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Witbooi Bible returned to Namibia

Avatar of inke inke - 06. mars 2019 - Culture

Minister Theresia Bauer hands over the Witbooi Bible to President Hage Geingob. Photo: Shawn van Eeden

Brigitte Weidlich

The personal Bible of the legendary Nama-leader Hendrik Witbooi is back in Namibia - after 126 years. The official handover took place during a State act on 28 February 2019 in Gibeon in southern Namibia. Gibeon has been the Witbooi family’s place of residence since the 1840s. A few years earlier they and other Nama-speaking followers had emigrated from the Northern Cape, South Africa. 

“Captain” Hendrik Witbooi possessed a copy of the New Testament – printed in Berlin in 1866 – in his Nama mother language. This copy always accompanied him on his many travels on horseback when he crisscrossed the country. 

The Bible was one of many items looted by German colonial soldiers after they attacked Witbooi’s village of Hornkranz on 12 April 1893. Major Curt von Francois commanded the attack during which over seventy people were killed, mainly women and children. Hornkranz lies about 120 km southwest of Windhoek. Witbooi escaped. His whip was also looted.

Hendrick Witbooi's bible and whip. Photo: Linden-Museum, Stuttgart

The Bible and his whip - the latter an important symbol of his authority as tribal leader – were donated to the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart, Germany in 1902 by a former German colonial official, who had worked in South West Africa, now Namibia. The two heirlooms were forgotten for many decades until the debate started some ten years ago about the restitution of items brought to Europe by colonial powers. The debate caused several museums in Germany to check their catalogue lists for such items. The Witbooi Bible was re-discovered. In 2013, the Namibian government officially informed the German federal state Baden-Württemberg, that it wanted the Bible and the whip back. The negotiations took several years. At the start of 2019, the parliament of Baden-Württemberg had to change a law to enable the return of the two heirlooms.

“For Baden-Württemberg it is a historical obligation to return the Bible of the Witbooi family and the whip“, said the state’s Science Minister Theresia Bauer. “Both objects of this important Nama-Captain and resistance fighter against colonialism are of highest symbolic value for the Namibian people. With the restitution we are moving an important step forward towards the process of reconciliation.” 

Bauer added that the restitution of colonial heirlooms were the starting point for an intensive dialogue and new, strong partnerships with the descendants of those population groups affected by colonial rule. “This is how we do it in Baden-Württemberg,” Minister Bauer emphasised.

Bauer was accompanied by a 30-strong delegation of Parliamentarians, academics from two universities, museums and archives as well as several journalists. “We want to review our common colonial history with Namibia and start a new chapter of cooperation,” Bauer explained. 

Emotional three days in Namibia

The delegation arrived with the Bible and the whip early on 26 February at the Hosea Kutako International Airport and was received by Namibia’s Education and Culture Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa and members of the Witbooi family. Soldiers of the Namibia Defence Force (NDF) lined the way from the aeroplane to the airport building as guard of honour. Officials from the Linden-Museum unpacked Witbooi’s Bible and his whip from the specially made wooden box to show them to the family. The current Chief Witbooi put his hands on the Bible to reconnect with his ancestor. Many of those present could not hide their tears during this emotional moment.

Arrival of the Witbooi Bible in Namibia at the Hosea-Kutako-Airport. Photo: Shawn van Eeden

On arrival in Windhoek under Police and NDF escort some three hours later, the wooden box was brought to the office of Vice-President Nangolo Mbumba. Two NDF soldiers carried the precious load into the reception hall. The Speaker of Namibia’s parliament, Peter Katjavivi and Witbooi family members were also present.

The permanent secretary in the Baden-Württemberg Science Ministry, Petra Olschowski said this painful chapter of German colonial history had been ignored for too long. The federal state would initiate several projects with Namibian counterparts to review the past. Vice-President Mbumba lauded the “significant restitution” of the Witbooi Bible as an important step towards reconciliation.

The next day, 27 February, both heirlooms were transported by road under Police escort to the southern town of Mariental. The convoy stopped over at Rehoboth and Kalkrand on the way to show them to the people. Two skulls from a Nama and a Herero-speaking Namibian, which were sent to Germany during colonial rule for “study purposes” and returned from Berlin a few years ago, were also displayed. The bus with the German delegation accompanied the convoy. Hundreds of people waited in these towns to welcome and view the items.

Minister Theresia Bauer hands over Hendrik Witbooi`s whip to President Hage Geingob. Photo: Shawn van Eeden

Official handover at Gibeon  

The two objects were officially handed over to the Namibian government in Gibeon on Thursday, 28 February. Gibeon is situated 60 km southwest of Mariental. Present at the ceremony were President Hage Geingob, first lady Monica Geingos, several Cabinet ministers and former President Hifikepunye Pohamba as well as Founding President Sam Nujoma. Both culture ministers Bauer and Hanse-Himarwa signed the handing over documents, then President Geingob received the Witbooi bible and the whip. Geingob put them into the hands of Hendrik Witbooi’s oldest living granddaughter, 89-year-old Anna Jacobs, surrounded by her four sisters and other clan members. During this symbolic gesture a praise song for Witbooi was sung, accompanied by the local church brass band. After these moving moments witnessed by some 4,000 people, Jacobs handed the two heirlooms to Minister Hanse-Himarwa, at which they officially became government property.

President Geingob said the 1904-1908 genocide, which led to the extermination of Namibian inhabitants at the hand of German colonial soldiers, “had left a deep scar on the Namibian people. Namibia and Germany are currently engaged in State-to-State negotiations on this issue“, Geingob said. “If we are to move forward, it is important for the German government to admit the wrongs committed in the past against the people of Namibia. The most appropriate way will be an apology by Germany which will be acceptable to the Namibian people,” President Geingob said. 

Minister Theresia Bauer speaks to granddaughters of Hendrik Witbooi at Gibeon. Photo: Shawn van Eeden

Museum planned for Gibeon

The Namibian government intends to build a Witbooi-museum in Gibeon, where his Bible, his whip and other objects will be exhibited permanently. Until then they are kept in the National Archives in Windhoek. The return of the Bible and the whip is not without some controversy. Some members of the Witbooi clan lament that the family was not involved in the planning and the modalities of their return. Others hold the view that these two objects belong to the Witbooi family and not the State. For these reasons several clan members and some Nama-leaders did not attend the ceremony in Gibeon.

N$20 million for the Namibia initiative

Baden-Württemberg’s initiative entails four themes and six projects: reviews of the colonial past and adding this knowledge to school curricula, handling of museum objects, colonialism in literature and current artistic perspectives on the colonial heritage. Stuttgart avails some N$20 million (1.25 million Euros) for the Namibia initiative. Partners are among others the Linden-Museum, the state archives of Baden-Württemberg, the universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, the literary archive in Marbach, the University of Namibia, Namibia’s National Archives, the national museum, the Museum Association of Namibia (MAN), Heritage Watch, the Namibia Scientific Society and representatives of Nama- and Herero-speaking Namibians.

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