Namibia is a country located in Southern Africa that shares its borders with Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana to the east, South Africa to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The country, formerly called South West Africa, used to be a German colony which, after 1915, came under South African control. It gained complete independence fairly recently, in the year 1990.
Even though the South African mandate lasted longer than the German colonization, the remnants of their occupation are stronger in the country. They are visible all around Namibia. Many of the street names are in German; people of German descent make up 5% of the Namibian population, 32% of the white population speaks German, 50% of the Christian population are of the German Lutheran sect, many people have German names; the local cuisine has German influences and the local schooling system also has German origins.
The strongest influence, however, can be observed in the local architecture. Nothing better displays the colonial legacy better than the buildings and structures left behind by the former imperialists. Structures that are now part of the Namibian landscape.
What does Architecture tell us?
The fundamental purpose of a dwelling or building is to provide shelter, provide storage space and provide protection from danger. They can, however, be used for social, cultural, political, economic and religious purposes as well. The way structures are constructed depends on their intended purpose, on the materials available in the vicinity, the climate and, the beliefs of the people creating the building.
Architecture, therefore, acts as a reflection of society, communal values and accomplishments. They’re also a reflection of the available cultural technology and knowledge in a place; telling us how advanced or primitive society was. This in turn gives us information about the culture, the relationship between the people and the land, and the lifestyle of a community at a certain point in time.
They’re quite literally a physical piece of history and a memory of our forefathers. The architecture is therefore a cultural heritage of a place.
Brief History of German Colonialism in Namibia
Before we look into colonial architecture in detail, let’s get a little bit of context first.
Europeans first started arriving in Namibia by the end of the 18th century with missionaries. German missionaries first arrived in the region in the early 19th century. Missionaries from the Rhenish Missionary Society, who started arriving in 1805, were the largest in southwest Africa at the time, with nearly 18 missions.
This attracted Germans, particularly the traders, to come to the area, and set up their trading posts. In 1883, a merchant named. Adolf Lüderitz bought the land that was used as one of the first points of entry into the country. He set up a trading post there and named it after him. Since this purchase, more Germans from the mainland arrived, in search of better trading opportunities, in search of more land and in search of new fortunes.
During this time, a few of the local tribes, particularly the Nama and Herero, were in conflict as they were competing to get a better hold of scarce pastoral land and water.
Meanwhile, in Europe, seeing the other European powers of the time, the German Empire also wished to expand its territory elsewhere. The Nama and Herero conflict gave them the right opportunity to take their first step towards their ultimate goal.
German officials were sent to the area, who intervened between the two tribes, acting as peacekeepers. They promised to offer military support to both tribes under the condition that they signed an agreement stating that they’d be under German ‘protection’. The Herero chief was the first to sign it but, the Nama didn’t. During this time, German troops were sent to Namibia and more Germans were encouraged to immigrate, gradually establishing their stronghold there. Over time, more local tribes were made to sign the agreement, either forcefully or deceitfully. And, by 1884, the German Empire had established its first colony, naming the territory as German South-West Africa.
As a German colony, many infrastructural developments took place. The water supply system was developed by building small dams, boreholes and wells. Several farms and military stations were established. In fact, Windhoek, the present-day capital city of Namibia, was founded in 1890 as a military station. Fortified posts, railroads connecting the ports to the interior were constructed, official buildings and churches were also built.
To construct these, the local people were made to work as waged labour. However, they would be mistreated and would be paid poorly. What was even more saddening was that the immigrants captured tribal land and livestock, leaving them without their livelihood.
The Herero people could no longer tolerate these injustices so, in 1904, they gathered as many able-bodied men and weapons as they could, and declared war against the Germans. Germany, with additional military support, sent from the mainland and their advanced weapons outnumbered the Herero. However, the Herero people do not believe that they were defeated because, according to custom, only the death or capture of their chief would result in defeat. However, the chief escaped, so they were never truly defeated.
With these events taking place, even the former enemies of the Herero, the Nama tribe, decided to take action. And so, the Nama chief also declared war on the Germans. The battles continued for four years, during which the German government ordered the murder of these tribes. Including the murder of women and children. As a result, 10,000 Nama people, including the chief and 65,000 Herero people were massacred. The actual numbers may vary but, it is said that nearly 100,000 people were murdered in the Namibian Genocide, exterminating nearly 80% of the native population.
The remaining members of the tribes were permitted to stay but as labourers. As a result, many went into exile.
World War I
In 1915, a year into the First World War, the Germans were compelled to surrender German South-West Africa to the South Africans. The South Africans were officially granted authority over the former German territory in 1919, at the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans went back. However, 30,000 of them decided to stay back.
Namibia finally gained independence from all foreign forces in 1990. But, even now, much of the country’s wealth and land is in the hands of the white population, the majority of whom are of German descent.
Colonial architecture can be found in most of the major cities. Lüderitz, Windhoek and Swakopmund are some of the cities concentrated with German-influenced architecture.
Namibia doesn’t naturally have many materials fit for the construction of complex artistic structures. There wasn’t any timber available that was worthy of furniture and neither did they have clay to make sturdy bricks. The clay available was limited and of inferior quality. The only material they could use was sun-dried mud bricks.
Furthermore, the climate was a lot hotter, arider and experienced less rainfall than in the German mainland so, the architects had to improvise, design and construct structures accordingly. Alternatively, they would import materials from elsewhere. However, the budgets for architectural projects would be limited, so architects would have to rely on their clever design skills.
