Memory and “memory”

Yesterday, August 26th, Namibia observed Heroes’ Day, a commemoration of the start of the country’s war for independence, which began on that day in 1966 at Battle at Omugulugwombashe — independence from South Africa came finally in 1990 after 24 years of armed struggle. Prior to administration via League of Nations mandate and prior to annexation by apartheid South Africa, South West Africa was a German colony: Deutsch-Südwestafrika, German South West Africa. German colonization began in 1884 after Chancellor Otto von Bismark reluctantly expanded German power beyond Europe in order to compete with the British in southern Africa and the French elsewhere on the continent. After some years of land expropriation, the native Herero and Nama peoples took up arms against German settler colonialism. To forcefully put down rebelling natives, Lt. Gen. Lothar von Trotha, known for his previous military acumen and brutality in Deutsch-Ostafrika/German East Africa (present day Burundi, Rwanda, and mainland Tanzania), was deployed to the colony by Kaiser Wilhelm II and in October 1904, issued his October Declaration. It was not simply a declaration but a Vernichtungsbefehl, an extermination order, a declaration of war. It read:

I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer. They have killed, stolen, cut off the ears and other parts of the body of wounded soldiers, and now are too cowardly to want to fight any longer. I announce to the people that whoever hands me one of the chiefs shall receive 1,000 marks, and 5,000 marks for Samuel Maherero. The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.
Details of a painting depicting battle between Herero warriors and German colonial forces circa February 1904 (photo credit: Chris Hellier/Corbis via Getty Images)

All Herero (and Nama) people became enemy combatants. They were summarily executed on sight, per the order, and they were driven into the desert to die of dehydration. Others, still, were corralled into labor camps (like the infamous camp at Shark Island) where they died of overwork, elemental exposure, and disease. The Herero and Nama Genocide provided a blueprint for the Nazi Holocaust, both in colonial ideology and in the genocidal mechanics themselves. Heinrich Göring, father of high-ranking Nazi official Hermann Göring, was Germany’s first Reichskommissar in South West Africa. German anthropologist Eugen Fischer conducted experiments on mixed race Basters from Rehoboth in South West Africa: the results of his work in Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen (The Rehoboth Bastards and the Problem of Miscegenation Among Humans) provided the scientific justification for the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. In 2014, the skulls taken by Fischer from South West Africa for further experimentation were finally repatriated to Namibia — others have yet to be returned 110 years after the genocide’s conclusion. By the end of the Herero Wars or Herero and Nama genocide — the framing is entirely subjective — half of the Nama population and 60–70% of the Herero population had been killed.

L to R — A German soldier with captured natives (ethnic identities unknown); emaciated indigenous people (ethnic identities unknown); Herero prisoners in the port of Lüderitz, a harbor town in in the ǁKaras Region in the southern part of the country, being transported to the Shark Island Concentration Camp.

The 1985 United Nations’ Whitaker Report classified the German war as a wholesale extermination attempt, one of the 20th century’s earliest; in 1998, German President Roman Herzog visited with Herero leaders, and when Ovaherero Paramount Chief Munjuku Nguvauva demanded an apology and reparations, he expressed regret and denied the latter noting that reparations law did not exist in 1907. In 2004, Germany’s Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation declared in a speech that “We Germans accept our historical and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time” but also ruled out the possibility for reparations. In 2017, the Herero and Nama descendants filed an ongoing class action lawsuit against the German government in US federal court.


In trying to learn more about contemporary Namibian politics, I visited Heroes’ Acre this weekend. Heroes’ Acre, like the one in Harare, is memorial in Windhoek commemorating seminal figures in the more than 100 years of Namibia’s anti-colonial struggle — from Nama chief Hendrik Witbooi (or ǃNanseb gaib ǀGâbemab, the captain who disappears in the grass) and Herero paramount chief Samuel Maharero, to Moses Mague ǁGaroëb and Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo and Anton Lubowski and former/first President Sam Nujoma and other participants in the liberation war. American politician John McCain died of brain cancer this past weekend. He is praised and eulogized by both parties as a patriot, a hero and prisoner of war, a principled man who made sacrifices, and so on. Terence Ranger has a handy historiographic concept called “patriotic history,” which describes either the continual reinscription and remembrance of revolutionary and traditional history in contemporary memory or the hijacking of the present by said past (depending on your perspective). In Namibia, the present ruling party SWAPO is still the South West African People’s Organization of revolutionary yesteryear despite political evolutions and present shortcomings; similarly, the 2018 ZANU-PF of newly inaugurated President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, the ruling party marked by cronyism and corruption, is the party of the still ongoing chimurenga. Patriotic history is the tension between chinyakare and chimanjemanje, an attempt to synthesize the old traditional and new modern, as Zimbabwean writer Panashe Chigumadzi notes.

