German amnesia and Herero women

Over the weekend, Geoffrey York, the Africa correspondent for the Canadian Globe and Mail (and apparently also the only correspondent for a major Canadian publication on the African continent) wrote, from Namibia, about the current Herero struggle for land, dignity, and reparations. The 1904–1908 German genocide against the Herero is considered by many to have been the first genocide of the twentieth century, as such it serves as the gateway to the Modern Age. 

As York, accurately, describes the situation, nothing much has changed:

In the bush and scrub of central Namibia, the descendants of the surviving Herero live in squalid shacks and tiny plots of land. Next door, the descendants of German settlers still own vast properties of 20,000 hectares or more.

The Herero want their land back. They would prefer the State find a way, but if not, land invasions will do. That option is described as “a new kind of radicalism.”

York ends his article with an old kind of European, and North American, representation, that of the tired old African woman:

A Herero grandmother named Gendrede Kavari lives on a small dusty plot of land on the edge of Okakarara. Once she had a few animals, but she had no fence and they were stolen. Now she survives on a pension and a small income from collecting firewood. Some day, if she had a bit more land, she would like to have some goats. ‘We must get our land back,’ she says.

Gendredi Kavari was never meant to survive. Neither were her grandmothers and great grandmothers.

Germans butchered somewhere between 50 and 80% of the Herero population in a mere four years, and Herero women were special targets. Germany used a Herero uprising to justify the “streams of blood” program of annihilation. That uprising was partly inspired by Herero resentment at German sexual violence against Herero women.

In 1903, after 20 years of colonization, 712 European women lived among 3,970 European men in German South-West Africa. What to do? Rape. Although rape by German men of Herero and Nama women was common, prior to 1904 not a single case of a white man raping an African woman came before a German court. This became particularly acute in the attempted rape, and then murder, of Louisa Kamana.

Louisa Kamana was married to the son of Chief Zacharias. The two gave a ride to a German settler, who, that night, “made sexual advances” on Louisa Kamana. She refused. He killed her. The Court acquitted him. The case was appealed, and the settler was given three years in prison. Rape and murder of Herero women were common occurrences. The case only went to trial because a Chief’s family was involved, and no one among the Herero thought three years made up for a Herero woman’s life and dignity.

That’s the story of the genocide as well. Women and children were targeted. When the Herero were ‘allowed’ to escape into the Kalahari Desert, it was assumed most would die. It was also assumed more women and children would die. That assumption was correct. The German authorities explained that Herero women and children had to die because they carried dangerous diseases. Meanwhile, the German press shrieked that Herero women were ‘black amazons swinging clubs and castrating their foes’.

And so good riddance.

When concentration camps were established for the few survivors, one female-only camp was set up to ‘service’ the German troops. Sound familiar? As Herero leader Mburumba Kerina explained: “Hey, that’s my grandmother — a comfort woman.” In the other camps, along with sexual violence at the hands of settlers and troops, Herero women were forced to boil heads, often of their own family members, and then scrape off the flesh with shards of glass. Those skulls were then shipped off to museums and universities, as well as anthropological and private collections in Germany, providing decades of ‘scientific’ research as well as ‘entertainment.’

To date, only a few Herero remains have been returned, while the overwhelming majority remains in Germany.

Sexual violence was part of the colonization and subjugation process. From rape and murder to abduction and sex slavery to forced removal of women, German settlers and the German Empire had a special fate in store for Herero women.

So, when you read about the Herero grandmother named Gendrede Kavari who only wants a bit of land and perhaps some goats, remember the reparations not paid. Remember the debt never even acknowledged. It’s about more than a bit of land and perhaps some goats. It’s about time that debt was paid — with interest.


43 thoughts on “German amnesia and Herero women

  1. This is a fascinating analysis on how sexual violence was used in a genocide. It adds a very important dimension to my own report on the genocide of the Herero and Nama people. (By the way, is there any reason why the Nama were not mentioned in Mr. Moshenberg’s post, except for a brief mention in the 9th paragraph? They were victims too.)
    Thanks very much to Mr. Moshenberg for citing my own research as part of his larger analysis. I appreciate it.
    I must correct one mistake in this post, however. I did not say that Gendrede Kavari was a “tired old woman.” She is not particularly old (she is 61 in fact) and she is certainly not tired. She is an extremely energetic and hard-working woman, and I witnessed that myself.
    If we are analyzing the “representation” of African women, isn’t it Mr. Moshenberg who is perpetuating stereotypes by assuming that any African grandmother must be a “tired old” woman? Certainly I never used those words, or implied them (unless you think that any grandmother must automatically be “tired” and “old” — which I do not).
    And there’s another issue here about “representation”: is it somehow wrong to quote a grandmother in an African story? Do we have to exclude them from all journalism about Africa because somehow they might fit with someone’s stereotypes?
    I quoted Gendrede Kavari in my story because she is an example of the land shortages that the Herero are suffering these days, and the land shortages are directly related to the issues of justice and land reform that the story focuses on. When writing about issues such as land shortages, are we required to exclude grandmothers from the discussion? I don’t think that would promote a more accurate “representation” of African women.

