Is that … German?

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The impact that foreigners, especially Germans and Apartheid-era South Africans, had on Namibia is still very present. It is tangible not only by the architecture of inns, biergartens, or barbed-wired watchtowers, but also by the living memories and oral histories that parents share with their children. It can also be felt whenever I meet a new friend, host family, or even teacher. If the first question is not about my possible identity as Boer, then it is as follows:

“What is your name?”

My name, from the Bible, is received with a smile from Namibians who take pride in their Christian faith or otherwise know countrymen with the same name. This smile continues into the next, inevitable question:

“What is your surname?”

I respond, and the smile quickly changes into an expression between interest and nervous concern.

Is that … German?

I affirm that it is, and explain that I am American with grandparents who emigrated long ago.

Conversations I have had in Oshikwanyama follow the same pattern:

Ove lye?” (who are you?)

Ya tate lye?” (and your father?)

And, then in a switch to English: “Is that … German?”

To deflect German-focused fears in a moment of misguided anxiety, I have even proffered my knowledge of Swahili to somehow show that I am more on Team Africa than Team Germany. Swahili, ironically, was politically promoted in Tanzania by the German colonial administration there.

To explain some background, its defeat in World War I forced Germany to surrender its southern African colonies to South Africa (Namibia) and the United Kingdom (Tanganyika). Before this, the German colonial administration, under Lothar von Trotha, committed war crimes amounting to genocide in Southwest Africa. That is fact. However, Namibia saw decades of oppression since the early 1900s that were not at the hands of German colonists. What the Germans did left such a scar that many Namibians, especially Herero whose ancestors were all but exterminated, still feel. Thus, this animosity for historical Germans is understandable. But, to continue to feel uneasy about Germans to the extent of worrying over German-American surnames feels different.

It feels that the most convenient enemy—the one who consistently holds the title—is the one who is most different. It is far easier to hate someone from far away who speaks, looks, and acts differently than it is to hate someone perceived as similar. Humans prefer not to hate themselves. To blame other Namibians or other Africans feels too much like blaming a neighbor or kin. Much like in Zanzibar, where some prefer to place blame solely on the Portuguese for the slave trade rather than facing the uncomfortable side of history when Arabs who shared a faith and a similar culture also hurt so many. Likewise, some Americans who have never met a first or second-generation American like to blame immigrants for crime and economic woes rather than admit that Americans of all backgrounds—including their own—do bad things sometimes. Everywhere I have lived in the world has taken advantage of the No-Good-Scotsman mindset. That is, no good American would knowingly harm a fellow American. No good Muslim would knowingly harm a fellow Muslim. No good Namibian would knowingly harm a fellow Namibian. When something bad happens, we look first to the foreigner.

So, how do we frame our world when someone like us does knowingly do harm?

At the Heroes’ Acre in Windhoek and here in Okahandja, I have heard several Namibians say that they “forgive, but never forget.” It is far beyond my place to suggest that Namibians forgive people like von Trotha who orchestrated a genocide. To forgive those who murdered and destroyed takes strength and courage. We are all human, thus, all somehow capable of the things that humans do. Forgiveness might be the first step toward undoing the No-Good-Scotsman worldview that oversimplifies complex, human situations and fuels xenophobic fires.

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