Bones of contention heal old hurts

Published Jul 7, 2011


Many Namibians are hoping that a plane from Germany will land in Windhoek within the next month, bringing home very special cargo that can help heal bitter, century-old, psychological wounds.

The cargo consists of 20 polished skulls of Nama and Herero who perished during the rebellion against colonial occupier Imperial Germany between 1904 and 1908 in what was then called German South-West Africa.

The uprising was ruthlessly suppressed by German Schutztruppe (“protection force”) under the command of the notoriously cruel Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha, who led the genocide in which tens of thousands of people died, both by execution and through starvation and exhaustion from forced labour in appalling concentration camps at places like Shark Island, off Luderitz.

Because it was an era in which some races – like the German Aryans – considered themselves significantly superior to others such as the Nama and Herero, skulls of some of the victims were sent to Germany for “scientific investigation” in the belief that the results would support the racist hypothesis.

The presence of these skulls at the Charite University Hospital in Berlin has been a bitter pill for many Namibians for many years.

Although the German and Namibian governments have agreed on the skulls’ return, the transfer – initially scheduled for May – was delayed because of discussions around development aid and possible links to demands for reparations and apologies for war excesses. But now it seems likely that a Namibian delegation will be in Berlin at the end of the month to ceremoniously claim the skulls and return them to a final resting place in their homeland.

One of those hoping to be there is Johanna Kahatjipara, whose grandmother, her first-born daughter and other relatives were subjected to the excesses of Von Trotha. She also serves on the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu Council for Dialogue on the 1904 Genocide (OCD 1904), which is one of the non-government groups involved in the issue.

“God willing, I would like to be in Berlin, not only as a member of the committee but more so as a woman, to give voice to those who never had a voice. The women, grandmothers and mothers, of the skulls need to be represented in accompanying the skulls back to their motherland,” she said.

Ursula Trüper is a freelance journalist, author and historian, who has researched the issue and who recently published an article about it in the Berliner Zeitung.

In the article, she recalled Von Trotha’s well-publicised, notorious words: “Force with crass terrorism, and even the exercise of cruelty, was and is my policy.

“I destroy the rebellious tribes with floods of blood and floods of money.”

Trüper also explained the background to a 1906 photograph showing Schutztruppe packing skulls of resistance fighters for transport to Germany.

“The accompanying text states ‘a box of Herero skulls was recently sent by the troops of German South West Africa to the Pathology Institute in Berlin, where they are to be subjected to scientific scrutiny’.

‘The skulls, whose flesh was removed by Herero women using glass shards so they could be sent, belong to fallen and hanged Hereros.’”

Trüper quoted Kahatjipara’s reaction: “Imagine you have to scrape the skin off a skull you recognise as that of brother, or your sister, or your mother, your daughter or your son.

“Imagine the horror of having to live with this in later life. Imagine that you have to die with this memory. Imagine that as a descendant of the Herero people, you live with this knowledge.”

Kahatjipara, now 58, told Trüper she had been shocked and hurt when, as a child, she had first heard about these issues: “When I was young, my aunt Metha Kavetjurura told me that an uncle, Hakiria Kavetjurura, was amongst those people whose skulls were taken to Germany” – and had not wanted to believe them.

Trüper also described how the German administration had broken the rebellion, including through the use of concentration camps.

“In these camps the principle of extermination through work was first experimented with. Children, women and men lived here in catastrophic circumstances. Nearly every second prisoner dies of ill health, malnutrition or exhaustion,” she wrote.

“Historians believe that only some 20 percent of the former 80 000 Herero survived and that of the Nama people, about half died in the war or during imprisonment.

“Also, all their cattle and land was confiscated, declared state property and then sold on to settlers. To this day, the owners have not been compensated.”

She found reference to an eye-witness’s description of conditions at the Shark Bay concentration camp that was published in Cape Argus of September 28, 1905:

“Children, some not more than five years old, have to join the workers. The weight they have to carry bears no relationship to the strength of their bodies. I have seen women and children break down. After they fell with the soldiers in charge beating them with whips, with all their might, until they get up again.”

Kahatjipara said events had been “horrible and traumatising” in this period.

“I wonder how my ancestors then lived and even died with this trauma?” she asked rhetorically.

“I wonder how my grandmother felt to have given birth to a half-German first born as a result of an atrocious act imposed on her? I wonder how it felt for my grandmother to have been running and hiding during the war, with a half-German child, until she was captured and confined to a concentration camp at Karibib?

“I wonder how it felt to have been amongst the women who were skinning of these skulls? I wonder how my half-German aunt felt to witness violent acts such as people being beaten with sjamboks, people being hanged, and women skinning off the skulls?”

The ordeals of her family had included being humiliated and robbed of their dignity, self-respect, wealth and land.

“These and many more horrific acts were not only committed against my family but against the whole Ovaherero and Ovambanderu, as well as the Nama people.

“The women suffered in particular as caregivers and mothers to those skulls and as we were growing, the weight of that horrific history has been evident on their faces. How do we forget?”

Trüper is a distant cousin of Cape Town human rights activist and former senior government official Horst Kleinschmidt, through their respective family ties to Zara Schmelen, the black wife of a white missionary in early 19th century Namaqualand whose life Trüper documented in her book The Invisible Woman.

His interest, and conscience, was piqued because some of the children of missionary Heinrich Kleinschmidt and his and wife Hanna, the middle daughter of Zara, lived at the time of the rebellion when the atrocities took place, he explains.

In a recent newsletter to family and friends, Kleinschmidt said that, “with the consciousness and awareness of today”, he was keen to know whether any of the family’s forebears had been perpetrators of the “extraordinary human rights violations” that took place at that time.

“That generation of Kleinschmidts were 25 percent Nama, and one can surmise that they had connections and allegiances on both sides, the colonised and the coloniser. Whom did they side with? Or did they silently observe?

“I sigh deeply every time new weight of culpability comes to rest on the community I hail from.”

The “gruesome detail”, not previously accessible, had left a deep wound on southern Namibians to this day, he added.

“It is a wound toward which those in whose name it took place have done, and are doing, little or nothing. Just icy silence, notably from the German community in Namibia.”

Kleinschmidt argues that the possibility of building a reconciled future cannot happen without “knowing, confronting and acknowledging” that which had happened – “notably, if the truth is as horrible as it is here and has been suppressed”.

“Like elsewhere in the world – Chile and Argentina are pertinent examples – the abuse of power such as we are concerned with here (in Namibia) will rear its head again and again until one day it is acknowledged and confronted, albeit by the children, or the children of the children, of those in whose name these things took place.” - Cape Argus

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