The first time I saw images of the ohorokova, the traditional dress of the Herero women in Namibia (and in parts of Botswana), I was startled. There is a dress in my closet that looks very similar. It is my German great-grandmother’s wedding dress.
Like the ohorokova, my family heirloom consists of two parts: a high-waist bodice with leg-o-mutton sleeves and a calf-length skirt, under which (sometimes several) petticoats can be worn. My great-grandmother’s dress does not have the petticoats, and the arms are not as puffy. Yet, similar to the ohorokova, which is often decorated with brooches and features intricate top-stitching, great-grandma’s is adorned with tiny, hand-stitched glass-beads. The memories my heirloom evokes are of a woman who looms large in our family. Her dress is one of my most cherished possessions.
So how come the dresses of the Herero women look so similar to my grandmother’s? The obvious answer is colonialism. But until a few years ago, like many Germans of my generation, I knew little about German colonial history. It wasn’t taught in history class, except to say that “we” lost the colonies as part of the Versailles Treaty. I certainly was not taught about the Herero and Nama people, and the pain inflicted on them by imperial Germany.
Recognizing that one is connected to their country’s ugly history is something I am familiar with as a German. We even have a name for coming to terms with the past: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. Still, memory and memorial culture is an unstable process. I am fascinated when this colonial history reveals itself in surprising places, often through material connections like these folk dresses. It says a lot about how identity and power work in everyday life, including through the clothing we embody.
Colonial history & genocide
The traditional Herero dress can be traced back to Rhenish Missionaries who came to Namibia in the middle of the 19th century. From these origins, Herero women have made the dress their own, but it is still a visual reminder of a genocide that its perpetrators have tried to downplay or forget.
Between 1884 and 1914, today’s Namibia was known as German South West Africa. German colonists settled mostly in the Southern region of the country, where they encountered both the Ovaherero people, and the Nama, and where, as the colony’s population grew, conflict arose.
In the early 20th century, the Ovaherero and Nama rose up to resist continuous land grabs from colonizers. Some sources call it a rebellion, others the “German-Herero War.” What is certain is that it ended in genocide. In 1904, Governor and commander in chief Lothar von Trotha issued what is now known as the “extermination order” in which he declared that “every Herero […] will be shot. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.” In the following year, he issued a similar warning to the Nama.
For over a decade in German South West Africa, tens of thousands were either killed by German troops or by the brutal conditions of the concentration camp Shark Island. Over 75% of the population of the Herero and about 50% of the Nama died. Some Herero survived by fleeing through the desert into Botswana, where they still live as an exiled community.
Dress, fashion and identity: the ohorokova today
It is from this painful history that the ohorokova has become a symbol of resilience and pride. Today, for young Herero girls, having their first dress made serves as a rite of passage, affirms their identity, honors their past and celebrates the future of both the Herero people and the dress. These elaborate costumes require around 10 meters (almost 33 feet) of fabric, carefully selected for their unique, colorful prints. The headgear, the otjikaiva, has evolved with two protrusions, symbolizing cattle horns, the animal most revered in Herero culture.
The dress is not only a part of Herero identity; it is also a part of the bustling Namibian fashion scene. Countless Pinterest boards and Instagram accounts feature different patterns, colors, and textiles, and continue to tell the history and significance of the dress. Herero designer McBright Kavari has made a name for himself by experimenting with hemline lengths and non-traditional fabrics, inspiring—as well as incensing—community members.
Considering the ohorokova’s complicated history, it should come as no surprise that it has sparked controversy alongside celebration. For many, making too many changes to the dress is a double-edged sword: In a globalized world, identity and history have become a fragile construct, and preserving traditions sometimes feels harder than ever. However, in the context of a tradition imposed by European missionaries, these innovations are often necessary and important. Sometimes the changes are borrowed from the past, such as the reinsertion of the box-shaped headscarf. But they are always adapted, undermining historical circumstances and reasserting a sense of power in the outfit’s construction.
