Physician to the Namibian President. Former Deputy Minister of Health
The interview was held by Bertil Högberg on 15 June 2005.
Dr Indongo was in charge of the health and social services within SWAPO for many years. His engagement started when he was elected as a member of the Central Committee of SWAPO and its Secretary for Health and Social Services at Tanga Consultative Conference in January 1970. Dr Indongo was involved in a medical aid project, building hospital and worked as a medical doctor together with volunteers from the Nordic countries.
Bertil Högberg: This is 15 June 2005 and we are sitting here in Windhoek with Dr Indongo who for a long time was in charge of the health and social services within SWAPO. What is your present occupation?
Dr Indongo: At the moment I’m still a physician to the President, former President, Sam Nujoma, and I’m in the process of to retiring from the government services.
Bertil Högberg: So you have been employed by the Ministry of Health?
Dr Indongo: Yes, for a long time, since 1991. I worked for 4 years as a Deputy Minister of Health and then I became a special advisor to the ministry as well as the physician to the President, I have just retired from the position as special advisor.
Bertil Högberg: Okay, I think you have the right to retire, I think you reached that age now.
Dr Indongo: Oh yes, I’m now 67.
Bertil Högberg: And that also means that your involvement with the struggle must go quite a long time back. When did you become involved in the struggle for Namibia’s liberation?
Dr Indongo: I started when I was elected at Tanga Consultative Conference in January 1970. I was elected as a member of the Central Committee of SWAPO and its Secretary for Health and Social Services.
Bertil Högberg: But you had been involved with SWAPO quite a long time before that hadn’t you?
Dr Indongo: Yes, before I left Namibia I was working with the SWAPO leadership in Windhoek as a Deputy Treasurer for the SWAPO branch in Windhoek.
Bertil Högberg: And you are talking about which time?
Dr Indongo: That is 1960.
Bertil Högberg: 1960?
Dr Indongo: Yes, after that then I left in 1962. On the way to Tanganyika. I stayed for about 8 to 9 months in Tanganyika before I was sent to study in Kiev, Ukraine, where I did my 7 years of medical studies.
Dr Indongo: I stayed there from ’63 to ’70.
Bertil Högberg: So when you were elected Secretary of Health and Social Services you were very fresh just coming from your education?
Dr Indongo: Yes, just from school.
Bertil Högberg: And in practice what did that mean? The work you started to do for SWAPO where did you start to work then?
Dr Indongo: It was a challenge because we were the first secretaries. Nothing to read from, nothing to learn from, you have to start from scratch. And Dr Libertina Amathila was my Deputy Secretary. Of course the guidelines were stipulated in the SWAPO constitution so there were duties to be performed, like organising medical services, establishment of clinics and so on and so forth. This we started with.
Bertil Högberg: And that was both for the civilian side and for the military side?
Dr Indongo: It was for both yes, because military people by then, in the '70s, were very few. But the refugees especially from Caprivi there were a couple of them.
Bertil Högberg: So where did you set up your headquarters?
Dr Indongo: The headquarters was then still in Tanganyika.
Bertil Högberg: Okay.
Dr Indongo: We moved from Tanganyika – oh, no, wait a minute, the headquarters had already moved then from Tanzania to Zambia. But we both had first to do our internship in Tanzania at a hospital. Libertina finished first then she joined her husband in Sweden. I stayed there for 2 years and I came down to Lusaka, Zambia. But the majority of our people by that time were in Western Province so I started my practice in Zambia at Mongu Hospital.
Bertil Högberg: Okay, where was that?
Dr Indongo: Mongu is the capital of the Western Province of Zambia. In fact it’s where I met my wife.
Bertil Högberg: Oh, yes, she told me about that.
Dr Indongo: Her mother is a Zambian, her father is from Caprivi.
Bertil Högberg: Yes, the borders didn’t mean anything to families in those days.
Dr Indongo: No. Now while in Mongu the news came around in 1974 that it was likely following the coup in Portugal the route through Angola would be opened to a lot mass the refugees coming from Namibia. Then there was a need for me to move from Mongu up north closer to the Angolan border, to a place called Kalabo. I was the sole medical officer there when in May the first group of refugees arrived from Namibia.
Bertil Högberg: And they came in many thousands then.
