Namibian Jephta Nguherimo recently came to address the first United Nations Forum on People of African Descent. He is fighting for reparations for his Herero people, who according to many historians were victims of the 20th century’s first genocide.This content was published on December 16, 2022 – 11:16December 16, 2022 – 11:16Julia Crawford
“My great-great grandma was left under a tree to die,” says Jephta Nguherimo, a 59-year-old Namibian in Geneva to attend the Forum. “I am still looking for that tree, but it is a picture in my mind. How could someone be left under a tree to die?”
In 1904, the Herero and Nama people of South West Africa (now Namibia) rose up against German occupation. During the Herero-German war of 1904-1908, the Germans issued an “Extermination OrderExternal link”, under which all Herero in German territory were to be shot or expelled. After a last stand against the Germans at the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904, the Herero were pushed with their families and cattle east into the desert, where many died of hunger and thirst, including Jephta’s great-great grandmother. Her relatives, themselves starving and desperate, had no strength left to help the old woman. Growing up in Namibia, he was told this story by his grandmother, and it inspired him to take up the Herero cause.
“We came to Geneva, because for many years we have been fighting for Germany to apologise, restore and repair, and to name what they did to our people as genocide. They destroyed 80-85% of the people, and they also put them in concentration camps,” Jephta told SWI swissinfo.ch. An estimated 50% of the Nama population was also wiped out.
Fighting for reparations
Much of the Herero land was stolen by Germany. Today many Hereros in Namibia still live in poverty. The current Namibian government, dominated by the majority Ovambo ethnic group, is not very supportive of their cause, says Jephta. It held talks with Germany, which promised some reparations in the form of bilateral aidExternal link. But victims were excluded and say this is not enough. No reparations have yet been paid. Memorial sites are not marked and only a few of the artefacts and human remains stolen by the Germans have so far been returned.
Jephta was born in Namibia in the village of Ombuyovakuru, which he says means “the elders’ well”. He was an anti-apartheid activist when Namibia was under South African administration (1915-1990) and left the country at 16. In 1987, he received a scholarship to study in the United States where he now lives and co-founded the OvaHerero, Ovambanderu and Nama Genocide Institute. He has written a book of poetry about the Herero and Nama genocide, entitled “unBuried, unMarked: The Untold Namibian Story of the Victims of German Genocide between 1904 -1908External link”.
A former labour negotiator in the US, he retired early to dedicate himself to the Herero cause. He owns some land and cows in his native Namibian village, where he regularly returns to support the Herero fight for reparations.
This was his first time in Geneva, where he was one of hundreds of delegates attending the first session of the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.
UN Permanent Forum
“This is a space where we are trying to create a framework platform for reparation, reparative justice, not only in Namibia but all over where African people or people of African descent have been violated,” says Jephta.
The UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent was set up under Resolution 75/314External link, adopted by the General Assembly in August 2021. It is the highest-level advisory body to the General Assembly and Human Rights Council on addressing racism and the legacy of slavery. Its mandateExternal link includes “to consider the elaboration of a United Nations declaration on the promotion, protection and full respect of the human rights of people of African descent”.
Activists have been fighting for decades to get such a mechanism, and it finally held its first session from December 5 to 8, 2022. The session focused on strategies to combat systemic racism but also talked about reparatory justice.
It was opened by Colombian Vice-President Francia Márqez, a woman of Afro-Caribbean descent, whose call for “historic reparations” for Afro-descendent and African peoples met with applause. “For many years this has been an issue that has been avoided and evaded by the United Nations and its member countries,” said Márquez, who urged them to “take concrete actions of historical reparation that contribute to transform colonial systems”.
Jephta also received applause for his address to the Forum, in which he stressed that recognition of the Herero and Nama genocide was “right and just”. He hopes the search for justice for the Herero and Nama people of Namibia could serve as a test case.
Impressions of Geneva
After fleeing his country under apartheid South African administration, Jephta spent time in refugee camps in Botswana. He was helped by the UN refugee agency UNHCR to go to Nairobi, Kenya, to study agriculture, then got a scholarship to go to the US.
Geneva has left a lasting impression. “Other than being an expensive city, it’s a beautiful space,” he told SWI. “I saw the UNHCR building…This was the agency that basically helped us survive by distributing food, clothing and all that. So when I saw that sign, I was like, wow, this is where help came from. It’s a moving place, a beautiful place. And I am inspired by the conference, the Forum attendees. It’s just amazing that you can learn so much from so many people, and I hope to come back again.”
This Forum is due to hold alternating annual meetings in Geneva and New York, with the next one expected in New York in May. It has much work to do, but has started drafting a new UN declaration.
Based on these talks, Jephta believes it will include a framework for reparations that could also help other communities seeking justice for colonial crimes. “That will include the meaning of an apology, return of cultural objects, human remains and ancestral land, or any other financial or economic compensation that they are seeking.”
Edited by Imogen Foulkes