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Kalahari Holocaust: The Damara And San

In previous instalments, we have examined the regional legacy of the “Kalahari Holocaust”, focusing on indigenous resistance to the genocidal practices of the German imperialists in Namibia between 1884 and 1915.

While continued scholarly enquiry has helped in bringing further details of the Kaiser Reich’s racist crimes against humanity to light, in recent years the greatest impetus for increased popular understanding of what transpired has come from within the affected communities themselves.

Cross-border ethno-community mobilisation around issues of cultural affirmation and restorative justice in the context of such outstanding issues as land, language and the repatriation of human remains along with possible reparations has animated public debate, while motivating community-based research initiatives.

In this context, the descendants of Ovaherero, Ovambandero and Nama victims have taken the lead. There are, however, other victimised groups who are now also finding their voice to demand attention.These notably include the ǂNūkhoen or Damara (alternatively Bergdamara), as well as various San (“Basarwa”) groups such as the Heikom (Hai||om), !Kung (Qgu) and Ju/’Hoansi; who in each case reside in Botswana as well as Namibia.

While the above communities suffered severe losses due to German aggression, with current best estimates ǂNūkhoen deaths between 1904 and 1907 being some 17,000 or not less than a third of the group’s population during the period, their collective place in the wars of resistance and consequent genocides has remained relatively obscure.

An explanation for this is the decentralised nature of their polities at the time, which limited their capacity to mount unified resistance as well as in some cases deeply held resentment of past Ovaherero and/or Nama hegemony.

For their part the Germans like others in the region often, if inconsistently, made a racial distinction between those Africans whom they classified as “Eingeborenen” (“Natives”) and “Buschleute” (“Bushmen”), generally regarding the latter as being inferior.    In 1898 the Germans signed a protection treaty recognising the Heikom leader Fritz Aribib son of Tsameb, recognising him as the “Kapitan” of the western Bushmen. At the beginning of the conflict Aribib opposed the Ovaherero, killing some who attempted to pass through his territory before himself being killed in 1905, apparently at the behest of the Ovambo ruler Nehale.

Thereafter, the Heikom clans were scattered, with many falling victim to German efforts to depopulate the countryside. At this stage, some under the leadership of an individual known as Karob, joined forces with the Ovaherero. By 1907 much of the Heikom homeland had re-designated as the Etosha Game Park, while many of the people had fled into Bechuanaland. 

Anti-colonial resistance by the Kum’gau !Kung was led by a certain Namagurub who was finally killed by the Germans in 1911. Elsewhere, !Kung at CaeCae assisted Ovaherero bands

escaping across the Omaheke into Ngamiland.

According to Seth Mataba Boois’ study “Reflections on modern Damara History” at the time of the 1904 Ovaherero uprising most of the Damara clans came together at a meeting convened by their Kai-Goab or Paramount Leader Cornelius Goresub to discuss whether to join the conflict. For his part Goresub is said to have delivered a lengthy speech advocating that the Damara remain neutral.

Goresub reportedly argued that Samuel Maharero had ensnared himself through his past alliance with the Germans against others and would lose in the current conflict. From the side lines it is said that some of the women agreed chanting “please give us peace”. During the subsequent discussions the clans were divided, but Goresub’s word carried the day. Some Damara, nonetheless, under the command of such leaders as Tsatagob and Omatakume joined the Ovaherero in their initially successful campaign to drive the Germans out of the Okahandja region.Other Damara leaders, such Goab Xamseb were subsequently forced to fight when the Germans attacked their communities. Such attacks escalated in the aftermath General Lothar von Trotha’s extermination order against the Ovaherero. 

In response Cornelius Goreseb tried to maintain his personal neutrality, while giving permission for others to take up arms. Prominent amongst those who did so was Abraham //Guruseb who is otherwise remembered by his praise name “/Haihab” (“Grey Stallion”) who mounted and effective guerrilla campaign from his base in the inhospitable !Khuos mountains.

Following his death /Haihab //Guruseb’s skull, like hundreds of others, was sent to Germany. In this respect, wider recognition of the fact that the Damara were prominent amongst the victims of the of the Kalahari Holocaust alongside the Ovaherero and Nama, arose during a 2014 repatriation exercise of skulls from Germany to Namibia, many of which were found to have been Damaran.

While many Damara still remained in Namibia after the war, where they now constitute about 8.5% of the total population, others fled alongside the Ovaherero into Botswana. Just how many descendants of these Damara survivors are found in Botswana today is unclear. Over the decades their separate identity has been to some degree obscured from that of their ethnic Botswana and Ovaherero neighbours.

The largest concentration of Damara in Botswana is said to live in and around Mahalapye, although very few still speak the Damaran Khoe language. In this respect there are ongoing efforts to revive local Damara culture with festivals anticipated in the coming year.

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