Identity

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve travelled throughout central Namibia, meeting with many Herero and Nama who have shared deeply moving stories about what their ancestors endured during European colonialism and the Namibian genocide of the early 20th century. I am so grateful for their candor and strength in sharing their stories with me. Their stories seem to have a common thread weaved throughout - that of identity, and the pain felt from having their identities fractured.  

In my last post, I talked about Stanley’s wish for his his ancestors’ history to prevail, so that his daughter and her generation could know where they came from, and how to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future. His conviction is inspiring - especially considering his daughter still faces unseemly bigotry. As we were walking through Sessreim Canyon, she talked about how she likes to sit by the pool where her father works, but faces racism by guests who do not want her around because she is black. 

I could not believe such hatred still persists in 2017. I just hugged her and told her she was beautiful.

Stanley’s wish for his daughter and future generations to know of their history as a comprehensive means to understanding their identity was echoed in the sentiments of others I’d met. 

Uahimisa Kaapehi, a councillor in the Namibian town of Swakopmund (yes, that’s where Angelina gave birth to her and Brad’s child, Shiloh), had a similar story. He also wishes for his young daughter to learn about the genocide, where her ancestors came from and what they had to endure. 

He drove me around Swakopmund and gave me a tour of the historical sites of the city, taking his daughter with us. Swakopmund is a fairly affluent, yet divided, city along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast - which is the name given to Namibia’s coastline. It’s called the “Skeleton Coast” as the icy cold south Atlantic current mixes with the hot air from the desert interior to create a dense fog and treacherous conditions along the shoreline. The coast harbors shipwrecks caught by the fog, and hundreds of ships lay scattered along the coast.

We first stopped at the site of an old church along Backer Street, which lay at the center of one of Swakopmund’s three former concentration camps. The church was the site of forced labor during the 1904-1908 period. During those times, Germans exhumed the bones of deceased Herero and Nama and sent off skulls and other body parts to Berlin for racial experiments. When victims died in the concentration camps, the prisoners were forced to clean the skulls of their dead peers (oftentimes their family members), and package the skulls for shipment to Berlin. This church was the site of such atrocities. 

Today, it serves as a meeting hall.

We later proceeded to the former Swakopmund train station, which is now abandoned. This train station served as a transport system to carry prisoners from the interior of the country to the Swakopmund concentration camps. The concentration camps at both Swakopmund and Lüderitz were constructed strategically - as the icy cold south Atlantic served as a buffer and natural border for the camps - no one could dare escape into those frigid and fierce waters.

We went to the outskirts of the city, where an affluent neighborhood (houses largely owned by those of German descent) met the unmarked, mass grave of many Herero victims of the 1904-1908 genocide. Uahimisa explained that some of the town’s members wanted to clear out the area and build more housing here - actions which were quelled by he and other council members as the area serves as a burial ground. Additionally, he explained how people used to quad bike over the bones of his ancestors here - luckily, that was stopped. Today, you can walk around and still see bone fragments laying scattered in the sand, despite efforts for Herero community members to come and groom some of the shallow graves.

During the early part of the 20th century, the Herero and Nama were subjected to forced labor, abuse and rape. In an interview, Uahimisa opened up about his family’s connection to the genocide. Many of the Herero to this day have German blood as their ancestors were raped by German soldiers during the early 20th century, an issue which confounds not only morality but the sense of identity felt by a tight-knit community. Uahimisa talked about how his grandmother (father’s mother) was a product of rape by a German soldier, an incredibly painful subject to talk about. 

Herero (and Nama) women were often forcefully taken from their husbands. Oftentimes, the children born of a forced union between a Herero woman and German man were not acknowledged by their German fathers. This led to a break in the family structure and caused extreme pain for the Herero as family is paramount to them.

I later met with Councillor Kaapehi’s uncle, Gerson, in Otjiwarongo, nearly 400 kilometers northwest of Swakopmund in central Namibia. Gerson is a local historian who is very knowledgable about Herero history. He showed us around Otjiwarongo, and pointed out the irony of several street names throughout the town.

Von Trotha street, for example, was named after the German general who issued the infamous extermination order of the Herero on October 2, 1904. This act would lead the Herero wars to be deemed a genocide.

Later in an interview with Gerson, he also opened up about the loss of identity that many Hereros - himself included - faced due to German colonialism. Like many Herero today, he is of both Herero and German descent - a combination which he says leads many Germans to call him Herero, and Herero to call him German - causing him to question his identity.

Upon the closing of the concentration camps in 1908, the survivors banded together and tried as best they could to assemble into family units (though 80% of the Herero had been wiped out). Some of his family was exiled into Botswana, where they remain today. Gerson’s job as a historian is very important - until recently, most of the Herero history has been written by Europeans. He explained that it’s a wish “in his heart” for his kids to know from where they originate, as told by the Herero.

Upon arriving to Windhoek, I visited Christ Church, a Lutheran church built during the Herero wars and completed in 1910. It lay next to the site of a former concentration camp, the land which today serves as the national museum. Inside the church, you will find a plaque with hundreds of names of German soldiers of the Lutheran faith (and a few civilians) who died during the Herero wars. You will not find the names of fallen Herero or Nama.

I met a Herero man inside - Mr. Marvin Katunohange. He was a very knowledgable and friendly historian. I noticed his surname was Herero, and he immediately began to talk to me about its meaning. “Katunohange” literally means “no peace,” and it was a family name given after the genocide by the the elder child survivors. There were many children who were left behind as their parents were carried off - to a concentration camp, for slave labour, it was not known. But the children were sometimes looked after by other native Namibian groups - the Damara, for example. Though these other groups took in Herero children, they would often make the kids feel like they were outsiders. His family name comes from the fact that there was no sense of peace after the Herero Wars.

The fractured identity motif persisted throughout each conversation and interview I had - from Swakopmund to Okakarara, Otjiwarongo to Windhoek. Despite this sense of loss, the strength of the Herero and Nama I’ve met along the way was very much present.

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