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The return of Herero and Nama bones from Germany

The victims' struggle for recognition and recurring genocide memories in Namibia

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Vilho Amukwaya Shigwedha

The colonial troops of imperial Germany, the Schutztruppe, carried out a systematic war of extermination (1904 – 1908) against the Herero and Nama people in what is now modern day Namibia. An undisclosed number of bones of the victims were traded to Germany in their pursuit of scientific racial studies. As part of the post-genocide growing trend calling for the repatriation of the bones, ongoing negotiations between the Namibian and German governments have resulted in the return of fifty-five skulls, including a few skeletons since October 2011. The return of these bones to Namibia has divided Namibian society on religious, cultural, political and ethnic issues regarding what to do with the genocide victims’ remains.

In view of the general public perception that the genocide bones have been treated with a considerable degree of indignity, this study attempts to associate the evolving disrespectfulness for the genocide’s bones with the re-emergence of genocide trauma and suffering of the affected communities in general. It perceives political obstruction, involving German and Namibian governments, as a central factor that impedes humanitarian efforts to seek justice and dignity for the bones or descendants of the genocide’s victims.

Open Access (free)

The homecoming of Ovaherero and Nama skulls

Overriding politics and injustices

Vilho Amukwaya Shigwedha

In October 2011, twenty skulls of the Herero and Nama people were repatriated from Germany to Namibia. So far, fifty-five skulls and two human skeletons have been repatriated to Namibia and preparations for the return of more skulls from Germany were at an advanced stage at the time of writing this article. Nonetheless, the skulls and skeletons that were returned from Germany in the past have been disappointingly laden with complexities and politics, to such an extent that they have not yet been handed over to their respective communities for mourning and burials. In this context, this article seeks to investigate the practice of ‘anonymising’ the presence of human remains in society by exploring the art and politics of the Namibian state’s memory production and sanctioning in enforcing restrictions on the affected communities not to perform, as they wish, their cultural and ritual practices for the remains of their ancestors.