Windhoek’s Shadows

The choreographer’s avowed purpose is to pave the way for narratives that superimpose experiences of oppression and war. This performance will be rerun in Germany, in the presence of descendants of the perpetrators in Baakenhafen, that section of Hamburg’s harbour from which the German troops once set sail for Namibia.

Willem Frey

Thousands flock to Namibia every year, in search of desert, wide-open spaces, wilderness. Invariably, Windhoek is their first port of call. German is still spoken here. Yet its colonial history, visible everywhere, remains the issue for the local dance scene. Here comes a multi-layered post-colonial portrait in five profiles.

Journalistin aus Windhoek

Yolanda Gutiérrez

Igor Tkachuk

Yolanda Gutiérrez has already set foot in numerous African metropoles, from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kigali in Rwanda––both belonged to the former colony German East Africa–– and to Windhoek in Namibia. With her choreographic project Decolonycities she is charting her way across Germany’s colonial past, constantly retracing the erstwhile maritime passages and today’s air routes that have been leading to Africa ever since 1884––with the founding of the German East African Society and the establishment of a “protectorate ”in German South West Africa, which were established in order to scout for so-called Lebensraum or living space.

In Namibia, Yolanda Gutiérrez came together with a group of three local dancers: Justina Andreas, Faizel Browny, and West Uarije, as well as the visual artist Vitjitua Ndjiharine.

Germans in front of “their” Hansa Hotel in Swakopmund

National Library of Namibia

Historical sites across Namibia still bear witness to the German colonial war that raged between 1904 and 1908. A first choreography was performed at the Alte Feste Museum in Windhoek, a former military installation used by the German Imperial army, which later was also to serve as a concentration camp. As though in step with swaying horns, the dancers’ bodies simulate cattle roaming across the countryside, embodying a ceremonial Outjina/Omuhiva dance of the Herero people, a Namibian tribe who, just like the Nama, were virtually wiped out during the genocide waged by the German colonizing forces throughout the occupation years.

The Southwestern Rider in front of the Old Fortress in Windhoek

Villem Frey

These dances radiate a vibrancy that bounces right off the static of the Reiterdenkmal, the unpopular Equestrian Monument that lords over them, only making this statue seem even more monstrous– even though this testament to the nation’s colonial past has long been banned from public view. In December 2013, Namibian law enforcement officials removed it from its plinth under the cover of darkness. Today, the monument stands in the courtyard of the Alte Feste Museum. It was “salvaged” on account of the fact that some historians argued that the German community in Namibia also has a right to its place in the nation’s cultural heritage. Notwithstanding the polemic, the statue was removed. The direct descendants of the Nama and Herero killed during the genocide see nothing in this monument other than a painful relic from the past that has been turned brutally against them.

Gutiérrez’s work polarises––by enabling dance and war to make a head-on encounter. And by questioning the ambivalent feelings evoked by colonial statues and monuments.

The choreographer’s avowed purpose is to pave the way for narratives that superimpose experiences of oppression and war. This performance will be rerun in Germany, in the presence of descendants of the perpetrators in Baakenhafen, that section of Hamburg’s harbour from which the German troops once set sail for Namibia.

Windhoek and Hamburg cling to a common past. The maritime trading companies operating from the Hanseatic port during the German colonial wars before the outbreak of the First World War did not only leave evidence of their business prowess in Namibia.

Windhoek and Hamburg cling to a common past. The maritime trading companies operating from the Hanseatic port during the German colonial wars before the outbreak of the First World War did not only leave evidence of their business prowess in Namibia. For those Hanseatic merchants, so-called groceries [colonial merchandise] and their investment shares in German maritime companies formed the basis for lucrative business. From 1884 to 1915, the German Empire was the operative colonial power in Namibia and during this period it quelled two popular uprisings by the Herero and the Nama. Hamburg constituted the logistical hub for military supplies during the genocide of the Namibian population. Companies such as the Hamburg shipping line Woermann Linie profited from German colonialism. During the Herero and Nama revolts, the Woermann Linie transported thousands of troops and tons of war materials to the colony. As of 1905, the shipping line also operated its own concentration camp in Namibia. Its headquarters in Hamburg is to be found in the Afrikahaus, a listed building–– to this very day.

Being closely associated with the then Reich’s Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck, the merchants who came to the colonies annexed by Germany were able to capitalize on the opportunities thereby up for grabs. Bismarck’s monument can still be seen today in the Old Elbe Park in Hamburg. The dancers later chose this site as one of their performance venues.