Dr Indongo: In thousands through Angola. And we had now to move these people from near the border to places like Nyango and the other places. Now we had to make a clear separation between refugees and freedom fighters. Freedom fighters as you know they were closer to the border to enable them to perform their duties while the civilians had to be far away in the interior where we thought it was a little bit safer from attacks and raids by South Africans. The job was tough because you had to supply both the component of freedom fighters near the borders and the civilians. The military had to transport their own things but from time to time one had to go there for check ups. I had to supervise those medics because they had rather short term training, sometimes only 6 months. They needed continuous training, so some lecturers were organised and sent to them.
Bertil Högberg: You mean the medical officers that were in the guerrilla teams or?
Dr Indongo: Yes. Whereas mothers and children behind needed their education and other help, that’s why we called these centres “health and education” centres. Well we stayed on doing these things, by then Libertina had joined me back from Sweden. Then a new front was opened in Angola so I had to leave my colleague behind and come down to Angola and organise the same thing. That’s where we met; I was just coming from Zambia to come and put up these health services and was joined by a group of teachers.
Bertil Högberg: And so you started in the south of Angola, didn’t you?
Dr Indongo: When I left Luanda for the south the first stop where I found a group of people was Huambo. From Huambo we moved to Kassinga and while in Kassinga too many people were coming, especially children. They needed a proper place and a peaceful place to do their schooling so we were given another place, a former mining camp nearby at a place called Njamba. That is where we settled with kids and children. Kassinga became a receiving place for new arrivals and they were busy sorting out kids and children going to Njamba and those who were fit for guerrilla business going towards the border to be trained. And as you recall in 1978 the South Africans came and attacked around Kassinga so all of us had to be taken away from there to Lubango. It didn’t take too long before the South Africans already knew that we were there, so people were taken away from there, especially civilians, from Lubango to Kwanza.
The first place we arrived at in Kwanza was near the river. I went for a short time to Senegal, just to refresh my mind at a certain institute of planning, in Dakar, Senegal, that is towards the end of 1978. When I came back I found people at this place near the river that was an old farm but it was infested with mosquitoes and tsetse flies. I started now to catch these tsetse flies, taking them to Brazzaville, in Congo, just to test whether they were infected with sleeping sickness. The answer was that there was no sleeping sickness but the malaria was taking its toll, the children were dying too much. So I started thinking “What is going on that there are no neighbours surrounding us, it’s a good place, plenty of water but people are dying and it’s too hot at the river?” So I went around up the mountains looking where the people were. I found that people were up the mountains where there were no mosquitoes in a coffee plantation at Kabuta, where you met me. I used to stay alone in Kabuta, coming down to work in Kwanza, up to when approval was given by the leadership of SWAPO to take people up there where it was a little bit better as far as malaria was concerned.
But unfortunately the hand-dug wells that were the source of drinking water were infected by all kinds of infections, like coli and even bilharzia that caused people to have difficulty to urinate. So there was a need for potable water. The wells were many but the water quantity was not enough, not only in quantity but you can talk about quality because the quality was very, very poor. So we struggled hard to convince UNICEF to sink some wells there, modern wells, and after we got potable water everything came back to normal, children could study peacefully because they were under protection of tall trees and coffee plantations and the South Africans couldn’t do anything there because you noticed there was always a mist?
Bertil Högberg: Yes. And it’s also quite far away from the border.
Dr Indongo: No, they used to come, they used to come with their pilot less plane trying to spy but the protection, that nature was very protected.
Bertil Högberg: Yes, it was quite lush vegetation there.
Dr Indongo: Yes, right.
Bertil Högberg: How many people were there in those days in that settlement?
Dr Indongo: It’s very difficult just to estimate because people were on the move all the time, some were going to school, just passing, going to school, and some were coming back, so there were around 30,000.
Bertil Högberg: And what kind of medical personnel did you have at your disposal?
Dr Indongo: The first group of foreigners that we got as medical people they were two Cubans who came before Kassinga massacre, but after Kassinga massacre they left us. They went instead to support the military component, so we were joined by the former DDR doctors and later on by the Scandinavians, either from Sweden or Finland. These were quite a number of people, most of the time they were four; DDR would have at least two plus myself.
Bertil Högberg: What type of personnel were you most in need of? You had some Namibians that you had trained yourself.
Dr Indongo: Yes, the Namibians we trained were most of the time nurses. From ’74 we sent some people to medical school but as you know it takes 7 years for somebody to complete the first training so they came a little bit later. After ’82 they started coming gradually. But some nurses had either started or completed school of nursing here at home or abroad. They were helpful they were many but we were not satisfied with the Bantustan education, we used to send them still for short courses assisted by the World Health Organisation that helped to train them.
