“Lying deep in the Namibian desert is a place time forgot.” – Great Big Story
It is 1956, across a vast expanse of the desert, only a ghostly few figurines can be seen, hauling carts and driving their dilapidated carriers. These are the last of the remaining families leaving Kolmanskop (Kolmanskuppe or Colemans Hill), Namibia, a town consumed by desert, diamonds and dust. As they soldier through the unforgiving terrain, the summer sun leans its entire weight on their backs, but they cannot rest and cannot stop now, for they are all departing the city for good, leaving behind their homes, belongings and everything they ever worked to accumulate. The town is exhausted, they say, nothing more to give, for nothing remains to take anymore. Extensive mining near Kolmanskop had depleted all its natural resources and precious stones and, with that, the capacity to hold any substantial human population. Situated on the southwestern edge of the African continent, Namibia is mostly desert with only scarce green areas in the north. Kolmanskop sits just 10kms from the bustling harbour town of Luderitz, which seems to never run out of opportunities for the people who go there in search of employment. However, it is a whole different story 10kms away, where Kolmanskop, after almost 50 years of mining diamond, was abandoned to its fate and slowly consumed by the ever-shifting desert.
From Dust to Diamonds
In 1908, when the South-West African region was still under German occupation, a railroad inspector speculated something unusual about the colony that would later become Kolmanskop. Inspector August Stauch was brought a shining stone by one of the workers who encountered it in a shallow quarry nearby. The stone identified as a rough diamond was, at a glance, recognized by Stauch, and the enormous potential hidden under the Namibian desert became apparent. Thus began the journey of a diamond rush in Namib, southern Namibia, that would change the lives of everyone involved and seal the fate of Kolmanskop forever. Though, diamond mining had been going on for several decades in Africa at this point. By the end of the Second World War, the extensively mined region had its mineral reserves relentlessly pounded into extinction, and it was all gone by the late 1940s. Now abandoned to its fate, as the years went by, windows were crushed to dust by the brute storms while sand penetrated the houses.
At the pinnacle of its mining trade, the town was obscenely wealthy, a status it had occupied in only less than half a dozen years at the turn of the 20th Century. Stories often told about the riches of the town, almost always include how at night under the moonlit skies, workers would drop to their knees and search the sand for shiny little stones, and when cash inflow was tight during the turbulent years of war, locals were often getting paid in diamonds. Hardly the sign to speculate the bleak future that awaits.
A Town that Never Was
A popular destination for photographers and tourists alike, the former town of Kolmanskop is now a decaying ruin where the forces of nature prevail. As people withdrew, their belongings that they could not carry on the backs of animals or their carriages were left behind. And as a result of being situated in the middle of nowhere, literally, tourists now walk in knee-deep dunes if they wish to explore the houses left behind. Explorers of ghost towns, while wandering through the ruins of Kolmanskop, still regularly find chattels that once were elegant furniture, everyday objects, or even remnants of the lavish lifestyle of German ambassadors and officers alike. Great opportunities for photographers and artists alike lay bare in this desert, but also tragedy, for the locals whose parents, grandparents and families were displaced, only because the area was unable to serve any longer, the growing capitalist desires of their masters. With the exclusive license to mine diamonds in the region laying with a single entity, it is fair to say that the fate of Kolmanskop was inevitable and sealed with the envelope in which Inspector August Stauch received his prospecting license.
Countdown to Neglect
A desert in southern Africa is perhaps the last place anyone would expect to seek out a touching piece of German life. Since the Deutsche established the town under occupation and controlled territory of the home empire, the original structures are primarily in German-style Edwardian architecture. Kolmanskop’s German heritage is unmistakable within the once pristine villas and houses, whose ruins now stand, and the signboards in and around the town that were and still are in German. At its zenith, the township supported a population of 1300, with many kinds of modern facilities one can bother to mention, which even included a swimming pool for the workers and their families. And in the late 1920s, the final countdown came in the form of much richer diamond deposits discovered further South of Namibia near Oranjemund.
After almost 60 years of neglect, Kolmanskop is still the deserted ruin its founders and caretakers left when they headed for the neighbouring towns. With no plans of a revival and far from any financial prospects, the last hope for Kolmanskop is its history and German heritage that might come to save it from the grips of the stirring desert.
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James Kerwin Photographic (2019). Interior of an abandoned building in Kolmannskuppe, Namibia. [Digital] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameskerwin/48071400741/ [Accessed 8 Dec. 2021].
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