By Brad Morbeck
Most Americans have never heard of Namibia, a relatively new nation, whose two million citizens are thinly spread across a vast, mostly desert terrain. Sandwiched between Angola and South Africa in the southern part of Africa, Namibia is a well-known tourist spot for European and African travelers.
Though Namibia just gained its independence in 1990, it has a long history: stretching back to the 1880s, it was known as “German South-West Africa” and was one of Germany’s few colonies.
As an anthropology major and German minor at Haverford College, I learned about this little-known colonial history in depth through a course with Imke Brust entitled “German Colonialism and World War I.” That experience led me to apply for funding from Haverford’s Center For Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) to carry out a full-time internship in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, this summer.
In Windhoek, I worked with the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN), a non-governmental organization that helps museums around Namibia secure funding and preserve Namibia’s cultural history. I helped MAN produce a mobile exhibition which will travel around the country, entitled “The Namibian Genocide: Learning from the Past,” which involved researching historical images from the National Archives of Namibia and using history books, journals, and Internet sources to condense colonial history into concise panels for the exhibition.
The “Namibian genocide” in question took place from 1904 through 1908, during the era of German colonialism. When a rinderpest outbreak devastated the herds of the cattle-farming Herero and Nama peoples in central Namibia, it forced them to be more and more economically dependent as wage laborers for German colonizers.
Increasingly landless, overworked, and finding no justice in the colonial legal system, several Herero and Nama clans rose up in arms against the government in 1904. Although their guerrilla tactics were very effective early on, the Germans sent more and more Schutztruppe (colonial soldiers) to the colony to brutally put down the uprising.
When the Herero and Nama fighters were overwhelmed, the German colonizers placed the fighters, along with the woman and children of their families, into concentration camps around the country. Conditions were horrifying: as a result of starvation, exhaustion, and overwork, by 1908 between 50-75 percent of Herero and Nama peoples had been exterminated.
Soon after World War I, control of South-West Africa passed to the neighboring South African regime and the era of apartheid began. The events of colonialism, however, remained forgotten and untold in most official accounts of history. Until the 1960s, there was almost no scholarship focusing on the Namibian genocide. The German government only officially recognized the events as a genocide in 2015, and has since entered into talks for reparations with the Namibian government.
Even today, after independence, there are still no official state monuments dedicated to victims of the genocide, and high school history education is sparse. It only uses the word “uprising,” not genocide. The mobile exhibition I worked on with MAN will be one of the first of its kind to explicitly address the genocide in Namibia.
Immersing myself in Namibian history gave me a first-hand insight into how history is produced and remembered. The production of history is not an objective process — it is strongly influenced by power, politics, and social dynamics. Namibia and Windhoek bear the legacy of colonialism and apartheid divisions today, not only in income disparities between races (some of the highest in the world), but also in whose stories get told in textbooks, and who gets honored in memorials and monuments.
I am extremely grateful to Haverford College and the CPGC for giving me a hands-on opportunity to see how the history I read about in the classroom continues to shape a city and an entire nation. It is inspiring to see how grassroots, community-based efforts in Namibia are pushing to challenge how history is remembered and retold.
To build upon this amazing experience, I hope to return to Windhoek next summer with more funding from Haverford, in order to carry out ethnographic research for my senior thesis in anthropology. The socioeconomic and racial divisions in Windhoek remain stark, and I hope to add to the understanding of how the events of colonialism and apartheid continue to shape Namibia’s present, and its future.