Layers of petticoats, puffy sleeves and a headpiece made to look like cow horns: this is the Victorian-style dress that has been in vogue for more than 100 years among Namibia’s Herero people. Called ohorokova, these voluminous dresses are steeped in both trauma and triumph for the Herero, who, after a genocide that killed more than 80,000 of their people, adapted the dress and made it their own.

In 1884, Namibia became a German colony and the Herero were forced into labour. After Namibia’s indigenous cattle trade was seized by the Germans and local governments were disbanded, the Herero waged a rebellion in 1904. The Germans quickly regained control, and, in retaliation, the German military commander Lothar von Trotha issued an extermination order of the Herero people. Between 1904 and 1908, German forces murdered nearly 80% of the Herero population.

For us, this is something that we took, and we made it ours

While one might mistake the Herero’s Victorian-style dresses as an endorsement of the clothing worn by the wives of German missionaries during their colonisation, by adding vibrant colour and a cow-horn-like headpiece to the dress, Herero women have turned this traditional garb into a symbol of resilience.

Ohorokova, which are handmade, are seen as a rite of passage into womanhood for the Herero. Each stitch weaves Herero past and present, making sure that even after more than 100 years, the pain and strength of their ancestors is never forgotten.

(Video by Kate Schoenbach, text by Emily Cavanagh)

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