Gutiérrez is a Hamburg native of Mexican origin. For her, decolonisation encapsulates that ability to view and reflect on such past events from a non-European, non-Western perspective. In this way, fresh and different narratives should be able to emerge. In describing her project Decolonycities, she notes how it fills “lacunae in our own history with another way of looking at the city.” She hopes to use Decolonycities to “establish a multi-perspective view of urban space” through performative, dance interventions “in combination with audio walks” in order to contrast the lingering traces of colonialism with the help of her own biographical narratives.

In 2021, Gutiérrez founded the platform “Shape the Future,” where she also presents these projects in digital space. Because, according to Gutiérrez, the abiding propagation of colonial clichés and Eurocentric perspectives in politics, media, culture and science have exposed how the process of decolonisation is far from complete: “It’s about breaking with concepts that hinder, restrict and reduce, concepts that pin you to the shortcomings in your own reality.” Underdeveloped, poor, illegal, these are but some of these negative attributes. She quotes the Senegalese musician Felwine Sarr: “Above all, it is no longer about resembling a victim, but rather as the starting point for one’s own history”.

On a wintry Sunday afternoon, the Namibian dancer Justina Andreas beckoned the gaze of passing tourists. They were walking up the hill to Christ Church in Windhoek and watched, fascinated, as she leapt into the air every now and then. Perfect strangers moved cautiously around her, greeting her in a friendly manner. Later, perched on top a felled tree stump, the life-long ballerina resembled a life-size doll, ever-ready to wind up and twirl anew for her newfound audience. She was rehearsing for the Decolonycities project in Hamburg.

Willem Vrey

Andreas, whose movements exude a lightness and athleticism that can only be honed through long years of ballet training, is no stranger to the Namibian arts scene. She has been and continues to be involved in numerous performances at the National Theatre of Namibia.

“I started dancing when I was about six or seven years old. I studied ballet at the College of the Arts and after four years I broadened my horizons in order to embrace modern and contemporary dance. At the age of eighteen, I got my first performances at the National Theatre,” she says. She currently works as a dance instructor at a dance academy called Dance Mouse. A full-time job. A rare piece of good fortune on the local dance scene.

“There’s no shortage of dance talent in Namibia. The field has grown, but there’s hardly any support let alone performance opportunities for dancers,” she adds. Still, she insists she is proud of those Namibians who, like her, have made a name for themselves on the local circuit. When asked about the Decolonycities project, she remarks that it is a process for expanding her individual identity and furthering her understanding of the past. She is interested in how the past and identity work upon each other and also hopes to return from Germany after her trip to Hamburg with new-found knowledge about dance which will help to spur on her future career.

Decolonycities is not the first choreographic project that questions former colonial structures through dance. Andreas was previously involved in a piece called The Mourning Citizen, created by Namibian choreographer Trixie Munyama in 2019. It, too, tackled Namibia’s frontier past, about that fatal period in which thousands of Herero were confronted with overwhelming military might and forced into the desert by German soldiers, where, defenceless, they were ultimately left to perish of thirst, hunger, and typhoid fever.

The Mourning Citizen deals with how grief is a physical process which at times is felt in a very real way. Through dance, one is able to process these feelings and learn how grief is a subjective experience: “For me, dance is about telling a story with one’s body, adapting a language everyone can understand and yet can interpret freely,” says Andreas.

With Faizel Browny

Willem Vrey

The choreographer Trixie Munyama and her Da-Mai Dance Ensemble adapted numerous acts and rituals of mourning from Namibian cultures in order to find healing from postcolonial trauma––often in spaces of healing in the desert far from the cities. For such a curative process, there is no representation through politics; there is no Ministry of Mourning, nor one for Restorative Justice.

“The scenes we enact in the play The Mourning Citizen, the cleansing rituals and the music with which we commemorate the deceased, are meant to reveal the symbolic possibilities to cope with the psychological consequences of our collective colonial past. Such traditional rituals play a key role in many African cultures. And yet, young people in particular are increasingly apprehensive about our ancient traditions. Christianity has weaned us away from them. We are now all suffering from Afrophobia,” remarks Munyama.

Justina Andreas

Willem Vrey

West Uarije

Willem Vrey

For Vetunjona West Uarije, as a direct descendant of the Ova Himba people, one of Namibia’s oldest tribes, dance was not begin on bright neon-lit stages emitting smoke clouds, but rather as a journey which started from a tender age in a rural village.

The artist comes from Otjondeka, Opuwa, a settlement in Namibia’s Kunene region; his earliest memories are of performing traditional dances for his grandmother beside a campfire’s dimming embers.

“I was given the name Vetunjona because it reflects the journey my family undertook from Otjimbingwe into the Otjuzondjuba region and onwards into the Kunene region,” Uarije explains.

