Waterberg, Namibia – The lacy shadows of the acacia trees lie over the dry grass. A chilly winter breeze sighs through the branches. In the sparse shade, Jephta Nguherimo, a lifelong activist for restorative justice for the Herero people, holds the rusted remains of some military equipment, it’s impossible to tell now what it might have been used for.
The 59-year-old throws it back on the ground. “I’m thinking of all the women and children who died here,” he says.
He is standing on the site of the Battle of Waterberg where, on August 11, 1904, the German colonial army decimated Herero rebels who were fighting the colonists who had imposed their rule on the country and seized much of its land. The killings were part of a German campaign of collective punishment between 1904 and 1908 that is today recognised as the 20th century’s first genocide.
But his ancestors were not mere victims, he tells Al Jazeera: “This war was the first resistance to colonialism.”
Jephta was born in the village of Ombuyovakura in Namibia but lives in the United States now. He has a beard streaked with grey and speaks softly and thoughtfully. A poet and a deeply spiritual person, he believes passionately in justice for his people but also in reconciliation with the Germans who massacred tens of thousands of Herero, Nama and San, ethnic communities indigenous to the country then known as South West Africa.
“I have great respect for my grandparents and parents for the extraordinary efforts they took to protect us children from the transgenerational trauma wrought by the Genocide,” he wrote in 2020. “[D]uring their storytelling about the 1904 war, Herero men would never mention the genocide. They would only speak about the war of resistance.”
In 1884, after the Berlin Conference, which apportioned African lands to European powers, Namibia was taken over by the Germans. By the early 1900s, nearly 5,000 German settlers had arrived and ruled over some 250,000 Indigenous Africans. As German control grew, the rights and freedoms of the African peoples were rapidly diminished. The Hereros and other groups were systematically driven off their ancestral lands and assigned to so-called “reserves”.
Africans who were deemed to have broken the law were flogged and sometimes hanged, and even German official records show numerous cases of white settlers given light sentences for committing rape and murder. This ongoing brutality, combined with the land issue, created widespread anger and resentment among the local populations.
By 1904, the Herero, under their leader Samuel Maherero, rose up against the German colonial invaders and, on January 12, several of their mounted soldiers attacked the town of Okahandja. More than 120 people, most of them German, were killed.
Soon the conflict grew, with the Herero initially being highly successful, sweeping through the poorly defended colonial settlements while the Germans struggled to organise their defence under their governor, Theodor von Leutwein. In June, the Kaiser removed him from battlefield command and appointed General Lothar von Trotha in his stead. He immediately instituted a military policy, not of pacification but of extermination. Soon the Herero were overwhelmed.
As dawn broke on that morning of August 11 on the Waterberg Plateau, some 50,000 or more Herero men, women and children woke to their simple huts being pounded by shells. The men rushed to fight the Germans, leaving their families behind where they were killed by a brigade of some 6,000 Schutztruppe (the official name of Germany’s troops in the African territories of its empire). Although numerically weaker, the Germans had superior weapons – including Maxim machine guns and artillery – and quickly destroyed the Herero defence.
Early in the battle, the Herero fighters nearly overran the German artillery positions but Von Trotha ordered the machine guns brought forward. Their rapid fire drove the Herero back, and thousands were slaughtered. Those who survived fled east through a gap in the German defences into the harsh, waterless Kalahari desert, known as the Omaheke, where tens of thousands died. Many perished from thirst while others were rounded up and taken to concentration camps and used as slave labour.
“My grandmother told me about our people and their flight to the East and how our people perished, about the dispossession of their land and of their cattle and all the terrible things they experienced in the concentration camps,” Jephta says, looking around thoughtfully, as he adjusts his dreadlocks over the shoulder of his grey safari-style shirt in the warming day. The wind grows softer over the bone-white, swaying winter grass that carries his words.
‘A genocidal pursuit’
More than 500km (310 miles) away from Waterberg in the coastal town of Swakopmund, Anton von Wietersheim, a softly spoken, third-generation German Namibian, sits in his neat, almost nostalgically German-looking house. In his living room, the sun shines through the wide glass window. Over a cup of tea, he shares his family memories.
