Reparative Futurities: Thinking From the Ovaherero and Nama Colonial Genocide



In the first decade of the 20th century, colonial Germany committed a genocide of 75% of the Ovaherero population and over half of the Nama in territories that are part of today Namibia. In this text, Zoé Samudzi tells us how reparations here necessarily involves the articulation of a “grammar of futurity.”

Reparations discourses articulate a grammar of futurity: not simply a world that does not exist, but one that could be fabricated through attempts to repair historical harm and trauma. The imagining of hypotheticals, the meaningful address of genocidal harm, always demands an ontological shift. Because the world that accommodates a reparation — a wound remedy demanded by an aggrieved party — is not a world that presently exists, it is one that has to be created.

In April of 2019, I was en route to Yerevan, Armenia. In studying German colonialism and genocide, I came to learn about the role Germany had played in the Ottoman genocide against ethnic Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Orthodox communities. I traveled to Yerevan, due to arrive a few days before Armenian Genocide Remembrance day on the 24th. I was keen to learn about how genocide memorialization functioned both as a government-led nation-state effort as well as some of the constituent non-state parts of the collective memory project. I would later see the country’s account of Germany’s participation when I visited Tsitsernakaberd, the genocide memorial complex. Fittingly, near the section about Ottoman Turkish concentration camps and the familiar insectified ways that doctors talked about incarcerated Armenians, there were a few panels about German involvement. The Ottoman military was armed by the German companies Mauser and Krupp. And Prussian military officer Colmar von der Goltz, who later served as a military aide to Sultan Mehmed V before the start of the 1915 genocide, penned a text in 1883, Das Volk in Waffen (“The People Armed”), which advocated for the intention of military campaigns to be complete annihilation of the enemy — a clear ideological and material inspiration for the carnage that would follow their colonial exercises in subsequent years. In 2016, the German parliament passed a near unanimous resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.

Samudzi The Funambulist (1)
From the very top of the Independence Museum in the capital, you can see into the adjacent fortress, Alta Feste, which was the headquarters of the imperial German Schutztruppe (colonial army). Inside the courtyard, you can see the Reiterdenkmal, the monument to Germans killed in the Herero Wars and the 1908 Kalahari Expedition and a representation of German domination over South West Africa. It has been stored inside Alta Feste since its removal from the front of the fortress on Christmas Day 2013. / Photo by Zoé Samudzi.

I planned a 24-hour layover in New York City; I emailed the American Museum of Natural History in hopes that I might be able to access the archival records related to the Ovaherero and Nama cultural artifacts and physical remains held by the museum. The museum-held remains of these peoples were originally a part of Austrian anthropologist’s Felix von Lauschann’s personal collection, which included thousands of skulls of different peoples from around the world. He sold his collection to the museum at the beginning of the 20th century, which doubled the size of the museum’s physical anthropology collection and positioned them as leaders in the field. Contrary to art historiography, “collecting is not separate from other foundational practices, procedures, institutions, concepts, and categories operative in the field of art shaped through imperialism,” writes Ariella Aïsha Azoulay in her book Potential History (2019). These human remains are caught in the convergence of eugenic science and hegemonic curatorial practice; some remains are buried deep in collections and others are displayed, while the collection of Ovaherero and Nama skulls from genocide-era concentration camps lays bare relationships between extractive imperial processes and the formation of the museum. 

Germany’s colonizing mission in present-day Namibia (then, German South West Africa) came out of the scramble for Africa’s regulation of European colonization and trade (more than occasionally a euphemism for “plunder”) on the continent, that is the Berlin Conference in 1884, the year after von der Goltz’s penning of Das Volk in Waffen. Germany’s acquisition of African colonies would enable it to emerge as a Weltreich (“world power”) that could compete with England and France, the preeminent colonial powers of the time — Germany’s unwavering support for the Ottoman Empire was a gesture to this end. Germany’s efforts in its southern African colony strove to create a German homeland abroad: Lebensraum (“living space”) was formalized into the geopolitical lexicon by geographer Friedrich Ratzel in his 1897 text Politische Geographie, and his appropriation of the word’s original use in the natural sciences — it was coined in 1860 with Oscar Peschel’s response to Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species — biologized the formation of nation-states and their colonial outposts, as well as the racial-cultural identities of the populations that inhabited them. A production of racial geography through genocide is inhered within Lebensraum and the romantic nationalist ideals that characterized imperial German and then Nazi settler expansionism — notions of “living space,” after all, are incomplete without a corresponding Entfernung (“removal”) in whatever manner the specific racialized nation-state project entailed. The settler colonization effort was marked not simply by the desire to harness a captive labor force to accelerate the colony’s economic development, but to establish dominion over land which necessitated native deterritorialization.

