Do they want to top it all by mocking us?

Human remains of former colonised people are still considered as objects of research in the German museums that currently hold them. This state of affairs is unbearable for Mnyaka Sururu Mboro and Christian Kopp, working for the organisation Berlin Postkolonial.

Right before Mnyaka Sururu Mboro flew to Germany for the first time in 1978, his grandmother had requested him to bring the head of Mangi Meli back to Tanzania. Mangi Meli was one of many anti-colonial resistant fighters who were killed by the German colonisers. Forty years later, the co-founder of the organisation Berlin Postkolonial and his colleague Christian Kopp are still asking for the return of thousands of remains of colonised people home and calling for a concrete acknowledgement of Germany’s colonial past and racist legacy.

Christian Kopp: Mboro, you have been advocating a critical perspective on colonialism and its legacy for a few decades now. Among other debates, you have actively campaigned for renaming streets of Berlin which still honour former colonial criminals and you guide educational city tours that unveil the postcolonial traces of the German capital. Where do you draw your motivation from?

Mnyaka Sururu Mboro: I have experienced British occupation in the Tanganyika region and the ensuing independence movement. My grandmothers also told me a lot on the German foreign occupation before 1918. Many evening stories were dedicated to Hermann Wissman’s military expeditions as Imperial Commissioner, to mkono wa damu, the “bloody hands” of Carl Peters, but also to the famous resistance of Mangi Meli, leader of the Wachagga people living on the Kilimanjaro. These things are deeply engraved. And when you find yourself in Berlin, and you see that there are still two “Wissmanstraßen” (Wissman Streets) and one “Petersallee” (Peters Avenue), and that this very colonial city does not seem to acknowledge its racist and oppressive legacy, then you tell yourself that you might obviously be one of the only ones here who could shed light upon this history and the pervasive forms of colonial oppression: forced labour, boycott, violent beatings, wars and uprisings, and the demonization of our cultures and spiritual beliefs by Christian missionaries. This work is essential, and therefore natural to me. What about you? What could have possibly motivated you as a white German during all those years?

Christian Kopp: Despite having studied history, I have only found out about our entangled colonial histories by discussing with you and other Tanzanian people more than ten years after graduating. It was not so hard to understand that this violent past, which is typically repressed, divides us more than it brings us closer. You made me realise that my personal engagement with the past may help to bridge this abyss between us. Since then I have critically reflected on Germany’s colonial past and I have supported initiatives lead by the descendants of colonised people for symbolic acknowledgements and material reparations. The scandalous situation of human remains from former colonies appears to me as the most urgent issue in that process. But you’ve even got a personal connection to the debate…

Mnyaka Sururu Mboro: Well, no doubt about that! When my grandmother heard that I was going to Germany, she made me promise that I would search for the remains of Mangi Meli and see to it that his head is ultimately repatriated to Tanzania. Meli and eighteen of his followers were hanged in March 1900 by German soldiers. Wachagga people are certain that his head was then severed and shipped to Germany. To us, who will all later be inhumed on our original land close to our kin, it is unbearable to know that his head could never be buried, particularly because the heads of the dead play a special role in our burials: they are always turned towards the Kibo, the highest summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. After a year, the skulls of the fathers are then dug up and reburied under the holy tree Isale after a sacred ceremony.

The search for Meli’s head started in the sixties; Wachagga, and particularly Meli’s direct descendants, already tried to locate it in Germany back then. Many believe that the complete evaporation of traces of its existence has been the cause for every misfortune that has descended upon the community ever since. A new request has recently been sent to the Foundation Prussian Cultural Heritage in Berlin. Do you find such a relentless dedication hard to understand?

Christian Kopp: Not one bit. I wouldn’t either accept that the remains of my ancestors be stored forever in a cardboard box on the other side of the planet! I can fully grasp the desire for descendants to welcome their ancestors back home and bury them with dignity, especially when those remains were sent to Europe to support racist scientific research. Just like the children of Meli’s children would like to witness his return, Timothy Frederick recently demanded the return of his forefather Cornelius Fredericks to the Nama community in Namibia in an eloquent intervention in Berlin in July 2015. This renowned leader of the Oorlam resistance against German colonial rule was indeed sent to a concentration camp on Shark Island in the Lüderitz Bay where he died in 1907. According to Nama oral history, his body was later decapitated.