“My first ancestor in then-German South West Africa was an uncle of my father who settled on a farm near Windhoek in 1901. He was among the first settlers attacked during the Herero uprising and was killed on the second day of hostilities on the 13th of January, 1904.
“The German Empire sent reinforcements immediately after the start of the war, and my maternal grandfather – then 19 years old – was among those arriving in February 1904. He fought in battles against the Herero as well as the Nama, survived the war and remained in the colony as a farmer.
“I have great understanding for the uprising, and the surviving brother of my uncle said that it was not strange that the Herero were rising up because their land was taken, and the traders were ruthless. They took cattle in an unfair way. I can understand why that made them rise up, but the war eventually turned into a genocidal pursuit.”
As the Herero were rapidly defeated by Von Trotha’s forces, they had tried to reorganise while they fled, and they hoped their last stand at Waterberg would bring victory. But the Germans had planned well. They allowed the Herero to flee into the Omaheke and then Von Trotha placed troops to prevent the Herero from escaping the desert.
Jephta grew up not knowing the full extent of the horror endured by his forebears. It was only when he heard the story of his great-grandmother and her flight through the waterless Omaheke in an attempt to reach safety that he knew his life’s calling had been revealed. “My great-grandmother was too old and tired, and she was left behind. They left her under a tree to die. She died a death without dignity, and I wanted to understand her life,” he says.
The family was forced to make an impossible choice: to sacrifice her life in order to spare their own. The pain of that choice still echoes down the generations.
It was in the flight through the desert that the German war against the Herero became a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. General Von Trotha ordered his troops to set up a line of outposts hundreds of kilometres long to prevent the Herero from turning back to their abandoned farms and villages, and he ordered others to prevent them from using waterholes.
On October 3, 1904, at the remote Osombo zo Windimbe desert waterhole, General von Trotha read out his infamous Vernichtungsbefehl, or Extermination Order:
“I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer. . . Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children. I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at. Such are my words to the Herero people.”
The desperate, dying Herero wandered in search of refuge and of waterholes, many of them poisoned or sealed off by the Germans. Tens of thousands of people died. Finally, political outrage in Germany at this colonial inhumanity forced the Kaiser to telegraph Von Trotha to withdraw the order on December 8.
By late 1904, the Nama people, some of whom had been loosely allied to the Germans, to protect their own lands, had seen enough of the Europeans’ brutality and feared the growing hostility and open racism the white people were now showing towards them. Their most charismatic leader, Hendrik Witbooi, who was in his 70s, summoned a council of elders to hear reports of the atrocities.
Soon after, Witbooi called upon all the Nama to fight the Germans. Many clans responded, including those of another famous leader, Jacob Morenga, joining a war against the colonialists, killing prominent men, but sparing women and children.
The German soldiers struggled against heat, thirst and the constant strain of the Nama’s lightning raids. There were some 200 raids and skirmishes before Witbooi was mortally wounded in late 1905 by shrapnel in one of his attacks. He died three days later, and the Nama alliance fell apart. Soon after, the stragglers surrendered, and the Nama were rounded up, along with the last emaciated surviving Herero, and sent to concentration camps.
The family of Ida Hoffmann, a Nama activist whose ancestor was murdered by the Germans, has carried a gruesome story down the generations.
“The Germans also killed my great-grandfather’s daughter, Sara Snewe,” Ida says. “According to oral history that was carried for generations. Sara was pregnant at the time she was killed. The Germans then cut her open, took out the baby and killed it in cold blood.”
They still honour her memory at the desert grave where she was buried.
‘People died here’
Jephta remembers the story of his other great-grandmother on his mother’s side. “She was captured in the Omaheke after the extermination order was withdrawn and sent to Lüderitz to the concentration camp at Shark Island where they worked as slave labour. Most people died, but she was among the few who survived.”
He pauses thoughtfully. “That’s why I’m here today.”
