Namibian skulls ignite anger

2011-10-05 07:43

Windhoek - Human skulls taken from Namibia by German colonisers returned home after more than 100 years, but the reconciliatory gesture instead has ignited anger and renewed demands that Germany pay for its sins in this corner of Africa where more than 60 000 people were killed.

Tuesday's return of 20 skulls taken to Germany more than a century ago for racist experiments also has fueled anger about current injustices by a people decimated when they rebelled against German colonisers.

Historians say the genocide committed by German soldiers in what they called South West Africa was a precursor to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews.

The Herero people numbered more than 85 000 and were the most powerful and richest with herds of tens of thousands of cattle roaming a third of the country when Germany began its colonial adventure here.

When the Herero rose up, the slaughter began. Within three years, 85% were dead, their land and cattle stolen, some bodies beheaded.

Today, the Herero make up perhaps 10% of Namibia's population of 2.1 million - and some still dispossessed of land are threatening to invade farms being worked by the descendants of the white settlers who seized it more than 100 years ago.

University professor Hoze Riruako, a senior adviser to the paramount chief of the Herero, warned that the tribe's patience was running out.

"If something is not done, we cannot guarantee that you will not see the same kind of land grabs that you see in Zimbabwe," where government-sanctioned violence has forced out most white farmers and a one-time food exporter has become dependent on food aid.

Ready for battle

Passions ran high on Tuesday as people waited from 2 a.m. for the dawn arrival of a plane from Berlin. The skulls were welcomed to their ancestral homeland by warriors on horseback and teary-eyed women ululating in joy even amid their sorrow.

Tears poured down the cheeks of one wrinkle-faced Nama woman among hundreds in ceremonial dress - the Nama in white with gathered skirts, the Herero women in scarlet and emerald green Victorian robes topped by headdresses shaped like the horns of cows that are the traditional source of wealth. They sang hymns and praise songs.

"We are ready for battle! We are going to fight!" Herero warriors in military uniform chanted as a leader, chest covered in animal skins, led a cleansing ceremony watched by tribal chiefs in red and yellow hats.

Later, that traditional war cry was expressed differently by a young Herero man at Parliament Garden, where people processed past two of the skulls on display in glass cases in the shade of mauve jacaranda and flame-red flamboyant trees.

"We fought the Germans. We fought the Afrikaners," said a young man, referring to white South African settlers. "We are not afraid to take on our own government."

He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. He said he was 24 years old and has never had a job

"My family only has a small piece of land, too small to run all our cattle, and too small to share among all the sons. There's no future for me," he said.

"Horrifically high" inequalities

Veneruru Korumbo, head of the Herero Youth League, said every second house in Herero areas has an unemployed young person. She blamed an education system in crisis and a government she accused of using international development aid to benefit the majority tribe, the Ovambo.

Her charges were echoed by Phil ya Nangoloh, head of Namibian Rights and Responsibilities human rights group.

"Areas that are populated by the Hereros are less developed, schools and hospitals are dilapidated, you have to cover long distances to reach them, and the roads are not tarred as they are in northern areas, where the government comes from," he said.

Ya Nangoloh comes from the Ovambo tribe that makes up half the population, dominates the government and whose lands were never confiscated by the Germans.

"It's not just the Hereros, but all other ethnic groups that are being marginalised," he said.

Despite that, most successful black commercial farmers in Namibia are Herero, though their numbers are small. Most commercial farmland and the economy and industry remain in the hands of whites.

Ya Nangoloh noted that Namibia is not a poor country, with its diamonds, uranium and other minerals, beef and fish exports and tourism based on annual visits by 100 000 Germans. But he described "horrifically high" inequalities, with the poorest 20% of the population earning only 1.4 percent of national income, while the richest 20% enjoys nearly 80 percent.

Prime Minister Nahas Angula denied there was any discrimination, saying land and services are scarce for all Namibians. He said many people were overwrought by their emotions Tuesday: "This history is still fresh in the memory of many people and this is generating an understandable passion and anger."

Burned alive

In his office overlooking Parliament Garden, where traditional chiefs were recounting their people's tragic history, Angula gave a brief version to a reporter.