Mnyaka Sururu Mboro: The remains of prominent anti-colonial leaders obviously have a deep political, cultural and spiritual significance for the respective communities – it was precisely often for this reason that some were shipped away. The most famous example was the story of Mkwawa’s head: he was killed in 1898 in former German East-Africa and his head was displayed by German colonists as the symbol for the crushed anti-colonial rebellion of the Wahehe, and later examined by famous anatomist Rudolph Virchow in Berlin. The return of his skull was part of the terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, but it was only repatriated to Tanzania in 1954. The remains of his father and the skull of his son, who was likewise killed by the German colonial troops, are still in Berlin as far as I know.

Christian Kopp: The archives of the Berlin Ethnological Museum suggest it indeed, and it is inexcusable that those responsible for the collections have not actively sought for those remains. When one realises the whole bustle that is made around the remains of Catholic Saints, or those of Prussian monarchs such as Frederic William I and Frederic the Great, whose remains were hid by the Nazis from the Allies, it seems unbelievable to me that people in Germany do not understand the importance of a restitution for the Mkwawa family and for the Wahehe in general.

Besides the remains of less-known and unidentified individuals acquired during the colonial era should also be proactively offered for restitution when their origins are known. In other words, the initiative should come from the museums themselves, instead of the usual reaction to repatriation claims. This would ensure that respect is given to the descendants who, as a rule, cannot know where the skeletal remains of their ancestors are presently housed. Other western countries such as the U.S. have repatriated soldiers who fell in the wars of the twentieth century in a monumental manner. For all that, if, in the case of unknown remains, the referencing and provenancing work leads to nothing more precise than their broad African origin, I would suggest that the African community in Germany be approached so that appropriate burials can be carried out with respect for the dignity of the dead.

Mnyaka Sururu Mboro: I am afraid, we are still far from this. One of the main reasons seems to be that only New Zealand, Australia and Namibia have made Germany to return human remains but most other governments – and among them the government of the United Republic of Tanzania we have informed about the matter – are nowhere near to stand up for the rights of the descendants and of the source communities. The statements emanating from German museums also show that they still consider themselves as the rightful owners of our ancestors. They emphasise that only the mere single cases which clearly indicate a “context of injustice” can be subjected to negotiations for their return. The right of being able to define a “context of injustice” is however withheld by those institutions, which maintain that a context of colonial occupation cannot be considered as such in principle. What are they telling us? That our ancestors might have sold or given the remains of their relatives of their own free will? Do they want to top it all by mocking us?

Christian Kopp: I fear that there is even more at stake for European museums than the simple question of housing those human remains. The collections were used for racist theories in anthropology. In other words, not only were they acquired in the context of colonial oppression, they also justified an extremely unethical scientific agenda whose apex came only a few decades later: The selection and extermination of Jewish people for “scientific research”, aiming at the completion of German anthropological collections. Therefor I am shocked when I hear nowadays of the alleged precious worthiness of those remains for the greater good and humanitarian scientific knowledge. It is not only inconsistent with the lack of appropriate archival material on these collections which has resulted from decades of neglect and indifference. This argument supports a model in which white German scientists deliberately continue studying the skeletal remains of colonised African people and other People of Color and look at them as mere “research material”– this is abusive.

 

Mnyaka Sururu Mboro is a teacher and a board member of Berlin Postkolonial. Christian Kopp is historian and board member of the same organisation. They are currently organising a conference for the educational project “Just Listen – Globalgeschichte von unten und zivilgesellschaftlicher Dialog” (“Global history from below and dialogue in civil society”) which will focus on the central position of the views and voices of colonised people and their descendants in the debate about human remains and sacred cultural objects in white museum collections. The conference will take place in Autumn 2017.

 

 

Ambassador Undermines Genocides Motions

Namibia’s Ambassador Undermines Ovaherero and Nama Genocides Motions in the Bundestag

On March 14, 2016, the Namibian ambassador to Germany, apparently acting at the behest of the German federal government, wrote a letter appealing to Left and Green parties to withdraw their motions on the Ovaherero and Nama genocides. The motions by the Green and Left parties represent an attempt by German parliamentarians to provide a measure of justice for the victims of the Ovaherero and Nama genocides of 1904-1908. This is something that generations of descendants of these genocides have been seeking and actively campaigning for since Namibia’s independence in 1990. The motions recognize the genocides, include an apology and restitution for the victims and their descendants, and call for the involvement of the affected communities in the dialogue to resolve these issues. The affected communities welcome and supported these motions. While the Green Party’s motion was withdrawn prior to the debate, the Left Party motion was debated and voted down on March 16, 2016 ‒ a victory for the ambassador and the German federal government and a loss for the victims of the genocides.

