Windhoek — One monument in the Namibian capital city of Windhoek is grand in style and significance. It is called the Heroes' Acre. It tells the story of the people's liberation struggle. It tells the story of sacrifice and victory. Our reporter, who visited the site last November, captures its beauty and essence
As we approached the broad gates of the Heroes' Acres, the scorch of the November afternoon sun had scaled down for sunset to spread out fire-like lobe around the blue clouds. An indication of a stern control of this historic site, lying in between two hills that seemed to kiss the alluring skies, was the presence of two soldiers - a tall energetic-looking young man and an almost rotund lady with eyes that asked too many questions. The giant gates were firmly locked from behind. As I looked towards my left and right hands, the perimeter fence, stretched out to the feet of the hills, is lost in the beauty of rocks. Though it is located about 10 kilometres away from the City of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, its isolation from residential buildings is not absolute. High rise buildings dot the grassy, savannah-like low landscape on both sides of the hills in a serenity that could be touched and heard.
The two soldiers, not smiling, not unfriendly, appeared from the giant black-painted iron gates. With an accent shrouded in a domineering mother tongue, the young male soldier, spotting black spectacles, asked to know what we were looking for.
"We're journalists from Nigeria and would like to take a tour of this monument," I explained. With a furtive look that betrayed a measure of confusion, the soldier turned to his female colleague. I sensed that our desire to be led into the acre may hit disappointment in the next few seconds. While waiting for the soldier's response to our request, my curious eyes encountered a monkey. But the animal was not alone. Instantly, many others emerged from the foot of the first hill, running up the steep and jumping over the rocks and barbed wires all over the mountain. This may be a zoo after all, a part of me said. Before I could assemble my thoughts on what to expect here, birds flew past, in a breezy manner - and uncountable. Some nestled on short trees, others rocked the shrubs, and many danced on the rocks. In freedom, the animals savoured nature in the lush-grey grasses, trees and rocks.
"There's no one to take you on a tour of the Heroes' Acre," the female soldier took over to lay their predicament bare before us. "The guides are not working today. Again, you need to purchase a ticket before you enter, but the officials who should sell you the tickets are also not here."
Do we turn back? How do we persuade these soldiers in order to gain entry?
I looked at my colleague, Austin Odoh. His eyes brimmed with discouragement. But not mine. "Without a guide, we could still go round the place and see what you have here," I told the lady. "We're from a distant country, thousands of kilometres away and we have to fly back tomorrow morning. If we don't tour this place now, we may never do so until Jesus comes back."
She smiled cautiously at me, looked at her colleague for his opinion. She unlocked a small passage by the gate to let us in. I sensed the four eyes of the soldiers piercing my back in pity as we sauntered into the wide Heroes" Acre. Like a seafarer in an unfamiliar terrain, I marched on the concrete pavement on the side of a glowing tarred pathway, as the search engine of my brain made an effort to predict what 'Heroes Acre' meant. If the monument was a glorified cemetery, why did the Namibian Ambassador in Nigeria, Mrs Selma Ashipala Musavyi, impressed it on me that it was the most memorable place to visit in Windhoek?
We didn't have to wonder too far on the paved streets that snaked around the dry grasses and green leaves on short trees around the important site to feed our curiosity with rich spectacles. Glistering and invitingly was an obelisk standing on a marble slab that was taller than my five feet eight inches height that made me proud. Yet, on it stood the statue of a giant, a soldier making a victory sign into the sky with a torch in his right hand, while holding a gun in his left hand - a gun made in the colour of the earth, the red earth. The soldier stands in front of a concrete arrow, wider and taller than the size of the imposing statue of the soldier, pointing its sharp edge to the sky, like it was going to close in with the evening sun. As we drew closer to the obelisk, we noticed the carved image of a baby girl in the arm of a tired-looking mother. The baby sleeps. The woman mourns.
