Post Title: 014_The “real” Africa? What’s in it for me.
Written Date: 19 Dec 2015 – 20 Dec 2015
Posted Date: 20 Dec 2015
The theme of “What is the real Africa?” will probably come up fairly often as I muse in this blog over the next few years. After eight months in Namibia, the topic isn’t as immediate as it used to be, however. There is a sense of just being “here” without trying to figure it out or assess it. I like realizing that it only comes up once in a while, now. I’ll be sitting quietly enjoying the sunset, or the wind on the lake, or the city buildings rising around me, or the stars, when it occurs to me “Damn, I’m in AFRICA! These are the stars in the Southern Hemisphere!” with the capital letters still flashing in my mind.
At some level it still feels exotic – but I’m getting used to it, and I like that. I’ve been under the Southern Cross fairly often in my life, but never actually living there / here.
And it’s not all that different. Except it is.
In Okahandja, there is a beautiful community center where my group (41) of Peace Corps Volunteers met for two months during Pre-Service Training. There is a distinctive communications tower prominent in the middle of the city. After several weeks, I discovered that the tower used to be a watch tower during Apartheid – where the communities would be observed to make sure no one from one tribe (Wambo, Herero, Damara, Nama, Colored, Bastars) went into the area of another tribe. Apartheid – literally “holding apart” – segregation pure and simple, and a way to control populations by not permitting them to cooperate, and keeping them uneducated and incapable. And I have met a very few people here in Namibia (not surprisingly, white) who adamantly defend Apartheid to this day. “Things worked so much better!” It is impossible to overstate the subtle and fundamental ways in which the colonization and subjigation of these peoples have affected their culture and ability to learn and be self-reliant. It was, and the effect still is, insidious. And no, I didn’t take this picture.
In writing this blog, I was struck by a phrase found in a Master’s Thesis by a Namibian doing his work on “Herero Mall” in Katutura. The thesis is by Ellison Tjirera, 2013, from the University of Namibia. “Things are not as they seem, and what you see barely represents the ‘truth’. Such is the nature of social reality and meaning. The challenge is to transcend mere observation.” I’m not sure I feel qualified to transcend, so I am stuck with mere observation with a liberal dose of introspection.
My own experiences here are unique – but then I’ve come to really understand that everyone’s experience is unique, everywhere. I haven’t seen the lions, giraffes, hippos, incredible sand dunes, magnificent vistas of the savannah, village people (the real ones, not the ones manufactured by the entertainment industry) beating drums and dancing around a fire, herds of Wildebeest racing to escape a predator, or crocodiles grabbing a careless (or young) Kudu stopping for a drink at a water hole. But I have seen some African animals.
This is Gryffendor – an African feline belonging to Alicia, a PCV in Okahandja. Alicia is now back in the USA, but Gryffendor is terrorizing the home of Val (AKA: Veronica). I can’t remember the last time this predator pulled down a Water Buffalo, but it may come back to me.
Come to think of it, most of the mental images of those “African things” come from television or magazines and a few movies. All of which are interpreted with a liberal dose of entertainment value that by economic necessity ultimately supports the efforts of the image makers. But I do have Kudu steaks in my refrigerator, and Oryx. And it’s no big deal, here. They are available at the supermarket. And I’ve eaten crocodile, and Mopane worms (which are really caterpillars, and are very good with spices, and highly nutritious), and both are also available as staple diet items in supermarkets like Checkers, Spar, PickandPay, Shoprite, and other stores that look very much like the grocery stores I am used to in California. Of course you can also get them at “Tuck Shops” – the little shacks outside of a home that offer things to neighborhoods but they aren’t nearly as fresh and should be purchased with caution. Being in Windhoek, I have such modern stores much more easily available than do my friends in the villages.
Yup – this is Africa, too.
But some of my Peace Corps friends here have seen the things most of us identify with Africa, and much, much, more.
This is the first of two photos that I didn’t take. My friend Scott Richmond was sitting at his breakfast table and took this – really.
Some PCVs live with the Himbas, where women are topless ALL the time – it becomes no big deal. It is their traditional way of dressing. Some live with villagers that have never seen a white person (really! still!) although I occasionally meet a small child that is wide eyed and scared of me because their parents tell me they’ve never been this close to a white man, much less one with white hair and a beard! And they have seen the wild animals, and the sand dunes, and the beauty of Namibia and surrounding countries.
But I have seen wild horses scattered haphazardly across the Kalahari Desert, which has a lot more grass, bushes, and hills than I expected. (Full disclosure: This is the only other picture that isn’t mine. I have one, but the horses are a LONG way away and this one’s from the internet. But they did look like this! The trip I saw horses was the one where I learned to always have a camera easier to get to while in this country. )
And I’ve seen scattered herds of urban Africans bustling around the capital city trying to survive, or get richer, or help their fellow Africans, or take advantage of someone, or look for their next mark to rob, or support their families by washing the windows of someone else’s office who is trying to do one of those things.