Shortly before the weekend, the memetic white nationalist war cry of “white genocide” reached the United States’ highest office, with President Trump tweeting about the need to investigate supposed phenomenon after a Tucker Carlson report on Fox News. The white settler, the nativist invader in another’s land, is always experiencing a state of emergency especially as a numerical minority or as a majority being threatened by “demographic changes.” The alleged white genocide is a fabrication as well as the idea of “post”-colonialism, “post”-apartheid, and full indigenous sovereignty — the land still does not belong to us, nor do our political endeavors and our economies. And nor do our heroes, both physically (many of their bones still remain in European empires) and within our individual and collective memories.

And then there’s a kind of existential pain that exists beyond even useful theoretical description. One can easily explain hagiographic revisions of a former senator’s war criminal history for the sake of the bi/multi-partisan unity that keeps the American political project and its mythos intact. One can even explain the purpose of Holocaust exceptionalism and Holocaust analogies that territorially narrate human suffering as zero-sum and relies upon the white-appearing bodies of the Führer’s Jewish victims to calibrate our ability to see atrocity. But despite the vast scholarship that provides a framework for understanding social death and Black materiality in the afterlife of enslavement and in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, I can’t translate the intense feeling of sadness, the overwhelming inability to fathom the sadism and psychopathy of whiteness/white supremacy. It’s an inter-generational ache of unfulfilled ambition and freedom dreams deferred, an indescribable rage and vicarious humiliation in hearing the stories of others and witnessing the conditions in which too many live.

An example. This past Thursday, my uncle took me to a township in Windhoek called Katutura. It was created in 1961 after a period of forcible white displacement of Black natives from the Old Location, the name of the segregated area reserved for Blacks under the apartheid system. The allocated lots for Black housing were even smaller than in their previous residential areas, functionally preventing people from constructing gardens (used as food sources). It was also difficult economically because Black residents had to pay rent to the Windhoek municipality AND pay extra money to commute to city center for work. “Katutura” in Otjiherero means “the place where people do not want to live,” a desperately sad but nevertheless fitting descriptor of always profane Black existence.

In her essay “A Cemetery of Images: Meditations on the Burial of Photographs,” Jane Blocker describes how the act-obligation of bearing witness is troubled when you’re confronting phenomenon or atrocities that demand you create a grammar for processing what you see as you’re seeing it. She writes that

…an eyewitness, because he does not recognize and cannot comprehend the horror at which he is looking, is forced to try to imagine it-that is, by definition to “form a mental image of something not present to the senses.” Yet an eyewitness must engage in imagining even as the material facts of atrocity are presented to him, even as he is in fact seeing them. To be a witness, then, means simultaneously to see and to imagine, but from Gourevitch's description we learn that imagining is not a free and boundless form of creative work, but rather it is disciplined by the rules and habits of photographs, their discursive formation. These rules involve not only the habits of depiction and of viewing depictions, but also of imagining oneself relative to what is depicted. In addition to having to imagine the atrocity, then, Gourevitch must also struggle to imagine his own witnessing of it, to see himself seeing.

Learning about this “forgotten”/ignored/erased African genocide has forced a confrontation of my own birthright and my own family’s experiences with colonial atrocities, a kind of meta-learning and remembering that is and must always be reflexive and self-referential. It’s not even been a week, but it’s been a strange and jarring hurt because you can’t necessarily anticipate what to steel yourself for, you can’t know what kind of hurt exists until you stumble into it. It’s a part of witnessing, interpreting, memory- and future-making that’s just as important as “fact” itself.