This fascinating sight is located at the centre of the square. Five other obelisks in the structure of the cross of Jesus Christ stood at a distance of about a hundred meters away, each of them decorated with wreaths that served like foot-laces of the cross. Below the crosses were five bowls with fire dancing from each, unquenchable fire, which, we learnt, was kept alive day and night. Behind the statue of the triumphant soldier lays a terrace in sets that distinguished one level of the height from another, and leading one to its summit, about one hundred metres from the centre of the square. It glowed even in the sun that receded down to pave way for nightfall, and ran around the obelisk in a cyclical form that converged on its tip, like a field of track for athletes.
Two soldiers emerged from a tent at a far end outside the terrace. As I looked up, I spotted a van parked around the tent. Again, a male with a female soldier. Why were these security men posted in such a pair? We suspended our admiration of the scenery and waited for them to arrive.
"Can we help you, please," the male soldier, who later gave his name as Lance Corporal Amunyela Wilbard, asked. The lady described herself as Gunner Nenkavu Maula.
"We've come to take a look at this monument, which we're told is the most important place in Windhoek," I began. "We're journalists from Nigeria."
"You're welcome," L/C Wilbard replied, but added. "The tour guide is not here now. He would have told you all you needed to know about this place."
"But you should know a little," I challenged him. "For instance, what does the statue of the soldier and the woman with a child sitting on the raised slab mean?"
L/C Wilbard smiled. "Let me try," he said and began to respond to my question. "You know, our country gained Independence when I was just 10 years old. That was in 1990. Many soldiers were killed in the rebellion against the Boers who had ruled this place and South Africa. Women and children suffered. So, the soldier holding the gun in the left hand and making the sign of victory with glowing fire in the right hand is a symbol of our freedom." He paused from a while before he added the eye-opening sentence. "This is the place where the heroes of our liberation are buried."
"What does the burning fire signify," I asked.
"Oh," he responded, smiling as if he was saying 'you should have known.' "By the fire, we're saying that we remember them for the sacrifices they made to ensure Namibia becomes a free country."
The South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) engaged the apartheid system, which made Namibia an outpost of South Africa for many years, in a bloody war. For those who encountered this war in history books, the reality is lost in time and space. But for Namibians this is not so. This different perception is the commitment to keeping their memories unquenchable in the Heroes Acre.
Inaugurated in August 2002 and a giant signature of Sam Nujoma indelibly inscribed on one of the landmark marble structure, the memorial was designed by a North Korean. The acre is a symbolic tomb of those who never returned from the 10 wars Namibian freedom fighters engaged in from 1903 to 2002. According to Klaus Dierks book on the history of the Southern African country, the wars fought included the following. Bondelswart Uprising (1903/1904); Nama-German War, (1903/1909); Ovaherero-German War of 1904/1906; South AfricaÂ´s proposed neutral stance during World War II and SwapoÂ´s War for the Liberation of Namibia, 1966/1989. Others included World War I (1914-1918); World War II (1939-1945); Secessionist Conflict in the Caprivi Region (1998-1999); Civil War in Angola (1990s to 2002) and NamibiaÂ´s participation in the War in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1998-2002).
Though L/C Wilbard claimed he knew just a fragment of the story of the monument, he displayed a deeper understanding that dried up our quest for more. We walked from one level of the terrace to another to discover that by the left and right sides of each of the stages were green grasses so lush that we needed not to be told that they were trimmed and nurtured on a regular basis.
"The green grasses are the graves of some of our heroes," the soldier revealed. "The grasses show that we've not forgotten them," he added. On one of the tombs was a slab with the name Commander Colonel (rtd) John Otto Nankudhu (Koshiwanda) who died on 20:06:2011. A biblical quotation introduced us to the mindset that built the tomb. It read: "They hunted me like a bird, but you gave us victory over our enemies" Psalm 44:7.
"Who was this man?" I asked.
