Bishop George W. R. Tobias was the pioneer church planter of the Anglican Church in Namibia. He was born in England in 1882, but migrated with his father, an English priest, to South Africa, where he grew up, lived, and worked for many years. Following his honours degree at the University of Cape Town, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in England. He distinguished himself academically and was ordained by the bishop of Wakefield to the curacy of St. Paul's, Halifax. Three years later, he returned to South Africa to help his father in the expanding parish of St. Mary's, Woodstock, Cape Town.
At the outbreak of World War I, George Tobias volunteered to serve in Europe, enlisted in the Medical Corps, hoping that he would have an opportunity to engage in spiritual work. In 1915, he served briefly in Egypt before finding himself in the First South African Infantry Brigade in the field ambulance. He was wounded in the leg at the Somme in 1916 and spent a considerable period of time in hospital. After he recovered, he accepted a commission as chaplain and went to Flanders in 1917, where he was again seriously wounded in the shoulder. As a result he limped when walking. At the end of the war, Father Tobias was awarded the M.C. for his services at the front (Robson 1999b: 9).
Father Tobias returned to his former parish after the war, where he served until 1923 when he set about the task of travelling to all the parishes in the Dioceses of George and Cape Town to stir up enthusiasm and enlist support for the proposed "mission in Ovamboland." For nearly two years, he threw himself into the task of gaining support. He visited every parish, preaching and appealing, and his forceful personality and sheer doggedness won him sufficient funds to justify the commencement of the work.
Father Tobias travelled to the Ohangwena region for the first time with Bishop Fogarty in 1924. The Senior headman of the area, Hamukoto-wa-Kaluvi, who was already a Christian, gave Fr. Tobias a site for a mission at Odibo. Father Tobias had to find water first and dug several wells, then set about building a church and some huts as living quarters. Hamukoto used to visit every day to see what Fr. Tobias was doing. They soon became good friends. The tree under which he first camped is still to be seen at Odibo and is called Tate Lukenge's tree. The local people called Tobias Tate Lukenge or "Father with the limp" because of his war injury.
Father Tobias established a school and set up medical services in response to the needs of the people. One of the first local spiritual leaders who helped establish the Anglican ministries with Father Tobias was Mr. Petrus Nandi and he played a very important role in establishing the Anglican Church with Father Tobias. He could speak English and Afrikaans. He was already a Christian, having been baptized earlier by the Finnish Lutherans, and he acted as an interpreter and adviser to Father Tobias. He was one of the pioneer missionaries who started St. Mary's mission with Father Tobias. Soon a large number of outstations were founded, both to the east and to the west of St. Mary's. Petrus Nandi did much work in these outstations, especially at Onamutai and Omboloka (Robson 1999a: 3-7).
Father Tobias spent much time and energy on theological training. In the 1930s, he trained two of the former students from the mission school, who later became the first two indigenous priests of the Anglican Church in Namibia, Gabriel Namueja and Lazarus Haihambo. On September 28, 1936, they were ordained as deacons and soon afterwards as priests.
When Bishop Fogarty resigned as bishop of the diocese in 1939, Fr. Tobias was elected as the new bishop, and was consecrated on April 25, 1939 at St. George's Cathedral in Windhoek. As a result, he had to leave the pioneer work at St. Mary's, Odibo, to settle in Windhoek, from whence he later moved to Simonstown (Robson 1999b: 96, 141). However, as bishop, he still had to hear annual confirmations. He had to do this confirmation tour in a donkey cart or an ox-wagen as there was no other transportation. In 1948, Bishop Tobias had the privilege of going to England to attend the Lambeth Conference.
Bishop Tobias was later succeeded by Bishop Robert Mize, consecrated as the 6th bishop of the Diocese of Damaraland (now the Diocese of Namibia). Mize was an American and was responsible for drawing a lot of staff for the mission from the U.S.A. Nevertheless, he and others worked under the tough legacy of Bishop Tobias, described by a canon of Grahamstown as a "Spiritual Biltong" meaning he was very tough, especially having endured the hardships of travel throughout the region (Robson 1999a:9, 20).
Gerhard Buys and Shekutaamba Nambala
1. This story is taken from Buys & Nambala 2003, p. 200-201.
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This article is reproduced, with permission, from History of the Church in Namibia, an Introduction - 1805-1990, Gamsberg Macmillan, Windhoek, Namibia, copyright © November 2003 by Dr. Gerhard Buys and Dr. Shekutaamba Nambala. All rights reserved.