In the first decade of the twentieth century 80% of the population of German-occupied Namibia belonging to the Herero tribe were wiped out in a brutal genocide decades before the infamous murders of the Holocaust. Those who survived of the once 80,000-strong people were left with no property and no rights.
German general Lothar von Trotha called the conflict a “race war.” He declared in the German press that “no war may be conducted humanely against non-humans. The Hereros are no longer German subjects. All Hereros must leave the country…or die. All Hereros found within the German borders with or without weapons, with or without animals will be killed. I will not accept a woman nor any child. …There will be no male prisoners. All will be shot.”
How we remember the victims of such atrocities is always a moral conundrum full of nuances. But when the German army was defeated by South Africa in 1915 the Herero began an unusual but beautiful reaction to their tragedy – by dressing as their invaders.
The men wore the uniforms of the oppressors while the women channelled the styles of the first Christian missionaries who visited in the 1890s. This meant great voluminous skirts that have lasted in the culture to this day. The cow horn headdress is often made from rolled-up newspaper.
Fashion photographer Jim Naughten captured a wide variety of these clothes published in his 2013 book, accompanied by analysis by the anthropologist Dr Lutz Marten, Conflict and Costume: the Herero Tribe of Namibia. The London-based photographer drove thousands of miles through the desert, meeting and negotiating with people, camping and continuously cleaning the dust out of his camera equipment.
“A correctly worn long dress,” said Dr Marten, “induces in the wearer a slow and majestic gait. Wearing the enemy’s uniform will diminish their power and transfer some of their strength to the new wearer. This is in part assimilation to European culture, and also in part appropriation, a coming-to-terms with, and overcoming of history and the colonial experience.”
At the 100th anniversary of the massacre, German Minister for Economic Development and Cooperation Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul apologised for the crimes on behalf of all Germans.
Esther is a historian and activist part of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation. “As long as there is a herero living on this planet the struggle for the recognition of the genocide will continue,” she told Refinery29. “Even if it takes us another 100 years we wont mind because we have been waiting 100 years. Reparation for the Herero people will mean the achievement of freedom.”