The land, populated by Indigenous peoples had to be cleared — Bench Ansfield describes how racialized geographies of concentrated poverty (here, land inhabited by the primitive Ovaherero and Nama peoples) had to be deconcentrated, which is really “nothing other than spatial and bodily purification of blackness and the environmental conditions associated with this racial classification” (2015). German encroachments eroded relations with the Indigenous people with whom they had previously entered into alliances and evolved into revolts over land and resources — “Let us die fighting!” is the oft repeated battle cry of solidarity Ovaherero paramount chief, Samuel Maharero, written in a letter to Nama chief, Hendrik Witbooi — which formalized into German military strategy in August 1904 with the Battle of Waterberg. Following the replacement of Governor Colonel Theodor Leutwein with notoriously brutal Lt. General Lothar von Trotha (who had previously demonstrated his brutality in military campaigns in German East Africa), the nature of the violence escalated. His October second Vernichtungsbefehl (“extermination order”) indicated clear genocidal intent. In threatening all Hereros who did not cede their land with certain death, all Indigenous people, women and children included, were transformed into enemy combatants by the mere nature of a Blackness (an “otherness”) that presented an obstacle to German claims to land and sovereignty. 

Samudzi The Funambulist (2)
Herero prisoners assemble at the port of Lüderitz in southern Namibia.

Through a combination of starvation-dehydration in the desert, summary execution and defeat on the grossly asymmetrical colonial battlefront, and detention (and the familiar disease, malnutrition, and abuse that accompanies that violent internment) and forced laboring in concentration camps (most infamously at Shark Island), about 75% of the Ovaherero population and over half of the Nama were killed in the genocidal campaign that was the 1904-08 Herero Wars. The German parliament has not passed any such resolution acknowledging its responsibility for this genocide, and to this date has still not repatriated the entirety of Ovaherero or Nama skulls still held in archives within the country.

In light of this history, Tony Bennett writes that the museum “cannot be adequately understood unless viewed in the light of a more general set of developments through which culture, in coming to be thought of as useful for governing, was fashioned as a vehicle for the exercise of new forms of power.” Because of the ongoing class action lawsuit brought against the German government by Ovaherero and Nama descendants of genocide survivors, the museum denied my request for access as well as additional information about when the collection could be viewed again. I contacted the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA) who were surprised to hear about the museum’s restriction of access to archives. Their answers to my questions made me realize that the first two of a number constituent parts of reparations are time and land. The conversation I was able to have with them was worth far more than the gatekept access of the colonial archives.

Time as a variable in the reparations equation pertains to the timescale created by Indigenous historiographies and memory, as well as the disparity between Indigenous time and colonial time: between Indigenous phenomenologies and the German preclusion of Indigenous peoples from modernity. Western time can only ever be progressively linear and forward moving. It seems Germany is incapable of embracing a multidirectional memory — to borrow from-synthesize both Michael Rothberg and the vast multiplicity of indigenous thought — one that accounts for and moves between past wrongdoings, present materiality, and future world-makings. It is rendered incapable because it simply refuses a state politic of memory beyond a reiterated guilty reparation for a singular harm rather than a commitment to address and repair the structure of colonial violence within which that harm was and is situated. The 1945-1946 tribunals at Nuremberg and the subsequent 1951 ratification of the United Nations Convention on Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are the initiation of its considerations of genocidal wrongdoing. Prior to the convention, genocide was not universally recognized as a crime. It can only move forward from these foundational juridical moments so as not to make itself and other former colonial powers vulnerable to reparations claims. But a decolonial regime of time-based understanding recognizes the violence of linear chronologies and globalizes a sankofa-like gesture of continually reaching into the past — into multiple pasts — in order to orient, narrate, and organize the future. The imperial time scale renders colonial genocide and violence to a past because we are all now post-colonial. But Nama leaders express an enduringness of genocide through the failure to repatriate cultural materials and through the denial of information:

Denying access is therefore tantamount to perpetuation in violation of international mechanisms, the original sin of barbarism…Considering that the information and the material evidence in question is a significant part of the Nama/Ovaherero cultural heritage, denying access amounts to manipulation and or interference with the content. It censors available data and by doing so wants to weaken us in our quest for restorative justice. 

[…] Archival records are also critical for the reparation process. Reparation. however, needs to be seen within the context of restorative justice which involves apologies, returning of human remains and archive collections, compensation for confiscated property, as well as symbolisms of memorialisation. 

