News | History - Southern Africa Writing Namibia from Afar

Peter Midgley’s poetry navigates exile and return through literature



Peter Midgley,

The history of the genocide in Namibia is easily summarized: In 1904, war broke out between the Ovaherero of central Namibia, then known as German Southwest Africa, and the German colonists. On 1 October 1904, soon after the Battle of Ohamakari (Waterberg), the German general, Lothar von Trotha, gave his infamous Vernichtungsbefehl, [1] which led to four years in which the Herero and from late 1905 onward also the Nama, were systematically shot, rounded up, and placed in concentration camps.

Peter Midgley is a Namibian-born writer based in Edmonton, Canada. His collection of poetry, let us not think of them as barbarians (NeWest Press, 2019), has been shortlisted for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry. His book Counting Teeth: A Namibian Story was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Prize. He is currently working on a collection of short stories that consider hands as instruments of love, hate, violence and reconciliation.

The legacies of the German colonial genocide in Namibia still reverberate today. The politics of remembrance and compensation are fraught with difficulty and can distort historical narratives in the way certain aspects of the history become elided to create convenient binaries such as black vs. white, or good vs. evil, “us” against “them”. In turning the genocide into a national narrative, we forget for instance that, initially, the Nama (who later became victims, too) aided the Germans in their fight against Herero, or that members of the notorious Koevoet special force, who were recruited from local indigenous people, served to suppress the efforts of the liberation war in the 1980s. Such elisions can undermine opportunities for post-independence Namibia to come to terms with both distant and recent histories of dispossession, but a discussion of these nuances is crucial to dealing effectively with the past.

For writers, the neat binaries required of the courtroom—rights and wrongs, victims versus perpetrators, individual deviance from collective behaviour—are insufficient to counter the complexities, ambiguities, and complicities found in historical records, archives, and individual memories. Memory is messy and ambiguous, and as a writer, my task is to help tease out the contradictions by stringing together competing renditions of the past. Literature, and particularly literature about the genocide, helps us to work through difficult, but essential questions such as: what responsibility do we have, individually and collectively, to carry the past with us, or to contribute to reconciling our present with the wrongs of the past? What is clear is that we are all implicated in this history through familial lines, through privilege, and through conscious choices. Writing is just one way of exploring our part in the past, and for finding ways to take that sense of complicity with us into the future in responsible ways.

This has certainly been how I have approached my own writing—to have my writing bear witness to the past and my own implication in it, and to establish how to make art that contributes to establishing a shared future. My relationship with Namibia is complex, but not unusual: I was born in Okahandja in 1965, mere months before the start of the War of Independence, the child of settlers who had come to the country as part of the South African government’s post-World War II settlement policy. Years later, I would be called up by the South African Defence Force for compulsory military service. To have heeded that would have been to choose sides by working actively to prevent the citizens of my birthplace from gaining independence. I chose to become a conscientious objector; thousands in a similar positions did not. What I can do through my writing, is to explore the moral and ethical choices we make under such circumstances, and try to understand the implications of those choices today.

In writing about the genocide, I am not so much interested in the physical body count; rather my focus is on the cultural legacy of those four years. As the Ovaherero fled into the desert where they starved to death, the okuruo (sacred fires) were put out. After the war, these had to be relit, but much of the cultural knowledge that had accompanied the making and maintaining of fires had been extinguished. Many survivors had converted to Christianity, as this offered them a greater chance of survival in the camps. The loss of precolonial cultural heritage has had a persistent and profound psychological effect that has spanned generations. We see it in inequalities that were exacerbated by the genocide and colonial oppression under apartheid, and that persist still. The effect of the psychological warfare that accompanied the physical decimation of bodies has continued through subsequent generations.

Politically, the loss and suffering of the genocide was turned into acts of heroism and resistance during the War of Liberation. In this way, the trauma of one generation became the seed that generated resistance, but that also led to a second period of national trauma. The psychological wounds of the liberation struggle run deep and overlay the scars of the genocide in the Namibian national consciousness.

We also see the continued legacy of the genocide in efforts to sue the German government and companies like the Woermann lines for reparations. Money is only one aspect of this equation: no amount of money can heal the psychological wounds and the loss of cultural knowledge.