    • Thanks, Geoffrey, for your thorough read as well as for your ongoing work. No, I don’t want to exclude grandmothers … or anyone else. Rather, I would like to see more context. As to old and tired, on one hand, you’re right. I may have read a bit much into your use of a ‘grandmother’ as a kind of closing image. And I am not at all surprised to hear that Gendrede Kavari is lively, vital, and vibrant. On the other hand, your suggestion that a woman 61 years of age in Namibia, is somehow not ‘old’, in a place where the life expectancy for women is somewhere around 53, affords an invitation for more discussion of gender, age, and so on. Again, thanks!

  2. Thanks, Dan, for making this a topic here as well. We’d just ike to inform you that there is quite some movement in Germany towards restitution and reconciliation…

    FYI: | Appeal to the Members of the German Bundestag for recognition of and compensation for the genocide in the former colony of “German South-West Africa”, today’s Republic of Namibia

    “We – the Black and white initiatives, organisations and institutions of the civil society signed below – welcome the conciliatory approach adopted by the German Federal Government as demonstrated by the visit to Namibia by the Director General of African Affairs from the Federal Foreign Office in early February 2012. We also welcome the resulting commencement of direct talks with the committees representing the descendants of the victims of the German genocide of 1904-08. We consider this overdue willingness to engage in dialogue with bodies of representatives of the affected peoples as a first indispensable step towards reconciliation between the peoples in Namibia and Germany. […]”


  3. I believe reparations are due but only on the condition that they are all inclusive, and by all inclusive I mean that the Bushmen/San/Khoisan (on whom the African settlers committed genocide) receive their land back, and that would mean the whole of Southern Africa. Us settlers, African and European alike, would need to first rehabilitate their land by removing all infrastructure and returning it to them in the condition we found it, a pristine natural habitat perfect for hunter/gatherers. This is what they want, I know as I visit with the Kruiper family every December in that pathetic little boma that the South African government erected for them in the Kgalagadi.
    There is only one answer to the perpetual discussion on land reparation, we all pack-up from where we are and return to where our ancestors came from, worldwide! This, and this alone, will stop all the finger-pointing and blame laying!
    How far back in history do we go to rectify wrongs, 100 years, 500 years, a thousand years?

    • @egte Safrican: what is meant by this formulation: “the African settlers”? This also sounds like wishful thinking “… by removing all infrastructure and returning it to (the San) in the condition we found it, a pristine natural habitat perfect for hunter/gatherers.” Your response reads more like sarcasm.

      • A bit of sarcasm and a whole bunch of truth. The Bushmen/San/Khoisan are the true indigenous peoples of Southern Africa. This is an accepted fact. It is also a fact that they were persecuted, enslaved and all but wiped out by the African settlers that migrated South from Central Africa. To make matters worse, along came the European settlers and repeated the atrocities of the African settlers. But alas, they are the forgotten people, ignored and wished away by all and sundry. The forced relocation of them into towns such as Ganzi by the Botswana government is a modern and current point of reference. Wishful thinking? Yes it is, as no-one has the courage, not even you Sean, to acknowledge their existence, let alone their plight! If any reparations are due, it is to them!

  4. The issue of reparations is not about how far back nor about finger-pointing or blame laying. On one hand, there actually are both national and international laws concerning the fit and administration of reparations. The Herero and Nama fit the reparations model. On the other hand, as both York’s piece and mine suggest, structural as well as existential effects of the `Kaiser’s Holocaust’ are brutally evident today, in the inequality between Herero and Nama on one side and German descendants on the other, and in the quality of life, such as it is, for Herero and Nama people.

    • I apologise for my ignorance regarding the international law on reparations. I did not know they existed although I have to admit that the immediate question that popped into my mind was, “who were the roleplayers in these negotiations and was Dawid Kruiper’s address to the UN in 1994 taken into consideration”. I trust Mr York’s next piece will be about the plight of the Bushmen/San/Khoisan in Namibia.

  5. In this string of statistics and cold language, I’d like to ask to authors, Moshenberg and York, whether you considered the way in which the violence of your language re-enacts a certain dehumanization that the historical events you speak about enacted physically, materially and spiritually? There is a way in which your language reifies an existing discourse and way of seeing/thinking that does not upset the status quo of historical silencing and erasure.

    • Thank you, Sore Inti, for that important insight and reminder. The question of representation of violence as always already reifying, objectifying and exploiting is key, urgent, and of course unresolved. Do I think I completely avoided doing exactly what I hoped to critique? No. That struggle continues.

