It behoves a writer to pause and reflect on his social responsibility, if there is such a thing at all. Do we owe society anything? Or perhaps everything? Or do we just write for the sake of art?
These questions came to me in the middle of the process of writing, rewriting and translating “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird.” In the end it almost consumed me.
I set out to tell a true story with the age old rags-to-riches theme: Young Ernst Luchtenstein arrived In German South West Africa (Namibia), lost his family, worked hard and ended up as one of the wealthiest men in the country and lived happily ever after. Simple.
I first heard the story from a nephew of Ernst, the late Dicky Strauss. Dicky also mentioned a skirmish between the Luchtenstein family and some natives but the details were scant.
Everything changed when I visited the Sam Cohen Museum in Swakopmund to research my story and read a few sentences in an article about the great man. “Madam, kneel before God only, not before any man.” Cornelius Fredericks spoke to Therese, mother of Ernst and gave her his hand to lift her from the dust of the Nama Desert. Then he said, “We Namas don’t wage war against women and children.”
What war, I asked myself. I had a vague idea of the Namas as some or other indigenous group, but knew literally nothing about any war that they could have been involved in.
I could only do what I do best – read. I read everything I could about Ernst Luchtenstein and about the Namas. I ordered books from Amazon, I read a lot of the (tall) story teller, Lawrence Green’s work. For two years I tried to find descendants of this famous man, Ernst Luchtenstein, but had no success. Then my fortune changed. I visited two of his children, Tudi in Bethal, Mpumalanga and Margaret in Somerset West. My information and interest grew. By chance I happened upon a little book which switched on the little globe above my head. The book told the story about the grave in the Fish River Canyon. This gave me the background to the incident in the Namib and spurred me on.
During a research visit to Lüderitz in December 2009 I learnt about the terrible concentration camps of the Nama war (1904-1908) especially the one on Shark Island in the bay of Lüderitz. I learnt about the decapitation of the Nama prisoners and then I set out to find the desendants of that Cornelius Fredericks who had lifted Ernst’s mother from the Namib sand. That took me to Windhoek where I met pastor Izak Fredericks who told me that the famous Cornelius had been poisoned on Shark Island. And then I read about the medical experiments and about dr Eugen Fischer who 33 years later became the head of racial hygiene at Auschwitz, a real Nazi if ever there was one.
Gradually I learnt about the Namas as the descendants of the Khoi-Khoin, the First People of the sub-continent, of the different tribes, of their food, their customs, their houses (reed mat houses), their language and their clothes. I came to respect them as real people, not the untermensch of the Nazis, as the true owners of the land, as very clever people, as religious people, as my fellow men, embodied by that one gesture of Cornelius Fredericks in the Namib Desert when he took the hand of a white, German woman and saved her life and that of her family.
As I performed the laborious task of writing the book it changed me. Over the course of 11 years the book has changed me to the point where I have become an ardent supporter of the Nama people of South Africa, Namibia and lately Botswana. I have attended their festivals and I am now championing the search for the Lost Battlefield in the Kalahari where a small band of Namas made the last stand of the Great Nama war against the Germans on 16 March 1908. I hope that once the battlefield is found it will bring tourists, museums, exhibitions, a proper monument and accommodation in Nama style villages to the area, but more importantly, development, dignity and pride to the people, the Namas.
People talk glibly about social justice and about restitution and reparation, but very little is ever accomplished. The Namas and Hereros are claiming billions of dollars from Germany for reparation, but the Namibian government wants the money, so nothing is happening. It is an almost hopeless situation, but I care too much to give up.
At the outset I wanted to tell a story with no real social meaning. I had no real moral compulsion or obligation to the Namas in particular. In the end the story overwhelmed me to the point that it brought new meaning to my life on the social level. I have assumed responsibilities way beyond my means because of what I learnt through this process. Do I do it out of social responsibility? Am I under some kind of obligation to these people? I don’t think so. I do it because the book has changed me. I do it out of love.
“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” is available from www.amazon.com in paperback as well as Kindle format, from all leading bookstores in Namibia, through Namibian Book Market, and in South Africa from Upper Case, formerly Graffiti, in Menlyn Maine. Copies can also be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org