The Left Party motion is one of the most detailed and comprehensive public documents by any party or government entity, including the Namibian government. Here are some of its most notable elements: supports the 26 October 2006 Namibian National Assembly resolution; requires the involvement of affected people in negotiations; recognizes need for restorative justice for victims that is separate from bilateral aid; recognizes the continued impact of expulsion from and appropriation of land and calls for mechanisms to address resultant structural imbalances; proposes a structural compensation fund to help address land issues and lack of infrastructure; holds accountable those businesses that benefited from labor, expulsion, and land appropriation; calls for educational and cultural exchanges; and calls for the return of stolen property and human remains. While I can imagine that the German federal government might disagree with some of these elements ‒ after all, it has not put forth its own motion ‒ it is hard to imagine which of these the Namibian government should find objectionable, especially given that the offspring of the victims welcome these proposals.

In his letter to the Bundestag the ambassador proposed that these motions should be replaced by a new and unknown motion to be produced shortly by the two governments, and a multi-party motion that would be guided by agreed-upon proposals of the Namibian and German governments that have not been made public by either government. Further, the Namibian government continues to refuse to involve affected communities and civic society. The ambassador talks of “Harambee” with the German federal government while engendering ohani (divisions) in Namibia. Not only does the Namibian ambassador appear to speak on behalf of the German government, he also seems to be telling the parliamentarians that the Namibian government, in working with its German counterpart, can deliver a better deal for Germany – likely one that does not go as far as the Left Party has proposed. The ambassador’s letter is essentially saying trust us to work with your government to protect Germany’s interests just as we have protected property rights after independence. What about the interests of the affected communities and individuals, Mr. Ambassador? One can only guess that the ambassador is referring to, among other things, policies such as the disastrous Willing Seller Willing Buyer (perhaps better referred to as Unwilling Seller, Unable Buyer policy, since many farm owners are unwilling to sell, and the disenfranchised cannot afford to buy). This is also the policy that enshrined the imbalances referenced in the Left Party motion, imbalances resulting from the Kaiser’s expropriation of land.

Clearly the German federal government’s moral and political calculations have evolved over the past couple of years due to efforts of the affected communities as well as of individuals, parliamentarians, and NGOs in Germany and all over the world. Reportedly, the German federal government is prepared to offer an apology, but they want the apology to be done correctly and to be accepted. Presumably, the soon to be produced multi-party motion by the two governments would pave the way for such an outcome. Furthermore, given the ambassador’s letter and the Namibian government’s refusal to engage the affected communities, the thinking must be that the Namibian Cabinet or National Assembly would accept the apology and absolve the German federal government of any future moral and legal responsibility. Such an apology will be morally hollow, will not be acceptable, and cannot lead to forgiveness and healing on the part of the victims. In fact, descendants will be left with a continued feeling of victimization by the German federal government, albeit with the acquiescence of the government of a free Namibia.

International conventions, Namibia’s constitution, and Namibia’s National Assembly resolution of 2016 all recognize and protect the rights of groups and individuals affected by genocide and crimes against humanity to seek appropriate legal and moral recourse and to speak for and represent themselves. Even the German federal government recognizes that the lack of involvement could be a significant hindrance in making limited progress. What is unbelievable and supremely immoral is that the Namibian government is essentially preventing progress on this issue by refusing to involve descendants in any possible outcome.

The victims of the genocides are scattered across the globe. They are in Botswana, South Africa, and Angola where their fore-bearers sought refuge. If their representatives are not involved in these negotiations, does the Namibian Government claim to negotiate on their behalf as well? This is an important issue because the Namibian Government continues to deny the descendants of the victims of genocides their right to return to their ancestral land. Those who dare to return to Namibia follow the same procedures as other emigrants and are eventually given citizenship by registration, which can be revoked at any time.

In a democracy, government protects and cherishes these rights. It is incumbent upon people of good conscience all over the world to remind governments of this sacred responsibility. It is equally important for the descendants of the OvaHerero and Nama genocides to speak up and demand that their government listens to them, protects them, and certainly not stand in the way of justice for them.

This is not a political issue; it is at its core a moral issue, and a moral test for the German federal government – can they do this right, and for the right reason?

To survivors of genocides and their descendants, genocide is and continues to be an existential issue. We live with it, and its memory haunts us. Efforts to deny, undermine, dismiss or whitewash our horror are painful and threatening and are seen as congruent with past efforts to deny us our humanity and basic rights, including the right to live. And, as our forbearers (including Kahimemua, Witbooi, and Rapote) did, and as our children and grandchildren expect us, we will continue to insist on justice – we have to.

Namibia is blessed with individuals of great courage and moral rectitude, from all walks of life and ethnicities and across the political spectrum. Many have publicly spoken with moral clarity on this issue; others do so privately, and just as forcefully. With the support of the Namibian community and friends all over the world, descendants of the genocide victims are resolute and united in their search for justice. This is what gives me hope that there will be a course correction and that the activities of the Namibian ambassador to Germany will go down in the annals of history as an unfortunate anomaly.

