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Namibia: Dispute over return of the Witbooi Bible

Daniel Pelz
February 27, 2019

After more than 120 years, a Stuttgart museum is returning to Namibia a Bible and whip that once belonged to Chief Hendrik Witbooi, as a step toward reconciliation between Germany and Namibia.

A whip that once belonged to Hendrik Witbooi, with the inscription "Hottentotten"
A whip that once belonged to Hendrik Witbooi, with the inscription "Hottentotten"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Murat

Authorities are expected to be present at the national handover event on Thursday, February 28. The artifacts being returned home after over 10 decades, however, have raised a controversy over whom they should be handed over to. They will be kept at the national archives although the Witbooi Traditional Authority believes it is the rightful custodian.

These are the first African artifacts from the colonial era that the federal state of Baden-Württemberg is returning. They had been on display at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart until now. "With the return, we are taking an important step in the process of reconciliation. The state is facing up to its colonial past," said Baden-Württemberg's science minister, Theresia Bauer.

"The return has symbolic meaning because Hendrik Witbooi is an important person for Namibia. We want to enter into close dialogue with our partners on the ground," Sandra Ferracuti, curator at the museum, told DW. Apart from the handover, the state government is providing €1.2 million ($1.3 million) for joint projects with research institutions and museums in Namibia.

Whose Bible is it?

Namibia's government has been asking for the return of the Bible and the whip for years. During the colonial times, "Kaptein" Hendrik Witbooi was an important leader of the Nama people. He was initially baptized by German missionaries and collaborated with the colonial administration. Later he changed and fought against the German colonialists. Witbooi died in 1905 after an encounter with German colonial soldiers. In the following years, they brutally quelled the rebellion of the Herero and Nama. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives. Since 2015 the German government refers to it as genocide.

Hendrik Witbooi
Hendrik Witbooi was an important leader of the Nama people in NamibiaImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

But the planned return shows how deep the cracks in Namibian society are when it comes to dealing with the past. Namibia's government wants the Bible and the whip to be exhibited in the national archives until a museum is built in Witbooi's hometown of Gideon. It is still not clear when this will be. Not all Nama people agree with that. The Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA) even wanted to take legal action to stop the restitution, but Stuttgart's state constitutional court said it was not responsible. "The items belong to an individual. If it was part of the household estate, it should have ended in the hands of the church or the family, and the family would have decided what to do with it," NTLA General Secretary Lazarus Kairabeb told DW.

'History has been suffocated'

Beyond this, there is a lot of distrust in the government, which according to associations like NTLA, is dominated by the Ovambo, the majority ethnic group. The Ovambo make up about half of the population, while today the Herero and Nama are the minority – together making up about 12 percent of the population.

Despite the negotiations between Germany and Namibia on the recognition of the genocide, an official German apology has yet to be made. Representatives of the Herero and Nama, like the NTLA, believe that both governments are not serious at all. "History has been suffocated for so long and there is a discussion going on in Namibia about the history [of genocide] and why it is being neglected. It seems that Namibia has no philosophy and no position on how to deal with this history," NTLA representative Kairabeb complained.

The remains of some 20 Herero and Nama people murdered in the early 20th century by German colonial troops in Namibia
An official German apology for the genocide in Namibia has yet to be madeImage: picture-alliance/AA/A. Hosbas

Dispute between Herero and Nama

When human bones from the colonial era were returned to Namibia last year, some of the representatives of both ethnic groups present were already furious. They strongly demanded to be involved in the negotiations and criticized the German conduct. Other Herero and Nama associations, however, support the course of their government. They belong to a team of people who advise the government on its negotiations. The return of the Witbooi artifacts has also led to disputes: According to media reports from Namibia, the prominent Nama activist Ida Hoffman criticized the approach of the NTLA.

The government of the state of Baden-Württemberg says that Witbooi's family agreed to the handover of the two artifacts to the Namibian government. Namibia's government denies the accusation that it does not take the wishes of the Herero seriously. "The government is keeping the door open. Namibians who are not part of the negotiations should be persuaded to join in, because at the end of the day, this is not intended to benefit only a few people," said Namibia's speaker of the National Assembly, Peter Katjavivi. Recently, German Development Minister Gerd Müller was cautiously optimistic that Namibia and Germany would agree on reparations by the end of the year. But until that happens, the dispute is likely to continue.