Willem Vrey

In the late nineteenth century, Herero cattle herders inhabited the area south of the Waterberg, availing of its pastures as grazing for their livestock. This continued until 1904, when at the ill-famed Battle of Waterberg, Lieutenant General Lothar of Trotha had the Herero driven into the almost waterless Omaheke Desert. Both the livestock and their herdsmen were strategically kept away from the few watering holes in the area. Von Trotha also issued a so-called extermination order, thus initiating a genocide. Any survivors were dispossessed, locked up in concentration camps such as the one in Windhoek, and subjected to forced labour. Only about half of those incarcerated managed to survive.

“My grandmother could never forget the exodus from our original homeland. Whenever she used to get sad, which she sometimes did, I would sing and dance for her. I was meant to be an OvaHerero, too, but I was raised as a Himba given that we had been resettled on Himba lands.” Uarije explains.

Customarily, these dances performed around the campfire are called Omuhiva; they incorporate chants and a chorus of humming voices that sing of everything the tribe has experienced down through the ages. Ever since, Uarije has performed for a coterie of dance troupes in Namibia such as Bullet Ya Kaoko, which uses modern instruments such as keyboards and synthesizers to rework old musical genres, notably Omitandu ––the laudatory songs of the OvaHerero people.

“Although I don’t have any formal training,” he explains further, “I started dancing professionally in 2005 for a cultural group called Bullet which specialized in Oviritje music. At a later date, I joined the First Rain Dance Theatre which mostly performed contemporary dance. In 2015, I moved over to the Da-Mai dance ensemble under Trixie Munyama.”

Willem Vrey

He also danced for the Oyo Company, in which he performed physical theatre telling stories dealing with social issues such as teenage pregnancies and the stigma suffered by those with medical conditions such as HIV.

He continued nonetheless to work on his dance art. He could not confine himself to either African or Western genres, although he does believe that African dances should not be diluted or be misappropriated by other dancers: “Whatever is beautiful should be emulated and recreated, yet I believe that any dance’s original meaning should not be lost in the shuffle, for sometimes they also are imbued with a sacred, spiritual connection,” says Uarije.

As an artist, however, performing in the Decolonycities project, has made him keenly aware “that our history is barely known. Not many people know about the Namibian genocide. This project aims to raise awareness among an international audience.” Uarije had hoped that Decolonycities be performed more often in Namibia, for, above all, it has to do with the people living there, a place where the embers of racism have not been fully quenched. “Here, we’re talking about decolonization. And yet, there’s a museum in Tsumeb in northern Namibia into which black people are still not allowed to enter. What happened in the past, happened in the past. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think our performance is about racial struggles or hostility. I think that the survivors and those erstwhile colonisers who remained in Namibia should build a better future together.”

“We performed a choreography around the Reiterdenkmal statue. West and I adapted the Otjina/Omuhiva, a ceremonial dance associated at nuptial feasts or with eulogies performed at funeral rites and which belong to our people’s traditions. Such a ceremony involves talking either about a person’s individual life-story or about a particular locale. And yet, it can also set out to praise a cow and its connection to the land. As the cow moves on, one experiences the world through its eyes. As we raised our arms and danced, we ourselves became that cow or embody her as she moves across the land, staking out the land for herself. This is our traditional form of memory and cultural knowledge,” says Vitjitua Ndjiharine.

Since time immemorial, the OvaHerero people have been pastoralists who place great store on the size of their herds, for they serve as their lifeline; it is little wonder that the animals also play a key role in elements such as dance and dress of the OvaHerero, whose traditional clothing is decorated with a head scurf resembling a cow’s horns.

Vitjitua, a descendant of the OvaHerero, immediately makes it clear that she is not a dancer but a visual artist.

In front of the statue of the former colonial ruler

Willem Vrey

“I studied at City College in New York, a liberal arts college. I took a general arts degree, which includes printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture and design. I also studied graphic and web design in order to fund my artistic projects. I’m a visual artist. My main medium is painting. I do artistic research, I work with archives and ethnographic collections, objects and photographs and create stories around them,” she says. This is not her first time working with Yolanda Gutiérrez.

“Last year I worked with her on the Bismarck statue project in Hamburg, which at the time was scheduled to be renovated for nine million euros in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic. We did a performance and an intervention around the statue. The Decolonycities project has now become a kind of continuation of the exploration of Hamburg’s colonial past, a harbour from where both goods and people were transported to and from the German colonies,” adds Vitjitua. She mentions that certain street names in Namibia are to this very day still named after colonial figures. The architecture and colonial buildings from that era have withstood the passage of time. Only their functions have been adapted to today’s needs.

