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    Namibian GDR-Children

    Lucia Engombe flipping through pages of an old album pointed to photos of her classmates.
    GDR-Children is a term denoting about 430 something Namibian children that were raised-up in East Germany (German Democratic Republic ''GDR'') as a result of  South African occupation that made people fled the country. After the Cassinga massacre in southern Angola in 1978 by South African military forces. The communist societies in the solidarity of their socialist brothers and sisters of SWAPO absorbed vulnerable children, providing them with education and protect the children against further attacks.[ PDF ] Mr Nahas Angula who was regarded as the godfather of all exiled kids including children in East Germany, pledged support from Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) that was governing DDR, to provide assistance to the African children. According to Obed Emvula who co-starred alongside with Danny Glover in the first in Namibian epic film “Namibia –The struggle for Liberation”.recalled that the response from the SED came fast in 1979 when 90 SWAPO refugees' children flown to East Germany for the first time.

    Lucia Panduleni Engombe,  as an ex-GDR kid too she grew up in East Germany where she went in 1979 and returned to Namibia on 25 August 1989 at a new dawn of Namibian Independence. In her personal testimony ''My German African Odyssey" she went through immense difficulties in the home country which was new to her at that time. According to Peter Hilliges, an author of numerous German novels on Africa, he has shed light on Engombe's experiences as well as an emotional level. 

    Little Lucia Engombe didn’t notice the cold when she arrived in East Germany on a wintry night in 1979 because she was wrapped warmly and carried into the airport. But the 7-year-old Namibian refugee was immediately struck by how bright everything was. “In Africa, it was dark at night,” she says. “I had never seen a street lamp.” Engombe, who has written a moving book about her experiences titled Child No. 95, is one of about 430 Namibians who grew up in the GDR before being sent “home” when Namibia achieved independence in 1990. The “ex-GDR kids” — their term — were part of a wider socialist collaboration that saw Namibian youths being educated in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, Cuba and even North Korea.

    ex-GDR kid Ndatyapelao Nangula Costa with the current owner of the Jagdschloss Bellin, Angelika Sloman.

    DDR Children
    Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was under East Germany dominion. In present time it's a 16th state, which is a Megalopolis populated by pre-Christian Germanic peoples and full of Castles built in Saxon-style, laying in the northern part of Germany along the Baltic Sea.
    The SWAPO children plus others from African countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania were taken to the Jagdschloss Bellin, a remote hunting castle in Mecklenburg Vorpommern near Güstrow that surrounded by a 10-hectare park with ponds, pavilion, green trees in the middle of nature, where children and caretakers (minders) stayed for the seven years in East Germany. The castle was built in 1912 in neo-baroque style by Henry Brarens Sloman and bought back in 1997 by the Sloman family, and after renovated was converted into a Hotel now. 

    “It was an idyllic life,” said another former GDR kid, Ndatyapelao Nangula Costa, like Conrad, was just three years old when they arrived at the castle, which served as a safe haven, a bubble from all the upheavals that took place around them. There, they were taken care by German minders (stewardess) who cooked and cleaned for them and took care of their physical and social well-being. They had ample space inside the castle and the surrounding big park which is closer to the lake with lush forests to play and grow up as normal children could. One of the former teachers asserted that “A good number of these children were really very sick,” remembered the former principal at the School of Friendship at Stassfurt, Heinz Berg. “They have suffered a lot from war traumas and they had to be healed in the first place, which was first done at Bellin.” Many children who sent to East Germany were orphans of war. In 1990 all were repatriated to Namibia upon the country's political freedom was declared. 

    Some of the educators in Bellin said it was a tough task to heal the children. It was also initially thought that the children would later be sent back to Angola once normalized and fully matured enough to participate in liberation struggle cause, but the Swapo representatives had asked that they remain there. It was at this point when the idea was developed to establish a joint programme for the education of the children. At Bellin, the children were given pre-primary education in German and they were taught there up to Grade 2. Accessing contacts with their parents were completely barred and only communicate with SWAPO representatives who intermittently stayed at the castle where they were trained as teachers. 

