Repatriate remains to restore dignity

2018-09-16 10:29
People queue to see the remains of ancestors who were exterminated by German colonisers and then taken to Germany where they were kept for scientific research. Now some of them have been returned ‘home’

People queue to see the remains of ancestors who were exterminated by German colonisers and then taken to Germany where they were kept for scientific research. Now some of them have been returned ‘home’

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Under clear Namibian skies in Windhoek’s Parliament Gardens a massive white marquee provides shade to the affected descendants of the victims of the first genocide of the 20th century.

On August 31 they gathered here – with traditional leaders, former presidents, dignitaries, members of the diplomatic corps, visitors and the public – to witness the return of their ancestors’ remains. They died in the genocide committed by the German colonial army (from 1904 to 1908) and were then shipped to Berlin to be studied for race “science”.

On this sombre occasion Chief Vekuii Rukoro, the leader and representative of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, reminded everyone that it was a day of mourning for the Ovaherero and Nama people in Namibia and the diaspora. A day to “mourn the horrendous deaths” and to ask: “What have we done?”

Chief Rukoro’s question haunted us as we gazed upon the remains of the victims of the genocide, in which men of the global north committed so much violence that they almost erased the Ovaherero and Nama peoples.

And now we ask: Will the Federal Republic of Germany take full responsibility for the crimes against humanity committed by men who acted in its interest when the then South West Africa, now Namibia, was colonised by German troops between 1884 and 1915?

Will Germany live up to the true meaning of its creed “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (Unity and Justice and Freedom”), not just for the German nation, but also for the Namibian communities who suffered pain and grief when their close ones were killed by the Germans.

As we mourn the inhumane deaths of thousands of Namibians, we cry out: “Will there be justice for the victims of General Adrian Dietrich Lothar von Trotha?”

It was Von Trotha who issued the notorious extermination order that almost wiped out the entire community of the Nama and Ovaherero during the German occupation.

Will there be justice for the Nama and Herero communities whose ancestors fled the calamity and are now scattered in the diaspora, in neighbouring countries, including South Africa and Botswana?

The period between 1904 and 1908 was a critical one in the life of indigenous people in South West Africa. It was a period marked by the proclamation of the extermination order and the establishment of places such as Shark Island, which was “… one of the three small inlets that shielded Lüderitz harbour from the South Atlantic” and became one of the concentration camps built by the Germans to orchestrate acts of genocide to exterminate the Herero and Nama for German settlement in South West Africa.

The spine-chilling reports of eye witnesses prove that it was a deliberate extermination of the Nama and Herero prisoners – men, women and children.

In their book, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide, David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen recorded the tragic history: “Already weakened by six months of captivity and hard labour in the north, the Nama suffered a rapid deterioration in their health within just weeks of their arrival [on Shark Island on September 9 1906].

On October 5 missionary Emil Laaf observed “large numbers of the people are sick, mostly from scurvy, and every week around 15 to 20 [Nama] die … of the Herero just as many are dying, so that a weekly average of 50 is counted”. But the Nama were not left to die, they were worked to death – conscripted into forced labour to build a quay in Lüderitz harbour, standing in freezing water for most of the day. More than two months later Laaf wrote: “The dying among the Nama is frighteningly high. There are often days when as many as 18 people die.”

He reported that Samuel Izaak, one of the Witbooi chieftains, told Brother Hermann Nyhof, a missionary, that “the community is doomed … [and that] if it continues like this, it will not be long before the entire people has completely died out”. Laaf and Nyhof saw the humanity of the indigenous people of South West Africa on the brink of being wiped out under the leadership of Von Trotha, who vowed to break their spirit.

In the “… concentration camps, female Herero and Nama prisoners were forced to boil the severed heads of their own people. The skulls of the dead Herero and Nama were then placed in crates and shipped to museums, collections and universities in Germany.”

When the remains of these worthy ancestors were brought back to the “mother land”, I joined the Namibian people to honour them and to reflect on their tragic fate, how it must have felt to be banished on the rocky, desolate Shark Island with no food, no warm clothes and no means to survive – just left there to die.

What did they do to deserve this?

At the repatriation ceremony I gazed upon the two transparent museum cases which together held four human skulls of the Nama, Herero and Khoisan ancestors. There were numbers and notes inscribed on their foreheads and skulls. Teeth were missing and the lower jaws were fractured.

Behind them, a large wooden crate was covered in the Namibian national flag, flanked by military personnel. In it there were 27 human remains that had just been repatriated from Germany to Namibia, a few among many that are yet to return.

The presence of military personnel brought home to us that the German colonial army packed these human remains into crates and shipped them out of South West Africa to museums in Germany. More than a century later, the Namibian army had carried the same human remains in a military vehicle of the new nation of Namibia from the Parliament Gardens to the National Museum, to restore rights under a new democratic dispensation.

But we should ask: “Is the museum the appropriate place to house mortal remains?” Are we not violating these worthy ancestors again, causing more trauma by returning their remains to an institution that violated them in the first place? Are we not dehumanising them, again? Are we not suggesting they are relics from the past and have no bearing on us today, thus should be kept in a museum and perhaps be forgotten? Are we not suggesting a museum is a grave site in which the bones of the dead should be kept? And lastly, would these ancestors have approved and consented to having their remains kept in a controversial place such as a museum?

But Namibia is not facing this challenge alone, for there are other museums in southern Africa where the violated bones of the dead are still being locked in museum boxes and university cabinets waiting for a moment when they are returned to the communities and countries from which they were stolen and collected.

In South Africa, for example, it is reported that there are human remains of Namibians, Aborigines from Australia, Peruvians, the Khoisan, Nguni and other indigenous peoples that are still locked in the storage vaults of the oldest museums.

These remains are spoils of colonial loot and wars where blood was spilt, the blood of innocent people.

I argue that by holding these unethically acquired remains in their collections, these institutions have become “colonial crime scenes” that require an intensive “decolonial” investigation. I argue further that the truth about the remains of these ancestors, their biographies and the circumstances in which they ended up in museums for race “science” is still confined to the elite few who control and dictate who should have access to the narrative about these racialised dead. And affected communities may never find out about how their ancestors ended up being in museums and universities as “objects” of scientific study and observations.

It is against this background that we need a new framework of transparency, full disclosure and truth about the role that museums played in perpetrating past crimes of unethical “science” against humanity and the effects of these crimes on society today.

Zenzile Khoisan has suggested the need for a “Museums Truth Commission” and I would like to extend this idea to a “Museum Truth, Repatriation and Reparations Commission” (#MuseumTRRC).

- Kasibe is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Cape Town and Chevening Scholar

Are we not re-violating and re-traumatizing these worthy ancestors by returning their remains to the very concept of an institution that violated them in the first place?


Should the remains of ancestors be kept in museums? Is a ‘Museum Truth, Repatriation and Reparations Commission’ realistic? SMS us on 35697 using the keyword MUSEUM and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50. By participating, you consent to receiving occasional marketing material

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