As a writer, I make such legacies visible in the stories I choose to tell and the ways in which I try to offer pathways to healing. We can theorize the notion of genocide and debate what is, or what should be called genocide or not, but ultimately the crucial question is how we change our behaviours—and only imagination and will can provide answers. Story is both the quest to uncover that past, and imagining a future beyond it. When I returned for my research for my book, Counting Teeth: a Namibian Story, a librarian in Swakopmund denied the presence of camps there. When I asked what she would call the mass killing of people other than genocide, she responded, “Well, not quite that”—words that echo David Lurie’s thoughts in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace as he reflects on having sex with Melanie even as she averts herself: “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.” Not quite that: A crucial step to working with memory, reconciliation, and healing through art is acknowledging the past for what it was, and accepting our implication in that past and its legacies.

I have always had a diasporic relationship with Namibia: although I was born there, my parents returned to South Africa when I was five years old. Yet the country stayed with me—not only through visits, but through the stories and artefacts that filled my childhood home, and that occupy a central place in my own home now. While I was at university, I had to negotiate the complexity of soldiers (on both sides) entering and crossing borders. What intrigues me is how the ebb and flow of exiles and returnees moving across borders is a common thread in our histories. And against those bodies in motion, there are the ones who stayed. How does one negotiate the various forms of physical and emotional exile and return other than through literature?

Exile and diaspora, I learned from those who have been placed in that position, and from my own experience in diaspora, involves a very visceral, bodily engagement with a country. Physical separation from a place that has commanded so much of my body, in all respects, reminds me of the physical and emotional hurt and agony of separation from a lover. In such a context, writing about absence becomes a vehicle through which I can explore my own relationship to the place as well as my responses to reconciliation and repatriation of people and artefacts of note.

Growing older has allowed me to reconcile myself with my own body and its implication in a broader past, and this, too, I have attempted to incorporate into my artistic practice. Through accepting myself and my role in the past, I have begun to consider whether we can pass healing on to future generations in the same way we have passed trauma on through the generations that preceded us.

In 2011, I visited Namibia to travel and do the research that became Counting Teeth: a Namibian Story. It was my first trip back to Namibia since Independence in 1990, and for the two months that I was there, I kept a diary. Each night as I put down the day’s experiences on paper, fragments of poetry drifted into the writing. After finishing Counting Teeth, I began to reconstruct those fragments, following the ebb and flow of words, the repetitions and laments, the acts of defiance that they revealed. Not long after my return to Canada, the ancestral remains that had been kept at the Charité in Berlin  were returned to Namibia. The movement of bodies, dead and alive, across borders and around Namibia contained their own rhythm and illustrated how the past and the present mingled and intruded on each other constantly. That, too, found its way into the poetry of let us not think of them as barbarians in the way characters moved through the country, through time, and through each other. Slowly, a story emerged: let us not think of them as barbarians is a love letter to Namibia; a celebration of independence; a recognition of the pasts that made Namibia what it is today; and a journey towards healing and a reconciliation of many pasts, absences and presences.

the horses of hunger

we ride the horses of hunger
the horses of hunger, we ride them
the horses of hunger
we ride them on stomachs of air.

smoke curls from the nostrils of dragons.
flared in anger their breath smoulders.
ah, these horses, these horses of hunger,
their breath smoulders in empty stomachs,
fulminates as it leaves the body:

put a gun in my mouth
put a gun in my mouth so i can take aim.
put a gun in my mouth,
this gun with which i fought
alongside mandume, [2]
put it, put the gun
put the gun in my mouth.

put mandume’s gun in my mouth.
i want to fire with words
when bullets forsake me.

song of the herero

and as the last footfall recedes in the dusk, she starts to unfurl
from the earth: ahead lies the night,
row upon row of footsteps cross-stitch across the thorns,
pluck at the veins, knot a ball of sinew and sweat:
day dries the night to indivisible mass,
clots it to resistance.

von trotha’s [3] groot rohr treks by night and by day [4]
slowly and slowly the rasp of its wheels on the frost
and the wind, oh god, the wind in the night
and the yoke on your shoulder: how awkward the earth
and the shuddering bodies huddled against you—too tired
to fight any more
too tired to provide heat.
we plod along
with child and sack and beast,
half dead.

