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Ellen Ndeshi Namhila: A viewpoint from Namibia

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Profile by Margaret Adolphus

A career born out of exile

Photo: Ellen Ndeshi NamhilaAs a child, Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, university librarian of the University of Namibia (UNAM) and chronicler of Namibian history, didn't know what a book was, let alone a library – the only books she encountered were bibles and hymn books. A turning point came when she discovered a public library near her high school in The Gambia, started borrowing books, and conceived an admiration for the person standing at the other side of the counter.

At that time, Ms Namhila had already been a refugee for some years. Whilst a boarder at Eenhana Secondary School, constant harassment by the South African army, which involved arrests, beatings and humiliation of staff and pupils, prompted the 12-year-old to flee. After staying in a South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) camp in Angola, she obtained a scholarship to study at St Joseph's High School in The Gambia, moving there in 1979.

On graduation, Ms Namhila returned to the camp at Kwanza Sul in Angola. She became a teacher, but she had not lost her love of libraries: she decided to set up a library in the camp. This brought her to the attention of Nahas Angula, currently Prime Minister and then SWAPO Secretary for Education, who sent the talented girl off to the University of Tampere in Finland on a scholarship to study librarianship.

Returning to Namibia some 19 years after she left it, Ms Namhila started on a distinguished career in librarianship, working first for the Parliament library and rising to become director of library and archives in the Ministry of Education, and eventually seeking new challenges in the world of academia. She has held her current role since 2007.

Not surprisingly, Ms Namhila speaks – without bitterness, although her voice shivers when she talks about apartheid – of being born at the wrong time:

"… because my country was starting to wage the war between the colonized and the colonizers. This world of unfairness and unjustness and oppression – that is my background."

Like many people who have experienced injustice and a difficult start in life, she has a sense of urgency and clear priorities – she wants to get in there and change things, and wants like-minded people around her. No time-servers please.

And in her current position, servicing the information needs of her country's researchers and future skills base, she's a critical player in the rebuilding of the nation. (UNAM sees its mission as to become "a treasure house of knowledge at the service of national development".)

There are plenty of challenges: Namibia, having emerged from a long struggle against rule by South Africa, has been independent since 1990. Although the Government is tackling structural issues of basic education and gender equity, Namibia remains a country of marked contrast between rich and poor with much poverty, especially in the rural areas in the north (International Federation for Agricultural Development, 2009).