New book maps fascinating history of Namibian children raised in communist Czechoslovakia

Photo: LIT Verlag Münster

A new book by Czech anthropologist Kateřina Mildnerová called ‘Namibian Czechs’ maps a fascinating and little known chapter in Czechoslovakia’s history. In 1985, the communist authorities enabled 56 children of Namibian war refugees to live and study in this country. Following the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the children were forced to return home. But thirty years later, most of them still regard themselves as Czechs.

How exactly did the Namibian children end up living in Communist Czechoslovakia? What was their life like in a small, north-Moravian village? And what are their ties to the Czech Republic today? These are just some of the questions I discussed with Mrs Mildnerová, and I started by asking about the circumstance of their arrival in 1985:

“This was in fact an expression of international solidarity with the Southwest African People’s Organisation, or SWAPO, which was at that time a liberation movement fighting for the independence of Namibia from apartheid South Africa.

“The SWAPO guerrilla carried out military operations from the territory of neighbouring Angola and Zambia. It was in these countries where the SWAPO military and civilian camps were located. And it was in these camps that the Namibian Czechs were selected and sent to Czechoslovakia.”

Czechoslovakia was not the only country of the former eastern Bloc where these Namibian children were sent, was it?

“That’s right. Many more children were sent to Eastern Germany, and a lot of children also ended up in Cuba.”

Who were these children and how were they selected?

“They approached me with enormous trust and they were willing to share with me joyful but also traumatic memories from their childhood.”

“Unfortunately this question cannot be easily answered because we lack sufficient historical documentation about the children from the SWAPO liberation camps in Angola.

“The same applies to school documentation from Czechoslovakia. It doesn’t tell us much either about the origin of the children because their personal data were repeatedly modified by the Namibian authorities. So the identity of the children remains a mystery, to a certain degree.

“There are different versions as to how they were selected. According to the official version of SWAPO, these children were mainly orphans, who suffered in the war and needed care and protection.

“However, there were dozens of children in SWAPO camps in the 1980s who met these criteria. So my question was: why exactly were these 56 children chosen to go to Czechoslovakia?

“They all came from different camps which were hundreds of kilometres apart from each other. They remember they were kidnapped by soldiers and their departure was very chaotic and hasty.

Kateřina Mildnerová,  photo: archive of Palacký University in Olomouc

“To cut a long story short, my research disclosed that these children were not randomly chosen orphans. Many of them were offspring of prominent Namibian independence fighters, who were part of the people’s liberation army of Namibia, which was in fact the military wing of SWAPO.”

They ended up in a children’s home in Bartošovice. Who was in charge of their education and upbringing? Were they brought up in isolation from their Czech peers?

„After their arrival to Czechoslovakia, the children and also seven Namibian tutors who accompanied them were accommodated in an old but beautiful castle in Bartošovice, a small village in the north-east of the country. Upon their arrival they intensively studied Czech to be able to communicate with their Czech caregivers and teachers.

“The education of the Namibian children was supposed to be dual; in other words, half-Czech and half-Namibian. The Namibian tutors educated them towards militarism, patriotism and the ideology of the liberation movement. The objective was to instil ‘Namibianess’ into their minds.

“The education provided by the Namibian side was not well-received by the children, because some of the Namibian educators bullied them and even sexually abused them.

“On the other they were also educated according to the Czechoslovak curriculum. So they quickly and naturally became socialised an educated and they adopted Czech as their mother tongue.”

“I would say this historical lesson shows that any ill-conceived political manipulation with children is very dangerous.”

“What is interesting to see is that the Czech and Namibian education in this social engineering programme was strictly separated in time and place, which was difficult to grasp for the children. They were for instance punished for speaking Czech in the evening, when it was time for the Namibian education.  So I think this also had a traumatic impact on their lives.”

What about their relationship to their Czech educators and caregivers? Would you say they developed a strong bond to them?

“That’s true. They have a very good relationship to their Czech caregivers, to this day. They say they were the first ones to show them love and tenderness and helped them to overcome fear and anxiety from the war.

“They also approached them as their own children and tried to create a loving home for them. They invited them to their homes and took them on holidays – there was a big commitment on their side.”

How did the local people react to the presence of several dozen African children in their village?

“At the beginning they were rather reserved. They did not have much information about where these children came from and they were afraid of infectious diseases.

“But over time they fell in love with these children and invited them to their homes. There were even some foster families among the local people. So I would say the relationships were very nice.”

