A DAY WITH THE HEROES
THE Heroes Acre is a burial ground for those who lived and died for Namibia. It was inaugurated in 2002 and sits between Eros Mountain and the great Khomas Heights.
This hallowed cemetery is also the place where the living greats of Namibia will one day be buried. As to who they are, your guess is as good as mine.
My tour of Heroes Acre began when my guide Helena Nengola drove me through the rustic 29 hectare ground explaining that the wildlife includes monkeys, baboons and black mambas, among others.
We drove uphill where we were greeted by the imposing granite, bronze and marble shrine but meme Helena, as I was to call her at the end of the tour, could not give me time to ask my first question.
“Only Germans and South African as well as other foreigners come here. We rarely have Namibians here. If they are Namibians, then they are from Unam or the Polytechnic,” she said. From the abundance the mouth had spoken, it seemed that that was her biggest worry.
As we began the tour, I soon realised, the Heroes Acre is designed to make you feel like an ant crawling over an elephant. Meme Helena quickly reminded me that a South Korean team had worked with local designers to set up this sweeping plaza, the heroic statues and sculptures.
“All the material you see here are Namibian, the black marble is the only thing not from Windhoek, and the rest are from around these mountains. This is Namibia’s largest national heritage site,” my guide said. The black marble was quarried from Karibib.
The Heroes Acre is situated 10-15 km south of the capital and its main gallery can seat 1500 guests.
On our left is a tent of soldiers who guard the place and next to them are flag poles where according to Meme Helena, when dignitaries and diplomats from other countries are visiting the shrine, their flags are raised.
“In a month, we have about 700 foreigners coming to this place,” she said as we walked to the Eternal Flame, a symbolic part of the shrine which burns all day, every day.
Says Meme Helena: if you want to communicate with the spirits of the heroes, this Eternal Flame will take you through. By the time you leave here, you will be a changed person.”
Whenever you come across the flame flickering, it depicts the spirit of independence. It also says to the people of Namibia, to keep on working hard for the cause of national purity.
Helena seemed prepared for all my questions, as she cut me short, when I enquired about how many are buried here.
“We will discuss that as we go up. First you need to know that these open blocks you see here is reserved for names of those who perished in the regions and district during the struggle. We have been waiting for those names from the regions but they do not seem to be coming.”
Soon we learn that they are currently 174 empty graves, ready to be occupied anytime.
And again, as we walk past the readymade graves, Meme Helena could have been a mind reader:
“No, no, no, there is no specific one for Sam Nujoma. It’s not for specific persons, it is not a political place, and graves are not allocated in advance. This is a national shrine; it promotes the values of Namibia. That is why some people of other political parties do not want to share this rich history by visiting the shrine; they think it is a political place. No.”
It was then when my junior colleague also cut her short, “if anyone wants a place, they must come quickly.”
Two university media students learning the ropes had accompanied me, both making a debut to the shrine and soon ensured a debate in an attempt to outwit Meme Helena.
“We have 29 hectares here. The fact that only 174 graves are ready does not mean it’s the end of the world. There is enough space for everyone. The national shrine will be extended that is why it is so big. Only 174 are vacant now,” she sealed the debate.
The shrine is a national monument of Namibia. The work was undertaken by the government to commemorate those who fell in the struggle for national liberation and the contemporary and future sons and daughters of Namibia whose dedication and commitment to the nation justify their burial at this sacred spot.
Nine symbolic graves are occupied mainly by chiefs and Kings who played a major role in pre-independent Namibia. These include, Hosea Kutako, Kahimune Nguvauva and others.
As we climbed up the steps of the monument, “Before I start discussing who is buried here, it’s always my pleasure to start with Dimo Haamambo. He is the headman of the Heroes Acre. Dimo was present when the Heroes Acre was inaugurated, he died 20 days after and became the first person to be buried here,” she says.
We stop at John Pandeni’s and there are still fresh flowers on his tomb. Pandeni, was the chairperson of the National Heritage Council which planned the idea of the national shrine.
“Flowers you see on the tombs are from the families. You will be surprised to learn that some do not come at all. Pandeni’s wife is always visiting, that is why you will always find flowers there,” she said.
The mausoleum has the gaudy statue, the 4-tonne Unknown Soldier, depicting a male solider holding an AK47 rifle, the most potent weapon in the guerrilla war for independence, a grenade in his hand and in full military armour standing on top of a huge block with an inscription, “To the glory of our fallen heroes and heroines..” signed by Sam Nujoma on August 26 2002.
She explains that the Unknown Soldier is meant for those who died in the struggle and could not be located, their remains might be in valleys, in the mountains or anywhere in the bush, and this tomb represents them.
Soil was collected from historic battlefields such as Cassinga and other places in Zambia, and buried under the Unknown Soldier.
“..Do not ask me if it is Sam Nujoma who is on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, because it is not. Unam students particularly spend hours arguing on that tomb. The only thing which is true is that there is a signature of the Founding President because he was the sitting President when the shrine was inaugurated,” she said.
Behind him, is the skyscraper, she calls it the sword, my junior colleague called it the tower, but perhaps bayonet would be the best word for it, the most visible feature of the National Shrine from part of Windhoek.
I think it should be called an obelisk, going some 36metres high.
From this point we can hear guns blazing from the nearby Leopard’s Valley army base are training grounds.
She points to Stalinesque bronze friezes depicting the journey of the African nationalist war for independence. In one scene, locals are chained and seemingly in pain. In another, it tells a story of what happened at the United Nations where Resolution 435 was born, and then another picture is blacks holding arms, others holding a book to show that it was not all guns, guns and more guns during the struggle.
Above the friezes a helicopter has been shot by armour wielding Namibians. Finally, a picture, this time no doubt of Sam-Nujoma look-alike holding the Namibian flags and leading the masses.
National Hero Status is the highest honour that can be conferred to an individual and the recipient is entitled to be buried at the National Heroes Acre.
There are 17 graves at the Heroes Acre, nine symbolic and eight real graves.
The story of Namibia from the early 1900 to the present day, is the story of committed patriots who have stoically fought for peace, justice and democracy.
While the majority of people who visit Namibia annually eagerly anticipate visiting Swakopmund, Etosha and other tourist sites because of their breathtaking beauty, it is the National Heroes Acre in Windhoek that will help people not only understand the people’s collective resistance and unity.
I asked my guide, her own political views, she said: “I am political, but I always tell my visitors that in Namibia, we can agree and disagree for the same cause, that’s all I can say and it is my duty not to take sides when guests debate issues. My duty is to promote the history of the country in an unbiased manner,” says the former exiled Namibian.
We walk back to the car past the six pillars representing the Guard of Honour.
As we shake hands to part, we both agree, the cemetery itself is emblematic of power.
I drive away, feeling more psyched for the day’s next challenge, after a day with the heroes, but above all, Meme Helena, the only tour guide at the shrine at the moment, had been my hero for the day. PF
List of Heroes Buried
1. John Alphons Pandeni
2. Richard Kapelwa Kabajani
3. Jerobeam Dino Hamaambo
4. Kandanga-Hilukilwa Gertrud
5. David Hosea Meroro
6. Maxton Joseph Mutongolume
7. Rev. Markus Kooper
8. Moses Tjitendero
List of Symbolic Graves
1. Hendrik Witbooi
2. Jakop Marengo
3. Nehale Lya Mpingana
4. Mandume Ya Ndemufayo
5. Samuel Maharero
6. Ipumbu Ya Tshilongo
7. Hosea Kutako
8. Kahimune H. Nguvauva
9. Kakurukaze Mungunda