The Genocide of the Herero: “It cannot be about us without us”

792d6a4c-bc67-4b10-83d9-c42313e8740fUtjiua Muinjangue is the chairperson of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu Genocide Foundation. Ms. Muinjangue spoke on behalf of the school of Social Work at the University of Minnesota on the genocide of the Herero on November 10, 2014.

Q: Is there an official count and is it different from people’s own memories of the number of victims of the Ovaherero genocide?

A: The estimated number is that before the genocide, the Ovaherero people were more or less 95,000. After the genocide, they were reduced to 15,000.

Q: Were there other communities that were targeted in the same way?

A: We have 11 ethnic groups in Namibia and all these groups have been living there…during the time of the Germans as well. But for reasons known to the Germans they targeted mainly two groups. The Ovaherero and the other group, called the Namas. The Hereros then by that time they were living mostly in the central parts of Namibia, while the Namas were in the southern parts of Namibia. They had cattle and their cattle were targeted, their land was targeted and what is very interesting is that during war it’s difficult to differentiate who is not Herero or who is a Namas and so on. But what is interesting is that they, the Germans, issued an extermination order on the 2nd of October 1904, which was specifically directed towards the Ovaherero people. So for us, it’s like they knew there were other groups, but their aim was that specific group. And then in April 1905 they issued a similar order to the Nama people.

Q: How is the memory of the genocide kept alive? Not just among activists and activist groups but also among survivors?

A: There are very active commemorative events that are happening on an annual basis. Since we started, or since the establishment of the Genocide Foundation, we have been having commemorative events. We singled out the more important dates in the history. Like the 12th of January which commemorates the first bullets that were shot against our people. We have the 30th of March, we call that the reparation walk – we started with that one in 2007 when we erected a monument at the place which was a concentration camp. So we go there every year, and that is in another town, it’s a town called Swakopmund which is one of the coastal towns and that was and still is German. You still feel and see the German influence in the architecture, the numbers on the buildings, some buildings still have numbers like 1902, 1904 and so on…and it’s a tourist attraction. Then we have the 11th of August, that was the battle of Ohamakari, that was when people were driven into the Omahake desert; and then there is the 23rd of August, which  is a very important day also in the Ovaherero community – that is the day after the war, the Hereros fled to neighboring countries. Samuel Maharero, who was the chief of the Ovaherero fled to South Africa, where he died. Before his death he used to say “when I die I want my remains to be transported back to Namibia…”

Q: Considering that the genocide happened 100 years ago, how do you help non-Namibians make sense of it?

A: We started talking about the genocide because many Namibians needed this education and awareness. Many of them were ignorant. But today it’s in the schools, in the history books. Learners are becoming aware of it. And of course we have a lot of public lectures. We get lawyers and international speakers to come and talk about the genocide and compare it with other genocides that were committed. And especially the Jewish…the Holocaust. Because what happened to the Jewish people – they (the Germans) just copied what they did to the people in Namibia and they applied that to them. I remember also there was a time we had connections to a Jewish association in South Africa, to learn from them how they went about it…and so on. And of course some people are saying but this is something that happened over 100 years ago we should forget and move on. But we want to see justice prevail and done.

Q: Considering that the genocide convention came about almost 44 years after this genocide, have you received any push back against using the term genocide in the way that you see fit to use it to explain what happened to the Herero?

A: You know for us murder is murder, whether you committed it 100 years ago, today or tomorrow, it will remain murder. And we were happy when a German minister visited Namibia and attended one of our commemorative events. She said “on behalf of my government I want to say that what happened 100 years ago could be seen today as genocide and I want to apologize.” The German government was very unhappy about what she said and when she went back home she was severely criticized. When did the Jewish Holocaust take place? If they could see that as genocide what makes our case different? So we are saying, you have created that model already, so apply that to us as well. We cannot allow things to be discussed on our behalf, as if we don’t have voices. So that’s our motto: It cannot be about us without us. Anything about us without us is against us.

Q: Do the Herero now consider themselves survivors of the genocide or victims of the genocide? Or do they view the two as the same thing?

A: I would say the educated ones see themselves as descendants of survivors of genocide but you find the older generation who see or consider themselves as victims of genocide. Victims in the sense that they have no place to stay – we have been marginalised economically, socially, politically. As I said the other day, whether we like it or not, politics in Africa is organized along ethnic lines. So, today we are like the fourth largest group, about 200,000. If we are today 200,000 what would our numbers have been should there have been no genocide? So there are those who see themselves as victims but of course there are others who see themselves as survivors. If you see yourself as a victim there is a negative connotation to that. You know, you develop this “pity me” attitude which we don’t want. Some people are saying “but why can’t you just forget?” We are saying we want to talk about the past in order for us to understand the present. We want to talk about the past in order for us to liberate ourselves from what happened in the past and move on.

Wahutu Siguru is the 2013 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa.  

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