Windhoek: The Independence Museum that isn’t

An index to this series appears at the top of the first post.

November 28, 2019

I had only one afternoon remaining to me, and I was determined that I would see the principal museums of Windhoek! As I waited with the students for lunch to be assembled, I signed a stack of certificates to memorialize their participation in class. I was delighted that they seemed to enjoy the class so much. It certainly can feel presumptuous to give someone a piece of paper like an award for listening to me, though! As lunch drew to a close, I hitched a ride with two of the local TESA folks over to the Independence Museum. They were on their way to the nearby Hilton for the afternoon’s program of project updates.

The Independence Museum

The tallest building on the city’s highest hill is pretty hard to miss. Independence Museum, Windhoek

On the day before, I had climbed the monumental staircase to the statue of Dr. Sam Nujoma (founding president of Namibia). As I entered the space between the three legs of the building, a security officer who had been dozing on a ledge turned his head in my direction, so I nodded at him. I paused to look at the bas relief images on the insides of the legs, and then I entered the elevator, passing a strangely unattended desk. There was no sign to indicate that the museum was closed. On the 28th, though, the desk was attended. The attendant invited me to sign the guestbook, and up the elevator I went!

“Hail the soldiers who brought us peace,” perhaps? Independence Museum, Windhoek

This time, the gallery doors were open, and I stepped through them, unsure how this museum would present history. I was a bit startled by what I saw. The face of a middle-aged Sam Nujoma, dressed in camouflage shirt and cap, was presented far larger than life, superimposed on a Namibian flag. Flanking him to left and right were national flags on poles plus nine bas relief representations of “Early Resistance Leaders.” The room offers very little information about these individuals other than their names, but then their faces would likely be instantly recognized by Namibians.

The Independence Museum wants to ensure you know the father of the nation, Sam Nujoma.

The next room made it clear that all evils were to be attributed to external forces. The banner “PRE-COLONIAL SOCIETY, PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE” set the tone in foot-high letters. Monochromatic paintings on the walls showed peaceful village evenings plus beautiful dance scenes. I was excited, on the other hand, that the room offered some of the archaeological findings from the “Apollo 11” cave in extreme south Namibia. Apparently the stone slab drawings were originally exhibited in this room, but they were not on display because replicas are being created. These slabs are important because they may represent the first written communication inscribed on a movable surface rather than a rock face. The drawings may be more than 10,000 years old. I also appreciated a map that attempted to reconstruct the original domains in which various groups such as the Ovambanderu Amrai, and Tseir were located in the middle of the 19th century, when only Swakopmund and Walvis Bay were occupied by Europeans.

At the time of the earliest concessions to Europeans, many indigenous populations were already engaged in substantial trade with the Cape Colony to the south. Namibia is home to many different populations.

The next room offered a world of interesting photographs illustrating the interactions of German colonial forces with indigenous people and with the South Africans. The photographs were quite upstaged, though, by busts of three heroic figures: Chief Samuel Maharero, Captain Hendrik Witbooi, and Chief Iipumbu ya Tshilongo.

Passing through a curtain to the next section, the visitor is suddenly presented with 3D sculptures spanning the walls of indigenous people lying in sprawled piles of death, with others hanging from nooses. Next to them, we have a date (October 2, 1904) and a self-satisfied German military man painted in ghostly monochrome behind the sculpture. The date is intended to remind us when General von Trotha issued a pamphlet announcing his “extermination order” against the Herero people. In subsequent orders and commands, General von Trotha demonstrated he was willing to take any action, no matter how heinous, to accomplish this genocide. The Hereros were not alone, either. Other indigenous peoples were also treated with great cruelty (see also “Shark Island“). I mention this legacy here, because the museum doesn’t provide any of that information. It just associates the 1904 date with death on a massive scale. The genocide is generally noted as lasting from 1904 to 1908, and estimates place the death toll above 100,000 individuals.

While the Independence Museum expresses horror at the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, it does not inform visitors about it.

This pattern of Namibian heros against external evils continues to the next room, depicting “Namibia under the South African Apartheid Regime.” The information about Namibians banding together to petition the United Nations was good, but I would ask that the exhibit explain that the petition was intended to repudiate South Africa’s attempt to merge Namibia as a fifth province.

This statue to commemorate the victims at Cassinga seemed far more appropriate to me than the graphic depictions on the walls.

In one of the most jingoistic paintings I have ever seen, the museum makes it clear that it holds Apartheid South Africa to blame for an atrocity portrayed every bit as traumatically as the genocide under the Germans. The wall-sized painting depicts dozens of people frantic for their lives as women and children are shot down in a charnel house (I will not include my photo here because the image is pretty disturbing; Flickr has a few, though). Yes, it even includes a baby in diapers standing alone, screaming in terror. The Cassinga Massacre (sometimes called a “Battle”) resulted from the South African Defense Force assault on a Namibian refugee camp in Southern Angola as well as a nearby People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) base via almost 400 paratroopers. The event on 4 May, 1978, is remembered in a national public holiday for Namibia. When I entered that room, I had never heard of this assault. At present, visitors receive a load of emotion but essentially no information to contextualize that emotion.

