Ovaherero Commemorate Maharero's 'homecoming' 100 Years Ago

23 Aug 2023

Dressed in more or less light brown uniforms, hundreds of men stand in front of the station building. Not at attention, but orderly in rows. Some older ones sit, obviously tired from waiting for hours. Suddenly a whistle sounds from a distance, then a soft stomping. As if on command, those seated stand up and take their positions. 

The locomotive approaches and finally comes to a hissing halt in the station. A loud command, all the uniformed men stand to attention. No doubt an honourable reception for a highly placed personality. A brass band begins to play. To the sounds of a funeral march, a heavy coffin is carried out of the waggon.

OvaHerero at Okahandja railway station on 23 August 1923. 
Photo: Archives of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Fritz Gaerdes Collection 



It was on 23 August 1923, exactly 100 years ago today. A historic day for the OvaHerero people. The mortal remains of their Paramount Chief, Samuel Maharero, were transferred to his home town of Okahandja, five months after his death in exile. 

The day was also historic because it marked a turning point in the biography of the nation. The OvaHerero used it as an occasion for an annual commemoration. In doing so, they took the opportunity to come together again 15 years after the genocide by the then German colonial power, to develop a new self-confidence, to consolidate their identity and to draw strength for the future from the annual commemoration. 

Loss of life, land and livestock 

Samuel Maharero took over the leadership of the OvaHerero after the death of his father (Ka)Maharero in October 1890. In order to assert himself against competitors and powerful chiefs, he relied on the support of the German Empire, which had considered the territory of present-day Namibia a colony since 1884. In the beginning, the Germans were mainly interested in mineral resources for the flourishing industry, later also in settlement space for thousands who emigrated in the course of industrialisation. 

Chief leader of the OvaHerero, Samuel Maharero. 
Photo: National Archives of Namibia 



This preprogrammed conflicts, which increased in the 1890s. In 1896/97, rinderpest broke out. The OvaHerero lost about 95 percent of their cattle. Urgently needed goods were increasingly bought on credit - and the debts, which often grew at usurious interest rates, were settled with land. In addition, German authorities, as courts of law, often applied double standards in disputes. There were also increasing signs of racism in everyday life. 

On 12 January 1904, Samuel Maherero declared war on the Germans. After several battles, the decisive battle took place on 11 August 1904 at the Waterberg. After a tenacious fight, Maharero and his headmen finally gave the order to withdraw. The Herero managed to flee eastwards with their women, children and old people as well as their cattle between the detachments of the exhausted Schutztruppe. Thousands died on the march through the waterless Omaheke. Thousands of those who later became prisoners died from hard labour, harsh climate, lack of food and poor medical care. Cattle and land were confiscated and sold to German settlers. From then on, the survivors served as cheap labour and were scattered among farms and towns. 

Samuel Maharero made it with about a thousand members of his people through the Omaheke to the neighbouring British protectorate of Betschuanaland, today's Botswana. But they fared only slightly better than the OvaHerero in their homeland. Because of poor living conditions, Maharero moved with his family and a few followers to the South African province of Transvaal in 1907. But even there the conditions were not better. At the end of 1922, he returned to Betschuanaland and settled in Serowe. Only three months later, on 14 March 1923, he died there in the smallest circle of his family. 

Departure into the future 

But before that, he had passed on the baton of OvaHerero supreme leadership. His son Friedrich had travelled to South West Africa in 1920 with special permission from the authorities and had visited the respected Chief of the OvaHerero in Windhoek, Hosea Kutako. In a solemn ceremony, he laid his hand on Kutako's head and declared him to be his father's official administrator in South West Africa. 

The rule of the German Empire had ended there in 1915. South Africa had occupied the country in the course of the First World War. The OvaHerero did not fare any better under the new rulers. However, they showed a new self-confidence towards the Germans. Many OvaHerero left farms to which they were assigned as labourers after the colonial war. 

They even went one step further. From 1916 onwards, German settlers reported from time to time that young OvaHerero gathered and drilled, dressed in uniforms. The alarmed South African administration then confiscated documents which showed that these gatherings were part of a larger, hidden system. The OvaHerero had formed 'regiments', exchanged 'telegrams', made 'patrol reports' and issued 'passage permits' to members of other 'regiments' when visiting or passing through. 

The so-called Truppenspieler (men playing soldiers) movement harked back to the pre-war period. Influenced by the 'Bambusen' (young 'natives' as servants) of German officers, young men have been tailoring quasi-military clothing for themselves since about 1890. Which explains why the uniforms were not completely uniform. Hierarchies, procedures and uniforms of the 'Otrupa' were modelled on those of the German Schutztruppe. Members of these troop player groups also made up the guard of honour that received Samuel Maharero's mortal remains at Okahandja railway station. 

