Human skulls from the Herero and ethnic Nama people are displayed during a ceremony in the auditorium of Berlin's Charite hospital on September 30 2011.
It was the most innocent of questions that twinned the destiny of South African filmmaker Vincent Moloi with that of a Namibian people’s struggle for land and reparations. “A while ago I saw a picture of a Herero dress,” said Moloi. “Somebody said: ‘This is a traditional Herero dress.’ ” Looking at its Victorian contours, the next logical question for Moloi was: “How could it be?”
Moloi was speaking after a screening of his documentary film, Skulls of My People, at the recent RapidLion Film Festival. The question led Moloi to the ghastly discovery of an early 20th-century genocide right on his stoep, surprisingly unknown to him, even though he considered himself fairly urbane.
“I asked my friends and they didn’t know either, so I thought: there is no way that this story can’t be told.”
After countless rounds of negotiations, at which the Herero and Nama have been repeatedly pushed away from the negotiating table by the logic that they are not sovereign entities, the fight over reparations for the horrific genocide has recently moved to an arbiter outside of African and European soil.
On March 16, a pretrial conference took place between the German government and the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Genocide Foundation to outline the modalities and the logistics of how a trial instituting legal action for the genocide would proceed.
“When we decided to explore one more peaceful way of dealing with the issue, we decided to take them to a court of law,” says Herero paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro. “That’s when we found out that the New York district court offered the best jurisdiction for us to institute legal action against the German government for the genocide committed against our parents.”
Moloi’s feature-length documentary is not the first to be made about the genocide that took place between 1904 and 1907, wiping out 80% of the Herero people (about 100 000) and half of the Namas (about 10 000). The BBC’s Namibia: Genocide and the Second Reich posits it as the ideological blueprint for Germany’s killing orgies of the Third Reich.
But there is something optimistically pan-African about Skulls of My People’s spirit in that it embodies a people’s struggle and sees itself as a vehicle for a possible paradigm shift in the continental conversation about land rights and reparations.
The film, eight years in the making, follows activists from the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Genocide Foundation as they ramp up the case for Germany to pay reparations.
The extermination was decreed by Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha in August 1904, after the January 1904 rebellion by the Herero and the Nama. Some were driven into the desert to die of dehydration and hunger and others were imprisoned in concentration camps until they perished of abuse and starvation.
That was but the beginning. The genocide had a eugenic component from whence the documentary gets its name. Thousands of skulls were shipped to Europe, some hanging as ornaments in the army officers’ and their families’ homes, and others ended up in universities where they were phrenologically examined.
“A lot of Germans are saying now that they know the history of the skulls [and] ‘please come take them back because I do not want them in my house anymore’,” says Utji Esther Muinjangue, a social worker based at the University of Namibia.
“Some inherited them from their parents, but it is not a situation where you give it to me and I take it. It has to go through the process because there are Unesco [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] laws that describe how the process should go and how the skulls should be handled and so on.”
Chief Vekuii Rukoro (centre) stands with local tribal elders on the mound where German Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha gave the order to shoot on October 2 1904. (Juergen Baetz, DPA)
Muinjangue says the skulls are scattered across Germany, some in universities such as Charité and Freiburg, with only 20 having been repatriated so far. “Those were the ones they had identified at that time. Recently, when we were in Berlin, we were told that there were many more that were identified and ready to go.”
The two governments — German and Namibian — wanted to handle the repatriation of the skulls separately without the world knowing. It became a business as well. “People wanted skulls, so people here in Namibia started to dig up bodies, take the heads out and sell them,” says Muinjangue.
The skulls add to the shame of the German government’s actions, but the alleged secrecy of the repatriations stands at the core of the standoff between the three parties, namely the two governments and the genocide foundation. Its slogan, after all, is: “Nothing about us without us.”
Adding a layer of complication to the call for reparations is the fact that the German government provides large amounts of developmental aid to Namibia, with a contribution of €800-million since independence.
“Indeed, Germany does provide very generous development aid as they have said there in the film,” said Rukoro, an advocate, in a post-screening Q&A session.
“It is well over €800-million. Namibia has benefited greatly as a country through this development aid. But unfortunately very little of that funding finds itself into the areas inhabited by the Herero and the Nama people of Namibia.
“Most of this ends up in the northern parts of the country and in other areas as well. These areas constitute the support base of the ruling party. That is where the problem is with us.”
According to the 2013 census, 250 000 people out of Namibia’s population of 2.2-million are Herero, says Muinjangue, resplendent in Herero gear from head to toe. “Herero, together with Nama, make up maybe 15% of the Namibian population.”
The Ovambo, who largely provide the support base for the ruling Swapo (South West African People’s Organisation), make up close to 50% of the population.
“Eighty percent of our people were wiped out through the genocide and 50% of Nama people,” says Rukoro. “That’s why we are saying we need to be there at the negotiation table and negotiate the package of genocide. Whatever comes out of that negotiation table should come through to us and be channelled to us.
“But we are not saying, for instance, that if we happen to build a hospital or a university or a school in areas inhabited by us, that it should only be used by us. Clearly not. We live in a nonsexist, nonracist, nontribal Namibia.”
White people, who make up about 6% of the population, own 50% of the arable land in Namibia. Much of it was seized during the genocide. Rukoro’s hope is that black Namibians can see Skulls of My People to ratchet up the momentum for reparations and land redistribution in other parts of the country.
That there are Herero people living in South Africa, and that Moloi’s film has gone some way towards bridging the gap between two inextricably linked neighbours, means citizens in sovereign countries can no longer fight isolated battles.
Skulls, either dug up or savagely displayed as exotic ornaments of wonder, continue to cry for the lands they once inhabited. That cry, says Rukoro, must now be joined by the living.