Was a floor-to-ceiling mural necessary?

The glorification of SWAPO and PLAN teeters into essentially Stalinist space as one reaches the tail end of the museum. I entered the museum hoping to understand more of the process by which Namibia was able to prise South African fingers off of their country. Namibia reached independence in 1990, just as South Africa began turning itself into a democracy at last. This coincidence, of course, is not explored at the Independence Museum.

The Alte Feste museum is closed.

This Alte Feste (old fort) was constructed by Curt von Francois in 1890 as forces under Hendrik Witbooi approached the crest of their power.

Alte Feste,” the old German fort, is the earliest building still standing in Windhoek. It is clear that the city is still grappling with how to represent this building; its service as a museum appears to be changing, if not ending. I climbed the monumental stairs to reach its front gate, where I was able to read the piece of A4 paper stating that the museum was closed until further notice. Some folks at the tourist bureau claimed that most of its artifacts were in the process of being moved from Alte Feste to the Independence Museum, but it’s quite clear that the latter is not intended to exhibit artifacts with detailed descriptions.

Honoring those who suffered under German and South African occupation is entirely appropriate.

The Rider Monument statue was removed from the Alte Feste front lawn in 2013, and I had hoped to see it where it was stored inside, tied down as though it might escape. Who knows when or if that will be possible in the future? The new monument in front of Alte Feste is highly evocative, and both sides of its pediment show horrific things happening to Namibians. “Their Blood Waters our Freedom” is a motto very much in line with the Independence Museum, in a way that Alte Feste never will be.

The Windhoek City Museum is not yet open.

When will the Windhoek City Museum open?

With one museum open and the other closed, I assumed that my third museum of the day was a coin flip. I walked two blocks further south to reach the Windhoek City Museum. The pedestrian entrance was padlocked. I walked a little further to a two-part gate. It was chain locked. I waved at the security people (sitting in a shady chair), hoping for some indication of where I was to go. They made no response. I then walked around the corner and up the hill to the auto gate. That one was also chain locked. A security guard directed me back to the gate on Mugabe Ave. This time I waved and “helloed” until the security officer felt embarrassed. He waved the female officer with him to check on me. She sauntered in a way that made it clear that she’d rather I went away so she could go back in the shade. After a few minutes’ saunter, she crossed the 100 yards.

The Windhoek City Museum is also closed. The guard waved vaguely in the direction of the city to say I would have to ask them (who?) to let me visit, and I made her clarify until she made clear just what building she had in mind. I noticed that some of the paint job that makes the museum building look new was beginning to peel away; the structure is old, and it’s just being repurposed to serve as a museum. When I reached the tourism bureau in the the government building, they explained that the museum now shows up on the tourist maps and features brown road signs directing people how to enter it because it will, eventually, open. They’re not sure when, though. Perhaps early in 2020 it will be possible to visit?

Uncle Spike’s Book Exchange

I resolved to abandon my museum quest and return to my bookstore quest. I returned to the intersection where “Uncle Spike’s Book Exchange” can be found, but this time I first visited the Orombonde Books shop recommended by the nice folks at the Windhoeker Buchhandlung (largely selling German books). Orombonde appeared to be in the final stages of closing up their business. The books are being packed off the shelves into boxes. I checked what remained on the history shelf but found little of interest.

My visit to Uncle Spike’s was definitely more enticing. The book shop extends back a bit from the cramped entrance, and the shelves offer a good selection of options. I could not believe my luck to find Historical Buildings in South Africa by Désirée Picton-Seymour. I’d found her Victorian Buildings book invaluable for writing the posts on Oudtshoorn. I acquired this book for a mere R60 ($4 USD). I also found a book that I think Natasha will like, so I was twice lucky!

German architecture mixes with modern buildings throughout Independence Ave in Windhoek.

With that complete, I walked along Independence Ave to photograph some of the German architecture buildings I’d seen before. I popped into the Hilton to visit my TESA colleagues at the workshop. Happily I was just in time for the group photo, though people may wonder who is that dusty hiker amongst the suits and ties?

How do you exhibit chunks of the Gibeon meteorite? Why not exhibit them in the pedestrian mall next to Town Square?

I took a stroll past Town Square Mall, and I’m really glad I did, because it’s a pedestrian thoroughfare, with lots of vendors in shady spots. I found a little gift for Natasha, though I probably paid too much. I also had my chance to visit the Gibeon meteorites, fragmentary “octahedrites” that stemmed from a 16 ton chunk when it plummeted from the sky in 1838.

I enjoyed fish and chips at Ocean Basket as I drained an entire carafe of lemonade. My life is very good, indeed.

2 thoughts on “Windhoek: The Independence Museum that isn’t

  1. Pingback: Teaching for TESA: a week in Windhoek | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Johannesburg: the Apartheid Museum and Liliesleaf Farm | Picking Up The Tabb

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