The family tree

Issue 5 (November 2009)

Hamilton Wende regularly explores Namibia for his work as an author and TV journalist. In this column he recalls his favourite moments.

 

The most wonderful name for a tree anywhere in the world, in my opinion, is the omumborombonga tree. It is found scattered in deep bush enclaves in the wide open grasslands of central Namibia, and is the mythical ancestor tree of the Herero people. Their legends have it that the first people originated from the omumborombonga tree, and spread out to populate the world from it. They took with them the blessing of Mukuru, or God, who is found everywhere, both in heaven and on earth. It is a beautiful creation myth that has been handed down by Herero storytellers for generations.


Hereros are people who treasure memory, both painful and joyous. Memory is layered into their daily lives, into their stories and into their costume. They can never forget their struggles against the German colonisers, which culminated in the dreadful extermination order issued by General von Trotha in 1904 and resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Hereros. The Hereros fought bravely and many Germans were killed too. Some of their graves are in the haunting but neatly-kept churchyard of the Rhenish missionary church in Okahandja, just a short drive north of Windhoek. Across the road are graves of famous Herero leaders. On the hundreth anniversary of the massacres the German government officially apologised. But many Hereros feel that this is not enough, and that the Germans should pay reparations. “I remember hearing the stories of those days from my grandmother,” Maria told me in Okahandja. “They were very sad stories and if they hadn’t been killed then maybe we Hereros would be a strong nation today.”  


The remembrance of those days is a central pillar of Herero identity. Late every August there is a memorial march to revere the fallen heroes, especially Samuel Maherero, who led the rebellion. Still, today, while there is scepticism about German motives, there is a lack of bitterness among the Herero. “Many of us have German blood,” one man told me. “We have them in us.”


The past is also on display every day in Herero land when you see the women walking down the streets in their traditional costume. They were influenced by the missionaries in the 19th century, and adopted colourful but voluminous long Victorian-style dresses that are held out by layers of petticoats.  


Their distinctive hats, called otjikayiva, are quite extraordinary. The horn-like protuberances are made of rolls of cloth, and are called ozonde. The ozonde are intended to resemble and pay homage to the large horns of the traditional cattle that Hereros value so greatly.  


Hereros trace their ancestry both through their mother’s side and on their father’s side, which is unusual in traditional African societies. There are many sub-groups of the Herero. The northern-most are known as the Himba.  They appear nothing like the central Herero, as they have maintained their ancient traditional dress of hides, ochre, and cow fat. But they speak the same language, OvaHerero, and regard themselves as being the same people.


In northern Namibia I met a young man whose surname was Ruiter, or ‘rider’ in Afrikaans. “My ancestors worked for the Boers,” he said. “We took their name, and have kept it ever since.” His smile showed a pride in his unusual ancestry.


Identity and memory are fluid and inclusive in Herero culture. It is a mark of their success as a people in surviving the ravages of genocide and of colonial oppression.  


They are an integral part of modern-day Namibia, holding on to their varied and unique cultures while looking forward to yet more stories.

 

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