Dr. Kavemuii Murangi is a Namibian born educator currently residing in the USA.  He is a descendant of the victims of the Ovaherero genocide and the founding director of the USA based OvaHerero, Mbanderu and Nama Genocide(s) Institute (ONGI) – http://theongi.org/; @ONGI1904

Ambassador attempts to suppress genocide motions

The Namibian government is trying to suppress Ovaherero and Nama genocide motions in the Bundestag. The motions recognize the Ovaherero and Nama genocides of 1904-1908, call for an apology and restitution to the descendants of the genocides, and are welcomed and supported by the Ovaherero and Nama people. In a surprising letter (see attached statement) to the Bundestag, on the eve of the Bundestag debate on March 17, the Namibian Ambassador to Germany proposed that the motions be replaced by a new motion based on ongoing secretive negotiations between the German and the Namibian governments. To date the Namibian government has refused to directly involve the descendants of the genocide in these negotiations.  It appears the Namibian government is siding with the German government and protecting German interest in this matter, against the interest of its own people – the victims of the Ovaherero and Nama genocides and their descendants.  Needless to say, reconciliation and healing is not possible without the direct involvement of the descendants of the genocide, without a meaningful apology and restitution to the descendants.

While the Green Party has withdrawn its motion, the Left Party is standing firm with the Ovaherero and Nama people, is not withdrawing its motion, and has issued a statement calling on the governments to end these secretive talks.

Our Common Humanity Demands It

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On October 12, 2015, I participated in a panel discussion on the OvaHerero/Mbanderu and Nama Genocides of 1904-1908 at the University of Hamburg, Germany. The panel discussion was titled “Not about us without us,” a title designed to highlight the unfortunate state of affairs where the German government and Namibian governments are said to be involved in negotiations on the issue of genocide without the direct involvement of the affected communities. Panelists included Jefta Nguherimo (labor activist, historian, and founding member of the ONGI); Professor Jurgen Zimmerer (University of Hamburg); and me, Dr. Kavemuii Murangi (founding member and director, ONGI). This post shares my presentation on the demands of the OvaHerero and Nama.

 “Our Common Humanity Demands It”

I am a father of three daughters; the youngest is 10 years old. I am also a descendant of victims of the genocide.

My great-great-grandfather died in 1904 during the genocide war. The Schutztruppe pushed his wife and daughters into the desert as were many OvaHerero. Many of them would perish from exhaustion, hunger or thirst as the wells were poisoned, or from being shot. Hungry, exhausted, and thirsty, rather than allow herself to be captured and killed by Germans, my great-great-grandmother essentially committed suicide. Their daughters were captured and put in concentration camps or death camps.

Concentration camps were characterized by systematic abuse and slave-like conditions, starvation, forced labor, rape, and death. The death rate ranged from 40 – 70% percent in these camps – hence the name ‘death camps.’    Most notorious were the Shark Island camp on Lüderitz, the Swakopmund camp, and the Windhoek camp, which was known as Katjombondi or Vile Place.

The genocide of the OvaHerero was calculated, systematic and extremely effective. The Kaiser’s government through its troops and General Luther Von Trotha, came as close as any one has come in the 20th century to liquidating an entire people.

Between 1904 and 1908, all OvaHerero and Nama people who lived in central and southern Namibia were either dead, in concentration camps, or in exile. An entire people—up to 85 percent of the OvaHerero and 50 percent of the Nama—were exterminated.

My great-great-grandfather’s daughters were raped by German soldiers or settlers, and gave birth to children of mixed heritage. My grandmother saw her German father but never knew or talked to him.

Yes, my grandparents and their parents experienced physical, psychological and emotional pain. As I grew older, I began to recognize this pain in my grandparents and my parents. To this day, a death in the family is essentially bereavement over the pain and death of the genocide. It is amazing how an event so long ago can still engender so much pain and angst.

As descendants of the genocides, we have inherited that loss and pain. The devastation and cruelty was so great that it is ingrained in our DNA, in our hearts and souls like a hereditary disease – in fact, it is a disease that is passed on from one generation to another.

I do not want to pass this disease onto my children, much less to their children. I want them to know about the genocide factually and intellectually, but not emotionally and psychologically as my generation and generations before us experienced these events. We need to cut this link, by taking measures that begin the healing process for the victims of genocide – for our sake, but most importantly for the sake of our children and their children, for the sake of OvaHerero, Nama, and German children, and their children.

