Accepted Paper:

'Not about us without us!': a material analysis of the controversies surrounding the repatriation of 'trophies' from German South-West Africa  


Leonor Faber-Jonker (affiliate member ASC Leiden)

Paper long abstract:

In the early morning of 26 February 2019, a German delegation arrived at the international airport of Windhoek, Namibia, with some very precious cargo: a Bible and a whip that had belonged to Hendrik Witbooi, the charismatic captain who fought the German colonizer during the Herero and Nama genocide (1904-1908). The items were looted during the Hoornkrans massacre of 1893 and later ended up in the collection of the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart.

This repatriation is not a unique event, but part of an ongoing process of German institutions coming to terms with their colonial past. The same month that the 'Witbooi Bible' was returned to Namibia, the Ovambanderu called for the return of the 'sacred belt' of chief Kahimemua, brought to Germany as a souvenir after his execution in 1896. It has since been located and negotiations about its return are underway.

With negotiations, however, controversy starts. In the last decade, talks about restitution, reparations and apologies were invariably conducted between Namibian and German officials, excluding Nama and Herero representatives. The 'Witbooi Bible' was not handed over to members of the Witbooi clan, but to Namibian president Hage Geingob. At that moment, it officially became government property.

This paper is centered around two case studies: the repatriation of the 'Witbooi bible' and whip (2019), and the third repatriation of human remains of Herero and Nama victims of the genocide (2018). The paper argues that the repatriated items and remains acquire new layers of meaning in these processes of repatriation, (re)activating colonial and postcolonial knowledges. Objects brought to Germany as 'trophies' and returned as museal objects become symbols of Namibia's 'founding myth'.

I disentangle these knowledges by analyzing the practices surrounding the repatriations from a material perspective, e.g. who handled the items, how, why, where and in what context. There are plans to exhibit the bible and whip in a new Hendrik Witbooi museum, while the human remains are stored in the depot of the Independence Memorial Museum. In both cases, controversies that started during negotiations with German institutions continue to shimmer in Namibia. What can we learn from these cases about colonial objects as postcolonial knowledge-makers?

Panel B09
Decolonizing African heritage inside and outside the African continent [initiated by the University of Mainz, with Leiden University/Anthropology, University of Rwanda]