Bertil Högberg: This decision to invite doctors and nurses and lab. technicians from Sweden and Finland was that a difficult one? I recall that some wondered whether one could let foreigners into your settlements.
Dr Indongo: Yes, it was about whom you trust. We trusted people from Sweden and Finland because Finland, for instance, had been working with us for a long time in our churches, especially in the north. As for Sweden their neutrality encouraged us to trust them. It was not very difficult because SIDA was always having discussions once or twice a year with us, not only in the field of health alone but concerning all our activities. Most of the time all the sectors came together and were joined by the group from Stockholm, and then we discussed about our needs. Every sector gave its needs so at one time we were even invited to go to Stockholm and attend such meetings there.
Bertil Högberg: Yes, I remember meeting you at least once or twice I think in Stockholm.
Dr Indongo: Yes. No, it was several times indeed.
Bertil Högberg: The SIDA support also included quite a lot of medicines and a few other things, but also this medical aid project that was run by the Bread and Fishes and the Africa Groups also had quite a big component of medicines and other utensils. What was the difference between those two operations?
Dr Indongo: It was very difficult for a person far away to make a clear distinction between the two because this was a job for our representative in Stockholm at that time. They were either Ben Amathila or comrade Hadino Hishongwa. They were practically involved to negotiate, to look at it, whereas we on the receiving end it was hard to know exactly which came from whom because some of the things had to be packed right there.
Bertil Högberg: I remember from our discussions then you had to ask SIDA so long in advance for the medicines that sometimes you ended up with a shortage of some drugs or an emergency arose. It was this long-term planning with SIDA assistance that made that problem. So that’s why I think we went into a kind of agreement that we supplied in the short-term.
Dr Indongo: Yes, it’s true because your government they brought us, it used to take sometimes, not always but sometimes, longer because they were involved in many other things. Apart from medicine there were clothes, for example, to be supplied and pre-fab. material, I mean pre-fab. structures that are easy to put together when they arrive, and so it was a lot of things that came from that part of the world.
Bertil Högberg: And part of that was through this medical aid project but some was in the more traditional way that Bread and Fishes and Emmaus sent regularly. We were also able to use these wooden containers for shipment that could be turned into houses.
Dr Indongo: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: But I remember, for example, you sometimes sent a telex to the Stockholm office asking for certain types of medicine because you had an outbreak of something somewhere and then we could supply it quickly by air.
Dr Indongo: It’s a normal case in medicine that from time to time you have an outbreak of this or of that, whereas in planning you may not have known that that would take place. Sometimes when we had a typhus fever, we had to request emergency supplies. We had some even from World Health Organisation but sometimes things are not enough when it comes to emergencies.
Bertil Högberg: These settlements were now situated close to Angolan villages because you said you moved to where the Angolans actually were living?
Dr Indongo: Correct.
Bertil Högberg: So what was their relationship to the medical services and so on? Were they also able to receive assistance from you?
Dr Indongo: Yes, we treated them. We had an agreement with the Angolans that we could refer as many Namibians as we could to Luanda, whereas wherever there was a Namibian settlement the Angolan medical services had nothing to do with that area, it had to be directly our responsibility.
Bertil Högberg: Also for the Angolans?
Dr Indongo: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Now when you got Swedish medical personnel coming into the camps what was your first impression of them when they came?
Dr Indongo: Usually when you have people coming from a different environment they are highly sophisticated and highly qualified people when they come but in the bush you need certain orientation to get an understanding of what the surroundings look like. So at the beginning they have to have some sort of orientation practices before they get used to everything. It was not very difficult because we didn’t have any sophisticated machines and all that. This is a tricky thing that you have no proper lab. Yet you must diagnose. In a sophisticated set up the laboratory will tell you what to do after looking into it saying “Oh, here we have such and such infections, the treatment after sensitive testing is this”. You are just fed by the machine but there you had to think and find out without much help from the laboratory, for example.
Bertil Högberg: But did the Swedes and Finns fit in well in this environment?
Dr Indongo: Oh, perfectly, yes they did. People are quite different, there are those who needed a longer period but most of the time they tried their best.
Bertil Högberg: What would you say was the biggest contribution that these medical teams made to the services in the camps?
Dr Indongo: Well as I said I was the only Namibian on that side, my colleague had to be on the Zambian side, had I not had their assistance we couldn’t have managed because I was not sitting only in Kwanza, from time to time I had to check down closer to the border what the others were doing, what was happening there.
