Voices Inspiring Change – The Veteran: Ludwig Beukes

Namibia

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On a sunny winter morning we meet Ludwig Beukes in his office at the Council of Churches of Namibia (CCN). CCN’s offices are a 15-minute drive north of downtown Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and consist of a modest group of single story cement office buildings, which were quiet the day we came.

Ludwig is the Acting General Secretary of CCN, an ecumenical organization founded in 1978 that, with its 16 member churches- Anglican, Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran- and associates such as the Association of Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches of Namibia and theological training institutions and church-based organizations — represents some 1.7 million Namibians (out of a total population of 2.5 million).

Seated on rattan chairs in his office, beside a bookshelf with church pamphlets, framed awards, and a Bible, we ask him about his childhood.

“My stepfather was a mechanic,” he says. “I was originally interested in fixing cars.”

Ludwig Buekes standing outdoors
Photo credit: Katherine Matus
“From the interest in fixing cars, I became interested in fixing people’s problems.”
Ludwig Beukes

But then in 1978, when he was in high school, a transformation happened: he decided to become a Christian. His faith was more than an inner, personal affair: it was bound up in the struggle against apartheid, which prevented black Namibians from having political rights, and social and economic freedoms.

Ludwig became steeped in liberation theology—a movement in Christian theology that emphasizes liberation from social, political, and economic oppression—and focused his youth on the dual goals of freedom from apartheid and helping his classmates who were struggling with personal problems, like alcohol abuse and family challenges.

“From the interest in fixing cars,” he says, “I became interested in fixing people’s problems.”

Ludwig made his way to Windhoek, where he studied social work at what was then known as Academy for Tertiary Education (now the University of Namibia). After finishing his degree, he worked for nearly a decade for the Ministry of Health of Namibia, on programs related to substance abuse and marriage counseling. He was also active outside of work, establishing non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Scripture Union, Blue Cross, and Rock of Hope Multi-Purpose Retreat Center.

“You create a problem, I will create an NGO,” he says with a smile.

In 2006, he joined CCN as a program officer, responsible for establishing HIV/AIDS programs for churches. Namibia at that time had one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world— at 21.3 percent in 2003 according to UNAIDS [1]—and churches and civil societies were key partners with the government in implementing a national response. The adult aged HIV prevalence rate today is 11.8 percent, and remains one of the highest in the world after Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and South Africa. [2]

Ludwig Buekes smiling
Photo credit: Lindsay Morgan
“My philosophy,” he says, “is, if I can just improve the life of one person, then that person can do the same thing for someone else.”
Ludwig Buekes

Ludwig has now served at CCN for 13 years. That’s given him plenty of time to reflect on the changes he has seen—both in the church and the organization.”

During the apartheid era, CCN was instrumental in mobilizing activists, helping build a movement for social justice, and caring for communities. Their power grew to the point that, Ludwig says, “CCN was like a small government.”

That power and focus was maintained during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Today, CCN works on a much more diffuse constellation of issues of interests that are of national interest and pertain to marginalized groups, including land reform, educating churches about LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex), rehabilitation of sex-workers, and engages with different groups to better understand the 1908 genocide of Namibians by Germans. The role of the CCN Secretariat is primarily that of convener, mediator, and facilitator.The CNN Secretariat hosts a twice-yearly annual meeting of church leaders, which sets the political, theological and humanitarian agenda for discussing contemporary issues. Ludwig also regularly meets with government leaders, civil society and trade unions to bring CCN’s ideas to their agendas and to mediate discussions between opposing groups.

Post-independence, CCN was faced with challenges as all of their donors reduced, with some cutting their funding, which greatly affected the operations of CCN’s mandate as a facilitating body for its member churches.

The financial struggle partly reflects the struggle many southern African organizations are grappling with—of how to regroup now that the bonanza days of donor money for HIV/AIDS is waning. Namibia was the first country to exceed many of the 90-90-90 targets set by UNAIDS, which call for countries to get 90 percent of people living with HIV diagnosed; 90 percent of those diagnosed accessing treating; and 90 percent of people on treatment to have suppressed viral loads by 2020. [3]

This, along with Namibia’s recent classification as a higher middle-income country, has resulted in reduced donor funding.

But Ludwig points to deeper, more fundamental challenges.

“What we find today is a vacuum of theology,” he says. “Before we had a common enemy: apartheid. Now, post-independence, the voice that was so strong is nowhere to be heard. I think we must come back to our prophetic voice.”

At the heart of that prophetic voice and vision, is CCN’s mission: to be a voice for the voiceless. According to Ludwig, that means using CCN’s access and influence to hold the government and others in positions of authority accountable for ensuring the well being of Namibia’s poorest.

In this vein, CCN has, with support from partners, analyzed government budgets to assess whether the budget is pro-poor and engaged the government to do better. They also supported a basic income grant project, which, initiated by one of CCN’s member churches, tested granting each citizen of Mitara a $100 stipend. They documented the impact the monthly grant had on people’s lives-income-generating activities were initiated, and women were able to provide the basic necessities for their families.

Namibia’s political environment continues to evolve. There are changes with the government and shifts in decisions that determine what programs are funded, which can be challenging. CCN’s role as a constructive partner of the government is continually impacted by these shifts and is still a key challenge to sort out how to best play this role.

Ludwig at the Council of Churches of Namibia
Photo Credit: Katherine Matus
“Only when the church is empowered can they keep the pressure on accountability. So, this is, I think, an opportunity and also a dilemma for us.”
Ludwig Beukes

On Ludwig’s mind are the health challenges affecting ordinary Namibians: long waiting times at over-crowded hospitals, insufficient medical staff, quality of care, to mention few.

Ludwig believes it is his—and CCN’s—responsibility to bring these kinds of realities, the experiences of “ordinary people for whom we are the voice,” to the powerful, and hold them accountable for improving their lives. He is keenly interested in moving the conversation about health and health equity forward.

“This is our responsibility as a church,” he says.

Ludwig also emphasizes the need for the church to be well informed if they are to engage effectively with government. “Only when the church is empowered can they keep the pressure on accountability. So this is, I think, an opportunity and also a dilemma for us. We have an opportunity to say for example to the Ministry of Health: you need to do better. But at the same time, the church must be well-educated on these issues.”

At the end of our interview, Ludwig is asked to look back on his long career and his life, from the days of fighting apartheid, to being a social worker, to his work with churches and NGOs—all these years spent trying to fix problems and help people change their lives: what kind of a legacy does he hope to have?

“My philosophy,” he says, “is, if I can just improve the life of one person, then that person can do the same thing for someone else.”

Most of all, he says, he would like to bring hope to ordinary people—people who live far away from access to services.

“I want to bring hope,” he says. “We need hope. We need to believe that life will be different.”

This story was written by Lindsay Morgan based on an interview conducted by Lindsay Morgan, Iyaloo Ngodji (Synergos), and Katherine Matus (R4D).

Notes

[1] Follow-up to the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS Namibia Country Report 2005 (2005).

[2] UNAIDS 2018 Reference. UNAIDS 2018, 2018.

[3] 90-90-90: An Ambitious Treatment Target To Help End the AIDS Epidemic. 90-90-90: Treatment, n.d.

Acknowledgement

This media product is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of Results for Development, Duke University Global Health Innovation Center, Amref, Synergos, RESADE, and Feed the Children and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.