The Herero & Nama: Century-old Namibian Genocide wounds persist, but communities hopeful for the future

One evening in 2016, I was looking at 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 in Namibia. How did the world not know about this crucial part of our human story? As a 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 descendants of both Nama and Herero 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. 

During this time, members of the Herero and Nama communities who had relocated to the United States brought Germany to court in New York to sue for reparations. Their efforts were unsuccessful, stymied by Germany's offer of humanitarian aid to the whole of Namibia - an act the Herero and Nama said was a weak attempt on behalf of Germany to atone for its sins as it did not target the Herero and Nama communities exclusively. 

The Herero and Nama desperately want their stories heard, not only by their communities, but by the rest of the world. Despite their dark past, they are hopeful for a brighter future.

Below is a photo essay illustrating both the complex history, and the strength, of the Herero & Nama people of Namibia. 

Two Himba boys sit by a fire in their mother's abode in a remote village outside of Opuwo, Namibia. The Himba are a group of Herero people who have maintained their traditional ways of life and have generally not assimilated into traditionally western culture.  Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Opuwo, Namibia, May 2017.

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.  

Visitors arrive to the Shark Island campground on an April evening as fog rolls in from the Skeleton Coast, located along the south Atlantic. Once the site of the world's first death camp, Shark Island now serves as a municipal campground. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Shark Island campground, Lüderitz, Namibia, April 27, 2017. 

A rare archival image depicts the Shark Island concentration camp, circa 1905, where prisoners were subjected to forced labour. Makeshift tents provided little protection from the icy cold current of the south Atlantic. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia.

Today, a sign directs visitors to the Shark Island municipal campground. There is no memorial on Shark Island attesting to the concentration camp or the genocide. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Shark Island campground, Lüderitz, Namibia, April 28, 2017. 

A salient feature of the Namibian genocide was the eugenics studies conducted in an effort 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.

A stylized photograph, circa 1904, depicts German colonial soldiers packing skulls into crates to be shipped off to Germany for eugenics studies. The photograph was made into a postcard. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia.

“I am not happy with the way they [the Germans] treated our ancestors at that time. They killed our ancestors, their blood was running for us. We lost everything...our lands, our cattle, and our families. I will fight until my death to get back what we lost." - Erica, a Herero woman living in a Swakopmund ghetto. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Swakopmund, Namibia, May 4, 2017.

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.  

After von Trotha issued his infamous extermination order, thousands of Herero fled across the Kalahari for neighboring Botswana, where they remain in exile to this day. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Kalahari camel thorn trees, Namibia, May 20, 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. 

Herero historian Uahimisa Kaapehi and his daughter, Kareree, stand beside a Swakopmund statue commemorating fallen German soldiers during the Herero Wars. Activists in recent months splashed red paint as an act of defiance. Uahimisa wants his daughter and the future generations to know about her Herero history and what her ancestors endured. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Swakopmund, Namibia, May 4, 2017. 

This mass, unmarked graveyard in Swakopmund sits at the edge of an upscale neighborhood, with houses owned by predominantly by German-Namibians. As explained by Herero historian and town councillor, Uahimisa Kaapehi, approximately 1,000 people, mostly Herero, were buried in this mass graveyard. In one grave alone, the Germans put five to ten people. Uahimisa said that some of the neighborhood residents wanted to clear out the graveyard in recent years to build more houses, but that other community members put a stop to it. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Swakopmund, Namibia, May 4, 2017. 

There are several mass, unmarked burial grounds for the genocide victims located throughout Namibia. Bones are easily found laying around these shallow graves. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Swakopmund, Namibia, May 5, 2017. 

During the genocide, Herero and Nama prisoners of war were transported in railway cars from Namibia's interior to concentration camps located along Namibia's coastline. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Archives of Namibia.

"My great-grandfather and another relative refused to go to Lüderitz, and they were beaten by the Germans until they died on the spot. And then [the Germans] took their wives to Lüderitz. But when the train started to move, they started to throw their children out the window, to the families left behind. Among those, my father's mother was one of those thrown out the window. It's how we survived today." - Tjongora, Herero elder. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Omatupa Village, Namibia, May 20, 2017. 

"My surname, Katunohange, means 'no peace.' It was the name given to my family after the genocide by the eldest child survivor. Many children were left behind, their parents taken away - to a concentration camp, slave labour, it was not known. Some of the other native groups took in young Herero, but they made the Herero kids feel like outsiders. Katunohange comes from the idea that there was no sense of peace after the Herero and German wars." - Marvin, Herero tour guide. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Christ Church, Windhoek, Namibia, May 23, 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.

Herero historian Uahimisa Kaapehi and his daughter, Kareree, stand outside an abandoned train station in Swakopmund. Uahimisa wants his daughter and the future generations to know about her Herero history and what her ancestors endured. May 9, 2017. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Swakopmund, Namibia, May 4, 2017. 

Two Herero women elders dress in their traditional wear. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Omatupa Village, Namibia, May 20, 2017. 

Anushka, a Nama girl, stands outside a well-manicured WWI German graveyard in the dusty town of Gibeon. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Gibeon, Namibia, April 25, 2017. 

Herero historian Gerson Kaapehi lamenting the loss of his ancestors' land to German colonials. He wants the descendants of the genocide victims to come together to fight for their right to rectify the historical record so that their ancestors will not be forgotten. Photograph: © Kate Schoenbach, Otjimbingwe, Namibia, May 21, 2017. 

Using Format