Shark Island, a narrow peninsula in the harbour of the tiny seaside town of Lüderitz, a leftover settlement of German colonialism, was one of five concentration camps set up in the country, but it is the most notorious. Here, Nama and Herero people endured horrendous conditions. They erected makeshift shelters of blankets, rags and driftwood to try and protect themselves against the freezing wind and mist that blew off the southern Atlantic. They were given only a few hundred grams of food and there were no sanitary facilities, so their waste was left to decompose in the open, leading to disease running rampant, especially among the children. Women were raped. The sexual exploitation of African women was not only condoned, it was enthusiastically recorded. Many pornographic photographs of the women were turned into postcards and sent back to Germany.
Those who were strong enough – barely – were marched out to do forced labour on the harbour and on the nearby railroad. No one knows the exact number of people who were imprisoned in the camps. Records are haphazard or non-existent, but, where they were kept, they show thousands of deaths of Herero and Nama.
On a visit to Shark Island with Jephta, the wind blows cold and hard across the barren rocks that house a campsite and ablution blocks, empty that day, but clearly waiting for tourists to camp, oblivious of the site’s true history.
Jephta is visibly upset and finds it hard to speak. “This is where my ancestors were kept, historians call it a death camp. Somehow my great-grandmother survived, but most people died from starvation.”
Jephta gestures around him. “This is our Auschwitz, our Dachau. Is there a campsite in those places? No.
“This is a holy place. People died here and medical experiments were done on them. Their biggest fear was to go to the medical centre near here because they knew they wouldn’t come back alive. They used to boil human heads, and the women were forced to peel off the skin and scrape the flesh off with glass.”
There were other inhumane experiments. Many of the prisoners suffered from scurvy and doctors injected them with opium, arsenic and other substances to see how they might affect a disease that results from a lack of fresh food. They opened up the bodies of those who died as a result in order to see the effects of these experiments.
The skulls and other human remains were sent back to Germany where they were studied in pursuit of the racist pseudoscience of eugenics. Many of them ended up at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute where Joseph Mengele, who would later conduct deadly medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz, studied in the early 1940s.
Land and memory
What happened to African people in Namibia was a brutal, and now nearly forgotten, harbinger of the Holocaust by the Nazis against the Jews and other groups in World War II.
But the memory of these events is contested in Namibia itself. The first real documentation of the genocide was in the famous “Blue Book” compiled by South African authorities in 1918 after they defeated the Germans in WWI. The Union of South Africa, a British colony at the time, invaded the German colony of South West Africa in 1915. After an initial defeat early in the war, they quickly overran the German forces who surrendered in July of the same year.
It estimates that some 65,000 Herero out of a population of 80,000 died, while some 10,000 Nama, about half the population, perished.
Some claim these statistics are inflated, while Jephta and other Herero activists believe the figures were far greater. “But what do the actual numbers matter?” he says. “It was the acts themselves that were genocidal.”
Nearly 120 years later, reconciliation between Germans and the Herero and Nama remains elusive. The vast majority of African peoples still live in poverty.
On the outskirts of the popular tourist town of Swakopmund, Jephta takes us to meet Lourens Ndura in a rundown settlement known as “DRC”. Rows and rows of simple houses, side by side with shacks, fill the desert spaces. There is hardly any vegetation, and the wind whips up sand across the bare streets. Lourens is dressed in a red union T-shirt, a memory of more prosperous days when he had a full-time job as a firefighter at a mine.
Drought and hunger forced Lourens to bring his family here 10 years ago, but no money has reached them from any agreement that is, anyway, still in limbo. “My great-grandfather was on Shark Island. The Germans have to pay for what they did because that is the wound that has been with us for a long, long time,” he says thoughtfully, but firmly. “Money is the only thing that can bring changes. We can buy land and animals.” He gestures around the makeshift tin shack that is the only home he can provide for his family. “We are living here like we are in a concentration camp.”
Land and memory are the twin strands that remain deeply intertwined today, for Herero and Nama peoples and German Namibians.