    Children undergo regular indoctrination to know and love their liberation icons, thus this usually done through the experience like singing songs, poems and music. On rare occasions, the children allowed to expose to the Namibian cultures like eating indigenous foods. For the most part, the children were brought up speaking German in a German environment and sometimes introduced to Oshivambo dialects as vernacular, minding that some GDR kids were not only Ovamboes, but they selected a home language that perceived to unit them all. Through the experiences and social mosaic attachments which they went through, however, did helped them to develop their own unique mixture of German and Oshiwambo, later to be called Oshi-Deutsch, which was a secret language used among the children when they tried to escape the ears of the adult world.  

    When kids passed Grade 2 in Belin, they transferred to the nearby primary school at Zehna (Manor House) in Güstrow Disctric about 3 kilometres from Bellin Castle, where they will complete their Grade 3 and 4. Later they attended school at Loderburg for their fifth and sixth grades. Secondary School is done at Stassfurt where a unique curriculum developed: The East German Academy of Educational Sciences in collaboration with Swapo education centre at Nyango which located in Kaoma district some 400 kilometres west of Lusaka Zambia; to provide formative protocols for the children’s education. There was always a debate and fiercely rivalries about the curriculum to be taken by SWAPO's children in exile. Some SWAPO cadres in the liberation movement were advocating for children to be taught political socialisation (Marxism-Leninism) and that the all children had to receive a compulsory military training, something that former teachers roundly denied. “In West Germany, there were reports published that the teachers were radical socialists, after boycotting the decision. This was not true. We lived in a communist system but everyday life was not just political education. We did other things; it was not all about singing political songs. It was a different political system that reflected a socialist country but the accusations that we were Stalinists were wrong and hurt us,” said Bernd Kaden, the former mathematics and physics teacher at Stassfurt.

    Dr Jürgen Krause, a former member of the Academy said the education programme for the Namibian children was a unique project that attempted to merge two cultures into one to form something new without compromising where the children came from. SWAPO stipulated that the curriculum had to include and integrate the national character of both Namibia and African culture. According to Krause, this posed a difficulty because the core curriculum for GDR schools could not be amended or altered because its goal was to educate a future German socialist youth, that fully aware the political environment around. However, a compromise for the Namibian children to be not radicalized was reached. Then the Namibian children would be taught mathematics, physics and chemistry as was taught in all other GDR schools. Minor changes were made to German language classes, geology, and art. Other subjects fundamentally changed were history, geography and musical education. A new subject, English, was taught to the Namibian children exclusively. 

    Another aspect taught was ideological education, which Krause said was based on the idea of forming a “socialist personality” with the possibility of a socialist regime in an independent Namibia. Swapo provided two Namibian history books to add to the children’s education. Krause said one of the big challenges was that the German educators had no knowledge of Africa.“It was not clear if they would be able to implement what we have worked out theoretically. Another obstacle was where the curriculum would reach the children,” said Krause.“Bear in mind that the legal basis of the project was the contract between the socialist unity party state and Swapo. We as educators simply implemented what has been decided or commissioned. We were not the body or agency that had a say in what was to be implemented,” said Berg.  

    Another teacher, Herbert Rudnitzki, felt that it would have been better had German teachers gone to the refugee camps to train learners and teachers alike rather have brought them to another, foreign context. Overall, however, both the designers of the curriculum and teachers felt that the educational project was a success in so far as it was allowed to run. The teachers remember the Namibian children as very lively, inquisitive, eager to learn and very ambitious. The German teachers felt that the experience with the Namibian children had a deeply enriching effect on their own lives. 

    Berlin Wall

    After the Berlin wall came down, the GDR educational program for the communist nations has abruptly ended. At home, Namibia was gaining its independence from apartheid, South Africa. The GDR government decided to stop all and any support for the programme. All East German teachers involved in the education of Namibian plus 900 Mozambican students were excreted into the streets. The testimony in this article is still remaining and materials are kept in the archives of the Ministry of Veterans Affairs in Namibia and Germany Geothe institut. The sudden termination of the education programme left everyone bewildered and unsettled. For the East German teachers, it meant an uncertain period of unemployment. For the Namibian children, it meant that they were not able to complete their secondary education. And they were sent home to Namibia, the unknown world.  Kader remembers that they were given three weeks’ notice of the termination and return of the Namibian children to their motherland. The children were allowed to pack two suitcases and under cover of darkness, accompanied by some of their teachers, they were driven in buses to the airport at Frankfurt from where they flew back to Namibia. Their transition back to Namibia, a country they barely knew or considered in their young lives, was equally troubling and chaotic. 