"I think he was one of the first fighters for the Liberation struggle," the soldier said. "Most of those honoured in this ceremonial square were SWAPO fighters." He added that Koshiwanda was lucky to savour the freedom for which much blood was shed. "His tomb contains his body," he explained further. "Some of the graves have no real bodies. They're there for the remembrance of some of the dead."
We climbed further. We saw the tomb of Angura Peter Tshirubu Tsheehand, who died on o3:10:2010. He was a former minister in the government that succeeded the apartheid regime. He, like many politicians in the Namibian government, had retired from SWAPO, before he died. On his tomb is an epitaph culled from 2nd Timothy 4:7, which says: "I have fought a good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith."
There were dozens of graves that bore the struggle of dozens of SWAPO liberation fighters. We saw that of Jeroboam Dimo Hamambo, a Lieutenant General who died in September 2002. He served the liberated Namibia as its first Chief of Defence Staff. He was actually the first hero to be buried in this acre. We saw also the tomb of Kahimenna H Nguvanua Kakurukaze Mungundi Hosea Kutako. His corpse is not in this grave, but his dates of birth and death are inscribed on the tomb. Kutako had died in the bush in one of the Independence wars. The opportunity of relocating his body from the battle ground to his ancestral home was not there. Though buried in the bush, his grave and the epitaph keep him alive in this story of Namibia.
Climbing the terrace. Identifying real and symbolic graves. Trudging from one level to another - in their dozens. They conspired to sap me to the breath. I gasped for air like an athlete who had just competed for a short distance race of one hundred or two hundred metres in Olympics record-breaking seconds. Though I had begun to choke, the fact that the female gun-runner-soldier did it with ease sealed my lips from declaring the pains my body was enduring. My two legs grew weaker and weaker as we climbed higher and higher towards the peak of the mountain. My chest choked as my nasal cavity seemed to congeal, making it difficult for me to breath. As my throat ran short of fluid, my lungs got dried up and I felt the pinch of dehydration. Sweat formed from my forehead to my hairy legs. I was exhausted. My eyes, almost bleary, echoed my frustration. My head ached. No thanks to the stress that had from my bones to the fibres of my flesh. It even tampered with my determined spirit.
"Let's continue to move on," L/C Wilbard encouraged me. Without doubt, he had noticed the fatigue that oozed out of the slow and sluggish pace in my steps as we climbed up. Though he had slowed down, he was still four steps ahead of me. "It's tough climbing this terrace, but by the time you get to the top of it, you will understand why it is so high."
"No problem," I replied, apparently discounting my discomfort. "We have mountains in Nigeria, and without the paved staircase, we still climb them." After few more steps I experience inexplicable rejuvenation. Perhaps, it was because we had almost arrived at the peak of it all. Six more steps, and we would be there. Yes. We got there. The tip of the terrace.
The height of Heroes Acre. The ultimate point. And what did we discover? The huge city of Windhoek, previously administered by the Boers, was on its knees, subdued, conquered, subjugated, subservient, as we stood atop the taller of the two mountains, like conquerors. It was at this point that the scale over my understanding was detached. After a long struggle, captured in the tiresome trek to the top of this mountain, the people, the heroes overpowered and ran the apartheid regime down from their tall horses - in spite of their machine guns and bombs. This was clearly captured in the creativity of a sculptor who, in a 10-feet stretch of sketches on the rock behind a shed on the mountain, told the history of the people from pre-apartheid era to the split seconds of victory in 1990.
The sculptor recast the phases of the struggle in five segments. A white soldier standing under a palm tree with a horsewhip and flogging a black man, who is scarcely covered in torn wears, his back bare, introduced us to the early days in which the Boers invaded the native land of the Bushmen (also called San). That was in the 19th Century when the white farmers (the Boers), pushed the indigenous Khoisan peoples away from the fertile soil across what is referred to as the Orange River. The Bushmen, who originally occupied the land that is today known as Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, put up a fierce resistance. Being hunters and gatherers, the Bushmen were said to have lived a nomadic lifestyle and survived on fruits, nuts and roots, but their simple way of life was obstructed by the ambitious occupation of the Boers
the early days captured in this first phase, the Bushmen were subdued, as the white man chained the hands and legs of the black man and rendered him helpless. With the long chain the white man dragged him into incarceration. In this rural setting a woman is seen weeping helplessly, while carrying a baby on her laps. There are beads round her neck, and a young girl stands by her, while an elderly man stands akimbo, puffing out smokes from a local tobacco pipe in between his lips. Few meters away, we find five other young men bound in the white man's chains and being dragged away, apparently into servitude.
