Century-old Namibian genocide wounds still rife from decades of neglect.
Video collaboration with the British Broadcasting Corporation.
One evening several years ago, I was looking through photographs of Namibia online, and accidentally stumbled upon a horrific and relatively unknown piece of history. The image I saw was a heartbreaking black and white portrait depicting emaciated Africans. As I read the image caption, I was shocked to find out that this image was taken during the Namibian genocide - a genocide Germany committed against the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia 30 years prior to the Holocaust.
I began speaking with others about the genocide, and came to learn that very few people knew about it. The more I began to learn about this part of history, the more I realized that many of the seeds of the Holocaust were laid here in Namibia. How did the world not know about this crucial part of our human story? As a humanitarian photographer and with a penchant for history, I couldn’t believe that I, too, had not known about this key part of our human story.
I felt utterly compelled to shine a light onto these atrocities which had largely been overlooked by much of the world.
I spent five weeks in Namibia during the spring of 2017 to uncover this past: to see what imprint the German colonial legacy had left. I learned that in Namibia, then known as German South West Africa, concentration camps were strategically established along its treacherous Skeleton Coast, where thousands of Herero and Nama natives perished at the hands of their German colonial masters. What was shocking to me was the lack of information available in Namibia itself. I learned of its dark history not through memorials erected at sites where the atrocities took place, but from oral accounts by the descendants of the genocide victims and the scarce amount of literature available on the topic (see The Kaiser's Holocaust, one of the few books which offers a comprehensive history on the matter).
Namibia is a land of paradoxes: one of both immense, surreal beauty and a one with a dark, almost hidden past. During my trip there, I travelled across the country (approximately the size of two Californias), from the Skeleton Coast in the west to the Kalahari in the east, and met with both Nama and Herero descendants of the genocide victims. I photographed people in their homesteads, at funerals, and at historical locations. What I found was that the natives' stories have a common thread woven throughout: that of an identity fractured by colonial-era crimes and years of ongoing neglect of this past, both by their country and by Germany. They desperately want their stories heard, not only by their communities, but by the rest of the world.
The hot desert temperatures mix with the icy cold current of the south Atlantic create dense fogs and treacherous sailing conditions along Namibia's coastline. The San tribe once called the region "The Land God Made in Anger." It is estimated that over 1,000 shipwrecks litter the Skeleton Coast. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Aerial view of Namibia's Skeleton Coast, May 2, 2017.
Much of Namibia's terrain is littered with remnants of German colonialism. In the early 20th century, Germans mined for diamonds throughout Namibia, then known as German South West Africa. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Aerial view of the abandoned Holsatia diamond mining camp, Namib Desert, Namibia, May 2, 2017.
A salient feature of the Namibian genocide was the eugenics studies conducted to demonstrate that the Herero and Nama were inferior to Germans. German scientist Eugen Fischer, among others, conducted racial field research in German South West Africa, and his work would soon be channeled into Nazi ideology. As an eerie precursor to his experimentation on Jews in Nazi Germany, Fischer and his team collected Herero and Nama skulls for studies on eugenics, with Fischer's theories serving to justify the Nazi party's attitudes of racial superiority.
Hitler would come to read Fischer's Namibia research whilst in jail during the 1920s, and used Fischer's notions on eugenics to support the idea of a pure Aryan society - later channeling these ideas into Mein Kampf.
General Lothar von Trotha was the German military commander sent in to German South West Africa to quell the Herero and Nama rebellion. On October 2, 1904 he issued his infamous "Extermination Order": "The Herero people must however leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [cannon]. Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at." Photograph: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia.
Today, remnants of German colonialism abound throughout Namibia. Here, in the town of Otjimbingwe, a Von Trotha street sign in an affluent neighborhood is a painful reminder to the Herero and Nama of their ancestors' oppressor. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Herero historian Gerson Kaapehi with von Trotha street sign, Otjimbingwe, Namibia, May 21, 2017.
Swakopmund is a large town in western Namibia, situated along the Skeleton Coast. It is a beach resort town, where many buildings maintain their colonial-era, German architecture. In the early 1900s, Swakopmund was the site of one of several concentration camps throughout Namibia, then known as German South West Africa. Today, monuments depicting German colonial prowess overshadow the memorialization of the Herero and Nama genocide victims. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Swakopmund, Namibia, May 4, 2017.
A statue in the center of Swakopmund commemorates fallen German soldiers during the Herero Wars. Activists in recent months splashed red paint as an act of defiance. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Swakopmund, Namibia, May 4, 2017.
In addition to being subjected to forced labor at the concentration camps, Herero and Nama women were frequently raped by German colonial soldiers. In a 2017 interview about his family's connection to the genocide, Herero historian Uahimisa Kaapehi explained that many of the Herero today have German blood as their ancestors were raped by German soldiers during the early 20th century. This sensitive issue 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 for him 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.