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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.

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    Most of Luderitz was designed by German architects around the turn of the 20th century, and today the town remains heavily German influenced in architecture, cuisine, and culture.
    Ryan Lenora Brown
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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.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

Confused yet? So are they.

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 : Avenida Ho Chi Min, Avenida Kim Il Sung, and Avenida Karl Marx, Julius Nyerere Way and Robert Mugabe Avenue.

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 parts

And then there was Germany

Supporters, meanwhile, argue the colonial name blots out the region’s long pre-colonial history.  

“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 record somewhere.”

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" on 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 Lüderitz.”

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 another.”

But when it came to the name change, the battle lines didn’t come down to race at all. For a rainbow of “buchters” – 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 future.

“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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