Elim – more than a mission station
“IT all started in Czechoslovakia in 1457 when a group of people broke away from the Catholic Church. They were persecuted by the church for many centuries – so much so that they had to flee.” These words, spoken by our guide, Andreé Joorst, were our introduct i on t o t he histor y of t he Moravian mission station of Elim. Situated in the Overberg on the gravel road between Baardskeerdersbos and Bredasdorp, the picturesque village is a National Monument.
Andreé e x pl a i ned t hat bec a us e Genadendal – the first Moravian mission station – had become overpopulated with people seeking the free land and free education offered by the missionaries of the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine, it was deci ded t o buy l a nd t o f ound another settlement not too far away. On May 12, 1824 they bought the farm Vogelstruiskraal, which became the third mission station to be established in South Africa. Exactly a year l ater i ts name was changed to Elim, meaning “ haven of peace” f r om t he Hebrew word “elam”.
“ I f you l ook around, you see our palm trees and we have our own fountains, and biblically in Exodus 15 there are 70 palm trees and 12 fountains. In our Elim today we have 60 palm trees and 12 times 12 fountains,” declared Andreé proudly. As a result of the abun- dant water available, in 1828 a water mill, with the l argest wooden water wheel in South Africa, was built and (after its conversion to electricity) was in use until 1972. Restored with the assist a n c e o f t h e R e mbr a n d t To b a c c o Corporation, it was opened as a working museum in 1974. The mill operated until 2006 but has since broken down, and the huge mill wheel today stands motionless and silent.
Inside the historical building the machinery can still be seen; of particular interest are the old cogs made of Australian jarrah wood, as well as the huge millstones. Part of the building is used for the G&S Watermeul Restaurant, which is run by Elim residents Gillian Wilma and Jane Speelman, and historical photos of Elim and its onetime residents adorn its walls.
What was once the quarters of visiting missionaries has been turned into a guest house, and we spent a comfortable night in one of its five en-suite rooms, paying R160 each for bed and breakfast. The attractive building is spacious, with high ceilings and thick walls. There is a fully fitted kitchen, a dining room and a lounge with TV. The house is run by Elim resident Christina Afrika, while her l ong-t i me f r i end, Maggie Schippers, prepares guests’ breakfasts. The money generated from the guest house is paid into a trust account for the benefit of the community.
The most striking building in Elim is its church, the largest Moravian church in South Africa. Built entirely by the locals, it was completed in 1835. Of particular interest is its clock, which is the oldest church timepiece in South Africa. Built in Zittau in 1764, it was used by the Herrnhuter community in Germany for 140 years before being retired. A visiting pastor from Elim heard of the clock and arranged to have it shipped back home and installed in the church. Despite its age, it keeps perfect time, and we found its melodious chimes delightful.
On enteri ng t he c hurch Andreé explained that the walls and ceiling, as well as t he outer walls, are painted white as a symbol of purity and simplicity. “The pews were made in 1835 and the backrests were made in 1935, so for a hundred years they couldn’t fall asleep! We also have that distinct partit i on down t he middle because t he Germans were adamant to separate man from woman, and they succeeded because we still sit separately. Here and there you’ll find a wife sitting with her husband, but normally they are separated.”
The church organ, manufactured in Ludwigsburg, is more than 200 years old. Andreé, who is the church organist, demonstrated its rich sound and the perfect acoustics in the church by playing for us. The church also hosts a brass band, which children from the age of 12 can join.
As we left the church Andreé pointed out a monument across the road. Erected in 1938 by Elim residents, this simple memorial commemorates t he 1838 l i beration of s l aves i n t he Cape, and is the only such monument in South Africa. In time it fell into disrep a i r, b u t wa s r e s t o r e d i n 2 0 0 4 t o coincide with the 180-year anniversary of the settlement. It is a tangible link for the people of Elim with their ancestral slave heritage.
Apart from community farming at Eli m, t wo commercial f arms supply fresh produce to Bredasdorp. In 2008 a dairy farm was established, and Elim now has its own dairy herd of 128 cows, the milk from which is collected by a local dairy company.
Another i ni t i a t i v e i s t he pr i v a t e nature reserve of Geelkop, so named because of the yellow leucodendrons that grow there. Whereas the locals used to use the fynbos as firewood, this sustainable resource now provides flowers for export to Germany and the US. Another important facility in the village is a state-run home for the physically and mentally disabled.
Andreé then took us to see the village bakery, which was started late in 2007 by a local lad, Terence, who, assisted by his sister Lola, bakes for the community. As we approached our nostrils were assailed by the delicious smell of freshly-baked bread. We watched them at work, and when we saw that hot cross buns were also being made, we ordered a tray, which we later collected and enjoyed with coffee in the guest house.
Next we walked down to the residenti a l por t i on of t he v i l l a ge, a nd Andreé showed us Elim’s oldest cottage, which dates to 1826 and consists of one bedroom and a kitchen. He told us that the last owners had 10 children, most of whom had t o be f a r med out t o relatives, as they couldn’t be accommodated in the tiny cottage.
Nearby is a colourfully painted cott a g e n a med I maneul , whi c h o n c e housed the local shoemaker. The lady of the house graciously allowed us to peep inside the tiny dwelling, which was chock-full of furniture and ornaments and is obviously a well-loved home. By contrast the house next door, though still of the white-washed, thatched variety, has been renovated and enlarged, and contains all the mod-cons. Here a gai n t he l a dy of t he house k i ndl y showed us around.
Now left to our devices we wandered around the village admiring the lovely streetscape. I noted that there are many fig trees, and I wondered if these also have a biblical connotation. Although the village is not quite as picturesque as the Elim we visited about 40 years ago when there were no visual intrusions of street lights or tarred roads, it is much neater than it used to be, and t h e moder n c o n v e n i e n c e s , whi c h include water-borne sewerage, have been a boon to the residents.
Finally we visited Elim’s graveyard, where many past ministers and their families lie buried. This was a poignant reminder of those who were instrumental in making Elim what it is today – a village with heart.
CHARACTERFUL: Elim’s historical cottages offer a characterful façade.
PRETTY: The entrance to Elim.
THE WHEEL TURNS: Elim’s mill.
FREE RANGE: Chickens wander about without concern.