They march past the rural, thatched huts in between palm trees. But a sign of early resistance, an afterthought, is captured by the artiste when he presents us with some brave young men with simple weapons, like bows and arrows, targeting the white man who races away with his captives on the back of horses.
The second stage of the resistance is represented in the internationalisation of the Namibian crisis, as the United Nations is brought into the picture. But this was over 30 years after the invasion of Namibia by the white man. In 1946, the Boers refused to bring its territory in Southern Africa, including Namibia, under the UN trusteeship, thereby pitching it in a face-off against the rest of the world, represented by the United Nations. Many native Namibians, therefore, went on exile, from where they put pressure on the UN to frustrate the white minority rule and grant the natives political independence.
The next stage brought to light the outcome of the international intervention. Here soldiers, operating from exile, had begun to use guns and other sophisticated weapons to wage war against the Boers. With many of them seen reading and holding books, we noted the spread of Western education among those who had escaped the oppression in their native land. In this phase, armed with knowledge and weapons (black soldiers even use bellicose) the black soldier begins to gain an upper hand over the white Boers. He shoots down the white man's fighter jets.
In the fourth stage, the black man gets more sophisticated. He confronts the Boers in intense, bloody battle. Using various kinds of weapons, including machine guns, he overpowers the white man. This victory ushers us to the final phase of the liberation struggle when we find black people rejoicing and celebrating the victory with the flag of Namibia. The ingenuity of the sculptor in representing the 70-year history of the Liberation struggle of Namibia cannot be lost on anyone who appreciates the artistic impression on this large rock.
Commenting on his country's Liberation struggle, L/C Wilbard said, "We're proud of our great grandfathers who fought for our independence from the Boers. In those days of our struggle, no black man was allowed into Windhoek because it was a city exclusively for the Boers. Our forefathers were kept away from here, about 700 kilometres into the bush. Everything was under the control of the Boers. But with the battle fought by our great grandfathers and grandfathers, we secured our freedom. Here I am in Windhoek. It's a great story of victory."
Former Namibian President Sam Nujoma, under whose leadership the Heroes Acre was constructed, has his signature dated on 26th August, 2002, on the slab of one of the obelisks. He dedicated the project to "the glory of the fallen heroes and the heroines of the motherland of Namibia." In his speech at the ceremony, he declared that: "Â´The HeroesÂ´ Acre is a place for all Namibians irrespective of their political, racial, ethnic or religious background to come and honour those sons and daughters of our soil who sacrificed their lives, and those who, during their lifetimes, made great and meaningful contributions to the liberation of the land of the Brave and all her people in their diversity. Compatriots, this monument was built as our token of honour to our fallen heroes and heroines. It was built in the true African tradition of bestowing honour to our forefathers and mothers´".
The Heroes Acre and the victory it signifies cannot sort out all the problems of Namibia, but it will be a constant reminder to the people that they won their freedom from oppression through the sacrificial blood of thousands of persons who did not live to see these glorious days. As it were, all those who are leading the Southern African country today, from President Hifikepunye Pohamba to his cabinet ministers and envoys to many countries, were comrades in the struggle. But the ordinary Namibian, of a population of 2.1 million is still captive to poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and numerous other social problems that plague other African nations. It is hoped that the Heroes Acre will remind these leaders that others shed their blood for the people's freedom. But are they prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to move Namibia to the next level of growth and prosperity?