“I was wishing that I came of a more honourable lineage.” – Prince Caspian: Chronicles of Narnia
History is for everybody, but cultural practices only apply to some. The younger generations are less traditional these days. The degree to which they have left traditional practices behind also varies. I wanted to make this point because I have seen so much stereotyping of tribes in the short month I’ve been here. Don’t forget though, sweeping generalizations are a thing in the states as well.
Alright onto the [really interesting!] history lesson because you can’t make sense of the ‘why’ behind Herero cultural practices, without first looking at the tribe’s history in Namibia. The information I give you comes from my notes on the BBC documentary, Namibia: Genocide and the Second Reich. I was pissed that the first genocide of the 20th century was not mentioned in the fifty some odd classes I took that covered the holocaust. But let’s see what you think.
I never felt wary of speaking my middle name until I moved to Namibia and learned this story.
It was the late 1800s, and Germany’s overcrowded cities were becoming a problem. When things got really bad, the second reich solved this problem by turning to two harebrained theories. The first was the Nordic theory: that the German race was superior to all others, and should thus inherit the earth. The second theory is a geographical one called Lebensraum, or living space. It roughly states that a nation must expand, acquiring new land and resources, if it is to live long and prosper.
With these theories permeating German culture, it’s easy to see how a leader might convince everyone to take over Europe. Before carrying out that ambitious plan though, Germany started by flexing their muscles in Namibia. In 1904 the second reich let a man named General Lothar von Trotha off the leash, and so he started a race war. He took advantage of the outrage among the Herero people over the rape and murder of their women at the hands of German settlers. When they rose up in rebellion, Von Trotha set his sights on extermination of all Hereros.
The various Herero settlements eventually convened together in Okahandja, where the majority of Hereros lived. [Side note: My host family’s house here in Okahandja overlooks the field where the Herero ‘komando’ is located]. After a skirmish or two, and playing by typical tribal war rules, the Hereros felt they had made their point and stood down. They didn’t realize Von Trotha was playing a whole different game, and were unprepared for the multiple army units shipped down from Germany. The German army pushed the survivors into the desert on purpose, hoping they would go there to die. A number survived however, and either fled to Botswana or were captured and put into concentration camps.
The camps, located in coastal towns like Swakopmund, were largely made up of women and children. Each inmate was given a number that they wore on a dog tag, and their work hours and death were carefully recorded. The skulls of the thousands murdered during the attempted extermination were shipped back to Germany for eugenics research. On Shark Island was an extermination camp where large numbers of Hereros were systematically murdered.
Many of the officers returned to Germany, after public outcries shut down the camps, right when Adolf Hitler began volunteering in the army. A genocide of the same format perpetrated by the same country within fifty years of each other is no coincidence. (See David MacDonald’s Identity Politics in the Age of Genocide: The Holocaust and Historical Representations for more detail.)
Hello, history teachers? To be fair it was completely covered up by the remaining white settlers in Namibia, certainly it wasn’t discussed during apartheid. But 25 years ago when Namibia gained its independence and the evidence came to light, it should have been broadcasted across the world a bit better. The cover up of this horrible event maintained by apartheid is why I feel so uncomfortable drawing any connection to my German heritage. In this case, I’m super duper proud to be an American.
Alright lets look at the way Herero culture has developed since then.
Traditional Herero Culture
This information is what I have overheard in my few short weeks in Namibia, so please take with a grain of salt. It is not the whole picture. Also remember that not all Herero’s practice their culture in this way.
The traditional dress of the Herero’s is what you will likely see when you google “Namibian traditional dress” as I did before coming here. They are known for being talented cattle farmers by trade, and so idolize the cow in their traditional dress.
Herero’s are also known for bringing spiritualism into their practice of christianity. They believe in Jesus but also in the spirit of their ancestors that are with them when a holy fire is lit. This translates into a belief in witchcraft as well, and in some communities witch doctors are highly respected.
A Namibian social worker who lived in a Herero community for four years recounted a time when the suicide rates among Hereros spiked. The local witch doctor gathered everyone together, and demanded that whoever was cursing people to commit suicide must stop. And indeed, no more suicides were recorded that year.
The final practice I will recount to you may seem controversial, but consider that the Herero people were nearly completely wiped out. Of course they wanted to repopulate quickly. To accomplish this, brothers and sisters began encouraging their male children to sleep with their female cousins. The female does not get a chance to give consent. Another way this was done was for a man to allow his friend to sleep with his wife the first time that friend dropped by their home. Finally, and this actually extends to other Namibians as well, men are encouraged to have multiple sexual partners at one time, even when they are married.
You can guess when the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit, some of the reasons why it spread so quickly and remains at such high levels. In the region I’m going to (which is populated mainly by the Owambo tribe, details to come), the prevalence of HIV is 27.3%. That’s almost one in three people walking around in the most populated part of Namibia. Still a long way to an AIDS free generation, no thanks to the grisly history of almost one hundred years ago.