Scholar Homi Bhabha coined the term “colonial mimicry” to describe when members of a colonized group take on the language or culture of their colonizers. Often mimicry is seen as an opportunistic action and has negative connotations. However, Bhaba suggested that copying the colonizers’ manners or cultural values can also be a form of mockery, undermining the colonial power.
The lived experience of Herero society shows the power and potential of mimicry. In the 1980s, a Herero interviewee explained to anthropologist Hildi Hendrickson that by “wearing the enemy’s clothes, you weaken their spirit.” Even before the Herero uprising, Herero men wore German uniforms, mixed and matched with their own clothes. Germany even passed a law to prohibit the Indigenous population of South West Africa from wearing German uniforms, to little avail. In another attempt to subjugate and control the local population, the so-called “pass law” was instituted. This rule stated that any African older than seven had to carry an ID Card (and later a metal identification tag) to move freely around. In response, many Herero and Nama decided to create and carry their own identification passes, taking back their identity and restoring their agency.
The Fabric of Memory
Today, new interpretations of the ohorokova by artists, designers and influencers mean more attention is paid to the dress as well as to the history of the Herero. Another generation has the chance to identify with the dress and make it their own; to take pride in their history and ancestry. In 2021, Miss Namibia Chelsi Shikongo posed with both the Otjikaiva (made from Odelela, a traditional Ovambo fabric) and an elaborate necklace to honor both her Ovambo and her Herero heritage. She articulated her social media display as a way to “honourably represent both my tribes.”
These dresses are a matter of pride and a political statement. In a country as young (independent since 1990) and diverse as Namibia, with such a troubled colonial past, ethnic identity is formulated through struggles over cultural meaning. Minorities such as the Herero use clothing to both assert their voice into history and stake their claim in the nation. When designer Leah Misaka wore the otjikaiva in 2018 without the dress, she stated that her goal was to “to raise attention in a wider circle on the Herero people who are my fellow Namibians. While my fashion statement is not about making up other people’s minds, I as a Namibian can at least get the word out there about what I feel is wrong and pay homage to the Herero people, and their tradition.”
It has been over one hundred years since the genocide, yet it is present in Herero and Nama rituals of memory. Since 1923, the people have celebrated Herero Day, to commemorate their leader Samuel Maherero and the other war chiefs who resisted colonization. Men wear uniforms (and multi-colored flags), and women wear the ohorakova during processions and speeches.
While in other societies, women’s memories of war and persecution is sometimes suppressed, here women’s narratives of the early 20th century genocide play a crucial role. This likely is because much of that violence was specifically directed at women. Their survival is embodied by the ohorakova and the role it plays in life-affirming rituals such as beauty contests as well as community politics. For instance, Esther Muijangue, Herero activist, famously wears her ohorokova during public appearances, a visual push-back to the German government ignoring her people’s fate.
As former head of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, Muijangue has dedicated much of her life to campaigning for Herero heritage and advocating for an acknowledgement and restitution from Germany. Unfortunately, the self-serving counter-narratives of white Namibians of German ancestry (who still own the majority of the land and wealth), continue to minimize the genocide. In 2021, the German government finally offered an official acknowledgement of the event, yet carefully avoided the term “reparation.” The agreement was also heavily criticized as it did not include self-chosen representatives of the Herero and Nama people.
The Herero-Nama peoples’ fight for justice continues.
The ohorokova tells the history of the Herero people. It is a painful history, but also one of resistance, survival and resilience. It contains specters of the past—and kind spirits to celebrate survival. It is a materialization of 20th century Herero history, a way of honoring their ancestors and a call for accountability.
I look at my great-grandmother’s wedding dress. By all accounts, she was a pragmatic, practical woman, who lived through two world wars and raised two generations of children. I think of her as our personal friendly ghost: a source of strength and inspiration to our family. Perhaps folk costumes, personal and collective, keep these spirits tethered to us. A literal thread of history, they connect the past—all the wearers that came before—to the now. As long as we remember them.Become a Patron!