Namibia’s battle with passion killings

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In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo looks at why passion kills in Namibia and how to save the lives of the country’s lovers.

“Passion killings” have become a tragic trend in the southern African nation of Namibia over the last three years.

The Namibian police described passion killings as murder cases between intimate partners such as husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, and exes.

Dozens of women, and in some cases men, have been killed at the hands of their lovers across the country – in 2015 there were 48 murders of this type, and 36 the previous year.

The suspects range in age from 19 to 64, the victims from 18 to 65 but the majority of cases involve very young adults.

These numbers may seem small, but they should be taken in the context of Namibia’s very small population of just under 2.5 million in a vast country.

A cursory glance at Namibia’s soul-searching politicians and commentators will tell of gruesome killings and the recurring presence of firearms, knives, sticks stones and even a shoelace as weapons of choice.

The murders occur in sudden bursts of rage across the country: A husband stabs his nine-month pregnant wife, a couple who had co-habited for 19 years are discovered with gunshot wounds to the head, a 19-year-old student walking home with her elder sister is confronted by the boyfriend she dumped and both sisters are killed with a stone, some women are decapitated.

Sam Nujoma, former Namibian president:

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“From today onwards, anyone found guilty of committing such evil deeds will have to be buried alive”

One Namibian clinical psychologist attributed the spate of killings to a general breakdown of the family unit, to the lack of parental guidance for self-obsessed young adults who can no longer tell right from wrong as well as “low self-esteem among men, material dependence, poor coping mechanisms and failure to handle rejection”.

The question “why?” has been posed by the Namibians themselves.

Former president and independence leader Sam Nujoma was moved to declare: “We have fought those who colonised our country, and we will continue to fight those who are killing our girls.

“From today onwards, anyone found guilty of committing such evil deeds will have to be buried alive.”

‘Dating contracts’

But the veiled threat of “a life for a life” is not credible since Namibia removed the death penalty at independence in 1990, and those calling for its reinstatement in the constitution are frustrated because the passion killings have one sting in the tail: The killers often take the time to leave a suicide note, and then end their lives by swinging on ropes, drinking poison or blowing their brains out.

Nuusita Ashipala, a reporter for the New Era newspaper in the northern region of Omusati, which has seen the highest numbers of passion murders, reported last week that a local politician had told an elders’ meeting that it was time to try the radical proposal of issuing the young with “dating contracts”, so that parents would know who their children were involved with.

Okalongo Councillor Laurentius Iipinge believes they could also be renewed on a yearly basis to free those who no longer wished to be in certain toxic relationships.

“It is better to have agreements known to the families, rather than hearing that your daughter was killed because she misused her boyfriend’s resources or vice versa,” he added.

The councillor was clearly identifying money as the root cause of break-ups and acrimony amongst his region’s couples, where eight young women have already lost their lives this year.

Mr Iipinge suggested that such contracts would enable those who feel robbed or simply want to claim back what they have spent on partners, to do so through their families, rather than resorting to anger, rage and murder.

Namibia at a glance:

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  • Discovery of diamonds in 1908 prompted influx of Europeans to the German-occupied area
  • South Africa seized it during the First World War
  • In 1990 Namibia achieved independence after a war of almost 25 years
  • One of the world’s most unequal countries
  • Mining and fish processing are its main revenue earners, though most of the rural population support themselves through subsistence agriculture and herding
  • Popular tourist destination because of its beautiful landscapes, abundant wildlife and national parks

Namibia country profile

Some may see this as a classic African example of tradition meeting modernity – the elders with their family-based mediation trying to rein in a Facebook generation lost in its own navels.

I spoke to the New Era reporter, who has seen crime scenes in the aftermath of these murders.

She recounted yet another murder where a man came home and distributed sweets to his young children then stabbed his wife 20 times, before slitting his own throat with a knife.

I asked her what she thought of the councillor’s proposal.

“I don’t think it will work. It makes money the root cause of the rage but even if it was, as an independent working woman I feel we all spend on each other during relationships.”

Farai Sevenzo:

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Farai Sevenzo

“Despite its diamond and uranium wealth, its booming tourism and excellent infrastructure, Namibia’s poorest citizens are still grappling with a traumatic and violent apartheid past, which denied them a decent education”

Of course this proposal, as an idea, seems unworkable.

Which young man or woman wishes to spill the details of his or her liaison to their elders?

The causes for such a spike in murder rates are as usual much more mosaic: Despite its diamond and uranium wealth, its booming tourism and excellent infrastructure, Namibia’s poorest citizens are still grappling with a traumatic and violent apartheid past, which denied them a decent education.

Psychological scars

The councillor’s own ward, bordering Angola to the north, suffered traumatic abuse when it was a South African Defence Force Army base under white-minority rule.

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Education is key to stopping violence

A violent past creating violent families may have caused psychological scars that run deeper than the nation may wish to admit.

Then there’s the availability of lethal weapons with poor gun controls, drugs and alcohol mixed with overwhelming social inequality to create a potent mix for the young and lost.

A fight-back of sorts has already begun by trying to educate Namibia’s younger generations – although it is couched in the staid impenetrable language of the donor agencies who speak of “gender-based violence”.

As Namibia turns 26 this March, the government and the police need to up their game and protect their citizens from these murders by fighting the idea that passion can best be expressed by taking a life, even one’s own.

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