[lg policy] What's in a name? For this Namibian town, it’s all about (colonial) history
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Mon Mar 21 15:08:25 UTC 2016
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What's in a name? For this Namibian town, it’s all about (colonial) history
Understanding both sides
The residents of Lüderitz are engaged in a battle that will decide whether
its German heritage is literally wiped off the face of the map.
By Ryan Lenora Brown, Correspondent
- Ryan Lenora Brown
!NAMI#NUS, NAMIBIA — 400 miles southwest of the Namibian capital, Windhoek,
a narrow ribbon of highway cuts across a ghostly stretch of empty desert
and then without warning, spits its travelers out into early twentieth
century Bavaria – or something that looks remarkably like it – a
candy-colored town replete with restaurants specializing in schnitzel and
lanes of postcard-perfect art nouveau mansions.
The town may seem like a place time forgot, but it would be more accurate
to say it is a place locked in a fierce battle over what version of itself
it wants to remember. Welcome to Lüderitz. And welcome also to !Nami#nus.
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The trouble started three years ago, when then-Namibian president
Hifikepunye Pohamba announced that the seaside town’s name would be changed
from Lüderitz – after nineteenth century German colonial explorer Adolf
Lüderitz – back to !Nami#nus, an indigenous Nama-language term for the
area. (The ! and # characters are representations of two of the four
different click sounds in Nama. Click here to hear three Nama speakers
pronounce the name
Instantly, this sleepy town of 12,000 transformed into a dramatic new front
in a long-simmering war that stretches across southern Africa, over whether
or not colonialism should be literally wiped off the face of the map.
In some countries, like Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the choice was simple.
Hundreds of old street and town names – and in the case of Zimbabwe, even
the old country name, Rhodesia – were scrapped en masse after independence
as a symbol of history’s new pivot
Today the streets of cities like Maputo (once Lourenço Marques) and Harare
(once Salisbury) read like a who's who of anti-colonial liberation heroes
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maputo#Street_names> : Avenida Ho Chi Min,
Avenida Kim Il Sung, and Avenida Karl Marx, Julius Nyerere Way and Robert
In other countries like South Africa and Namibia, however, name changes
have met far greater opposition, with many arguing that the money spent
on the symbolic gesture of eliminating colonial names
would be put to better use tackling colonialism’s grittier legacies, like
poverty and poor infrastructure.
“This isn’t about a name,” says Charles Pieters, a lifelong resident of
Lüderitz. “Our people are dying of hunger and you want to use the money for
this? It doesn’t make any sense.”
But like many who opposed the name change, he also has more semantic
concerns. He worries the tongue-twister of a new name will drive away the
khaki-clad German tourists who flock here year round.
“It’s ugly and no one likes the sound of it, plain and simple,” one
resident of German descent spat. Some detractors even fret that if you
mispronounce !Nami#nus slightly, you could end up referring to female body
And then there was Germany
Supporters, meanwhile, argue the colonial name blots out the region’s long
“Before this town was founded, there were already people there, indigenous
people,” says Jorab /Useb, the director of the Namibian Indigenous People’s
Platform. “For a long time they’ve been denied a sense of belonging in a
place that was originally theirs.” And the dichotomy between spending money
on social services or on name changes is a false one, he says. “In the long
run, changing names is beneficial to social programs, because it helps
people crawl back into history, to have their existence on the official
Product of an often-forgotten wrinkle in the colonial history in Africa,
Lüderitz took shape during Germany’s brief but vicious rule here, which
stretched from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War I, when
it ceded its vast desert colony to South Africa.
An aerial image of the town of Luderitz, now seat of the constituency of
!Nami#nus, which was the indigenous Nama name for the area where the town
now sits. Ryan Lenora Brown
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Kaiser’s army waged a
self-described campaign of "absolute terrorism
local Herero and Nama peoples, vowing to "destroy the rebellious tribes by
shedding rivers of blood."
Tens of thousands were driven into Namibia’s unforgiving desert to die slow
deaths of thirst and starvation, and those who remained were rounded up and
sent to concentration camps.
The most notorious of these sat on the wind-whipped Shark Island in
Lüderitz. As many as three thousand Nama people were worked to death there
building the town’s port, buildings, and railway. Women prisoners,
meanwhile, were assigned to boil the heads of the dead and scrape off their
skin so that the skulls could be sent to Germany for anthropological
research. Many have argued the genocide served as a laboratory for testing
ideals and techniques of racial purification
later used to carry out Europe’s holocaust.
Today, Shark Island is a quaint stretch of B&Bs and coffee shops. The only
sideways clue to the area’s dark history is a plaque with a chipped etching
of Cornelius Frederiks – a local leader who died at the camp – that
opaquely reads “We commemorate our heroes.” Nearby is a much larger wall
etched with the names of German pioneers killed in the wars against the
Herero and Nama.
“This man was a colonialist, and for many generations, no one in town has
known Mr. Lüderitz personally, so why do we need to keep his name alive any
longer?” says Mariana Draghoender, a Nama resident of the town, who works
as a cook in a café on the waterfront. “People say it’s a problem to
pronounce !Nami#nus. Well, for me it’s easier to say !Nami#nus than
Schoolchildren study an exhibit on the town's history in the Luderitz
Museum, March 2016. Ryan Lenora Brown
A town-wide solution
Older residents like Ms. Draghoender still remember the system of rigid
segregation the town was subjected to under the apartheid South African
rule that followed German retreat, and which still have an unmistakable
imprint on life here.
“Here, the white people have their side and we have ours,” Virginia April,
a Nama teenager, told a visiting reporter on a recent morning. “Outside of
work we don’t communicate really, but no one has a problem with one
But when it came to the name change, the battle lines didn’t come down to
race at all. For a rainbow of “buchters
<http://allafrica.com/stories/201308230966.html>” – as residents of
Lüderitz call themselves – the town’s name has given them an identity,
however imperfect, to be a part of.
“We cannot change the past,” says Tiser Shivute, a sales representative for
a local beer company, who comes from the Ovambo ethnic group. “We can’t shy
away from the fact that this man was a colonizer, but at the same time we
must also remember that he built our town.”
For now, the name controversy has reached a shaky truce. The town itself
remains Lüderitz, but the constituency – what Americans might call the
county – is now !Nami#nus, according to city authorities.
“We are slowly starting to recover – the two sides are starting to talk to
each other again,” says Mr. Pieters, an outspoken critic of the name
change. Pieters who is coloured -- or mixed race -- works just outside of
town, selling photos to tourists in a mining ghost town called Kolmanskop,
where the lavish excesses of German colonialism are – quite literally –
being reclaimed by the sands of time. When he looks at the old buildings
slowly filling with sand, Pieters sees an eerie prediction of Lüderitz’s
“Some people like to joke that Lüderitz is the next ghost town,” he says.
“And maybe it will be if we don’t find a way to put our money towards the
things that really matter, whatever our name is.”
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