Exploring the Transformative Power of Narratives for Change in Namibia

Dr. Nelson Mlambo, a senior lecturer in literature at the University of Namibia, is exploring the transformative potential of narratives to negotiate the past and shape a future of peaceful co-existence.

While an Africa Oxford Initiative (AfOx) TORCH Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford, and a member of Wolfson College, Dr. Mlambo worked on a project examining the representations of the Herero-Nama massacre of 1904-08 in literature in English.

The massacre, which claimed the lives of at least 100,000 individuals in what was colonial German South West Africa, continues to elicit intense emotions in Namibia. Dr. Mlambo first discovered the magnitude of this tragic event while he was chair of the editorial board at the University of Namibia Press in 2015, where he encountered a series of books detailing the massacre. He noticed none of these books were written by Namibians and they often only provided a cursory treatment of the massacre, reducing it to mere statistics. In contrast, the novels dedicated more space to the subject, provided a background history and captured the massacre’s emotional force.

Dr. Mlambo’s research examines how fiction and memoir can be used to preserve memories and confront historical injustices. For example, “Mama Namibia”, a poignant novel by the American journalist Mari Serebrov, is set against the backdrop of the massacre. The narrative follows the harrowing journey of a 12-year-old girl named Jahohora as she endeavors to reunite with her family while evading German soldiers.


“Trapped in the forest for four years without any human contact, Jahohora must rely on her indigenous knowledge of nature to survive, thereby asserting her inherent sense of belonging,” Dr. Mlambo suggests. Though the massacre seem distant in time, it still resonates powerfully with Dr. Mlambo’s students. In one class discussion, a student drew parallels between her own hair and the massacre, highlighting how physical attributes were used to target women for rape.

Narratives provide an important space for memory and have the potential for negotiating restorative justice. “Even though more than 80% of the population were killed, some survived and preserved their stories,” Dr. Mlambo explains. Debates about how to memorialize the massacre, however, are still ongoing.

In a gesture of reconciliation, Germany returned 20 skulls from a museum in Charite for burial in Namibia in 2011, followed by the repatriation of another 14 skulls from the University of Freiburg in 2014. But it wasn’t until 2021 that the German government officially acknowledged the genocide and committed to funding 1.1 billion euros in Namibian projects over three decades— a proposal accepted by the Namibian government. The Herero and Nama communities, however, said they were excluded from the negotiations and did not back the deal.

Narrative can be used to make sense of history
Professor Boehmer said

Dr.Mlambo is working with his students to help them make sense of their world and historical context.” Narrative interventions, Dr. Mlambo explains, have the capacity to change perspective and reveal hidden histories, setting the ground for reconciliation.

During the fellowship, Dr. Mlambo delivered presentations on the representations of the massacre, attended book launches, and contributed articles to scholarly journals. “Staying in Oxford allowed me to temporarily set aside my routine responsibilities as a lecturer and pursue projects I had postponed for some time,” Dr. Mlambo reflects.  He noted that the distance afforded by his time abroad enabled him to approach the sensitive subject of the massacre from a fresh perspective, leading to discussions that may have been difficult to initiate back home.

Additionally, the fellowship broadened Dr. Mlambo’s network and created new opportunities for his students to explore the global academic landscape.

Upon his return to Namibia, Dr. Mlambo established a WhatsApp group called the Humanities and Arts Acceleration Hub, in which he shares opportunities from around the world with his students.

For Dr. Mlambo, storytelling serves as a pathway to justice. He is committed to promoting gender equality, climate justice, and social reconciliation in his country. These efforts, he says, are integral to addressing historical injustices. As a father of two boys and two girls, Dr. Mlambo is often asked to uphold equality at home, which in turn makes him sensitive to issues of justice in his research. “These issues must be confronted,” Dr. Mlambo insists.

Looking ahead, he aims to extend his research to minority communities such as the Damara, who have been affected by the 1904 massacre yet excluded from the mainstream narratives.


The AfOx Visiting Fellowship Program supports leading African scholars and researchers working in any academic discipline to focus on a project they choose while in Oxford. All Fellows have an Oxford-based researcher as a collaborator and these relationships have often developed into long-term partnerships leading to to significant research outcomes, joint publications and substantial further funding. 

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