A Namibian railway worker named Zacherias Lewala was shovelling railway tracks free of rising sand dunes one evening in 1908 when he saw several stones gleaming in the low light. They were identified as diamonds by Lewala’s German employer. Lewala was neither compensated or rewarded for his discovery.

Hordes of prospectors soon swarmed on the area. By 1912, a settlement had risen up, generating a million carats per year, or 11.7 percent of total diamond production worldwide.

In the desolate desert, wealthy Kolmanskop became a well of luxury. There was a butcher, baker, post office, and ice plant, and fresh water was delivered by rail. Even European opera companies came to perform. A kind of insane quirkiness flourished. A sort of mad eccentricity reigned. One family kept a pet ostrich that terrorized other townspeople and was made to pull a sleigh at Christmas.

Kolmanskop, however, was established on a heritage of colonial violence as part of the struggling colony of German South West Africa. Only four years before the discovery of diamonds at Kolmanskop, the Namibian Herero rebelled against German colonisers, who retaliated with genocidal zeal, killing over 60,000 Herero.

Boom and bust

Kolmanskop’s prospectors became wealthy overnight by plucking diamonds from the desert floor, but German officials want greater control over the tremendous riches. They reacted by proclaiming a large part of Namibia a Sperrgebiet, or restricted zone, prohibiting ordinary people from entering and reserving prospecting rights for a single, Berlin-based business.

Tribespeople displaced by the zone’s construction were frequently employed as labourers in diamond mines, where they were forced to live in confined, barracks-like compounds for months at a time.
But it wouldn’t last.

By the 1930s, intensive mining had impoverished the area, and the town’s destiny was sealed when the richest diamond fields ever discovered were discovered on the beach terraces to the south. The townspeople left in droves, abandoning homes and possessions.

Kolmanskop had been fully abandoned by 1956. The dunes that previously tumbled over the railway tracks in Lewala have now broken through the ghost town’s doors and porches, filling its rooms with smooth banks of sand.

A second chance at life (and death)

Ghost Town Tours, a local private firm, was awarded the licence to administer Kolmanskop as a tourist attraction in 2002, busing people into the restricted zone to explore and photograph the sand-covered remains. Every year, up to 35,000 people visit the site, bringing money to the nearby seaside town of Lüderitz. (See heartbreaking images of abandoned Italian villages.)

Despite continuous conservation efforts and a yearly visitor limit, assessments conducted around 2010 revealed “a marked deterioration” of some structures in Kolmanskop.
Before long, the town might vanish into the desert.

Until then, the surreal ruins remind us of our societies’ power to build—but also of the material waste and human suffering we’re capable of wreaking. Today’s tourists visit a testament to the evils of the colonial system, a melancholy monument to a world disappearing once and for all beneath history’s shifting sands.

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