The current generation of German leaders should not pass this historical and moral burden to future generations. They should have the courage to take measures that would begin the process of healing and free our peoples (Herero, Nama, and German) from the ghosts of the past. They should a) recognize the 1904-1908 atrocities as genocide, b) offer an apology, c) return all human remains stolen and stored in German institutions, d) make amends and restitution, and e) engage in direct meaningful dialogue with the descendants of the genocides.

a) The German government and the Bundestag must recognize the atrocities committed against the OvaHerero and Nama as genocides.

Germany has acknowledged the Holocaust and made reparations and has recognized the Armenian genocide, even though both predate the 1948 convention on genocide, yet has failed so far to recognize the Namibia genocides under the pretext that the term genocide did not exist.

Earlier this year a group of German citizens, parliamentarians, and members of NGOS launched the Genocide is Genocide petition that calls on the German government to stop the double standards and recognize the OvaHerero and Nama genocides.

Dr. Lammert, speaker of the German parliament, recently publicly stated that he personally views these atrocities as genocide and war crimes.

The Left Party and the Green Party have introduced motions recognizing the OvaHerero and Nama genocides, apologizing to the OvaHerero and Nama people, and offering restitution.

We urge the Bundestag to pass these common sense motions and end these political games by the German government.

b) We demand a sincere and heartfelt apology from the German government and the Bundestag and commend the Left and Green for tabling a motion that includes an apology to the victims and their descendants.

A public apology would be consistent with Germany’s ideals as a democratic and freedom loving state that cherish the rights and worth of all people regardless of color, country of birth, or station in life. It is the moral thing to do and will re-affirm Germany’s own humanity and our humanity in Germany’s eyes.

Former Germany’s development aid minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul offered an apology in 2004 for the 1904-1908 atrocities, and indicated that these events constituted genocide. Her unscripted comments showed that her apology was sincere and heartfelt and she has since demonstrated this in different ways including her participation in the Genocide is Genocide petition.

Through an apology, affirming our common humanity, Germany will usher in an era of healing and true reconciliation among our people. Only then can the descendants of the genocides begin to stem a hereditary disease that I talked about earlier.

We want an apology and we will accept a meaningful apology, but Germany will have to earn our forgiveness through her actions.

c) One of the most inhumane and, in my view, unnatural crimes of the OvaHerero and Nama genocides was the desecration of graves, the stealing of human remains, and the cutting off and stealing of heads and other body parts for pure pleasure as well for scientific experiments to prove the inferiority of Africans.

In colonial Namibia, especially during the 1904-1908 genocide, the stealing of skulls and human remains was a full blown and organized industry. Collectors, universities, museums, and scientists would place orders for the supply of these human parts.

In concentration camps, female prisoners boiled severed heads and cleaned them with shard glass – sometimes the victims were family and often acquaintances.

Some skulls have been uncovered in Germany and repatriated over the past several years. Hundreds of skulls and human remains are still in Germany – we need these repatriated so that we can pay respect and put our ancestors to rest.

During this trip, we are hoping to visit the Rudolph Virchow collections of human remains, which has skulls and human remains from Namibia in their possession.

d) Reparation is defined as “the act of making amends or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury.”

We are asking the German government to recognize that your government, institutions, and citizens committed crimes against humanity during this particular period in history, and that those actions had and continue to have severe and irreparable consequences for the OvaHerero and Nama people. OvaHerero and Nama had land and cattle, and colonial Germany wanted land and cattle for it settlers and it was prepared to take both at all cost. OvaHerero and Nama lost their lives, they lost cattle, and they lost all their land thanks to a decree issued by the Kaiser himself confiscating all land and preventing OvaHerero from owning land.

Reparations are in many ways symbolic, as it is impossible to make whole again the lives lost and the property and resources lost. Nevertheless, they can be a way to ameliorate destitution, poverty, and marginalization that OvaHerero and Nama continue to suffer.

e) Finally, all these can only happen in an environment of mutual respect and through a process of meaningful and direct dialogue involving the aggrieved parties and Germany. In the past year, there has been a lot of talk about talks as we hear the German and the Namibian government are engaged in talks. However, the affected communities have not been consulted, much less involved, in these talks. How can you apologize to someone if you are not talking to them, how do you make amends with someone if you do not know or recognize their worth?

Germany’s refusal to engage the affected communities and our government enabling behavior will only strengthen our resolve. The exclusion of the affected communities from these so-called talks only demonstrates one thing that the German government is not ready to live up to its moral responsibility and meet our basic and common sense demands. It also means that we have to reach out to all our brothers and sisters all over the world, but especially here in Germany to do everything they can to make our governments see reason. Our humanity demands it!