Why you should care
Because home is where the heart is.
Little Lucia Engombe didn’t notice the cold when she arrived in the German Democratic Republic 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.
Little did she know that the 80 other children and their Namibian minders would be her entire world for the next 11 years.
To understand how the children became Cold War pawns, one has to go back a little. In 1914, when World War I broke out, the British colony of South Africa invaded the German colony of South West Africa (now Namibia). “With a much larger force than the Germans,” writes Marion Wallace in A History of Namibia: From the Beginning to 1990, and better transport and equipment, South African troops overwhelmed their opponents, taking Windhoek in May 1915.
In the aftermath of the war, South Africa was given a League of Nations mandate to take South West Africa under its wing. By 1946, Wallace writes, South Africa had “repudiated its ‘sacred trust’ … and began to incorporate the territory ever more closely into its own structures of government.” In the early ’60s, as Britain was granting independence to neighboring Botswana and Zambia, SWA was subjected to the ever-tightening fist of apartheid. Anti–South African sentiment flourished in Namibia (as locals already called it), and in 1966 the South West Africa People’s Organization’s military wing launched the first attacks on South African forces.
Engombe’s family fled the country in 1974 when police pressure on her schoolteacher father, Immanuel, became unbearable (he was known for “driving SWAPO people around in his yellow Ford,” says Lucia). After a stint in Angola, the Engombes eventually arrived in 1976 at the Nyango refugee camp in western Zambia. Immanuel was soon detained there by SWAPO for exposing embezzlement in the organization; Engombe’s mother also spent a lot of time away.
Effectively orphaned, the Engombe children battled daily hunger and physical abuse. When a white doctor at the infirmary asked Engombe if she would like to fly to Germany, she jumped at the idea: “I didn’t know what it meant,” she says. “It was just an exciting adventure.” Little did she know that the 80 other children and the Namibian minders who accompanied the group would be her entire world for the next 11 years. Or that their home for the first six years would be, of all places, an opulent German schloss (castle) near the village of Bellin. There, Engombe would encounter her first toilet (a German governess had to demo its use), her first apple and her first real bed.
At Bellin, Engombe forgot what it was to be hungry, and she and the other children developed a language they called Oshi-Deutsch — a combination of Oshiwambo (or Ovambo, a dialect spoken in Angola and northern Namibia) and German, which was made possible because the children picked up German much more quickly than their Namibian minders, and the German governesses spoke no Oshiwambo. “Later on we used it to plan secret discos,” she says with a laugh.
In those early years, the children’s movements were heavily restricted, but as they grew older their minders decided that the isolated existence was “kind of inhuman,” as Engombe puts it. In 1985, the older children were moved to Staßfurt to attend the School of Friendship, a pioneering institution developed in 1982 to educate pupils from Mozambique, another socialist ally of the GDR.
In Staßfurt, the children were encouraged to become part of the community, and some — Engombe included — had German boyfriends and girlfriends. “In the end I had to break up with him to maintain my friendships with the Namibian boys in my group,” she remembers wistfully. “I had no choice.” 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 green 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 language and customs. “An old man once called me a whore,” says Engombe, “just because I was wearing shorts.”
Engombe says she flirted with suicide but credits her relationships with other GDR kids (“They are my family”) and finding God for getting her through the tough passages. While a few of her contemporaries have fallen on hard times, many of the ex-GDR kids are now making a positive contribution to Namibian society. Engombe manages the country’s German-language radio station, while others have gone on to become lawyers, airline pilots and entrepreneurs.
In spite of their eventual success, Engombe would not wish her experiences on anyone. As she says, “It was not a sugar life.”