'State funeral' for Samuel Maharero 

1,500 'foot soldiers' and 150 horsemen escorted the lead coffin from the railway station to the house of Maharero's son Traugott, the Chief of the OvaHerero in Okahandja. The procession was led by Maharero's regent, the new Paramount Chief Hosea Kutako. He was flanked by Traugott and his brother Friedrich, the Chief of the OvaHerero in Betschuanaland. The South African Magistrate of Okahandja, Lewis Warner, also attended. 

Procession to the funeral of Samuel Maharero on Sunday, 26 August 1923. 
Photo: Archives of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Fritz Gaerdes Collection 


For three days the coffin was laid out in a 'mourning chamber', until the funeral, which took place on Sunday, 26 August. The programme was modelled on a state funeral with military honours for senior German officers - like the one for Oberstleutnant Joachim von Heydebreck in 1914, which some OvaHerero had attended. 

According to reports, around 2,500 'foot soldiers' and 170 horsemen in uniform gathered in front of Traugott Maharero's house early in the morning. In addition, there was an undisclosed number of women in dresses that had been introduced for maids by women of German missionaries in pre-war times. The shape of their kerchiefs was reminiscent of cattle horns, a central symbol of prosperity and identity of the pastoral people. 

Hosea Kutako spoke a short word, a Herero evangelist read from the 2nd chapter of the Book of John from the Bible. Then the coffin was led to the mission church, where the German missionary Heinrich Vedder held a funeral service - in OtjiHerero. Finally, at the request of the organisers, a handful of earth was symbolically thrown onto the coffin. This concluded the Christian mourning ceremony. 

The procession then continued to the former home of Samuel Maharero and from there to the graves of his grandfather Tjamuaha and his father (Ka)Maharero. The coffin was covered by the Union Jack. Frederick Maharero had asked for this because his father "has died under the British flag, and they were now all living under it and accordingly he should be buried under (it)", as historian Gerhard Pool quotes. The historian Jan-Bart Gewalt speaks of "faith in the British empire", especially since Samuel Maharero had supported the British and their allies, the South Africans, in the First World War against the Germans. 

Deliberate distancing from the Germans: The British national flag on Samuel Maharero's coffin. 
Photo: Archives of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Fritz Gaerdes Collection (colouring: Gondwana Collection) 


Maharero's funeral took place according to the traditional ceremony of the OvaHerero. An elder kneeled down and asked the ancestors to open the road and take their son in. 

To this day, this is an integral part of the ritual during the red flag day in Okahandja when approaching Maharero's grave: Kneeling down and invoking the ancestors. 
Photo (2014): Sven-Eric Stender 


Also present was the Secretary for Native Affairs of the Administration, Francis Courtney-Clarke. He gave a short speech on behalf of the South African Administrator of South West Africa, Gysbert R. Hofmeyr, which was translated into OtjiHerero. 

The OvaHerero's Path to Independence 

Historians see in the entire programme of the funeral the intention of the OvaHerero under their new supreme leader Hosea Kutako to show themselves and the world that they are in charge of their own destiny. On that day, they gave themselves leadership again. They regained respect and dignity. They reflected on their tradition, but at the same time formed and consolidated their new identity in the changing times. 

And they developed a new self-confidence - without the new rulers, who watched this with thoroughly mixed feelings, being able to deny them this. Hosea Kutako played an important role in the later struggle for Namibian independence. Today he has a place in the Heroes' Cemetery near Windhoek and the capital's international airport bears his name. 


Statue of Hosea Kutako in front of the Tintenpalast (Ink Palace), as the former seat of the German colonial administration in Windhoek was ironically called. Today, the building houses the Namibian Parliament. 
Photo (2002): Sven-Eric Stender 


Under Hosea Kutako, 23 August, the day on which his predecessor Samuel Maharero returned home, became a fixed date in the OvaHerero calendar. Red Flag Day, the day of the Maharero royal house in Okahandja, always takes place on the weekend following this day. 

Equestrian procession on Red Flag Day of the OvaHerero in Okahandja. 
Photo (2014): Sven-Eric Stender 


This year, the Samuel Maharero Heritage Foundation has put together a particularly extensive programme for the centenary commemoration. It began yesterday with preparations for the lighting of the sacred fire and will end on Monday with closing rituals by traditional priests. The events are open to everyone. 

Procession of Herero women. Red stands for the Maharero royal house and the blood spilled in the genocide. White and black is the flag of the Zeraua Herero, headquartered in Omaruru. 
Photo (2014): Sven-Eric Stender 


A central item on the programme is a discussion on Saturday evening under the motto "Let us die fighting" and dealing with the so-called Joint Declaration of May 2021. This declaration marked the end of a six-year dialogue between the governments of Namibia and Germany on the genocide of Herero and Nama during the German colonial period. The majority of the OvaHerero reject it, mainly because they were not directly involved in the negotiations and do not feel represented by the government. 

Destination of the processions on Red Flag Day in Okahandja: the grave site with the common gravestone of Samuel Maharero, his father (Ka)Maharero and his grandfather Tjamuaha. 
Photo (2014): Sven-Eric Stender 


Sven-Eric Stender


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