Rehoboth is an isolated town deep in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia. A fascinating community of people bearing the name “Rehoboth Basters” have been living there for about 140 years. The name Baster (Afrikaans for German bastards) may seem a little pejorative, but the Baster community gave it to themselves because it reminds them of their heritage.

The Basters are the offspring of European settlers and their indigenous Khoisan slaves during the colonial period in the 18th century. During the colonization of South Africa, the Basters became a stigmatized group. The Europeans considered them superior to the black population, but they were still too black to be treated as true Europeans. As a result, the Basters moved northwards into the empty farmlands of central Namibia, where they still live today.

The Basters are a proud and strong ethnic group who respect their history and their elders. They are tradition-minded, and they stick together, especially when it comes to protecting their family and community. In part thanks to these qualities, they have managed to survive apartheid and two world wars.

One hundred and one years after the Rehoboth Basters rose up against the Germans that colonized them, the photo series “Basterland“ takes up the task of providing a multifaceted view of the contemporary life of this ethnic group still living in Namibia today. These images reveal tension-laden contradictions; in particular, the confrontation between global standardization and traditional regional structures that have been upheld over generations and defended against external, antagonistic forces.

“Basterland” is a portrait of a society that finds itself in an “in-between“ state amid tradition and change. It emerges out of the deliberately subjective impressions of the photographer: I am also affected by this “in-between,“ on the one hand because of my repeated visits to the region, and on the other because of my European heritage, through which I always represent something “other.”

This tension saturates the images throughout the series—some images were partially staged, others were created spontaneously. The very personal questions and emotions that are connected to the photographs are simultaneously expressions of contemporary, fundamental processes: the much-discussed replacement of imperialism by the economic colonization of Africa, but also the reinterpretation of seemingly stable concepts of “origin” or “home“—terms that have their own particular relevance in connection to the Basters’ unique history.

The meaning of this history, which has been fought for time and time again, is the central theme of this work: the past appears in the present, but this past was meant to constantly be protected from the present, which in turn appears to show little interest in the cultural legacy of the Basters. The merit of this photo series lies in reminding us of a forgotten episode of German colonial history.

—Julia Runge

If you enjoyed this article, you might like one of these previous features: Palm Wine Collectors, a series of striking portraits by Kyle Weeks about Namibians who tap palm trees, and The Prostitutes and the Priest, a short film about the German priest who is a tireless advocate for the rights of female sex workers.