This improvisation resulted in the creation of a regional genre of architecture that heavily featured Wilhelminian and Rundbogenstil styles. One of the regional styles was the Verandahaus architecture, where architects added their version of the verandah to their structures. To create shelters that were cooler. These structures would protect the sun-dried mud bricks that were used for walls and keep the room attached to the verandah cool by allowing the flow of air. They’d apply this style, especially to their government buildings.
It is interesting to note that much of the German colonial architecture was developed during and after the Namibian genocide. That was when gothic elements such as pyramid spires and flared eaves on roofs could be seen. There are, however, places, such as in Lüderitz, that housed older German-style buildings, as that was one of the first entry points for the Germans. As such, the style there is more rustic.
Traditional Namibian Architecture
Traditionally, the local tribes live in kraals, which are compounds with a group of traditional huts. Today, these can be found in rural areas.
The compounds utilize a large space to construct a group of huts. These clusters of huts are enclosed with a fence made of dry wood found under the limited trees or, of millet stalks. Sometimes the sticks are tightened by wrapping them in metallic wire of some sort or, in many cases, barbed wire for added security.
Each hut in the compound is used as a separate room. One room would be the kitchen, one would be the bedroom, another, the room to pound grains of manhangu or pearl millets, one hut to store the mahangu grains, and so on.
The shape and materials used to construct the huts depend on the tribe and the location. In northern and central Namibia, the land is more fertile due to the availability of permanent water sources, whereas the south and west are more arid. Some huts are made of woven reeds lined with animal skin that are dome-shaped, while others are made of mud bricks, conical thatched roofs and wooden sticks. In other places, sand and cow dung replace mud bricks.
Today they’re being replaced by rectangular houses made of mud bricks and corrugated wrought iron roofs. This is because the population is growing and the kraals require a lot of space, which sometimes requires cutting down already scarce trees.
Notable German Style Buildings in Namibia
Die Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht: Translated as the Imperial District Court is a colonial building located in the coastal city of Swakopmund. Constructed in 1901, the structure was originally the district magistrate’s court. Since then, it has been renovated many times and is now known as the Statehouse, which the Namibian President uses as a summer residence. The building employs Wilheminian and Art Nouveau elements. The most unique feature is the two imperial eagles at the entrance, which serve as a reminder of the colonial past.
Deutsche Africa Bank Building: The former German Africa Bank is located in one of the oldest streets in Lüderitz. Built in 1907, it is the epitome of German architecture in the country, employing neo-classical architectural styles. Its unique feature is its gable roof that has flared eaves like many of the old buildings in Germany. Another unique attribute is the windows, which are designed using wrought iron. The structure also has a sliding window that was used to give payments to the diamond miners who’d line up in front of it. The building was initially used as a branch of the Deutsche Afrika Bank that is based in Hamburg, Germany, and it was the first bank to be constructed in the city. In 1980, the building was declared a national monument.
Felsenkirche or the Church on the rock, located in Lüderitz, is one of the oldest Lutheran churches in the country. It was built because of the growing German population in Lüderitz in the early 20th century as a result of completed railway lines connecting the town with other parts of Namibia and the discovery of diamonds there. Completed in 1912, it was designed by a German architect Albert Bause who built the church in the neo-gothic style with a blend of Victorian. Its unique feature is the colourful windows, which were donated by Emperor Wilhelm II and Duke Johann Albrecht von Mecklenburg. The church is built on the highest point of the town, on an elevated granite base. Hence the name, Church on the rock.
Fort Naiams: This fort, located within the Naimans farm near Seeheim, is one of the older structures in Namibia. It was an old German fort that was built in 1898 by Imperial German troops or the scutztruppe. At the time, German travellers would use this route to transport goods between Lüderitz and Keetmanshoop to offer protection, aid and accommodation to those travellers. This served especially useful in 1906 when the Namas would attack the travellers during the Nama uprising.
Built of flat stones piled onto each other in an enclosure, the fort had guest rooms, stables, a kitchen, a watering hole and sufficient space for cattle. In close proximity, there is even a cemetery where two of the scutztruppe are buried. It was registered as a national monument in 1967.
Christuskirche: Also known as Christ Church, is located in the capital, Windhoek, and is considered to be one of the most iconic landmarks of the city. The church belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia and was inaugurated in 1910. The structure is an amalgamation of various architectural styles. The main building is made of quartz sandstone in neo-romanesque, art nouveau and gothic revival styles. The tower, facing east, was constructed in the neo-romanesque style. The windows made of lead glass were a gift from Emperor Wilhelm II. And, lastly, the portico or the entrance is made of marble imported from Italy.
Namibian Architecture Today
Today, the style of houses differs drastically between the two prominent races co-existing in Namibia. Nowadays, most residential buildings, especially in urban areas, have been transformed into modern architectural wonders as a result of globalization and demand for contemporary buildings.
Even though these buildings are the most common form of architecture in the country today, they are only available to the privileged, largely white population. The majority of the black population reside in informal settlements in matchbox houses at the outskirts of cities full of modern and colonial buildings. These houses don’t even suit the local lifestyle, but they have no other option. Unfortunately, this separatism is also a remnant of the 105 years of foreign rule over Namibia.
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MÜLLER-FRIEDMAN, F., 2008. Toward a (post)apartheid architecture? A view from Namibia. Planning Perspectives, 23(1), pp. 29-48.
Weigend, G. G., 1985. German Settlement Patterns in Namibia. Geographical Review, 75(2), pp. 156-169.