Namibia's Cinema: Waterberg to Waterberg
by Sherif Awad
Last week, we discussed the documentary Paths to Freedom that retold the struggle of Namibians until their country gained its independence in 1990. In the same context, another documentary from Namibia called Waterberg to Waterberg was shown in 4th the Luxor African Film Festival and it particularly focused on Samuel Maharero (1856 – 14 March 1923) who was the Chief of the Herero people in German South-West Africa (today’s Namibia) during these revolts against German occupation. Maharero started by secretly planning revolts with the other chiefs against the German presence in 1904. However, his Herero fighters were destroyed at the Battle of Waterberg on August 11, 1904 and Germany claimed central Namibia. The surviving Herero were forced to flee the country they loved and leave behind everything they owned. Surrounded and pursued by the German army, the only way out was to the east into the waterless sands of the Kalahari Desert.
Andrew Botelle, the Namibian based writer-director of this one-hour documentary, decided to retrace the footsteps of Maharero and his fighters using actors to reenact the historical moments. The poetic narration in the film was voiced by a young woman called Esi Schimming-Chase, a descendant of Maharero, who appears in the pre-title sequence.
One powerfully reenacted scene involved an African mother and her child who attempts to escape of the colonialists. Because of the harrowing circumstances, the mother was forced to abandon the kid in a desolated savannah field. The scene symbolizes what many Herero men and women were forced to do for their survival after abandoning their homes and spreading out far and away to start over again.
The film also reveals how Chief Maharero died from exhaustion and heart failure according to his death certificate signed on 14 March 1923. His remains were brought back to Namibia few days after his death.
The story behind the making of this documentary is also interesting. In 2012, while hiking on the Waterberg Mountains in South Africa, Botelle met a local landowner called Richard Wadley who, started to tell the director about how Samuel Maharero had lived for 20 years on a nearby farm more than 100 years ago. The landowner also showed Botelle some photos of Samuel Maharero in 1906-1907 on the Waterberg Mountains. “My first thought was, he must have his history all muddled up, as I knew from my own reading that Samuel had fought at the battle of the Waterberg in 1904, and had somehow managed to escape to Botswana, where he died. I had never heard anything about Maharero living in South Africa”, said the director. “But after being shown images of Samuel Maharero and his followers living and working on farms in the South African Waterberg, I was amazed”.
From the documentary, we also get to know that, four months after the battle of the Waterberg, Maharero arrived in the village of Tsau in today’s Botswana. A week later, the British High Commissioner granted his request to settle there. It was close enough to the Motherland but out of the reach of the Germans and so it was a relatively safe escape.
Once settled in Tsau, Maharero was forced by the British to live as an ordinary person with no special privileges. He lived in a simple hut, under difficult conditions and like all other Hereros, Maharero had to surrender his rifle... The rest of the Hereros were very poor and had only about 30 cattle between them. Chief Kambausuka Tjivau, an oral Historian in Namibia, explained that Hereros had developed their own techniques in catching a cow. A Herero can hold a cow by the tail and doesn’t need ropes to tie it up or to make it fall. Tjivau also added that thriving Herero communities of nowadays mark the route taken by Maharero more than 100 years ago, as a legacy and symbolic pilgrimage across southern Africa.
Both Paths to Freedom and Waterberg were made possible due to the support of the Namibian Film Commission (NFC) that helps Namibian-born and Namibian based filmmakers in producing and finishing their films. NFC also helps to develop the movie-going habit to Namibiam people who most of the time prefer a night out in bars rather in cinemas. Namibia Film Commission also expanded its wings across important festivals like Cannes and Berlin (where I met some of their officials in the past years) to promote Namibian desert as a shooting location. The result: the new Mad Max: Fury Road starring Thomas Hardy as the new road warrior and the South African Charlize Theron that was partially shot in the Namib Desert will make its premiere on May 14 in the next edition of Cannes Film Festival, being in the Official Selection but Out-of-Competition.