Kathleen Bomani + Zoé Samudzi
I’m new to the world of the archive, a world where you dig through text and images in an attempt to excavate some new or previously rejected truth. Kathleen Bomani is not. Our work became entwined with one another's through our shared attempts to find answers to questions about Germany that history and relationships to communities have guided us towards—and also questions we didn’t know to ask.
As with anything, you have to navigate German state violence chronologically. In order to properly understand the Nazi Holocaust, you have to understand Germany's first genocide: in German South West Africa, in what is now Namibia, which was held as a colony from 1884 until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. That’s my intervention, trying to understand the relationship between land and science, trying to learn how and why Germany’s assertion of dominance had to lead to the collective punishment of the Herero and Nama peoples, which led to the killing of around 75% of the former and 50% of the latter. But to properly understand the wartime genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples, you have to begin in Tanzania, or what was then German East Africa. As little as we talk about the Namibian struggle against German rule, we talk about the Deutsch-Ostafrikan colony—which included Burundi and Rwanda and mainland Tanzania, a territory that was nearly 3x the area of present-day Germany—even less.
Kathleen is from Tanzania, and she describes to me the ways that her own inquiries are a lot more personal than my dissertation research (not that there’s any competition). My desire to dig is rooted in an intimate intellectual curiosity, but she's looking for questions and answers that have long been covered up and unspoken even with the abundance of German architectural remains. By her count, there seems to be more architecture and infrastructure left by German colonizers than by the British who possessed colony for longer: 43 years (from 1919 until independence in 1961) to Germany's 35.
"What kind of brutality was enforced and used on Africans?” This is the question that guides her. “In talking about the Hereros, why don't we begin in Tanzania and see what they first did to East Africans? We talk about borders,” she says, “We had Nigerians here digging trenches. Why were we not told?”
Kathleen was traveling around Tanzania for a few reasons, one being to document these skeletons. She likes to take her own photographs of the architecture and World War I relics because a reliance on archival images allows for a "temporal distancing”—it allows for to past to be a distant past, rather than understanding the past as a specter haunting/informing both present and future. We share at least one archival method: photo-ethnography. In trying to capture the machinations and aftermath of genocide, I’m inspired by the unflinching work of Susan Meiselas who sought to offer the subjects of her photographs—famously of war-ravaged Nicaragua and Kurdistan, and also of carnival strippers—an agency and a sense of dignity through her refusal to sensationalize their condition or their labor. Kathleen takes these pictures because of the “fear of loss experienced through grievance,” she messaged me via WhatsApp, the diaspora African's communication tool of choice. “I want to catch it before it disappears. It’s like chasing the sun. We need history to guide us, inform us and protect us. It REPEATS.”
Speaking of repetition, she gave me a cursory history lesson of the German conquest and colonization of Tanzania. “We have to start with World War I,” she insists, “because World War I was the end of the Scramble for Africa.” The colony in East Africa was organized with the explicit purpose of putting down native revolts. She described a through line between a large push for Monsanto products and “modern agriculture techniques” in Tanzania in 2014 and present native opposition to oil and gas explorations in Mtwara (a city on the southeastern coast), and the Maji Maji Rebellion from 1905-1907 that began after “violent colonial enterprises” attempted to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export. “Germany wanted to be less dependent on cotton from the American South,” she added. (An intimate relationship between Black labor and White King Cotton.) She described how the rebellion that left hundreds of thousands dead completely transformed the region and “the area is still poverty-stricken today.” Before its genocide on the other side of the continent, Germany carried out a scorched earth policy in its East African colony—many many people died fighting, and many many people died from famine.
(Before being stationed in South West Africa by Kaiser Wilhelm II, General Lothar von Trotha a commanding officer of colonial forces in German East Africa and put his good old German efficiency to work in his brutal suppressions of native uprisings, like the Wahehe Rebellion of 1891-1898, a precursor to the Maji Maji Rebellion. It was under von Trotha's tutelage that the Herero and Nama genocide was waged, initiated by his October extermination order in 1904 which declared, among many things, that: “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.” Many many Herero and Nama combatants were killed fighting, many many people died from starvation in the desert or disease and exposure in German concentration camps.)
I arrived in Namibia for the very first time around August 26th, a national holiday called Heroes’ Day, which commemorates the start of the country’s war for independence from apartheid South African apartheid administration—on that day in 1966, the Battle at Omugulugwombashe (in the Omusati region in northern Namibia) began, and Namibia finally gained independence in 1990 after more than two decades of armed struggle. The genocide of Herero and Nama peoples ended 110 years ago, but the past is a not-so-distant one. While I was there, I watched a Namibian delegation return from Berlin in new possession of 11 repatriated skulls that had been taken by the Germans during the genocide.
A couple of days after my arrival, my uncle took me to a township in Windhoek (the capital) called Katutura. The township was created in 1961 after a period of forcible white displacement of Black natives from the Old Location, the segregated area reserved for Blacks under the apartheid system. The allocated lots for Black housing were smaller than in the previous residential areas, preventing people from keeping gardens. It was also difficult economically because Black residents had to pay rent to the Windhoek municipality and pay extra to commute to the city center for work. “Katutura” in Otjiherero means “the place where people do not want to live.” After the forced removal, the Old Location was demolished and white housing was erected in its stead.
Thinking about our shared work evokes some bitter reminders. The land still does not belong to us, nor do our economies. And nor do our heroes, both physically (many of their bones are still imprisoned within the empire Kathleen visits to lecture about this very work) and in our memories. Jane Blocker describes what it means to archive and bear witness: that the act and obligation of doing so is always troubled by the confrontation of some phenomenon or some atrocity that demand you create a grammar for processing a thing as you’re seeing it. To witness is to “‘form a mental image of something not present to the senses’”—to simultaneously conceive of a question whilst encountering an answer. “To be a witness, then, means simultaneously to see and to imagine, but…we learn that imagining is not a free and boundless form of creative work, but rather it is disciplined by the rules and habits of photographs, their discursive formation. These rules involve not only the habits of depiction and of viewing depictions, but also of imagining oneself relative to what is depicted. In addition to having to imagine the atrocity, then, [one] must also struggle to imagine his own witnessing of it, to see himself seeing.”
Germany hasn’t accounted for any of this and so, to borrow from Saul Williams, we got a list of demands written on the palms of our hands.
Zoé Samudzi is a writer and doctoral student in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Kathleen Bomani is a native of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Kathleen Bomani is a multifaceted cultural curator, connector, and a champion for openly expressed creativity. She has eagerly researched, archived, & shared her finds in recent years via publishing, social media, curating, creative conferences, public speaking, and production. Recent documentaries & a fashion presentation at The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art round out her last decade on the scene. Bomani makes work rooted in cultural histories and archives. In 2013 Kathleen was awarded the Leeway foundation Art & Change grant for Media, Visual arts and Cultural Preservation, as well as many other accolades within her global African Diasporic community.
Images of the remains of German infrastructure in Tanzania, all taken by Kathleen Bomani.