years later they almost doubled. The German Empire started to contribute to the facility’s upkeep in 1912. Smaller farm children were allowed to accompany their mothers and stay with them at Elisabeth House. 

For many farmers’ wives, however, Windhoek simply remained too far away. The German Colonial Society therefore intended to “span a whole network of maternity homes all across the protectorate”. One was opened in Grootfontein in 1914 but the next two, planned for Gobabis and Omaruru, never materialised because the First World War broke out. Wilhelm Sander, the architect, added an extension to Elisabeth House and connected the two parts, which were almost equal in size, with a roofed passage. Since the weather vane on the turret was a stork, the maternity home had meanwhile acquired the nickname “the Stork’s Nest”. 

In 1970 the health authority objected to the outdated delivery room and operating theatre and as a result a new wing was built. It met the latest hygiene requirements and was equipped with state-of-the-art medical technology. The construction project was partly financed with the proceeds of the large plot that had been sold two years earlier. The steering committee of the German Red Cross in Bonn granted a loan, the Red Cross nursing staff helped with funds and the Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in Windhoek started a fund-raising campaign to which people all over the country responded generously. The old delivery room could not be saved, however. Its walls, thick as they were, had started to crumble away. 

As soon as the new wing was completed Elisabeth House faced staff shortages, and when that problem was solved the number of births dropped considerably because the Windhoek State Hospital had opened. Elisabeth House was unprofitable and closing down was a recurring topic of discussion. Eventually the end could no longer be delayed. Elisabeth House closed its doors on 1 April 1981. Tristan Cowley was the last of the 12,669 babies who were born in the Stork’s Nest in the course of 73 years. 

The historic building was proclaimed a national monument in 1986. It is now part of the Namibia University of Science and Technology NUST. 

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