Larry LaRue

Meet PLU‘s “Namibia Nine” — an international success story

From the late 1980s through early 1990s, 100 students from the South African nation of Namibia attended Lutheran colleges in America.

Eight of them graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland. A ninth graduated in 2007.

What has happened since is the subject of a new documentary, “Namibia Nine,” that will premiere at PLU on Saturday (Feb. 28).

When some of those students left Namibia, it was a country under the shadow of apartheid. When they returned home, it was to a free nation.

What a crew of PLU students, advisers and staff found and filmed in Namibia last June were the extraordinary successes those nine men and women had achieved.

“All nine became leaders in their country. They came to PLU with a huge sense of purpose and returned home with it,” said Andrea Capere, a 2014 graduate who co-wrote and co-directed the documentary. “I think that’s true patriotism.”

PLU has maintained ties with Namibia since those original nine students began attending. Paula Leitz, the associate dean of education, has visited the country 23 times.

She hasn’t gone alone.

“We put together a program that let our students go to Namibia and start student-teaching,” Leitz said. “I’d stay one month with them there, they’d stay two months. We’ve taken 60 or 70 students there since 2003.”

During her visits, Leitz met and got to know many of the Namibia Nine.

“Five, six or more are coming to the documentary premiere,” Leitz said. “I’m hosting five of them in my home in Gig Harbor this weekend.

“It’s amazing. Only one of the nine didn’t stay in Namibia, and that’s because he’s representing his country in the United Nations.”

One of those graduates, Edwin Tjiramba (class of ‘94), may have summed up the life-changing experience in 11 words he speaks early in the documentary.

“I was born in Namibia,” Tjiramba said. “But my future began at PLU.”

Pendapala Naanda graduated in ’92. He talked about his life before coming to the United States.

“I attended a Lutheran high school, and the instruction was in English,” Naanda said. “Graduates were regarded as troublemakers, labeled as terrorists, and could not be employed in government.”

At that time, Namibia did not have a university that allowed black students. Naanda began driving a taxi cab. Then he applied for and received a PLU scholarship.

“The scholarship was a combination of the German government, which covered our tickets to the United States; the Lutheran World Federation, which paid our monthly stipends and books; and PLU, which covered our tuition,” Naanda said.

The man who had driven a taxi and faced a dim future in the Namibia of the ’80s had his life transformed.

“Today, I am the deputy permanent representative at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Namibia to the United Nations, in New York,” Naanda said.

The rest of the Namibia Nine?

Tjiramba, class of ’94, is director for communications and marketing at the University of Namibia.

Louisa Mupetami, class of ’92, is deputy permanent secretary in Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

Kuuva Kongeli, class of ’91, is a forensic analyst at the National Forensic Science Laboratory.

Ben Shingenge, class of ’91, is chief foreign relations officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Eva-Liisa Kafidi, class of ’94, works with I-Tech Namibia, an international training and education center for health.

Lahja Kandongo, class of’ ’94, is head of television programming at the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation.

Tomas Shikongo, class of ’95, is a school principal.

Emmy Tjiramba, class of ’07, is the wife of Edwin Tjiramba and a lecturer for the University of Namibia.

The more current PLU staff learned about those nine students, the more they felt their stories should be told.

The effort took a village. More than a half dozen PLU deans, professors — even a retired campus pastor — put together grants, other funds and a team of young student filmmakers.

The result is the documentary that will be shown this weekend. It allows those nine students to tell their stories.

“PLU broadened my way of thinking about the world around me. The education had no boundaries and had no limits,” Naanda said. “Not only am I putting what I learned into practice, but I feel I am making a difference in contributing to a better world for all.”