    Many to this day feel that they were abandoned by the GDR that unceremoniously pulled the plug and upon their arrival in Namibia, they felt “let down” or ignored by SWAPO that in the final analysis had the responsibility for their well-being. It might very well have had a lasting impact on their integration back into Namibian society.“This is what has disappointed me,” said Conrad. “They [Swapo] wanted us back but did not do anything to make us feel at home. The Namibian government called us back but there was no-one to receive us. On the other hand, though, we were not the only ones who came back to Namibia at that time. There were also children from Cuba, Czechoslovakia and other countries who returned.

    Emvula, who was closely involved with the programme of the former GDR kids, acknowledged that the sudden and “premature” return was not handled very well.“It was not the best that we had wished for. Arrangements were not in place. For example, parents or relatives were not consulted. Some were informed, others not. It was not a good situation. There was no infrastructure. It was not orderly. There was no time to make proper plans,” said Emvula. Emvula said SWAPO was “not ready to receive” the children “in a good way”. The children were first taken to a reception area set up at St Andrews, the Roman Catholic Church in Khomasdal, where parents, relatives or other guardians came to claim them. Many were not immediately claimed. Conrad was one of the children that were collected by her mother almost two months after her return from Germany. There were also rumours that other children were wrongfully claimed by unscrupulous people who went to pick up the children because of N$50 and blankets were given to these children. Conrad and others were later sent to a German school in Swakopmund (like my own brother Unyepa Simon Williams) where the completed their secondary schooling.

    There, they felt more taken care of even by the independent organization such as OVCs Centre Swakopmund, a kind of Namibian-German community while SWAPO has completely abandoned them. The West German government had also jumped in by pumping millions to pay for the continued schooling and some counselling of the children. Not feeling quite at home in Namibia and not sure of a future here, Conrad after school, decided to return to Germany where she entered an apprenticeship programme to become a nurse. While most of the former GDR kids remained in Namibia, many returned to Germany where they felt more at home. Conrad, like others, remains in two worlds.“I like Namibia as much as I like Germany. I try to take the best of both. I, however, cannot say that I am a German. People ask me if I feel I am a Namibian. If I had liked Namibia that much I would not have come back [to Germany]. I can, however, imagine going back to Namibia for good but I do not plan for it.” 

    This experience has left an indelible mark on their lives. More than 27 years after their return to Namibia, a country they have barely known, many of the former GDR kids, as they are still called today, struggle with conflicting identifies and questions of where they belong; in Namibia where they are still considered as “different” or in Germany, where they are different. “I did not like to idea to go to Namibia,” said Nali Conrad, one of the first cohort of refugee children to have been taken to East Germany in late 1979 and returned in 1989. “I knew I came from Angola but knew about Namibia from Namibian teachers who told us about it. I had no idea where we were going to live.” 

    The education program suffered a similar fate: In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell, and Namibian independence beckoned, the School of Friendship was disbanded, and the children were returned to Africa, leaving Engombe one year shy of high school graduation. “In my mind, I loved my country,” recalls Engombe, but it didn’t make her homecoming any easier. She remembers being shocked by Namibia’s dry climate (“We were used to good stuff”), the boring food (“Namibians eat pap three times a day”) and how much tougher life was (“Some of my friends had to carry water from a well just to have a bath”). But the gravest hardships were emotional. 

    There were no support systems for the children, and even their own families laughed at their odd language and customs. “An old man once called me a whore,” says Engombe, “just because I was wearing shorts.”  Many of the ex-GDR kids are now making a positive contribution to Namibian society. Especially the people reflected in this article like Lucia Egombe who completed her schooling in 1994 four years after repatriated from exile. She also studied Journalism at the University of Technology (formerly Polytechnic of Namibia) in Windhoek. She is a Senior Producer for the German Radio Service at the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Windhoek, where she now lives and works.

    Others have gone on to become lawyers, military officers, policeman, Teachers, politicians, airline pilots, business entrepreneurs and so forth. 

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