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Troop Exercises under red Flag

Avatar of inke inke - 02. September 2016 - Discover Namibia

Samuel Maharero’s coffin arrives in Okahandja on 23 August 1923. Take note that the coffin is draped in a Union Jack. (Photo: Bundesarchiv Koblenz, colorization: Gondwana Collection)

Dust whirls up as the men march forward, thundering across the sandy field. Orders ring out back and forth, riders decorated with medals file past on their horses. On one side of the field women line up in a long double row. The men are dressed in khaki uniforms, the women wear voluminous black and red Victorian-style dresses and a red head-garb resembling the horns of cattle. Colour combinations of green, white and black pop up in between. 

The ceremonial procession of the Hereros in Okahandja, known as Herero Day and also as Red Flag Day, takes place every year on a Sunday at the end of August. At a solemn pace and in a specific order, participants move from the gathering place on the fringe of the township west of Okahandja along the highway into the town – to the two sites with the graves of their former leaders.  

But what exactly is the reason for this event? Why the uniforms, the parades? And what meaning do the colours have? 

11 January 1904. Gunfire in Okahandja. Paramount Chief Samuel Maharero has called on the Herero people to rise up against the German colonial power. Tensions have been building up for years. The grazing land of Herero cattle is sold piece by piece to German settlers – or handed over to traders to pay for growing debts, often accumulated due to extortionate interest rates. When disputes arise between Germans and Herero, the Germans do not accept the traditional authority while the Herero feel that the German courts of law put them at a disadvantage. On the whole it seems as if more and more Germans are taking a condescending attitude towards the Herero – a sign of growing racism. 

Catastrophe of war 

Sentiments among the Nama in the south of the country are similar. During a violent confrontation in Warmbad at the end of October 1903, Schutztruppe lieutenant Walter Jobst and Kaptein Jan Abraham Christiaan, leader of  the Bondelswart Nama, are shot dead. The Bondelswart rise up against the Germans, large Schutztruppe contingents are despatched to the south – the timing is perfect for Paramount Chief Samuel Maharero who calls on his people to take up arms. But the Schutztruppe quickly deals with the Bondelswart in order to concentrate on the fight against the Herero.

After several battles the decisive one is fought on 11 August 1904 at the Waterberg. Thousands of Herero, including women and children, have gathered with their cattle on the south-eastern slope of the flat-topped mountain where plentiful springs provide water. The German troops attempt to surround them to deal the final blow, but the Herero manage to break through the lines and flee east, hoping to reach the British protectorate of Bechuanaland. Samuel Maharero is among the few who make it. Thousands die in the arid Omaheke region or in prison camps later. Large parts of the Hereros’ land is confiscated and sold to settlers. Most Hereros now have to earn their living working in the towns or on farms.

It is a catastrophe which severely reduces the Herero population, destroys their social structure and deprives them of the basis of their traditional life as cattle breeders. The situation of the Nama people in the south is similar after the war of 1907/1908.

New times, new customs

But something extraordinary happens in the years following this catastrophe: In several places young men from the respective population groups - Herero in the central parts of the country, Nama in the south - get together, don fancy uniforms and practice marching for parades.

Referring back to the time before the war:  As from 1890, having been influenced by the ‘Bambusen’ (servants) of German officers in the years before the war, young men start making their own military style clothing.

The uniforms are modelled on those of the Schutztruppe, with a few added features borrowed from South African military garb. The ranking is that of the Germans. However, the 'soldiers' are not armed, they do not drill for battle but for ceremonial purposes only. The movement of the 'troop actors' is mainly cultivated by young men. The older generation eye their activities with scepticism or downright disapproval. 

Over the years more and more men join the troop actors. The movement represents a new approach to identity and unity after the traditions and customs of the forefathers have lost some of their power. The uniform of those who have defeated them provides strength and support in a changing modern world. Marching together demonstrates power and rebuilds lost unity. But the victors’ identity is not assumed altogether. Individual, dance-like moves are woven into the uniformed, mechanical step here and there. The marching game caricatures the victor while the marcher keeps his own identity.   

Most importantly, however, the troop games are a way to reassemble the scattered people under the banner of the Herero nation without giving the authorities any reason to ban such gatherings, a way to leap from tribal tradition to nation building. Small wonder, that later on the 'white' population and the South African administration felt threatened by the mock parades. 

Death as renaissance

14 March 1923. Paramount Chief Samuel Maharero dies in exile in Serowe, Bechuanaland. The South African administration honours his wish to be buried at the burial site of his ancestors. The coffin with his mortal remains arrives in Okahandja on 23 August 1923. Three days later he is solemnly laid to rest next to his father Maharero and his grandfather Tjamuaha. Thousands of Herero from all over the country have come to pay their last respect. Ever since Herero Day has been held every year on a Sunday at the end of August. The death of Maharero has thus become the renaissance of the Herero nation. Later on the troop actors become part of the ceremony. 

And the colours? Red was the colour of the Ohorongo Clan of the Maharero. It has since also become a symbol of the bloodshed in the war 1904. However, on 'Red Flag Day' not all Hereros wear epaulettes, braids, hatbands, caps, shirts or skirts in red. Some are clad in white and black, others in green, white and black. White and black are the flag colours of the Zeraua Hereros in Omaruru, who celebrate their own annual commemoration – in October - since 1924. Green, white and black are the colours adopted by the Mbanderu nation in 1931: green for the grazing after good rains, white for peace and black for mourning. The Mbanderu observe two commemoration days, Kahimemua Day in June and Nikodemus Day in mid-August.

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