and so we trek
in search of water,
that body of water along the border,
the water that protects
against the darkness of the deutsche rohr.
far in the night the wheezing cry of herero blood.
the ondjembo song tramps pathways of hope:
the children will sing omutando [5] that rumble
the tails of cows that lie lost
in wells of blood.

we forge ahead
drinking the blood of man and beast
in our communion of dread.
imagination creates its own gravity: the weighing of planets
suspended like spider shadows in the early morning sun,
thinner than the railed spines of our children’s breath.

as the first rays of sunlight heave through the mountains
she leans against me in the dusk of a donga. [6]
hidden here, we can rest up for another night.

my bony fingers slide down her ribs:
the bulge of her stomach kicks with hunger—
no hope for the future in this abacus
on which we compute only our dead.

a history of dust

Display during a public event to welcome repatriated human remains from Germany to Namibia on 31 August 2018. Image: Heike Becker

this ink of my body, bleached into the desert—
taste it: taste this ink and this earth.
go on your hands and knees,
fold your hands in supplication under the browned hide
where the desert sand throbs a darkened red.
with your soiled fingernails, red monk, utter a prayer
of the desert. squat like a succulent on the ramparts of the land,
bleed words and taste the earth, the red oil seeping through your lips.

smell it. smell the salty blood of your words.
feel the earth, its textures and its joys weeping in your mouth,
mingling with your blood.
taste its sorrows, its heartache.
hear the rattling bones of the ancestors in poisoned wells.
taste this earth saturated with the ink of many bodies.
taste this history of dust.

rise up and dance, says the dancer of tradition. dance
a healing dance, a ritteltit dance.
dance the rattletrap dance of skeletons.
the night’s clamminess lays down a string of blackened beads,
bared bodies lashed to the desert.
they are legion, like the sands of the sea and the skulls in the sand,
the sailors and the explorers, the prisoners of war:
dance a rattletrap dance for them.
plant your feet in this parched soil:
                                                  oh god!
red as a grenade this pomegranate in my hand,
this ball of blood and dust and bone
pulsing and raw as my love for this land,
my love     my dripping pomegranate: we dance
love’s bloody waltz along the knuckled syntax of your bones
the beat of dido [7] dido didodying in carthage [8]
the bodies of el alamein [9] and cassinga [10] and ohamakari. [11]

[1] Von Trotha’s original remarks were: “I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer . . . . The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the 'long tube' (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people”. (Cited in Jan-Bart Gewald, “ The Great General of the Kasier,” Botswana Notes and Records, Vol. 26, 1994, p. 68). In a subsequent letter, he wrote: “I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this is not possible by tactical measures, expelled from the country” (Cited in Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 11.)

[2] Mandume Ya Ndemufayo was the last king of the Kwanyama, who form part of the Ovambo people of Northern Namibia. Ndemufayo reigned from 1911 to 1917, when he reportedly took his own life rather than submit to colonial rule. Allegedly, as he lay dying, he took off his necklace and asked his aides to give it to his mother as a symbol of continued resistance.

[3] General Lothar von Trotha,....

[4] groot rohr / deutsche rohr: Big gun/cannon

[5] omutando: Ovaherero praise songs.

[6] donga: Gully or gulch.


[7] Carthage: The Capital of the Carthaginian Empire.

[8] Dido: According to legend, Dido was the first queen of Carthage, who fell in love with Aeneas. When Aeneas betrayed her love and left Carthage, she killed herself. Dido resurfaces in Ovid and again in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

[9] El Alamein: The Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October–11 November 1942) was a key battle during the African Campaign. Soldiers from southern Africa and Namibia were deployed as part of the Eighth Army.

[10] Cassinga: On 4 May 1978, South African forces attacked the South West African People’s Organisation at Cassinga in Angola. The attack remains controversial because of contesting claims as to whether it was a military base or a refugee camp.

[11] Ohamakari: The Battle of Ohamakari (Waterberg) broke out on 11 August 1904 between the Ovaherero and German imperial armed forces. The defeated Ovaherero retreated into the desert, where they died of thirst and starvation. Only a few reached safety across the border in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana). It was after this battle that General von Trotha gave his Vernichtungsbefehl that sanctioned the genocide.