Zemburuka – A genocide descendant’s search for answers

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Jordaania Andima

Israel Zemburuka travelled from Namibia to Germany to find closure in the people he was told are responsible for his tribe’s hardship and to educate them on their country’s past.

Namibian journalist Israel Zemburuka, 37, is surprised by the memory of Berlin. Inside the silent walls of the Columbiadamm cemetery lies a tombstone commemorating German troops who died in battle against Namibia’s Ovaherero and Nama people.

The 1904-1908 Battle of Waterberg, which took place at the Waterberg Plateau Park in central Namibia, marked what experts are now calling the “ first genocide of the 20th century”. An estimated 100,000 indigenous people died on the hands of the German military force, while only 2,000 German troops were killed.

Next to it is a plaque showcasing a map of Namibia to honour offenders of that colonial war. It doesn’t mention any sufferers from Namibia though. Instead, it gives thanks to seven soldiers who almost successfully carried out an annihilation of his people.

“I was hurt by this aspect especially knowing that they went on a killing spree of my people, to expand their land in a state that does not belong to them. It pains me,” Zemburuka expressed angrily. “The fact that they don’t want to apologise for the wrong doing of their people is more heart-breaking.”

Historical reports indicate that between 1885 and1903 German settlers seized about a quarter of the Ovaherero and Nama lands. In 1904 the tribes rebelled and as a result were massacred by German imperials troops, who raped the women and girls of the Ovaherero and Nama people.

In addition to land grabs, they forced many into the Kalahari Desert where they died of thirst and exhaustion. Others were captured and hurled in concentration camps, where the colonists carried out exterminations and scientific experiments on the tribe’s people, including forced labour.

Only a small number – 15,000 – managed to escape and fled to neighbouring Botswana, South Africa and Angola where they would become subsistence farmers.

For decades, the atrocities committed by the Germans went neglected until historians and activist groups uncovered records detailing the war. According to BBC producer David Olusoga and Namibian historian Casper Ericksen, in their book The Kaiser’s Holocaust, “the German community sought to deny what their nation and their ancestors had done.” So the South African regime – which also occupied Namibia after the German rule – “covered-up the genocides in the name of white unity.”

Since 1993, Ovaherero and Nama tribes have been campaigning for the German government to apologise and pay reparation for the lives lost. But the Bundestag, the German parliament, refuses to recognise the battle of South-West Africa – as Namibia was known then.

It was not until recently, in 2015, that the German parliament entered into formal negotiations with the Namibian government to discuss issues concerning the genocide after details of the war began to make international news.

Although the uncovering of the 1904 war brought attention to ‘African voices’, for Israel, that was not enough. In May last year, he travelled to Berlin, Germany, the very place where his country’s problems started, to learn more about “the perpetrators”.

“Our history and all attention to this topic have always been approached from the victims’ perspective. But what we often don’t hear in this trajectory are the voices of ordinary Germans and their feelings towards this matter,” says Israel, while standing 500 feet away from the place where they ordered the invasion of South-West Africa.

“I thought about the prospects of achieving true reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators and the victims who continue to suffer in so many ways.”

However, that thought soon disappeared. In his first week there, it became apparent that German’s ill treatment toward his people have been forgotten and in most instances ignored. He roamed some of its tapered streets speaking to German nationals, asking them if they know about their country’s colonial past in Africa.

Many of them nodded “no” in disbelief of his accusations, despite the fact that the city still has signs praising its former colonial government and the graveyards of soldiers buried at the Columbiadamm memorial that remains from the Second Reich period.

Speaking at a commemorative event in June, the German Ambassador to Namibia, Christian Schlaga, stated that Germany is fully well aware of the crimes committed by its former rulers. And although those atrocities cannot be undone, it acknowledges that the “wounds and scars” left on the souls of the victims have “cast a shadow over the relationship” between the two countries.

But the problem still remains. Those ‘wounds and scars’ are not documented in any German history books, explains Nicolai Röschert, Deputy Chair Person of AfricAvenir – an international organisation dedicated to advocating critical reappraisal of African-European history.

“It is hard to find people that are educated on the subject of the war as Germans colonial past appears now where in the history books. That is a shame,” expressed Röschert, while shaking his head side to side.

Ironically, though, the same can be said about Namibia. As a young boy, Israel only heard sections of this history from his maternal grandmother. She would narrate the tribe’s past through traditional songs and dance rituals. At school, his history teacher described the European settlers as missionaries who came to Namibia to help the natives with building infrastructure, education and health.

When he grew older, Israel eventually concluded the songs were indeed something of historic proportions. Thanks to awareness campaigns on the war made by late Ovaherero chief, Kuaima Riruako, in the 2000s.

“The milestones of the war’s effort and the bravery of our men, which today is preserved in our traditional songs provided me with a foundation of that history. But ultimately it’s these teachings from my dad and family that influenced my journey to Berlin, after he passed in 2015,” Israel clarifies.

Israel’s father was a tribal historian born in Botswana 28 years after the war. He repatriated back to Namibia after the country’s independence in 1990. According to Israel, his great-grandparents were part of the remaining 15,000 Ovaherero people who survived. And at his father’s memorial, everyone who remains in Botswana shared the same story of loss and how the genocide is still present in their lives.

“It hurts more that my family is currently torn – living in two countries as a result of the expansion of that German empire,” he says. “And not many people know about their struggle and hardship.”

He is not alone. As some German students like Felix Henn, an intern at the Left Party office in the German Bundestag, also never once learned about African studies in high school.

Felix pronounced that he came to learn about that history, particularly that of Namibia, when he joined a volunteer programme – the International Youth Service. Founded by the ministry of development, it offers unskilled Germans the opportunity to spend six months in developing countries like Ghana, Togo and many others sharing their time through volunteerism as part of that community.

Upon their return, they participate in community seminars to spread the word of “giving back” to their fellow peers.

Felix stands out for another reason: his passion for historical studies stirred to lecturing young people on the German-Namibian war. He stumbled upon the issue in a Namibian newspaper while visiting the country with his parents.

“I was shocked that we never once learned about it,” he said. “We learned about the Holocaust, the Genocide of the Jews and but never once do the books mention anything about this event,” he admits. “It’s frightening to say that they don’t even mention the colonies that were once owned by Germany.”

On a Wednesday afternoon, Felix took Israel to Berlin’s oldest university – the Humboldt University of Berlin – to conduct a questionnaire on the topic with some students from the social sciences department.

They interviewed about nine to ten students on their background concerning the Namibian issue, and only two gave correct answers on the genocide, while the rest could not identify or recall ever hearing about it.

Activist Christian Kopp from Berlin Postkolonial says there is a need to restructure the educational system in both Germany and Namibia. “They must start teaching on the genocide. Additionally, museums should also start exhibitions on the findings of the genocide,” he comments.

German Member of Parliament Niema Movassat, however, says it will be difficult to implement that part of the history in the schools curriculum, as most private institutions will reject the motion. He agrees nonetheless that both the German and Namibian governments should introduce cultural exchange programmes as part of their negotiations.

“We must get young people to engage and to learn about the past that is the only way forward,” he adds. “This includes bringing individuals from Namibia [like Israel] to come and conduct research on the genocide from here.”

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