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Namibie : Finding Jakob Marengo

D 30 mars 2022     H 05:30     A HARRY BOESAK, Shaun Whittaker     C 0 messages

WHERE IS JAKOB Marengo ? This question is fundamental to an important novel – entitled ’Morenga’ (1978) – written about Marengo by the German author Uwe Timm.

Given the centrality of the reparations and genocide debate in Namibian politics, this is undoubtedly an appropriate time for Namibians to read this anti-colonial and anti-Eurocentric story that introduced Marengo to a global audience.

Although Timm uses the alternative spelling of the surname, the title of the novel confirms that Marengo was the main leader of the anti-colonial resistance. Marengo is described as “a daring and brilliant military tactician”, and a man of “prudence, energy and magnanimity”.

The narrative underscores the colonisers’ constant fear that Marengo could motivate an uprising of the colonised throughout southern Africa as he was seen as the ’black Napoleon’. Of course, Ottilie Abrahams – a member of the Yu Chi Chan Club that studied guerrilla warfare, and who eventually founded the Jakob Marengo Tutorial College – would always wryly ask : Who said that Napoleon was not a ’white Marengo’ ? Nevertheless, the discourse presents a picture of fearless resistance to colonialism and dispels all the myths about the supposed inferiority of the colonised.

A crucial implication of these historical events is that the national liberation struggle started on 12 January 1904 – and not on 26 August 1966 – and that Marengo’s diverse army represented an embryonic nation. This means that he is actually the real founder of the Namibian nation.


So, the critical question persists : Why is this novel not prescribed in Namibian (and Northern Cape) high schools, and not widely available in the country of its setting ? Is it because it contradicts Swapo’s version of our national liberation ? Or that it exposes the many crimes of German colonialism ?

The fact that the English translation of ’Morenga’ by Breon Mitchell won the 2004 Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for Translation is another significant reason why it should be available to Namibian students.

In personal communication, Timm, who was a member of the anti-apartheid movement, writes from Munich : “I am happy that you know the novel ’Morenga’. I wrote the book 40 years ago and spent much time with research.”

Apparently, Timm travelled the length and breadth of southern Namibia when researching his manuscript, and the apartheid regime subsequently declared him persona non grata. Similarly, Mitchell corresponded from the USA : “’Marenga’ is an important novel – I feel honoured to have translated it… I share your hopes that Uwe Timm’s ’Morenga’ will be added as required reading in your schools. I believe it deserves that honour.”

In her book ’The Genocidal Gaze – From German South West Africa to the Third Reich’, Elizabeth Baer explores the writings of Timm and Hendrik Witbooi in order to comprehend the profound racism behind the extermination of others during the ’Hottentot’ war ; terms such as ’Hottentot’ (stutterers) because the colonisers could not pronounce the loud consonants, the animal imagery around Africans that led to the merciless killing of women and children, the rampant sexual violence and forced labour, the constant floggings and deliberate starvation, etc.

That American scholar also points out the eugenics research of Eugen Fischer on skulls from the Shark Island Extermination Camp and the treacherous role of the missionaries in rounding up people after the battle at Hamakari for the concentration and death camps. Baer emphasises the need to translate Witbooi’s many diaries into English for a wider audience given their tremendous value as anti-colonial and pan-Africanist documents. This also highlights the obligation of a concerted effort to search for Marengo’s skull and diary in the basements of German museums and universities.


The issue of where the remains of Marengo are continues to be pertinent as he should be returned to Namibia and given a dignified burial in the Karas Mountains. Namibian compatriot Hergen Junge believes that Marengo’s skull was possibly taken by the adventurer Scotty Smith and is in some museum overseas. However, John Masson thinks it unlikely as the skull was fractured by bullets and that it is more plausible that Marengo’s full remains are still on the farm ’Eensaamheid’ in the Northern Cape. Thus, it might be possible to locate the body with sniffer dogs, aerial photos or thermal imagery.

It is really only the political will of the Namibian elite to find Marengo that is lacking. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves that Marengo’s resistance made it possible for 12 000 to 15 000 Ovaherero to escape. It is indeed Marengo’s statue that should replace that of the Unknown Soldier outside Windhoek. The identity of the foremost leader of the national liberation struggle is not a mystery.

In the end, though, it ought to be acknowledged that the link between the Namibian genocide and the Holocaust is limiting. After all, the mass genocide of indigenous Americans by European colonisers was the original model for the extermination of the colonised everywhere and should be an essential part of the ongoing dialogue. Let us find the remains of Marengo to continue the conversation.


* The authors are members of the Marxist Group of Namibia.


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