Echoes of the Past – Couple Dedicated to Town’s History

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A private museum – and the only one in Gobabis – pays homage to years gone by and attempts to capture snippets of the town’s history. By Catherine Sasman GOBABIS A black and white picture of the first car arriving in Gobabis in 1909 after travelling from Dar es Salaam to Swakopmund for two-and-a-half years; an old suitcase that arrived in the town in 1928; a ring made of hair that has survived 105 years; a memory book with entries from 1789 to 1962; trinkets, decanters of all shapes and sizes; hardware and guns used by the German Schutztruppe stationed in the area. The private museum in Gobabis embraces the visitor in a time capsule, taking you back to the first German settlers and soldiers that penetrated the country since the proclamation of the German Protectorate of the then South West Africa in April 1884. The collection of items held at the museum was painstakingly gathered and carted – sometimes over hundreds of kilometres – by a dedicated man and wife team to preserve the town’s past for future generations and to attract visitors to the town interested in its history. “This is the history of Gobabis,” says Eberhard Eimbeck, now 85 years old. “Most of the items in the museum come from here.” Eimbeck and his wife Elfi (81), established the museum primarily from their own resources in 1995. The opening auspiciously coincided with the town’s centenary. They have since received some money to maintain the museum from the sale of the old German club on the outskirts of the town since the premises were sold to a church. The Eimbecks are second-generation German-Namibians whose families have settled to live and farm in the Steinhausen area of the Omaheke region. The Eimbecks settled in Gobabis after marrying in the oldest building of the town after the Second World War. The property is now owned by the Lutheran Church. The collection of wares now housed in the museum initially grew from a private collection of memorabilia of the first German settlers, and has since grown to include many other pieces donated to them by individuals eager to see their goods survive the ravages of time and modern nonchalance for generations to come. Some items belong to the Namibian Government’s National Museum, but it has since been viewed as prudent to keep these at the Eimbeck museum. Most items on show date from 1890 to 1920, and newer additions are added as people come forward with more donations. “If we do not take these in they will end up on scrap yards,” says Elfi. For the elderly couple, this is a labour for love. Visitors are shown around the museum, with each item’s background explained with much enthusiasm and insight. Thereafter, guests are invited to trail behind the couple in the yellow Mercedes Benz through the dusty roads to view still-standing historic buildings, some dating back more than 100 years, a remaining foundation near the big water tower of a fort occupied by German soldiers, and some of the grave sites of fallen soldiers. Part of the tour takes visitors to the “elephant fountains”. In the early days, the Omaheke region boasted of a strong elephant population that would roam the area for water and nourishment. It is believed that some elephant footprints still remain in places. At one of the fountains the town’s municipality has enlisted an artist from the Kavango region to build a four-metre big edifice of an elephant at one of the town’s fountains. If more money is available, the town plans to have two more sculptures built of a cow and calf elephant. “Many passing tourists, especially German tourists, are interested to see the place; they want to know what it looked and felt like,” said Eberhard. By the turn of the 20th century Gobabis was little more than a garrison town. It also served as a base camp for ivory hunters. It is, however, not clear how the town came to its name. Some argue that the name was derived from a Nama word that means “the place where people have quarrelled”. An early missionary to the area held that the name came from Khoe-Khoe Gowab words #khoa (or elephant) and -bis (place), meaning the place where elephants live. An early resident claimed that his ancestors called the place #khoandabis, or “the place where elephants come to lick”. Yet others believed that the true meaning of the town’s name has nothing to do with elephants whatsoever, concluding that the name was derived from the word goba, which means “to discuss, argue, and quarrel”. Notwithstanding the meaning of the name, the socio-political environment underwent a drastic change due to the Herero-German and Nama-German wars of 1904 to 1908 when large tracts of land were expropriated by the German Imperial Order of 1905. This resulted in a steady influx, however slow initially, of white settlers. They brought with them heavy metal cooking and kitchen wares, old gas-driven fridges, cameras, typewriters, radios and telephones, liquor and cheese machinery, gardening and tilling tools, hair-burning instruments, cooking books and antiquated pressure cookers, old wooden clocks, art collections, guns and bullets, military medals, a water pump driven by hot air dated 1883, pocket watches – many currently held in the museum. Additions came from German interns during the Second World War period bringing with them silverware and other trinkets from Kimberley or elsewhere where many were held, old shipment containers from Shell, old paintings and photographs. The first fort in the town was built in 1897. Attached to it was a field hospital – the Lazarette. This building, which incidentally still stands, served as the first place for the museum, which was later relocated next to the German club. Today, the Lazarette is under the administration of the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communication. It now stands deserted and is in a state of complete disrepair, with beer bottles strewn on its porch, rubbish littered inside, and inhabited by squatters. A request was made by the town’s municipality for the Police Drug Squad to occupy the Lazarette to prevent squatters and vandals from further destroying the building. The request was also made to have the Eimbeck museum move closer to town and into the old library where the police unit is currently housed. Some negotiations, however, still need to be done around these matters. Although the Eimbecks claim that their attempts to get assistance from the municipality and other museums fell on deaf ears so far, the municipality has expressed its intention to help the museum relocate to the centre of town. Fessy Marenga, local Economic Development Officer, said the municipality is aspiring to establish a tourism route that stretches from the Old Location in the east of the town to the elephants’ drinking holes, the grave sites, and the old library area. The relocation of the museum would be auspicious if placed at the old library. Another idea is to have donkey cars to transport visitors at a leisurely pace along the historic route. “Tourism must be promoted as part of the economic development of the town and we need support from the lodges surrounding the town, and any other private and regional council involvement,” said Marenga. In the meantime, said Marenga, infrastructure put up by the municipality – such as the elephant sculpture, which had been vandalised three days after it was built – should be stopped. The Eimbecks are keen to incorporate artefacts from other peoples to their collection. “Many Herero and Nama leaders have asked why their artefacts are not in the museum, but they have to bring these items themselves,” said Eberhard. “Our collection should not be seen as a political statement, but rather a historic one that should be preserved,” added Elfi.