Samudzi The Funambulist (3)
Katutura, a township in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital whose name translates to “the place where people do not want to live” in the Otiherero language. The township was created when apartheid administration decided to forcibly evict and transfer residents of the Old Location, the segregated area for Black residents of Windhoek, to this new location 8 kilometer away. /
Photo by Johannes Laufs.

A critical part of Indigenous self-determination both within and beyond processes of reparation is the right to know: the right to, returning again to Azoulay, form a “nonimperial grammar” that is “not to be heard as scattered cries in an alienated world but as truth claims about stolen shared worlds” (2019). It is a way of having existed in a distant past, continuing to exist in the present, and plotting an existence in the future — a life that far exceeds the relegation and arrest of indigenous life always/solely to a past, to the kind of extinction that strikes them from historical record. This is reparation, further, as ontological correction because there is always urgent necessity to refer and return to the past:

The descendants have a right to keep the injustice in their cultural memory so that they can make sense of their own history and identity which is bound up with their belongings. By denying access to material, we deny descendants the right to know, the right to their identity and the right to justice. Our knowledge of our history of oppression is part of our heritage. Therefore access to evidence and archival material concerning violations ought to be the duty of the institution. It would serve no constructive purpose to sink memory into the background because it only aggravates denial of justice.

As for land, the second variable in this reparations equation: this question plagues former settler colonies in southern Africa despite at least two decades of Black-majority rule — the Republic of Namibia gained its independence in 1990. The imperial project of German South West Africa saw the transfer of German settlers to Ovaherero and Nama land. The land question also troubles the matter of ancestralization, as in it foregrounds the matter of incarcerated ancestral remains. Ancestralization speaks to the performance of traditional funerary practice, the transition of Indigenous dead from this life to the next — or the completion of a life cycle, the purpose of the act varies — and the failure for the lives taken to receive any semblance of proper and, in their words, “dignified” burial which has implications for the living. It is not simply an anthropological phenomenon or “alternative way of knowing” to study from afar. It is a metaphysical regime that must be seriously evaluated against contesting colonial white and Christian understandings of death, and that inform material-cultural-juridical arguments against the German state from whom the Nama seek recompense for genocidal destruction. From collecting specimens by grave-robbing to forcing Indigenous women to scrape clean the skulls of the dead in concentration camps, these bones were used as evidence of European superiority and harvested to supply demand for eugenic research and display. As described by V.Y. Mudimbe on the very first page of The Invention of Africa (1988), “colonialism and colonization basically mean organization, arrangement.” In reminding of the etymological origins of the word — “the Latin word colere, mean[s] to cultivate or design” — we are reminded of decolonization as an epistemological reorganization and rearrangement/repatriation of physical matter. Their return is deeply meaningful for the peoples to whom they belong.

Skulls and human remains of Nama origin must be buried in Great Namaqualand in accordance with centuries old Nama religious customs. Even before Christianity, the Nama believed in the Supreme Being known by the name Tsui//goab. In Nama religion, He is the Creator of the entire universe and Giver of life to all creatures through His powerful Spirit. He has the power over rain, wind and all life forces. The Nama believed the human soul returns to its Master, the Creator Tsui//goab, upon a person’s death. Equally the human body is created from soil of earth and thus must be returned to the soil. The graves in which the remains will be buried are marked extra ordinary into monuments as per Nama custom. In the Nama religion, the Messenger of Goodwill of Tsui//goab was named Haitsi Aibeb. He died under extraordinary circumstances and rose from death many times according to Nama folklore. His graves were turned into monuments made of rocks, as people who passed by each grave said praises to Him and added another rock. Many of the graves are still found in Great Namaqualand. According to Nama culture, the spirit of the deceased remains restless until it is returned to the soil from which it is made by the Creator. Keeping human remains in museums denies us our right to practice our customs. 

[…] It is important to prove to the world that Germany did not find us in a static state, we too were in motion in tandem with the then-prevailing historical conditions. We are bound morally, socially, and spiritually to ensure the burial of the remains of our families and no individual, institution or government has the right to keep the remains” (bolding, mine).

Samudzi The Funambulist (1)
A carved mural at the Heroes’ Acre, illustrating the evolution of the Namibian freedom struggle: this part depicts indigeneity, enslavement, and rebellion. / Photo by Raymond June (2010).

