Tikhuie, Vehettge Magdalena
Vehettge, or Magdalena, as she was named by the missionary at her baptism, was one of the earliest indigenous church leaders in South Africa. She belonged to the church in Genadendal and when the missionary, George Schmidt, returned to Europe, she continued to hold services under the pear tree that he had planted.
Vehettge was born to Khoisan parents in the early years of the eighteenth century. Her parents were semi-nomadic farmers and moved around in the Rivierzonderend and Sergeant’s River area. She first met the Moravian missionary George Schmidt when he settled in Sergeant’s River in 1737. In April 1738 the missionary moved inland to Baviaan’skloof(which was later called Genadendal) and Vehettge (or Lena) and a number of other people moved with him.
When Schmidt met Vehettge she was already married to Janneke or Jantjie Tikkuie (Bredekamp 1981, 73). Her husband helped Schmidt establish the new mission station and performed various tasks like going to the military post for stores and to collect post. Sometimes Vehettge was lucky and was allowed to accompany him. Janneke was also a hunter and helped to keep the community supplied with meat.
One of the first things that Schmidt did was to start a school. He taught in Dutch because he was unable to master the clicks of the Khoi language. Schmidt recorded that four of his best students were Africo (the first convert to be baptised), Kupido, Willem and Vehettge (Krüger 1966, 21). The numbers of those who wanted to learn continued to grow and by December there were four men, two women and four children in the school.
It was difficult for semi-nomadic people to settle down. Janneke and the others sometimes went off on their own for weeks on end. In February 1739 Vehettge decided that she too would go off alone. She marched up to the missionary and announced: ‘I’m not going to stay here any longer!’ When he asked ‘Why?,’ she answered, ‘All the people are against me.’ Schmidt told her that her own behaviour was the cause of the trouble. ‘Didn’t I warn you that it is your own fault that they are treating you like this?’ She slammed down her ABC school book and New Testament and disappeared, only to return five days later seeking forgiveness.
Schmidt was not an ordained minister, but he knew that there were people at the mission who were ready for baptism. He requested permission to baptise from Count Nicholas Zinzendorf in Hernnhut, Germany, the Moravian headquarters. When a letter of ordination arrived in 1742, he first baptised Willem and Africo, and then it was the turn of Vehettge. Willem was given the baptismal name of Joshua, Africo became Christian, and Vehettge was called Magdalena. Her husband was not baptised at the same time, perhaps because he was not as mature in the Christian faith as his wife was perceived to be.
In 1744 Schmidt returned to Europe. He had intended to return to South Africa but this was not to be. Gradually the community at the mission dispersed. Christian and Joshua (Willem and Africo) remained in Baviaan’skloof until 1756, when they died in a smallpox epidemic.
Lena (or Magdalena) returned to her old home in Sergeant’s River, half-an-hour’s journey to the south of Genadendal (Baviaan’skloof). She would gather the people that remained under the pear tree in Schmidt’s garden, pray with them and read to them from the New Testament. As the families grew, so people taught their children to pray. Inhabitants of the area testified, saying: ‘Every evening we all, men, women and children would go to old Lena. Then she would fall on her knees and pray. When her eyes were better we read the New Testament’ (Ou suster 1937). As they ate the pears from Schmidt’s tree, they would remember the days when the missionary was among them. There were enough pears for everyone, even the baboons!
Lena became something of a legend. In 1775 and 1776 a traveler from Europe was told of the Khoisan woman who used to pray and read the Bible. She carried on with her teaching even after she heard that Schmidt had died in 1785. When the Moravian missionaries Kühnel, Schwinn and Marsveld arrived to re-establish the mission station at Genadendal, she met them and showed them her well-used Dutch New Testament. A young woman, Magdalena Fredericks, read from the Book which had been kept safe, wrapped in sheepskins in a leather bag. When they told Lena that they had come to work in Genadendal, her response was ‘Thanks be to God.’
By this time Lena’s eyesight was bad and she could only get around with difficulty. Marsveld recorded in his journal that Lena visited the missionaries to offer support. She attended the school lessons and helped those who found learning difficult.
Two years later Lena wrote to the mission authorities in Germany. Her eyesight was so bad that someone else had to do the actual writing. The year 1794 was one of illness in the community and Schwimm recorded that ‘three of our baptised folk were so ill that we doubted their recovery. One of them was Lena’ (Bredekamp et al 1992, 182). Lena was so grateful for her recovery that she wrote to tell the authorities that her ‘good and loving God had let her live so long’. She saw her recovery as a sign of God’s great love (Ou suster 1937, 6).
Lena enjoyed life to the full. Visitors to Genadendal demanded to be introduced to her. In 1797 Mrs. Matilda Smith, who was renowned for her good works and interest in mission, visited Lena. She wrote in her Memoir that the people that she met in Genadendal showed ‘traces of His holiness and love’ (Philip 1824, 49). These were the people whom Lena had kept together as a Christian community. Lady Anne Barnard, the wife of the secretary to the governor of the Cape, said that when she visited Genadendal a year later that she had felt as if she ‘was creeping back seventeen hundred years to hear from the rude but inspired lips of evangelists the simple sacred words of wisdom and purity’ (Anderson 1924, 180).
Lena gradually grew weaker until she died on 3 January 1800. For fifty years she had acted as the church leader of Genadendal.
J. A. Millard
Anderson, H. J., ed. South Africa A Century Ago 1797~1801: Letters and Journals of Lady Anne Barnard. Cape Town: Maskew Miller, 1924.
Bredekamp, H. & H. L. Hattingh, eds. Dagboek en briewe van George Schmidt eerste sendeling in Suid-Afrika (1737-1744). Bellville: University of the Western Cape, 1981.
Bredekamp, H. C., A. B. L. Flegg, & Plüddermann, eds. The Genadendal Diaries. Volume I. Bellville: University of the Western Cape, 1992.
Krüger, B. The Pear Tree Blossoms: The History of The Moravian Church in South Africa 1737~1869. Genadendal: Genadendal Press, 1966.
Die ou suster Magdalena: een van die dopelinge van die leraar George Schmidt in Baviaanskloof. Genadendal: Genadendal Press, 1937.
Philip, J. Memoir of Mrs. Matilda Smith, Late of Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope. London: F. Westley, 1824.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.