  6. Hi,

    It would be good to see a LEVEL PLAYING PITCH on this issue of past crimes.

    What about Turkey and the Armenian Holocaust?

    What about Japan and the Sex Slaves in the Philippines?

    What about the British and the Irish famine?

    What about Belgium and the Congo?

    What about the French and the Algerians?

    What about America and the Vietnamese?

    What about the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs?

    The list goes on and on, but SOME GROUP OF PEOPLE wants to only blame Germany for its pasts sins. Who are thyey and why are they so selective?

    • @Bobby @Egte Safrican: Thanks for engaging with the issue of reparations, but you have it a bit backwards. Demands for reparations do not compete with one another. Each victory moves all the others that much more forward. Mau Mau victory in England strengthens Herero claims against Germany which strengthen Khulumani claims against US, German, Swiss, Dutch and other corporations that supported the apartheid regime which derive strength from Korean `comfort women’ claims against Japan which … and the list goes on. To focus on one does not suggest any diminishment of any of the others. To the contrary, precedents matter, especially in courtrooms, where most reparation deals are arrived at. And the cases are not argued from some whimsical `moral’ ground, although morality and ethics come in. As far as I’m concerned, your list is too short by far. Let’s talk about those stolen from the African continent and shipped off to the Americas, and in particular to the United States and to Brazil. Others will add more. But the point is, each struggle for reparations supports other struggles for reparations. And in every instance, women have been central to each and to all those engagements

      • I can’t wait for the reparation claims to start in Europe, can you imagine the pandemonium! The Huns, the Visigoths, the Franks and the rest of the so-called barbarian tribes. I live in South Africa through no choice of my own or that of my family. The English gave my Scots forefathers only one choice, South Africa or Australia, for the crime of fighting the English to drive them out of our homeland, Scotland. I would love to return to my homeland but my claims against the current owners and the “British” (English) government for the return of my family’s confiscated land has been rejected over and over again.
        To be honest I expect no joy and have accepted that I am here. I was born here, I own land here and no-one, and I mean no-one, is going to take it away from a living me. I believe the cliche is “over my dead body”.
        Land grabs and invasions are still occuring, take Zimbabwe for instance. Many farms were grabbed from white and black farmers alike. The grabs were orchestrated by the ZANU-PF government which is predominantly Shona. Were those farms given to the rightful historical peoples? NO! Did the Tonga, Vadoma and Lemba peoples get their land back? It must also be borne in mind that the Ndebele nation was established by an invading Zulu, Mzilikazi, in 1840 so they are due nothing.
        Where and when does the past end so that we can start living in the present to ensure that there is a future?

  7. “No one and I mean no one is going to take it away from a living me” Isn’t it amazing how territorial we get about our own circumstances and land but want others to forget their rightful pursuit of their land rights.

    • Question. What happens to those who lose their land and home in a land claim? Do they just become homeless? Do they have a right to claim land their ancestors may have lost, no matter how far back in history? If so, what happens to those they claim from? . . . and the wheel just keeps turning!
      Please read all my comments but especially the last sentence of my last comment and revert with some form of answer. I do believe it is a valid question!

      • If you are actually interested, then study the rules. You continue to suggest that there are no rules, that reparations is some chaotic, impossible to understand mess. Nothing could be further from the truth. There actually are explicit guidelines, both national – regional and international, that one must fit into in order to make a claim. It’s not everyone running after everyone. The case in Namibia, for example, is about very specific claims involving very specific ongoing impacts that are specifically outlined in the laws. It really isn’t as complicated or complex or mystifying as you keep suggesting. Thanks for your interest, however, and I hope you enjoy your study of the actual laws about actual reparations.

      • And who made the rules and laws? And who were the role players? And was everyone consulted? Corrupt politicians, those with a financial interest and no!!!

      • I read your comments thoroughly. Yes everyone has a right to claim what their ancestors lost but as you may or may not know there will be court rules as to how far back claims can go depending on which country. Just like in your quote about your home, “No one and I mean no one is going to take it away from a living me”. If evidence was gathered that you had illegally taken someone else’s home by killing or force. You should be taken to court and the necessary steps of the law be served against you. Good luck with your claim against the British.

      • So it’s up to the corrupt politicians and the courts to decide a cut-off date? Which means that invariably someone is going to be unhappy! What criteria will they use? In South Africa, for example, the Bushmen/Koisan/San were not even considered when the land-claim dates were determined and the whole of Southern Africa rightly belongs to them. Do you really, really believe that the South African government will ever admit that? What about the USA, can the indigenous peoples claim that back?
        There has to come a time when we start living in the now so that we can actually have a future!