Somehow, in spite of all of the travelling I’ve done over the past 66 years, about 77% of which I was old enough to remember fairly well, the incredible complexity of life on earth, and of the human mind, is becoming a reality to me in a way it never did before. I have visited far fewer countries than many people (my friend Vassi being a very good example), more than most (about 45 countries at last count that I’ve lived, worked in, or visited not including airport stopovers), and that’s only about 23% of the nations recognized by the United Nations. Increasingly I understand at a fundamental level the incredible reality of realizing all that I do not know, and will never know. No wonder people have spent their lives searching for a Fountain of Youth. To me, it’s not about the vanity of wanting to remain young, it is about all there is to experience, and what a paltry portion of that I have enjoyed even with a relatively active life full of choices to “try it out” rather than “increase/build what I have.” There was a price to pay for those choices, and there was benefit that I’ve enjoyed. I’m happy to say I’m pretty satisfied with the balance from this viewpoint in my life. Although there were times …
In my home, I notice I don’t mind that I have six (oops, two of them seem to have disappeared) FOUR table knives all but two of which are of different types, and all are old and steel. And the spoons speak for themselves.
The background is my dining table top – before refinishing. I’ll show an “after” photo when, and if, it ever happens. My furnishings here are rough, almost all of them second hand but perfectly functional, and I’m still wearing the same shirts/pants/socks/underwear I came over here with. Yes, I’ve washed them – often!
But compared to the people I live amongst, I have easily 10-20 times the physical possessions they do. I just bought my first piece of clothing, here – a pair of khaki shorts, well made, and they will give me years of good use. I did get them on sale. Just like any store in the USA, businesses here have “promotions” (a much more common term). I have two new items: an office chair, and a fold-out sofa (so I’ll have a place for visitors to sleep, but there have been very few of them, fewer than I had hoped). The sofa now has a beautiful custom made Batik cover that was hand made by my friends here at Penduka.
The design was made by Victoria (large photo on the left), and the sewing done by Kaino (upper right) and Kahaka (middle photo on the right), and maybe someone else. Jenny (lower right) was instrumental in getting it done. Jenny is leaving us the end of January, and will be greatly missed and very hard to replace. These women are my friends, my “family”, and I see and work with them daily. All but four of the 28 women here are away on holiday leave to their home villages, and I find I miss them a lot! Kahaka sewed a bag that goes at the base of my door to keep out the cold, and snakes! She did it on her own and brought it by, today, just to be nice.
But I prefer to see my sofa as it is below (ignore my bed in the background!) All are kids of the women, here, and they love to stop by my place.
People see Africa in many different ways. Here is just one of them.
My view of Africa is limited to Namibia for the past eight months, and two weeks in Tunisia 40 years ago. Namibia is 2.7% of the area of Africa, and I’m a little familiar with the cities/towns of (in decreasing familiarity) Windhoek, Okahandja, Rundu, Aus, Keetmanshoop (just a few hours and a hell of a good travel story), and a few km either side of the highways between them. Let’s be generous and say that’s 2% of the area of Namibia, which means I’ve seen 0.0054% of Africa. Oh, wait! Don’t forget Tunisia! Hmmm, turns out that the parts of Tunisia I’ve seen don’t even add 0.0001% to my total Africa experience if we go by land area, even though I went deep into Tunisia to Hammamet on the edge of the Sahara. To try to explain what Africa is like would be hubris.
But I have been to the Plains of Carthage where the Roman General Scipio Aemilianus Africanus burned the city to the ground in 146 BCE and left no stone on top of another. (Turns out the “salted the earth” story is a myth.) And I have Herero and Nama friends who remember talking with grandparents who lived through the German genocides of those tribes in the early 20th Century when Southwest Africa (Namibia) was a colony of Germany. It was a kind of training and practice session for the Jewish Holocaust in WWII, but a lot less well known.
My home and work is part of an effort to help low income and disadvantaged/disabled women find their self-respect and self-confidence after hundreds of years of colonial rule. And my neighborhood is made up of people (not a few of them – almost ALL of them over 25) who lived through Apartheid, personally.
One of my friends is now a driver for Penduka and was a resistance fighter for SWAPO in Southwest Africa for 14 years fighting for independence from South Africa in the latter half of the 20th century. Kambalantu isn’t a newspaper, book, or magazine article, he is a man and a friend, he was a revolutionary, and we talk about his experiences regularly.
Liina is discovering in the past six months that she has the capabilities to be an exceptional leader and manager, and she spent the first 35 years of her life as a black woman under Apartheid. About half of the women here spent at least half of their lives being actively prohibited from getting a good education, from gathering with others, and being punished if they tried to exhibit self-determination. And they are working, together, to become something better. And, slowly and imperfectly as is every human endeavor, they are succeeding.
The “real” Africa? Haven’t a clue. But the little corner of Namibia with which I am becoming familiar, and the people I am learning to know and understand, and appreciate, and love, are without a doubt creating an experience in my life that is matchless. I hope I am able to provide them with some very small part of what they want and need to better their lives. They exhibit, daily, the desire and willingness to work for it. It reminds me of what I read our forefathers were like in the USA when our nation was only 25 years old. What this experience, and the people here, offer me is so very much greater than what I am able to contribute.
Maybe that is what Africa does to everyone. I’m hardly the first.
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