Excerpts from Ovaherero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro’s speech in Germany where a Namibian delegation repatriated human remains shipped to that country a century ago.
Please, allow me to point out to the representatives of the German government in our midst – whose presence I do appreciate – that it is not an easy thing for us to explain to our children, when we tell them that we are going to Germany to repatriate the remains of our ancestors who were killed by the Germans and then taken there. They ask us simple questions like: “But what did they do to deserve that?”
What should we tell them? Equally, what would you tell your own children about the same question if, for instance, they were to ask you: “But why did we kill them, Papa?”
It is some of those small things that bring back to memory and the feeling of the pain suffered by our ancestors during the Herero and Nama Genocide of 1904 – 1908 and which is even more painful as I am looking at those human remains of my people in front of us, with that round scar around each head, indicating where it was cut for the purposes of racist scientific research. What have they done?
We did not come here for a picnic or as tourists, we are here to honour our heroes and heroines who were brutally killed only because they refused to be colonised. And we did not come here to pick up a fight with anybody, because in our Herero culture, when in mourning, you must show your maximum last respect to your deceased ones in dignity.
I must say that coming to Germany for this event has always not been an easy thing for those of us (Hereros and Namas) who have consistently refused to be co-opted into structures and programmes designed to undermine our interests by the two governments here represented. Bearing in mind what our culture expects of us, namely, to behave well on occasions like this event, sometimes – unavoidably, unsavoury things have to be said as exceptions.
The German government, and in connivance with our own government, almost invariably comes with all kinds of obstacles when it is time for the repatriation of the remains of our people and even this time was not without its own hiccups.
Apart from being told how to behave, by the German government, as dictated to our Ambassador here and relayed to our government and eventually to us, we were also told that we should not come here and say things that would embarrass the two governments. Initially, we were not even scheduled to appear on the programme to speak, something we have had to request.
During the first repatriation in 2011, our late Paramount Chief, Kuaima Riruako, was warned or blackmailed into agreeing to not using the words “genocide” and “reparation” in his speech for a reward of three air-tickets, which he rejected.
The German government was at it again this time, like before during the first repatriation when the handing-over was done at the Charite hospital and not in its own government buildings.
The second repatriation was done in top secrecy where we, the traditional leaders of Namibia, were totally excluded and were only told that the remains will arrive in two days and that we were invited to attend the memorial services at Parliament Gardens [in Windhoek].
We did not go, as our late paramount chief ordered us not to attend that ceremony. This time, it is not the Charite, but in this church and under the gimmick of it being bigger and more dignified, although it is characterised by the obviously over-shadowing cloud of various religious denominations. You can say that it is bigger or more dignified to someone else. We don’t believe that.
Are both the German and Namibian governments perhaps not aware of the fact that the Lutheran Church, and by its own admission, has committed genocide against the Hereros and Namas, and some of whom were its own members, and why would the two governments agree to have this event be held in this church?
The two governments have been negotiating and planning the return of these remains together and why would the government of the Federal Republic of Germany now shift the handing-over to the church, as if all its buildings in Berlin are too small or less dignified and unable to accommodate 450 people? Why abdicating its responsibility to its accomplice, the church, and what is the latter’s interest in hosting the event in any case?
Why have our friends in the German NGO & Solidarity Movement been excluded from attending this memorial service by the joint organisers of this event, for something that is not like a soccer match where all the tickets can be said to have been sold out?
How do you – the organisers of this event – think of us, Herero and Nama leaders, that our staunch supporters who were responsible for discovering these remains, are kept outside while we are locked up inside and standing next to members of the very church that has committed genocide against our people? Don’t you ever have respect for our feelings?
Let me in all seriousness further advice that in future, proper and sincere consultations should be considered, rather than trying to avoid coming to grips with the reality of our colonial history or without involving us.
We are part of the equation and by trying to eclipse us will not work. We are, after all, the direct descendants of these remains and we should not be ignored or be the least and last to be involved only at the tail-end of the planning.
Finally, the German government should learn to take full responsibility for the genocide of the Herero and Nama instead of abdicating its responsibility to their accomplices (the churches) and for it to become mere spectators. This is an insult to us, as descendants of the victims of the first genocide of the 20th century."