Aunty Tillie, as she is affectionately known can comfortably lay claim to the title “mother of education”. Visonary, never say die, passionate and compassionate would be other labels to throw at her. But of course the labels will stick evidenced by a life long commitment to work where others don’t even see a need in the first place.
Every working day of the week, she treks off from her home to her life’s work – the Jakob Marenga Secondary School in the heart of Katutura. Here she cares for more than a thousand youngsters making sure she prepares them for the future that awaits them.
The third born in a family of nine children, Ottilie Abrahams left Namibia disguised as a high school student who was “expelled from school for getting pregnant. Of course this was just a cover story to get her to safety as the security police was looking fot this trouble maker.
The proud mother of three namely Kenneth, Rudi and Yvette, one cannot speak of education struggle stalwarts without mentioning the likes of Ottilie. The firebrand civil society activist has been engaged in liberation politics since the 1950s. Talk about being committed to the course, veteran Nahas Angula introduces her as the woman whose job he stole. Ottilie was the first SWAPO Secretary of Education in Dar es Salaam.
Today, she is as vibrantly passionate about the issues close to her heart and she prioritises education above all. She holds an archive of ideologies of how education of the Namibian child should be tailored, but her key interests lie in participatory democracy and the need to evoke critical thinking in children.
Born and bred in the Old Location in Windhoek South West Africa, she later attended school in South Africa during a time when she joined student leadership groups and unions that awoke activism in the educator. She learnt at an early age that education is a terrain of struggle in an oppressive system, and this fueled her interest in politics. With an underground guerilla group in South Africa, Ottilie has been troublesome to the system. From fighting for the poor or trying to be the voice for women rights, that was Ottilie for you.
Having rubbed shoulders with the likes of Emil Appolus and Andreas Shipanga with who she was vocal in establishing SWAPO roots in Rehoboth, she formed SWAPO Democrats while in exile in Sweden with other Namibians.
“We worked in the same office with Sam Nujoma and Nahas Angula and others. But we had many disagreements. We were consequently suspended on grounds that we apparently disrespected the leadership, even when we ourselves were the leadership. We were part of SWAPO because we wanted to see democracy in the party, especially participatory democracy, and that is where we differed.”
Now retired from party politics, after a detour with SWAPO Democrats formed in Sweden, Otillie maintains that what she currently does is not party politics but something she loves equally – education. “I cannot remember when exactly I left party politics but I just realized that there was more to do in education than be tied to party petties.”
For 33 years now since the founding of her school, Ottilie is drawn to the idea of the importance of early childhood development and how to get children on the schools ground to run the school and participate in its operation.
“Most of the problems we face with children in high schools today trace back to a broken foundation in their early years. We have been vocal on this with former education minister Abraham Iyambo but it couldn’t proceed as we wished to.
But I continue with this fight.
“Today I spend most of my time with the young people and our motto is that we will change the world by allowing them to participate in their own destiny.
“If you teach a child, when he grows, it becomes a part of their life. So we decided to start a school and that’s how Jakob Marenga started.”
The innovative educator started the school in 1985 with about 50 learners. Cementing her idea of participatory democracy at the school, Otillie snubbed the idea of having Learner Representative Council members, saying it only benefits a few.
“You choose 10 or 12 students and you train them to be in charge of the rest. What are the rest doing? We look at the needs of the school and its surroundings. We identify 6 divisions and we split them among the whole school such that everyone has a task to do. This is how we should educate the Namibian child. Once the child is part of the running of his school, once he grows up, he will want to have a say in his community. And this is what we need in our education system if we wish to succeed.”
The struggle icon is also pushing for early childhood development, she says it is another missing piece in our education parcel.
Sitting in her office with a sharp mind at her age and still eager to do what she loves doing every day, one wonders what keeps her going.
“Eighty is just a number and not the head. A woman has got to do what she has to do. I feel there is so much to do for the children and the results are overwhelming. There is so much hope and we can only do our education justice when we start with them while they are young.”
“I have no ambitions for politics any longer because I find pride in what I do. I am proud that the government has supported us at the school for so long so we cannot drop the future leaders because of politics. As such, I also do not want to be recognized through politics for what I have done.”
“My wish is for the government to invest more in early childhood development (ECD), should we want to see the system benefit the learners and educators.”
She is not only the most energetic 79 year old on earth; but she also has the most interesting history that she is very modest about. She continues to fight for how she feels education for the Namibian child should be crafted by giving a voice to the voiceless.