This season we’re mostly wearing…

The Times Magazine

A century of war and colonial occupation has resulted in the curious dress of the Herero people. Photographer Jim Naughten documents their look
A century of war and colonial occupation has resulted in the curious dress of the Herero people. Photographer Jim Naughten documents their look

For most of the 20th century, Namibia’s history was one of hidden violence and brutality. Unspoken horrors were perpetrated by its occupiers – first Germany for 31 years and then South Africa for more than twice as long. It was only in 1990 that Namibia won its independence.

Six years later I went to Namibia to teach. Arriving in the capital, Windhoek, I found a strange and orderly place. Outlying shanties, spread across the city’s arid plateau, gave way to a high-rise centre bisected with paved roads. Although Germany had lost dominion over its former colony at the end of the First World War, German newspapers were still sold on the streets with their German names, there were German goods in German shops and German beer in German pubs. Most striking, though, were the Herero women in their Victorian-styled dresses made out of patchwork, wide bustles accentuating their hips and headdresses – called otjikaeva – folded to mimic the horns of their prized cows.

Their unique style was adapted from the European dress of German women who arrived in the first wave of Namibia’s colonisation. They were all the more majestic because of their mundane setting: there they were in their imposing outfits standing in the queue at the supermarket or waiting for a bus. Less commonplace, but equally distinctive, were their husbands who on special occasions donned ceremonial regalia derived from German military uniforms.

The Herero are cattle-keeping people, one of the tribes that make up modern-day Namibia. Today they number around 150,000, or 7 per cent of the population, but had it not been for a terrible four-year-long war against Germany’s colonial army early in the 20th century they would be many more. One weekend I hitchhiked to the Waterberg Plateau in the north. Today it is a nature reserve famous for its rhinos, but in 1904 it was the scene of a decisive battle, one that crushed an anticolonial insurgency and began the first genocide of the century.

That the Herero people’s resistance to German occupation was an abject failure is not in question. Kaiser Wilhelm II dispatched General Lothar von Trotha with 15,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion. He did so without mercy. Outgunned and outmaneuvered at Waterberg, up to 80 per cent of the Herero died, some from machine gun, rifle and cannon fire, others at the point of bayonets or from a hangman’s noose. Many more perished from thirst and hunger in the Kalahari.

Von Trotha swore to “annihilate these masses” and he nearly succeeded. A year after their insurrection began, what remained of the Herero had either escaped across the Kalahari to what is now Botswana or were confined to unimaginably squalid concentration camps in German South-West Africa, where the women were used as sex slaves and the men as forced labourers. The skulls of dead Herero were sent to Germany for research.

At first glance these portraits by Jim Naughten of contemporary Herero seem strange. Did they really take their style cues from a brutal colonial oppressor? Dr Hildi Hendrickson of Long Island University explains: “The women’s dress builds on the leather clothing that existed before the colonial period. The cloth version is an extension of what they were already doing. They borrowed what interested them.” Herero women took what was useful and made it their own. A similar act of cultural plunder gave rise to the pick’n’mix military uniforms of the men with their peaked caps, feathered headgear, jodhpurs and boots.

Jim Naughten first visited Namibia in 1998. He returned in 2010 and spent months photographing the Herero at ceremonies, funerals and parades. “The story behind the costume is full of paradox,” he says. “It’s a tale of survival and defiance.” Few know about the Herero genocide; Naughten’s hope is that his portraits will go some way to rectify this.