“The Alte Feste built in the late 1800s epitomizes German colonial dominance and its concentration camps. Over recent years, local artists have been campaigning for this edifice to be transformed into an art space, as a way to re-appropriate our history and the pain permeating this place, instead of just ignoring and closing everything. We want to alter the meaning of the building, to change it from a military zone into a space for the arts which welcomes everyone,” says Vitjitua, who was taught about Namibian history at school, but not about the concentration camps and the atrocities committed there.

In front of the Christuskirche

Willem Vrey

After von Trotha issued the now infamous extermination order to wipe out the Nama and Herero, those who survived were either executed or exiled in concentration camps where they were left to bite the dust. Shark Island, off Luderitz Bay, was one of the most notorious camps during the 1904-1908 war, with a mortality rate of over 90 per cent.

“I first acquired an in-depth understanding of our history from a book called Herero Heroes which I came across in my father’s library. I was shocked and wanted to explore the subject further through the medium of art. So I came up with this art project that focuses on historical narratives. I started visiting the archives. There’s still a lot of material in there and so much more to learn,” says Vitjitua, who hopes that the genocide of the Nama and OvaHerero will also be considered as part of Namibian history.

Vitjitua Ndjiharine

Willem Vrey

Faizel Browny

Willem Vrey

Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as a psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote the emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of individuals in order to improve their health and well-being.

For Faizel Browny, dance thus represents a refuge, a place where freedom reigns, both personal and political. The man who can be seen on a number of posters for the Decolonycities project is one of the founding choreographers for this project. His collaboration with Yolanda Gutiérrez dates back to 2016.

By profession a dance therapist, Browny lives in Hamburg. He has both German and Namibian roots and has just set foot on Namibian soil after years overseas. Dance therapy, as he sees it, has to do with engaging with those emotions we lock away in our bodies and that reveal to us how we feel inside.

“Whenever we experience trauma, we freeze those emotions that go with it. In dance therapy, I allow the person to feel those things again and to stop being afraid of them. An emotion such as anger is then transformed into sadness, simply because one does not want to be angry. This is how emotions arise that one no longer understands. Sometimes, we don’t want to talk about problems. I believe that every little movement helps,” Browny explains. He does not treat patients on a one-to-one basis, but instead wants to give everyone the opportunity to liberate themselves from such displaced emotions through dance therapy.

Willem Vrey

Browny has only been back in his home country for several days. For this artist, who enjoys a close friendship with Gutiérrez, he has embarked upon a journey down memory lane, to the cities of Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, and the nation’s capital Windhoek.

“We first went to the pier in Swakopmund and later to Woermann House, which was the most important place for us. A local resident told us that the House was once used as a watchtower to see whether any ships were approaching. Its elevated position brought privileges. Only the most attentive children were allowed to sleep on the top floor.”

He also conducted a dance intervention in front of Christ Church, which was inaugurated in 1910 in order to commemorate those German soldiers who had fallen over the course of the OvaHerero and Nama wars.

An entire wall of the church is decorated with a plaque listing the names of all Germans and Europeans who died during the Namibian colonial wars––in stark contrast to the countless unmarked graves along the coast for the OvaHerero and Nama who perished in the concentration camps.

For Browny, the Decolonycities project is akin to removing a plaster in order to acknowledge a wound and allow it to heal.

“It’s about knowing that there’s a wound in the first place. We have to help ourselves first before we can help others. Am I speaking out of this wound, or am I reacting to it? This project has allowed me to return home, to a rich culture with wonderful people and rediscover my roots. Namibia enables me to know that I am African and that I’m proud of it. In Hamburg, I’m constantly aware that I’m from somewhere else. Being here reminds me that it is okay to be Black and to be proud of it,” Browny said.

Willem Vrey

He wants to ask some questions about the future of this South African nation, some ten thousand kilometres away from Hamburg. Traces of the past remain visible across the cityscape. It has never been decolonised. George Steinmetz and Julia Hell, for example, view it differently in their photographic essay The Visual Archive of Colonialism: Germany and Namibia: “As with the other colonial powers, the Germans staked their claim to lay down the law in Namibia by creating a symbolic landscape, erecting a large number of monuments and replacing street names used by the natives with the names of their own political leaders. This is why the Namibian government changed many street and place names after independence. Leutwein Street in front of the Alte Feste was to become Robert Mugabe Avenue and the street leading to Christ Church is now named after Fidel Castro.”

Browny, however, is not convinced that any symbolic renaming will be enough to banish the ghosts of the past. A wound does not disappear by concealing it. It persists even if you give the plaster another name.