Bertil Högberg: So they were sometimes left completely on their own to run the thing?
Dr Indongo: Yes, I couldn’t just sit working with them, but I was on the move. Angola is a big country, when you come to the Namibian border it will take you almost a month before you are back.
Bertil Högberg: We sent quite a lot of collected second-hand material and there were sometimes discussions back home – is it right to send second-hand material. What do you think about all this second-hand material that you got?
Dr Indongo: I think it was helpful because the stay in Angola for us was not going to be forever, it was for a short duration and after that we were always prepared to come back home, and eventually that took place. So it was helpful. It was helpful because it didn’t take a long time from ’80 to ’89.
Bertil Högberg: But you decided anyway to try to build some more permanent structures, to build some hospitals?
Dr Indongo: Yes, correctly so because nobody knew exactly when the day, D-Day, would be with us. One had to put up some strong structures. We thought that should we come back home the Angolans could make use of this and benefit from it. But unfortunately those Kwanza places are no-go areas because they are mined; they are mine-filled now so you can’t make use of them.
Bertil Högberg: And I also understood that UNITA came in and destroyed quite a lot of the things when you had left?
Dr Indongo: Yes, they came in, took what they wanted and put mines all over. And anybody else trying to get there they had their limbs taken off, if they were not blown up to death in fact.
Bertil Högberg: But were you able to rescue some of the material there and bring it back to Namibia?
Dr Indongo: Yes, of course we did but we could only take what we could, not everything. Most of the things were left behind. Even our own history, anything we got while there was left behind.
Bertil Högberg: Oh, that’s a pity.
Dr Indongo: It’s a pity; we didn’t come with much documentation. But modern equipment like machines to test HIV/AIDS we came with those because one has to prioritise when choosing, sorting out what you can carry. We thought we could go back for the rest later, which then unfortunately couldn’t take place.
Bertil Högberg:This issue about HIV/AID erupted in these times at the beginning of the '80s. I think I remember that one of our doctors that worked in the settlements, Susan Beckman, she went to one of the very first AIDS conferences in Brazzaville.
Dr Indongo: Susan, yes Susan accompanied me to some of those conferences, yes.
Bertil Högberg: What precautions did you take after that on the HIV thing within SWAPO?
Dr Indongo: Well what we did what was useful with this machine was just to sort out a student who was going abroad. Locally in Angola it was a war-zone, HIV was not prevalent and not really an issue but students since they are moving up and down they are able to get it.
Bertil Högberg: It was more in Zambia?
Dr Indongo: Well even in Angola because somebody could have come from secondary school in a certain country, all over the world, come back and get a scholarship to go and continue with university studies, then they needed to be checked because it was a requirement those days that whoever was going abroad had to have a certificate of being free from HIV.
Bertil Högberg: Okay, so that was a requirement by some of the ones that offered scholarships then?
Dr Indongo: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Okay. Did you think that the support that you got with personnel and material when it came to the health side was sufficient for your needs?
Dr Indongo: It can never be sufficient.
Bertil Högberg: It wasn’t?
Dr Indongo: But that was very, very important support we got because without that support we couldn’t have survived the severe conditions in Angola because here you can see this is a different climate altogether compared to Angola where you have tropical conditions. People were not, for example, when it came to malaria they had no what we call resistance.
Bertil Högberg: Yes, that’s right.
Dr Indongo: They were very vulnerable to it.
Bertil Högberg: Only those that came from the real north of Namibia where they have malaria were resistant?
Dr Indongo: Yes, the northerners could stand it a little bit but for example you hardly find malaria in Windhoek.
Bertil Högberg: When it comes to clothes and things there was quite a number of Swedish and also other Danish and Norwegian organisations that were providing you with clothes, was that enough for you?
Dr Indongo: Oh, yes, enough.
Bertil Högberg: I assume that you even got too much.
Dr Indongo: In clothing you don’t need to have heavy things, like here in wintertime they have not winter so it was quite sufficient.
Bertil Högberg: But wasn’t it so that you sometimes got too many clothes, more than you needed for the refugees?
Dr Indongo: We would not call it that because the neighbours, the Angolans, had nothing so even if we got enough our neighbours needed them.
Bertil Högberg: So they were also distributed there?
Dr Indongo: Yes, you can’t call it distribution but they were getting clothes. When they were in hospitals they had to get something to put on when they went back home.