      • “There has to come a time when we start living in the now so that we can actually have a future” Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this tired statement only attributed to selective people we do not feel comfortable with seeking justice. Corrupt politicians and courts are global, but this is where we have to seek redress and change.

  8. Yes, it is an imperfect system. Yes, relying only on courts and the State for justice is a perilous prospect. Yes, indigenous peoples in various parts of the United States have indeed made successful claims for reparations. Study the history, study the laws.

  9. So the indigenous peoples who roamed the WHOLE of the USA now only have “various parts” of the land they once roamed and not the whole of the land they once roamed, nice!
    Like the Bushmen/San/Khoisan only have a piece of an extremely arid semi-desert whereas they used to roam the whole of Southern Africa, nice!
    So this is what society calls fair, nice!

    • I keep on getting replies that do not answer my questions. What about the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa? When do the Bushmen/San/Khoisan get their land back from the African invaders and perpetrators of genocide and slavery? I’m all for land reparations but it appears that it’s done very selectively, to be more precise, the only claims are from whites by blacks and the blacks refuse to acknowledge their role in taking land from the original owners. Smacks of racism to me! I own 82 hectares of land in Limpopo Province, South Africa and I’m prepared to hand it back without compensation, BUT, only to the original owners being the Bushmen/San Khoisan and specifically to my close friends the Komani Bushmen led by the Kruipers.
      Anyone here prepared to join me in rectifying the REAL wrongs of the past?

      • Why do you keep implying that apartheid was not a “real wrong”? Why do you imply a moral equivalency between historical black migration and the evils of apartheid, in which blacks were deliberately degraded and denied their human rights by a minority government as recently as the 1980s? If you’re going to continue this Internet campaign against black people, you should tell us why you believe that apartheid was not a “real wrong.”

      • Apartheid was as evil as any system can be. I sat two years in prison due to the fact that I refused to be drafted into a military that was fighting an unjust war and propping up an unjust system. At the age of sixteen I witnessed a white Afrikaans speaking policeman pistol whip my white English speaking school friend to death while shouting the words “you f…… Englishman” in Afrikaans obviously. Got a better appreciation of me now? All I want is a just solution for the Bushmen. Your use of the words “historical black migration” is a travesty of justice, they invaded, enslaved and nearly eliminated the Bushmen. Take some time to go and speak to the Bushmen and get a better understanding of their history and present plight, or do they not matter to you, like all indigeous peoples the world around who are being ignored. It’s about all-encompassing transparent fairness, my friend, not about appeasing one race due to feelings of guilt!

      • I don’t need to be lectured about indigenous people. I’ve written two books about indigenous people in Canada. I have huge sympathy for the Khoi and San people in South Africa, and I’m not defending anything that was done to them. My point is that you repeatedly choose language that implies that apartheid was not a “real wrong.” It’s a damaging form of rhetoric. There’s no need to compare various historical wrongs and use that comparison to demean others. When people write about the genocide in Namibia, it doesn’t imply that other wrongs should be ignored. The same people who write about the genocide in Namibia are the natural supporters of indigenous people in other countries too, so it’s counter-productive for you to attack them. When you use language like “real wrongs”, you are implying that some wrongs are “real” and others are imagined. Or somehow less important. It’s a damaging form of rhetoric, and it’s not necessary. If you want to defend the rights of the Khoi and San people, why attack the rights of others? Why deny the suffering of others? Why attempt to judge which wrongs were “real” and which were “less real?” It’s a game that goes nowhere.

      • It’s the hypocrisy that riles me, sir, that is the real wrong! And what has apartheid got to do with the subject matter? Apartheid was instituted in 1961 not 1904 to 1908, the period that your article covers! You have used the phrase “historical black migration” but I’d like to know what phrase you use for historical white migration? Rather than being emotional about the past be vociferous about the present, like standing up for the Bushmen that are being forcibly removed from the Central Kalahari by the Botswana government and dumped in a small town called Ganzi. (This is happening now or would you prefer it to become history before you write about it?) Like standing up for the millions of children that are being denied a decent education in South Africa, the millions of South Africans that are denied proper medical care, the millions of South Africans that do not have the very basics of amenities, the children of South Africa that have to cross highways pushing wheelbarrows loaded with water containers. These things are happening NOW, we need to rectify them NOW and not let them become a history that is written about later because we feel guilty about allowing it to happen.
        We obviously have different agendas so let’s agree to disagree but let me lay down a challenge to you, one that will contribute immensely to South Africa and it’s unemployed poor. Canada accepts Hemp as a bone fide agricultural crop and earns millions of $ annually from it. You have access to the print media so write about what growing and beneficiating Hemp in South Africa could mean for the poor in the country. The rural subsistence lands that stand empty year in and year out should be utilized, there should be small beneficiation plants in the villages, etc.
        Let’s rather do something NOW than wait for it to become history so that some can write about it to earn money or reputation!

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