Kahimemua Nguvauva, his Belt and the Colonial War of 1896 by Werner Hillebrecht & Frederick Nguvauva

Panel: Cases of Restitution 
Tuesday, 22 June, 2:15 p.m. - 3:45 p.m. (CET)


There is a popular misconception – certainly not among museum professionals, but among the general public, both in Namibia and in Germany – that museum objects from Namibia in German museums are mostly a result of the genocidal colonial war of 1904-1908. This misconception is certainly due to the much publicised demand for reparations for the genocide, which is without doubt the most devastating and consequential event in the 30 years of German colonial rule over Namibia. It however obscures the consideration and examination of other provenance contexts – some less violent but nevertheless problematic, others just as violent but largely forgotten and under-researched.
The subject of this contribution, the Belt of Kahimemua, was alienated in a much earlier conflict, the war against the Ovambanderu and /Khauan in 1896. This war was only one in a series of twelve wars, “punitive expeditions” and “police operations” the Germans waged against Namibian communities between 1893-1903, however next to the Witbooi War of 1893-1894 the largest of all these campaigns. The Ovambanderu, an independent subgroup of the Ovaherero under the omuhona Kahimemua Nguvauva, had solicited the support of a neighbouring Nama group, the /Khauan, and risen against German land grabs and cattle theft. This resulted in an all-out war with the Germans, the defeat of Ovambanderu and /Khauan, the confiscation of land and cattle, the deportation of a substantial section of their people to Windhoek as forced labourers, and the execution of their leaders Kahimemua and Nikodemus.
The contribution highlights the genesis of this conflict, the private appropriation of Kahimemua’s cartridge belt as war booty by the prominent German settler and businessman Gustav Voigts, and its subsequent museum deposit in Vogts’ home town Braunschweig. Allegedly deposited together with Kahimemua’s gun (which could so far not be verified), it was seen by Voigts as a symbol of the German victory and his own participation in that war, but apparently also as a testimony to the indigenous dexterity in leatherwork, as he emphasized that the belt was no European product but “native handiwork”.
It further deals with the role of Kahimemua not only as political leader, but with his spiritual-religious significance as an ancestor and prophet in his time. This function was neither recognised nor appreciated by the contemporary Germans, but is amply documented in Mbanderu oral history texts that were recorded seventy years later by a German missionary. The subsequent history of the Ovambanderu people in Botswana exile, and their re-establishment as a community distinct frfom other Ovaherero in Namibia since 1952, is briefly traced.
Finally, the significance if the cartridge belt beyond its merely utilitarian function as a weapons accessory will be explored. This issue concerns the central importance of fire-weapons and accessories in the constitution of Ovaherero society during the 19th century as a “gun society” (Henrichsen). It also concerns it’s the belt’s present significance for the Mbanderu community, not as a simple artefact but as a symbol of identity and ancestral connection, and its possible function as a surrogate replacement of the ancestral destroyed by Kahimemua himself in a prophetic act.


Werner Hillebrecht studied chemistry and qualified as a nurse before switching to an information science career. In the context of the German anti-apartheid movement, he started to document literature and archival sources about Namibia to assist historical research and the studies of Namibians being educated in exile. Since 40 years, he is involved in this work, and has used over 100 libraries and archives in Europe and Africa. He worked for the Centre for African Studies (CAS/CASS) of Bremen University (1986-1991) and moved to Namibia with independence in 1990, where from 1992 he was employed at the National Archives of Namibia, then the National Library, and again for the National Archives which he led as Chief Archivist until retirement in 2015. He is researching and has published several articles about aspects of German colonial in Namibia, as well as bibliographies. Since his retirement, he works as a history and heritage consultant, in close cooperation with the National Archives and the Museums Association of Namibia, and is involved in provenance research and repatriation activities.


Mr. Frederick Ueriurika NGUVAUVA was born on July 20, 1961 in Windhoek Namibia and grew up in the Epukiro Constituency, Omaheke Region.  I studied Public Administration at the University of Namibia and worked for various government Ministries, the City of Windhoek Council and Omaheke Regional Council from where I was promoted to a position of a Chief Development Planner to the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development in 2007.

I hail from the Nguvauva Royal House and thus serve as a Senior Advisor to the Chief of the OvaMbanderu Traditional Authority, Chief Kilus Karaerua Munjuku III NGUVAUVA.  I represent the latter authority on the OvaHerero/OvaMbanderu Council for Dialogue on the 1904 – 1908 Genocide (ONCD 1904 – 1908) where I serve as the Deputy Secretary.  I am a member of the Technical Committee for Genocide, Apology and Reparations established by Cabinet to spearhead the negotiation process between Germany and Namibia and serve on the Negotiating Team led by Dr. Zedekia Ngavirue who’s Namibia’s Special Envoy.