The new political situation in both countries following the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia and the declaration of independence in Namibia yet again radically changed their lives. What exactly happened after 1989?

Photo: LIT Verlag Münster

“The political change in Czechoslovakia and also the transition to independence in Namibia resulted in intensive diplomatic negotiations with the Namibian government to end the presence of the African children in Czechoslovakia.

“The SWAPO, as I found out from archival documents, put enormous pressure on the Czechoslovak state authorities to relocate the children to Namibia, even without leaving them to finish their education.

“So after long diplomatic negotiations the children were finally relocated to Namibia without having completed their primary education.”

As you said, by then, most of the children regarded Czechoslovakia as their homeland. What was it like for them, returning to Namibia? I imagine it must have been a huge cultural shock for them.

“The problem was that they came back without having completed their elementary education, without any psychological or language preparation, so this had a huge traumatic impact on them.

“In fact they returned to a country where they had never lived before, among people whose language they didn’t speak, so they were completely lost. And of course they also felt a strong nostalgia for their lost home in Czechoslovakia.

“The problem was also that many of them ended up in an underdeveloped Namibian countryside. The life in the villages at that time was very tough. There was no electricity, no sanitary equipment and no access to clean drinking water.

“But the biggest problem was the language barrier. They didn’t speak the local language, Oshiwambo, which prevented them communicating with others and continuing their studies.

“So the difficult adaptation was accompanied by feelings of loneliness, uprooting and alienation. The return to Namibia was very difficult for them.”

For your book, which maps the fate of the Namibian Czechs you have conducted dozens of interviews. How many of the former children did you speak to? Was it hard to trace them? And how long did it take you to collect the material for your book?

“My book is based on long-term research which I carried out between 2017 and 2019 both in the Czech Republic and Namibia. I visited Namibia three times for the research.

“For the research itself, I combined a historiographic and ethnographic approach, and that involves not only interviews but also analysis of archival material, letters, photos and media outputs.

“I made around 70 interviews with different respondents, from which 33 were the Namibian Czechs. It was not difficult to trace them because they were in touch at that time.

“Besides them I also interviewed different contemporary witnesses, including Namibian and Czech tutors, school principals, but also biological and foster families of the Namibian Czechs, so there were a lot of interviews and loads of archival documentation that I went through.”

Were the Namibian Czechs happy that you were interested in their stories? Were they immediately willing to speak to you?

“I was very warmly welcomed into the community of Namibian Czechs. This was maybe due to the fact that I was Czech and I represented their beloved country. Also, I was the same age as them and I grew up not far from Bartošovice. So they approached me with enormous trust and they were willing to share with me their joyful but also traumatic memories from their childhood.

“And I must say it was not easy for me, because I am an anthropologist, not a psychologist and during the interviews we discussed many intimate and sensitive issues. So for me, it was really difficult at times to conduct the interviews, especially with those affected by sexual abuse and bullying, as well as by war trauma.”

I understand some of these children eventually did return to the Czech Republic.  What was their return like?

“Around one third of them got the opportunity to study at universities in the Czech Republic but their initial enthusiasm about their dream return soon turned into disillusionment due to their encounter with racial intolerance and xenophobia of Czechs who refused to accept them back as Czechs.

“More than half of them managed to successfully graduate from Czech universities and they got good jobs in Namibia. But many of them have not found a job in Namibia due to their incomplete education and they are still living in poverty.”

As an anthropologist, what would you say this incredible story says about the power of social identity and upbringing?

“I would say this historical lesson reveals two important things. First, that the social and cultural environment where children grow up plays a fundamental and constitutive role in their future development and self-conception.

“And second, it shows that any ill-conceived political manipulation with children is very dangerous. In this case it had a devastating effect on the children’s psyche, but the multiple relocation also caused them a life-long lack of existential anchoring.

“The Namibian Czechs still feel bitter about becoming victims of a political plan that made them lose their promising adolescence, their homeland, their friends, their families and above all, their identity and belonging.

“They told me my book helped them to discover and understand the truth about their life and the truth about the mission to Czechoslovakia, which was kept secret from them for more than 30 years.

“When the book was published this January, its release provoked many controversies and also conflicting feelings within the community of the Namibian Czechs.

“But I would say that the majority of them are very grateful for the book because it contributed to the recognition of their own exile history as a legitimate part of the nation’s history.”