Thursday, September 29, 2011

Alte Feste

Taryn and Faye
Week 5

This past week at CGE we were reminded of how difficult it is to find equilibrium in our thoughts and actions when the story of our experience here is laden with so many contradictions and complexities. It is a challenge to simultaneously balance our classes, internships, health, social life and cultural exploration while making sure that we are entirely present in each and every experience that we are involved in. This week our health failed to find balance! Ten of the fifteen students became ill at the same time, and time did not pause for them. Internships and schoolwork zoomed forward; expectations and reliance on us from our internships and comrades were not paused; and the sun continued to rise and set at its alarming rate (Photo:

By now, it is fair to say that most of us have realized CGE’s strategy of teaching, which in part means witnessing paradoxes first hand by exploring several opposing angles of an issue. We are placed in situations where we are often baffled and frustrated by much of what we hear, and eventually reach a place where we can apply context and translate that frustration into a bud for understanding. This week we explored the Herero Genocide through several lenses, most of which sparked surges of frustration within us, causing us to question the history we knew, and the future of Namibia we envisioned. Through visiting a museum, exploring videos, and speaking with a German pastor, we began to wonder how so much of Namibia’s history had disappeared. Finding balance in our lives here in order to stay afloat and engaged, and negotiating through the many contradictions blaring in front of us were constant themes woven into this week’s experience here in Namibia.

So far our classes have been well balanced at least; most of the professors do a great job of providing us with different ways of learning through lectures, videos, speakers, discussions, and visiting museums. Romanus, our history professor, took us to the Alte Feste Museum in Windhoek on Thursday, the 15th of September. Each group was asked to look for particular things within the museum, one of which being hidden messages. When we approached the front of the fort, along the walls were German weapons, and vehicles proudly welcoming us into the building. In the far right corner sat a large woven basket, seeming to be of African design. Inside that basket hidden in that corner was garbage. Maybe it was purely coincidental, but when asked to look for symbolism, symbolism is what you see, and it seemed as though to be a symbol of the garbage that German Colonization made out of African Culture. This is evident in the museum.

The museum was poorly funded. Pictures of black prisoners standing with German guards and militia were mounted on cardboard. These pictures were simply labeled in this way with the dates. Few stories of events were told within the museum. We then saw pictures of black leaders and black prisoners. The museum then continued into a celebration of Namibian Independence. We then walked into a room filled with information about wall paintings. The sign before the room dared to ask something along the lines of, “Do African wall paintings have any meaning?” This is an example of how the German creators of this museum have made a mockery of African culture.

A mix of German and African artifacts filled another room dominated by the German artifacts, just as tribes were dominated by German culture. Upon leaving I asked the black guard behind the desk, “Who created these exhibits?” He replied, “The Germans.” To him I responded, “What audience is this museum intended for?” “The Germans,” he replied, “White, white, white, white…” he said as he pointed to the walls with distain. From his tone, and from walking through the museum we gathered that he felt as though African history and culture was not being represented in the right way. We left the Alte Feste museum disappointed with the lack of information about the struggle of tribes during colonization. After leaving class that day we felt disgust, for we had learned that the Alte Feste Museum and many Germans neglected to tell the tale of another part of Namibia’s history- the Herero Genocide.

Outside the very walls of this fort stand a statue which commemorates Germany colonizing Namibia while inside those very walls thousands of Hereros were murdered during the Herero Genocide. Alte Feste fails to mention that part of Namibia’s history within its walls. Germany fails to recognize the horrors that built their colony. It is almost if they chose to forget. The Herero Genocide went from 1904 to 1909. Seventy-five percent of Hereros were killed. Fifty percent of the Nama people were killed as well, but not one official monument stands for either group who died. Yet outside of the Alte Feste Museum stands a proud statue commemorating German’s influence on Windhoek. Influence comes more easily when there are less people to influence; sixty-five thousand less people.

Lothar Von Trotha, the leader of the genocide deliberately sanctioned the annihilation of all Herero people. The soldiers drove them to the Kalahari desert and then fenced them in causing many to die of starvation and thirst; that was only the beginning. Concentration camps were in Windhoek and Swakopmund and forced labor was imposed upon the Herero people. It is horrible to think that so much of Namibia has been created by oppression. The beautiful parliament building and rail road tracks have been built by the hands of the oppressed. Thousands were oppressed brutally though starvation, thirst, and being over-worked, often resulting in death. Death certificates were printed ahead of time saying “died of exhaustion,” and once they were worked literally to the bone, their bodies were thrown carelessly into mass, unmarked graves in the desert like garbage being tossed into a waste bin.

The museum in many ways effectively hides the truths of the past, instead of offering accounts and explorations of reality. We must actively work to search for truths, for as we have noticed, many layers of colonial influence, re-written history, shame and discomfort obscure them. Our upcoming trip to Swakopmund will test our ability to search for truth in history. We must balance the experience of being in a beautiful place with a history that is painfully ugly. The graves of murdered Herero people remain hidden under the sand of Swakop, the very sand that we were so excited to quad bike over before learning the truth. How can we balance being a tourist and visitor of Swakopmund with our duties as students and conscious beings? The benefits of being challenged each and every day in this program, however, insurmountably out way the benefits of remaining ignorant to history’s truths.

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