In the present, the land question refers not only to the release and redistribution of land from the structures of racialized ownership, but also the situation of Indigenous peoples in the post-colonial environments as it pertains to the independent nation-state into which they are being assimilated (or against which they are resisting assimilation) and the role of that state in mediating a reparative process. Because the priorities of the state of often come to take precedent, we must constantly remind ourselves of and return to the desires of the aggrieved: 

Our watchword is ‘Nothing about us without us.’ Firstly, representation on the negotiating table is of paramount importance so that the content and the process for an apology and reparation are agreed upon as a priori matter. For the NTLA repentance and forgiveness are the starting point. Instead, we have only witnessed arrogance on the part of the German government. This would mean the current process must cease in order to restart in new mode. The NTLA subscribes to some fundamental principles of restorative [justice] which include the fact the victim communities must be central to the process of defining the harm done and how it must be repaired […]. The victim communities must be actively involved in holding the offender accountable and ensure opportunities for the offender to make amends. In line with the 2006 Resolution taken by the Parliament of Namibia, the government must merely oversee a process driven by victim (bolding mine). 

The land question, Indigenous landlessness, forces a consideration of what exactly is understood by “Indigenous.” All peoples were designated as a “native” foil to whiteness during colonialism, and that native identity as related to land became particularly apparent in the creation of apartheid-era Bantustans. The Odendaal Commission (formally, the Commission of Enquiry into South-West Africa Affairs), whose findings were announced in 1964 and implemented starting in 1968, created the infrastructure for the two-tiered apartheid structure of development. It concretized the racial geographic separation between white settler society and native life, and stratified native societies in the creations of native authorities responsible for overseeing affairs in their respective homelands in what is present-day Namibia and was administered as a part of the Union of South Africa. The land was familiarly territorialized into Hereroland, Namaland, and Ovamboland, and so on. Considering the continuity of eugenicist logics, it makes perfect sense that the ephemera of Eugen Fischer — a human skull, different colored glass eyes, differently textured samples of hair — was found in a box in a cupboard by a researcher at the historically Afrikaans-dominant Stellenbosch University in 2013. Although every native group was in some way subjugated by the imperial German and then Afrikaner nationalist regimes, these universalized harms are not reflected by present ethnopolitical realities:

For the Nama leaders, landlessness and political/economic/social marginalization is directly linked to genocide. Calls for the return of ancestral land and initial response of [the 2016] Namibian government amounted to trashing such calls, with utterances such as ‘You don’t eat land!’ ‘What ancestral land are you talking about?’ and ‘How do you want to hold present generations accountable for something they did not do?’ These are sentiments of the same regime claiming to negotiate in interest of victim[ized] communities. There is deliberate refusal on the part of both governments to admit that landlessness of the Nama people is a structural issue never addressed by any regime. We shall remain resolute to regain our ancestral land, notwithstanding state tricks to render our people perpetually landless and poverty stricken for good. German genocide facilitated the structural loss of ancestral land, and therefore the two issues will not be separated.

Nama leadership, further, accuses the Namibian government not only of flouting a parliamentary resolution that formed the basis of the charges and reparations procedures against the German government, but of supplanting Nama and Ovaherero-specific needs but “by unilaterally appointing a ‘special envoy’ who by no means has any mandate from the Nama leaders and the Nama people to speak on their behalf.” This is what compels them to state that the “Namibian Government is the first obstacle to genocide recognition and reparations, because its approach allowed Germany to package the deal through increased bilateral development aid arrangements, thereby completely exonerating the German [g]overnment from the barbaric historical carnage left behind in Namibia” (bolding mine).

In the Namibian case, the post-colonial condition is a clear continuation of genocidal dispossession; in every case, the function of the nation-state is to capture and enclose the commons. To recognize genocide is, fundamentally, to confront the validity, legitimacy, and legibility of the thing; to bring it into a fold of human experience so that it, too, can become universally acknowledged and henceforth memorialized and mourned. Inherent to the politics of recognition is some ushering into whiteness: the affirmation of genocide is, crudely, an extension of and assimilation into an always Eurocentric humanity through a frame of event uniqueness no matter the identity of the victims. The existent discourse of recognition as legibility — as making genocidal process clear enough to morally-ethically grasp (and enclose) and exceptionalize — can only order atrocity into hierarchy. The Nama and Ovaherero genocide’s claim to uniqueness is in its firstness: that historians largely agree that it is the first genocide of the 20th century. But even this uniqueness, its firstness is not sufficient to unsettle the foundational nature of Indigenous African genocide on the continent to the practice of race-making. How can a necessary death constitute an acute crisis of recognition for a European state and an independent African nation-state organized so as to continue, fundamentally, colonial logics (presuming that implicit to any Westphalian state is the mandate to suppress Black life)? Where acknowledgement of genocide unfolds before a passive and spectatorial international community or where retrospective recognition is avoided because of its political inconvenience or the fear of future implications, inaction is tantamount to genocide denial. Reparations for the Nama and Ovaherero demands a two-fold processual reconciliation of these past and ongoing harms. Anything else is pure farce. ■