He said the Namibian skulls sent to Germany first were ordered around 1903 by Eugen Fischer, the Nazi anthropologist who believed he could prove that blacks were inferior to whites by measurements of their cranium.

To fill the order, German troops made the Herero dig up the graves of relatives and ancestors.

When the Hereros rebelled and killed more than 100 German troops, Gen. Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha issued his infamous order that "the Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the 'long tube' [cannon]. Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children".

German troops drove the Hereros into the desert, where they poisoned the wells. Stragglers were bayoneted to death or burned alive en masse on human pyres. Some escaped to modern-day South Africa and Botswana. Some were spared to serve as slave labour and sex slaves in concentration camps, where thousands more died.

Thousands of Namibia's Demara and Nama people also were killed when they rebelled.

Yale University historian Benjamin Madley, in a dissertation titled "From Africa to Auschwitz," argues that this mass murder of civilians, with impunity and in defiance of European martial codes, corroded German military morality and set the scene for even more extreme crimes by Hitler in Eastern Europe.

Tragic chapter

It was not until 2004, on the centenary of the German-Herero war, that Germany apologised, acknowledging "political and moral responsibility for the past and colonial guilt".

But successive German governments have carefully refrained from admitting there was a genocide and refuse to pay reparations, pointing instead to generous development aid. Germany has announced development aid of $188m for 2011-2012.

A Herero genocide lawsuit, filed in the US against the German government and German companies that benefited from slave labour and land confiscation, failed several years ago because of technicalities.

At the airport when the skulls arrived on Tuesday, Angula indicated it was time to move on, saying: "The Namibian nation accepts these mortal remains as a symbolic closure of a tragic chapter."

That sentiment was not shared by the many Hereros who keep alive through oral history the tragedy of their nation and who still sing the war songs chanted by ancestors who fearlessly confronted German cannons with their spears, arrows and a few rifles.

  • letsee - 2011-10-05 08:03

    It is true that colonialism abused of their presence in Africa in many unacceptable ways but there was lots of good that is never mentioned and lots of aid and other sponsorships never mentioned too. The world realizes that Africans want to be given all the time, want big cars and houses and quick cash without working for it. Thus the new generation believe that they can life from claims of a time when they weren't even born?

      LiraShea - 2011-10-05 08:36

      The bad outweighs the good. They should never have come to Africa. FIN

      daaivark - 2011-10-05 08:41

      But it happened and they did and here we are now, several generations later, trying to forge a peaceful way ahead.

      Libertador - 2011-10-05 09:37

      Ah, Daaivark, always with his concilliatory approach. Perhaps oneday I would have your optimism.

      Libertador - 2011-10-05 09:41

      The only positive thing about colonialism is when it ended.

      daaivark - 2011-10-05 10:01

      The fact that I try to be conciliatory in no way means I am optimistic, Libertador. I am in fact quite the opposite. But I believe that peaceful co-existence is the ONLY way to get anywhere, and though I have little hope that people will ever be able to set aside their outmoded stone-age ideologies and actually just get on with the business of making this lovely country work, I believe that one has no option but to keep trying. If not for the sake of my generation (for which I really hold very little hope) then for that of my children or possible grandchildren, should my kids ever go forth and multiply. My generation is beyond redemption.

      Gumboot - 2011-10-05 14:05

      AMEN daaivark!!! When people can stop looking for anything and anyone to blame, can set aside the past and finally get to moving forward constructively and peacefully, then, and only then, will the world become a better place. BTW Liberator, nobody ever denied that Colonialism etc was wrong.

      Libertador - 2011-10-05 15:39

      Tell that to the millions who believe that Africans should be gratefull for their enslavement and oppression.

  • Zambezi - 2011-10-05 09:40

    It's all about money, as usual. Hell, it was 100 years ago, who cares. Get over this whole tradition / culture issue. It's history, long time over. Forget about the past and try and concentrate on the future. But oh no, we can't do that, it's easier to bring up the past and make the Europeans feel guilty, so they give us money, instead of looking to the future and working hard to make some legitimate money.

