A Sombre School Story What happens when the return is worse than the departure?

The Independence Memorial Museum was closing as we arrived. No matter, the sight alone was more than enough. Actually, even just driving there was impressive: it is bang in the middle of Windhoek’s former colonial heart and you arrive via Robert Mugabe Avenue. The museum is flanked on one side by Christuskirche (Christ Church) on Fidel Castro Street and the Alte Feste (Old Fortress) on the other, the former headquarters of the imperial German colonial military force.

The church is enchanting, with a pretty portico made from imported Italian marble and white trimmings that look like icing: a gingerbread house for Jesus. The fortress is not at all endearing, as expected of any creepy colonial citadel. Neither is the museum; this is not surprising—it was designed and built by a North Korean firm. Shiny but socialist, austere but over the top. The usual promise and pomp of post-colonial what-what. The building is as odd and impressive as the relationship between Stalinist North Korea and independent Namibia. Locals call it the Coffee Machine on account of the museum’s uncanny likeness to a coffee-maker.

I visited the museum in the blistering January heat; coffee was the last thing on my mind. But beer certainly was and even though the museum itself was not an option the restaurant at the top of the building offered panoramic sights and the promise of cold draughts. Still in the heavenly embrace of the air-conditioned car, I was about to challenge my friend to a race across the parking lot when a man appeared at the car window, extending an array of curios towards us.

My hackles rose, ready to take charge of the situation quickly because I was expecting to be accosted (as is customary in my hometown of Johannesburg) or that my (Swiss) friend would be swindled in the process (which was just as likely).

Imagine my surprise, then, when these two started jabbering in German like old friends. While they chatted I took photographs, feeling simultaneously curious about their friendship and chastised for making assumptions about the man’s agenda.

On the way up to the restaurant via a slick but smudged glass elevator, with great views but no ventilation, my friend said the man was a “GDR kid”: Namibian children that were sent to the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as part of the programme of cooperation which existed between the South West Africa People’s Organisation liberation movement and the GDR between 1979 and 1990, are called GDR kids.

I wanted to know how and why Namibian children came to be such a strange Cold War export to East Germany but I was thirsty. Also, questions about recent history cannot be seriously pursued without a deep dive into colonial history; I have realised explorations into colonisation are investigations into whiteness and I am seldom lus for that.


A few months later I thought of that German-speaking Namibian man while reading Paying the Land by cartoonist Joe Sacco, who graphically documents the history of resource extraction and indigenous displacement of the Dene people in the subarctic Canadian Northwest Territories. I was horrified to learn about the residential school system, operated through arrangements between the Government of Canada and the church. Its sole objective was to “remove the Indian from the child.” While the entangled development history of Canadian chiefs and priests is some distance from Namibian political history, with very different scales, I was curious about the parallel in the stories of these children.

In Canada, some 150 000 indigenous children were forcibly removed and separated from their families and communities to attend residential schools. In Namibia, 430 Namibian children from refugee camps in Angola and Zambia were “taken in” by the GDR as part of a project to educate and raise them. I am, of course, aware that accounts of the two systems are different. The residential schools were established to eradicate indigenous culture under the guise of education but the children suffered atrocious traumas at these institutions as a result. The GDR children left refugee camps for an opulent castle and progresisve education at  the School of Friendship, a pioneering institution developed to educate pupils from Mozambique, another socialist ally of the GDR. Today, many of those GDR children say they would have preferred to remain in Namibia. In both cases, children suffered ineffably upon their return to homes which no longer made sense. Both stories are stressful in different ways, connected by a parallel paradox of twisted ideas of historical progress and pain. I have a newfound appreciation for Edouard Glissant’s writing on exile and the ways in which it can be endured “even when it comes as a bolt from the blue” as was the case for these children.

But what happens when one is exiled to a foreign world within state borders, or when the return is worse than the departure?

The memory I have of the man outside the museum is a pleasant one. Just like the surprise of his strange tongue I would never have guessed this sombre school story to be part of his tale.

I revisited the photographs I took that day: he is grinning next to my colleague in one; in another, his back is to the camera so all you see is a poor-boy hat, his vivid shirt, and a Scarface montage with the words “POWER”, “MONEY” and “RESPECT” emblazoned above Tony Montana’s every expression.


I have been thinking about these two complicated education histories lately. More than a year into the dullness of the forever-surreal Covid-19 pandemic, I realised I have heard many glowing anecdotes about the experience of distance-learning. Other than the general mood of misery from my grumbling teenaged cousins who miss their friends, hate long periods of (compulsory) screen time, and feel frustrated by constantly having to adjust to online then in-class then hybrid then online learning, I do not have a full sense of this particular school story.

My own experience of forced online learning has no precedent: I settled into my PhD degree around the same time the world was stuck inside; my research is entangled with the solemnity of now. The semester is about to start and I will be teaching for the first time, still stuck in my room. I did not imagine my life as a lecturer would commence like this. Online lectures mean I will not dress up like my favourite professors or pace back and forth in front of the students, gesticulating wildly with my hands. But it does mean I have to think more about distance learning in my own class and in the world at large.

After a cursory internet search, I have a better sense of research into the changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic in the global education sphere. I am still trying to possess how I feel about those changes. One study looked at how the pandemic exacerbates the academic-achievement gap low-income, Black, and Hispanic students in the US struggle with. In Germany, the current situation is predicted to have a positive effect on digital innovations in university teaching due to the pressure of the crisis, the great commitment of many teachers, and raised expectations. But in South Africa, it is a sad and uncomfortable truth: the vast educational losses for learners during this time will deepen historical inequalities.

Where I am writing from, in Switzerland, the gap between the stress of school in South Africa and the luxury of first world convenience is a wide chasm. The greatest educational nuisance I have encountered so far is this: the library’s closure. Even then, there is a door-to-door delivery service with digitisation options. There is much to be said about the pandemic as a portal, throwing into such stark relief the vast inequality in not only accessing education, but experiences of it too. I struggle with this sometimes, juggling gratitude and anger. I recognise, with pride, the privilege of having landed with my bum in the butter; but I am often furious that it is so easy here when it is so hard at home.

On those difficult days, I take comfort in the chirpy, quirky reports from my loved ones. Like my friend who rented a violin for her daughter to boost her morale despite having to work what seems like seventeen part-time jobs after having lost her main gig at the start of the pandemic. Or my mother hosting a Christmas party for her pupils so they would feel proud of their hard work in what was a weird year. The party made her feel good. She cried afterwards: most of the children in her class had never seen Christmas crackers before.

I shudder thinking about the shocks and aftershocks of the pandemic for most students. The many homes that no longer make sense. The expectation of progress in a time of such great pain.

As for my own sombre school story right now, a student preparing to teach, I am both sobered and spurred by the often awful awareness that we are living in a historic moment. It creeps up on me in the middle of mundane tasks like clearing my desktop, this sneaky shadow of history looming large. I cannot lie: it stresses me out. On the best of days, in these worst of times, that stress is kindling, a fire beneath my feet, urging me to keep working at hoping for better school stories.

Sindi-Leigh McBride is a researcher and writer from Johannesburg. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies, University of Basel.  Previously, she completed MA degrees in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and Political Communication at the University of Cape Town. She has worked in the private, non-profit and public sectors, and her essays, art writing and short stories have appeared in Africa’s A Country, Kalahari Review, New Frame, and other places.

Cover Image: Håkon Sataøen on Unsplash.