Driving down south from Keetmanshoop toward Grünau on southern Namibia’s B1 trunk road, it’s common to spot small mammals hustling across the highway from one stony outcropping to another as the road weaves through the Karasberge (Karas Mountains). These are rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis)—known in Southern Africa as dassies—and despite being completely herbivorous, they were classified as vermin in Namibia under apartheid.
In 1920, Britain changed its pension laws to allow women to receive compensation for any injuries sustained during the First World War. However, because time had passed since their active service, many found themselves having to prove that their symptoms were directly related to their war experience (and not a result of prewar hereditary conditions or postwar events). They had to find a doctor, a superior from their service, or, at the very least, a family member who could attest that the cause of their suffering was from their service.
“Ongediertes is soos onkruid in jou tuin. Elke jaar moet jy weer van nuuts af begin skoonmaak.”[Vermin are like weeds in your garden. Each year you must start cleaning from scratch.] —Malcolm Allison, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1961
If the 1920s in southern Namibia featured violent colonial interventions to facilitate the transfer of black pastoralists’ land and labor to white ranchers, the 1930s–60s were a time of consolidation of white capitalist agriculture—to make it stable, profitable, and “modern.” In Namibia, and southern Africa broadly, “modern” agriculture was often conceived of as technologically innovative, leading to increased outputs.
One of the most challenging aspects of studying the case notes of women treated for war trauma is that I encounter them at some of the worst moments of their lives. There are often few ways to find more information about them, or to learn what their lives were like after they were released. In many cases, the only story that I can craft about the women I study is about their incarceration in asylums and hospitals, or about their struggle for pensions and medical recognition through their postwar pension files.
“Patient has an anxious frightened and distressed expression . . . is unhappy and emotional . . . .” During the First World War, such descriptions were often used in case notes to describe patients with shell-shock. This particular description comes from the case notes of a woman named Margaret Müller, a Belgian refugee who was admitted to Colney Hatch Asylum in 1915. I found Müller’s case notes during my dissertation research, thanks to the help of the dedicated archivists at the London Metropolitan Archives.
“Dogs were our defenders! For black men who didn’t have guns . . .”
A. Christiaan (interview, January 18, 2016)
In May 1922, the Bondelswarts (a Nama nation in southern Namibia) took up arms against the South African colonial administration. The short-lived and poorly organized uprising was put down with ground troops, machine guns, and airplane bombing of the reserve. Prior to the uprising, the Nama constantly complained over a tax on dog ownership that was introduced into the rural areas in 1917.
Over the course of my research into sheep farming in Namibia during the colonial and apartheid periods (emphasis on 1915–82), I’ve grown to realize that I’m writing less and less about sheep and more about all sorts of other animals, from jackals to hares and rock hyrax. Sheep farming involved a lot of killing, not just of ewes for mutton or newborn karakul lambs for pelts, but also of mammals that interfered with production. Throughout the 20th century, these other animals—carnivores and herbivores alike—were classified as “vermin,” or ongedierte in Afrikaans, which translates literally to a “non-animal” or a “de-animaled” entity.
The image of the “shell-shocked soldier” remains one of the most enduring of the First World War. His symptoms have become fundamental to understanding the war and the damage it inflicted on the human mind and spirit. Soldiers, however, were not the only war participants to suffer psychological trauma. Women—both on the battle front and the home front—exhibited symptoms of trauma directly related to their war experience, as evidenced by case notes, hospital records, pension files, and correspondence. It is their experiences that I wish to highlight in my AHA Today summer contest blog posts.