Bertil Högberg: And now I think I recall a story that some of the Namibians they used clothes sometimes to barter with Angolans for things that they couldn’t get otherwise.
Dr Indongo: Also you can’t be on tinned food forever, you need something fresh.
Bertil Högberg: Yes, exactly.
Bertil Högberg: Is there any special memory you have from this cooperation between Swedish doctors and yourself, a special occasion or something that springs to mind when you think about all those years?
Dr Indongo: Yes, I recall some naughty Swedes sneaked out of the camp and went as far as Malanje. Malanje was almost the headquarters of UNITA those days and when we caught up with them they were almost reaching or almost encircled by UNITA and by then the South African government had issued a warning that wherever they got hold of a Swede he was to be captured and kidnapped. So that I can’t forget about.
Bertil Högberg: So that was a real controversy?
Dr Indongo: A very challenging incident.
Bertil Högberg: But you didn’t send them away?
Dr Indongo: They were volunteers, they were controlled by their embassy in Luanda but for us in the bush to have a record of somebody kidnapped from us it would have been very, very sad. So we were a little bit upset with that but nothing else, I’m telling you we were quite happy and good friends today. Most of the time, when a team comes from the organisation to Windhoek, we have to have a coming together to celebrate.
Bertil Högberg: You made a lot of personal friends there?
Dr Indongo: Of course, I mean as you saw those houses at Kabuta we were just neighbours. We shared everything.
Bertil Högberg: So except for this incident now when people sneaked away to Malanje were there any other conflicts that you had with them?
Dr Indongo: Not at all. That was the first and the last. Of course we had to explain to them how difficult it would be because should anyone be kidnapped that would be the end of their assistance to us and we were going to suffer the consequences. And not long after some other Swedes were kidnapped in the north of the country, you recall?
Bertil Högberg: Yes.
Dr Indongo: So I think that became a good lesson, so there was no more repetition.
Bertil Högberg: Were you able to have open discussions around your needs and what could be provided from the Swedish medical aid project? How were these discussions going on?
Dr Indongo: It was negotiations like all other negotiations. I think that time we were preparing ourselves to take over the government. It was serious negotiation just government to government. We negotiate, everybody putting their needs, maybe it’s too much, you have to renegotiate it, to be cut by that much, this year you get so much, this time you get that, and you put your case on the table and negotiate. Serious negotiations.
Bertil Högberg: I’ve got only one question left here now, you said that around this time that people sneaked away to Malanje that they didn’t really understand the security concerns, the security problems that you had. Were there any other ways that you thought that the Swedes were too naïve or didn’t really understand the severity of the situation? Any other ways?
Dr Indongo: Yes, I think people took the war situation lightly. You may call it naïve but since they never saw fighting they were just taking the things as not so serious. It was really serious, it was really serious.
Bertil Högberg: That must have been a problem, I remember some of them writing that they heard that they were fighting around them, they were sometimes so close that they at least could hear gunfire in the camps, but that maybe was a rare occasion?
Dr Indongo: Yes, those were the last days when we were about to come home, when UNITA learnt that we were going home they had to be closer to us just to monitor that we had left so that they could take over these places.
Bertil Högberg: What did you hope then when you were returning to Namibia? What were your expectations from us in Sweden? What did you tell the Swedes? “Now it’s time″ - for what?
Dr Indongo: The time for even stronger cooperation, that was the message and the hope and for sure that continued. You know we were lucky, the Ambassador we had in Luanda and his wife.
Bertil Högberg: Sten and Berit Rylander.
Dr Indongo: Yes, these people were the first to open the embassy here and we had known each other for a couple of years, I can’t remember where we met them, but we knew them very well and when they came here. The assistance was enormous at the beginning because then we needed everything, South Africans left nothing behind here, and we had to start from scratch. So we are thankful for that enormous assistance.
Bertil Högberg: I think also that one of our last doctors to work with you in the settlement, Kirsti Paaianen, she came also as the first doctor to independent Namibia, for a year.
Dr Indongo: Right.
Bertil Högberg: So that was a kind of link between the two things.
Dr Indongo: Right. The Africa Groups are coming every year to Namibia and since independence we are always meeting, whenever they come we come together.
Bertil Högberg: Okay, is there anything else you would like to add that we forgot to touch upon?
Dr Indongo: Sure, it’s just to say maybe what is very important for this assistance you are giving and that is that continuation is needed. I’m very glad that you came to see me at my residence.
Bertil Högberg: Okay, thank you very much.