Jephta meets with Gerd Wolbling, a mild-mannered German Namibian farmer who owns a vast ranch of some 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) near the site of the Battle of Waterberg. His family has owned the farm since 1907 and Gerd has grown up in the midst of the Herero people. He speaks Otjiherero fluently. His great-grandfather had three children with a Herero woman. “They were the half-brother and sisters of my grandfather. We still have a close relationship,” he says over coffee and a cold beer.
Still, the issue of land and the meaning of the country’s tortured history stand as a wall between him and Jephta. “Which past is more prevalent?” Gerd asks. “History is one people replacing the other. One hundred years before 1907, Hereros didn’t inhabit this land. We can’t make things right by giving the land back.”
Jephta listens carefully, not disputing Gerd’s claim about his ancestral lands, as they walk together past the cattle enclosure and through a field of pale winter grass. “Do you deny that there was a genocide,” he asks as they stand resting from the sun under a shady tree.
Gerd raises his hands to explain. “I don’t question the harm which was done to the OvaHerero people. They lost much of their land, most of their cattle, and let’s say half of their population.” Yet he denies there was a genocide. “There was not that intention, and the relationship to the Holocaust, to me, that is far-fetched.”
But in 1985, the United Nations’ Whitaker report classified what happened to the Herero and Nama people as a genocide. While in May 2021, the German government itself formally recognised what happened as genocide. In a joint declaration with Namibia, they pledged to pay the Namibian government 1.1 billion euros (more than $1bn) in aid in more than 30 years, stipulating that it should be spent in areas where the descendants of the victims of the atrocities now live.
‘One day we will get our land back’
Jephta and Ida, and many others, are deeply dissatisfied with this arrangement. “The Namibian Government’s almost unilateral negotiations with the German government is and remains unacceptable,” Ida says.
There has been much dissatisfaction in Namibia over the Namibian and German governments’ joint agreement, along with demands from Nama and Herero activists that the agreement be renegotiated, providing more money to the affected communities and involving them directly in discussions. In fact, neither government has yet signed the agreement. The Namibian government has indicated it wants further negotiations, while the German parliament has rejected more talks.
There are no signs that the impasse is being resolved swiftly.
“It seems,” Jephta says, “the [Namibian] government is again involved in secret negotiations while the people expressed publicly that the leaders of the affected communities must be involved.”
Many Herero and Nama feel that the majority government party, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), does not represent them and their peoples adequately, as their strongest support is among the Ovambo people in the northern half of the country. The government’s stance is that they represent all Namibians and that an agreement cannot be circumscribed by the approval of the Herero and Nama only.
Phanuel Kaapama, one of the Namibian government’s chief negotiators, told Al Jazeera that, at present, there is “a process of internal consultations, of consensus-building”.
Ruprecht Polenz, the German government’s special envoy, said in an email that “the Joint Declaration has been discussed in Namibia ever since [May 2021], often seen as controversial. The Federal Government is monitoring this discussion and awaiting the result.”
In the Waterberg, Jephta kneels down to pick up a handful of sand. He puts some of it in his mouth to bless it, the tradition his grandmother taught him, and throws the rest away.
For a long time, he is silent, then he stands up slowly. “I’m paying tribute, knowing my ancestors are here, reminding us that these places will always be remembered.”
Tears fill his eyes. He falls silent as he looks over the landscape beginning to shimmer in the late morning sun. Slowly he begins to speak again in his poet’s voice.
“The fate of history is hard to face. The Germans who defeated us own this space. They bought the land, but from who? We will fight for restoration, reparations, dignity. We were defeated but we are still strong. One day we will get our land back, our ancestral lands must be shared with us. This earth, the trees are speaking to me right now. I’m sensing in the wind, the spirits talking to me, saying: ‘Tell the story.’ I’m feeling the energy of those who perished, the wind of the unburied, the wind of resistance, birds singing, telling me something if I listen carefully.
“I don’t feel so much anger, but I feel my spirit connected to their spirit. There is no point in being angry,” he says.
“I feel honoured speaking to them.”