      Libertador - 2011-10-05 10:26

      For where does you think the new day and the fresh future come from? The present and the future are built on the past. With all due respect, only the very near sighted can suppose that they can defy historical gravity and float above it all, sublimely free of all roots.

      Tom - 2011-10-05 11:12

      Say that to the man or woman still suffering the effects of apartheid and abject poverty.......with little or NO hope of a better tomorrow.

      Libertador - 2011-10-05 11:30

      There are millions in this country of which your sarcasm applies to, and to them, it is not funny at all.

      Tom - 2011-10-05 12:06

      My reply was to Zambezi......

      Libertador - 2011-10-05 12:19

      I am then retracting my response to you.

  • Tom - 2011-10-05 11:07

    I find it comforting that my darker skninned brothers often refer to the injustices of the past when commenting or justifying their points of view.... However, many, NOT all, of my lighter skinned brothers prefer to make make racist comments in relies on facts and history while the other relies on racist idealogies and prejudice......seems that the thinking and mindset of the colonisers has filtered down the generations.......

      daaivark - 2011-10-05 11:21

      I'm glad you make the all important distinction "NOT all", as I have thoughout my life tried to avoid all dogmatic "isms", and most importantly in SA, racism, and I truly hope that I have carried that way of thinking over to my children.

  • Charl - 2011-10-05 13:14

    The problem here is not between an European colonialiser and an oppressed people. It is a problem of greed. Let's imagine for one moment that the evil white European never arrived in Namibia. To quote from the article "The Herero people numbered more than 85 000 and were the most powerful and richest with herds of tens of thousands of cattle roaming a third of the country when Germany began its colonial adventure here." Taking this situation forward a 100 years, this means that most of Namibia's land and riches would have been in the hands of the Heroro minority. Will the Ovamba then cry foul and demand reparations? Imagine South Africa for a moment as well. Remove the white man from history. Then one can easily see the mighty Zulu kingdom taking up much of the country. Exterminating most of the other tribes they deem inferior of a possible threat. Will the Xhosa, Sotho and Tswana of an imaginary modern day South Africa claim retribution from the Zulu people? Looking at Africa's history both instances would've in all likelihood ended in civil war and genocide. We need to come up with better, logical and more intelligent solutions facing us. A peaceful solution is there, all it needs is for the respective governments to see it and implement it.

      Michael McN - 2011-10-05 18:53

      Charl asks us to imagine a Namibia and a South Africa that never was, that developed untouched by colonizing racist European exploiters. Surely the rival native groups' conflicts would have caused the same or similar problems as exist in the real world today, but with different malefactors and possibly different victims, Charl asks us to imagine and agree. Fallacy and nonsense. It is just as likely to speculate that the Herero and their neighbors might have developed peaceful alliances or perhaps intermarried, rendering competition with the Ovambo or others needless. If one ethnic group absorbs another through mutual agreement, there is no moral penalty redounding to the absorbing group. But if an invader rapes, loots, steals and then exterminates another civilization's people and property, the guilt attaches itself to the marauding race for eternity or until the survivors of the victims freely give the marauders' progeny forgiveness, whichever comes first. Equity can never be equated with iniquity. Peace is not war. Good is not evil. No amount of imagining can ever make it so. We just don't have time to waste worrying about what might have been done when there's so much to do to remedy what has been done.

  • german.mbaisa - 2011-11-07 19:18

    All that we as Herero are saying is, Germany should appologise and pay us reparation as they did or still doing to the Jews after what Hittler did to them, that's all.We lost almost everything, its a miracle that we the descendants are still here, fine, 100 years is a long time back but...walk a mile in our shoes, what could we have done if we where colonised by the Germans for close to fifty years and then another fifty years of Apartheid. The extermination order of General Von Trotha of the German army is the most painful part, just because my ancestors, you cant have my land nor my animals?? So sad! Germany show some humility and say...we are sorry and hope this form of compensation will help you "buy" your land and livestock back.or else lets have our land back without compensation because they got it for free anyway. Free is even an understatement considering the manner they got the land.

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