German colonisation victims’ descendants unite in common loss

By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
October 2015

It has not been established yet when and where the next pilgrim of the descendants of the victims of the wars of 1896, 1904 and up to 1908 shall be?

This year from October 24-27 October during three hectic days of cultural re-awakening, the descendants from within Namibia, and beyond her borders, from Botswana and South Africa, converged on Bethanie. This once again as has become the tradition since independence, especially since 2004 with the centenary commemoration of the 1904 Extermination Order by General Lothar von Trotha.

This was not the annual cultural festival of the !Man people but something different but akin as much as it was generally coined and seen as a cultural festival. After almost a year of non-stop painstaking organization and mobilisation, the fruits of cultural renaissance eventually came to the realisation that weekend when the various strands of the Nama people, and their respective traditional authorities in their colourful regalia, led by their leaders in their robe-like uniforms, descended on Bethanie. They were joined by their Ovaherero and Ovambanderu comrades in arms, equally from within and beyond Namibia from Botswana and South Africa.

While the event was referenced variously by different people, including being a cultural festival, there was no mistaking the common history of the various people, especially their common colonial history from the days of German colonialism, not to forget perhaps their predominant common denominator, their near annihilation by the same Imperial regime. Here they converged to reminisce as well as to brood over their common loss, and destiny. Their loss of culture, especially for those from the Botswana and South African diaspora, foremost their Otjiherero and Khoekhoe languages. Not to say culture is the only thing they lost as they also lost land, property, movable and immovable, including livestock. But culture is the only visible and evident thing they could with surety point out to having lost, given the complexity and arduousness of proving loss of property, especially land and cattle in view of the political incorrectness of any claim to ancestral land and property. Hence the aura of culture which engulfed the occasion and the traditionality thereof, a camouflage of a more deep rooted historicity.

In their hundreds, if not thousands, they invaded the village of Bethanie in a fashion resembling a village hit by Tsunami, albeit a cultural-cum-historic one, to avoid the use of the word political lest the event is misinterpreted as political in its conventional and crude political interpretation. Out of sheer joy, joy of being re-united by kinspeople, more so in common suffering historically if not by the loss of culture for some, the !Man Chief Dawid Frederick could not restrain albeit a subdued emotional trance noticed only by a few. #Karas Governor, Lucia Basson, and Minister of Education, Arts and Culture, Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, were on standby to offer the necessary comfort in this regard. Soon the Chief was his usually composed to continue the mammoth task of hosting the masses. Not masses of strangers but of long lost kith and kin, who, due to German colonialism, have become unwilling strangers. One could not miss the irony and dichotomy of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu women from Botswana who, while clad in the Otjiherero-Otjimbanderu traditional attire, thus typifying and epitomising their traditional descent, they remained loyal to Botswana with their attire in the traditional blue, white and black, the colours of that country’s flag.

Punctuated by cultural extravaganzas, you name them, Nama Stap; Lang Arm; theatre productions by various groups, among them the Topnaar community; Ovaherero and Ovambanderu battle cries with crescendos of eulogisies by the womenfolk; para military drilling displays, horse riding, speaker to speaker taking to the podium, could not but accentuate unity. Not coincidently because the unification of the Nama#Aes was the subject soem of the leaders were implored to address, among them Chief Johannes Isaack of the /Hai-/Khaua and Chief Seth Kooitjie of the Topnaar community.

“For too long a time our people have been divided by the colonial regimes, evidence has shown that even families were thrown into different countries and the unity shown here during this festival brings much jubilation to my heart,” Hanse-Himarwa joined the unity chorus. “I am sure that the colonisers never thought we would ever unite again, but you being here today, is a clear testimony that where there is a will, there is certainly a way,” HanseHimarwa further encapsulated the mood. But is this unity for its own sake? Or unity towards a particular end? And what end?

The ends seem to be many and varied. But albeit HanseHimarwa loss of language and culture of the Nama is one of the ends towards unification. “Culture should not only be viewed merely as a return to the customs of the past. It embodies the attitude of a people to the future of their traditional values faced with the demands of modern technology, which is an important factory of development and progress,” Hanse-Himarwa further elaborates.

For Ovambanderu Paramount Chief, Aletha Konduaa Nguvauva, as much as culture can be intrinsic, in the case of a people who lost their culture, such unity cannot be an end in itself but a means to an end. Thus the gatherings that have been ongoing alternatively in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, uniting and bringing people who have for long been lost to one another, can by no means be seen and taken as an end in itself but a means towards an end. The context and background being the genocide inflicted on them by German colonialism. Thus to her cultural revival is only the beginning of a bigger mission.

Nguvauva has no doubt that such gatherings which have become annual pilgrims must become an annual institution without fail with more time devoted to close liaisons and association as opposed to endless speeches. This is to allow lost kith and kin from within Namibia and in the Diaspora enough time to find one another, and on a more personal level forge the necessary links and culturally educative exchanges. Nor should the source of the current cultural destituteness, among those especially in the Botswana and South African Diaspora, that is the colonial wars and the resultant Genocide, be lost sight of during these pilgrims. “The disruption caused by the German genocide attempt upon us has left us broken people of our respective groups. This brokenness must be remedied. Our cultures, traditions, norms, values, beliefs must be repaired. The burdens of this disruption weighing heavy upon us must be lifted,” Chairperson of the Nama Genocide Technical Committee, Ida Hoffman, could not have put it more succinctly.

“History has been pulling on us, kicking us, killing us, separating us and destroying us. But despite all its pain and destruction, we cannot undo history. However, we who are gathered here today must make sure that, that painful destruction in history is not to be repeated. And that whatever has been damaged, needs to be corrected,” Hoffmann further contextualised what may have seen as a mere cultural gathering into its broader and proper context.

It became apparent that the occasion was more than a mere cultural jamboree. More than a platform for lost cousins to find one another. It was more than cultural revival platform, one with a deeper sense of a common loss. Necessitating restorative justice for the common loss. Hence the need for unity if such a restorative justice is to be attained. As much there was no mistaking who was and may have been responsible for the loss. Although inflicted more than a hundred years ago the scars thereof are still vivid. And the culprit was Imperial Germany. As much as these government or State may no longer exists, the successor government of the Federal Republic of Germany, true to its self-proclaimed historic and moral responsibility, must own up to these responsibility. Its bilateral relations with the Namibian government notwithstanding, somehow it cannot and shall not escape vicarious liability towards the descendants of the victims. And this is one matter that seems to unite these descendants.