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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Kunze

Touchdown in Namibia- What We Saw What We Did

Prior to flying out to Namibia, there was a little bit of preparation to be done to prepare our group for some historical, economic, and cultural experiences we were anticipating on facing throughout the trip. To try and prepare for those as best I could, I sought out readings related to cultural experience from previous study abroad trips, I began reading more about the history of apartheid in Namibia and the political movements that followed, and the implications it had on different groups of people there. I learned slowly of the genocides that took place, and the dehumanization of people that has repeatedly happened over time such as the heartbreaking stories of Sarah Baartman and Ota Benga. I learned very quickly how little my family and friends in the USA knew of the history and brutal outcomes from colonization across multiple African countries, and by sharing some of my readings with them, I learned how uncomfortable people still are with facing some of the darker sides of history. I also learned how few people even knew Namibia existed, including people from Namibia’s own neighbor South Africa. My readings thus far had prepared to anticipate and think I would be experiencing a rich history, and a culture that many people know little about, and I wasn’t wrong.

My flight path to Namibia involved a number of stops from Madrid, to Johannesburg, to finally landing in Windhoek Namibia. One of the first things I noticed as I was shifting from flight to flight and airport to airport is how little the demographics of the people who were traveling as passengers on the flights were changing. When landing in Jo-burg one thing I did notice is that the demographics of the staff of the airport itself changed to predominately Black, and the overall pace of the people in the airport picked up. There was a sense of urgency, or at a minimum a sense of moving things a long quicker, as I spent less time boarding and taking off on that flight then I had for almost any flight I had every taken. On the flight itself I think I was most shocked at how predominately White the flight was. I think at the time I had noted 3-4 people who were not White. At the time I couldn’t really place why that would be the case, and when I stepped foot into the Windhoek airport it completely slipped my mind. I was in a space that reflected more of what I expected in terms of demographics in Southern Africa.

Outside of the fiasco of my luggage being misplaced, and the lack of concern for the bags from the airport staff—which is no different in any airport anywhere I have come to believe—I finally was able to step outside into a whole new space. So quickly you could see mountains among desert among some of the biggest skies I had ever seen. I remember smiling ear-to-ear, because I had waited so long to finally arrive. With our new friends Colin and Ndako, I was off with Larry on my first drive on African soil to head into the city of Windhoek. Along the drive we had the opportunity to see animals which our friends really do not think much about as they see they every day. Our deer, were their warthogs running down the road. Our pigeons, were their giant Guinea fowl. We even had a chance to see a baboon strolling down the road casually. To them, it was another day on the road where very few cars will pass, but to me it was like being on an adventure already.

[Welcome to Namibia: Ndako (left), Colin, (Middle), Myself (right)]

By the time we arrived at the house or homebase (Helio), there were many people awaiting our arrival. Some face were familiar such as Naita and Pandu’s, while others were new like Meke and Nliko. Even among all the new faces and familiar, with the hustle of arriving and getting settled in, and having no luggage, everything felt perfectly comfortable. I believe there is something to be said about a space feeling so welcoming, even being 8,000+ miles away from home surrounded by very people you know closely. And even throughout my whole trip this feeling did not go away. I have never felt more welcomed and cared for by such a large group of people before, and I realized soon it wasn’t anything personal to me or our group.

I observed and listened to how the group we were with during our trip interacted with each other, and how they cared for each other. It wasn’t unheard of for each other to help watch over each other’s kids, or do school pick-ups. It also wasn’t uncommon for people to stop by with not-invited friends to a dinner or meal someone was hosting. And at one point I asked people about that, and I got two different responses: 1) “That’s African style for you, invite one and assume there’s at least another person coming along,” and 2) “There’s always someone hungry, and we always have more than enough food for everyone.” What came to mind repeatedly is the phrase “it takes a village,” to get things done. And I felt this really applied here. There was a constant priority of people taking care of their family or each other, and personal needs first, over focusing just on a job/work. This was one thing that was very clashing with my own cultural experiences, because in my family we rarely even invite other family over let alone friends of friends, and in the USA were are so work-oriented that people’s own personal and family needs suffer. It was clashing, because it was so different from my life pace in the USA, but it something over the trip I learned to understand and actually appreciate for what it was. But this remained a common phenomenon throughout the trip, and became the norm for us over the week. When we would walk into Helio after being gone for the day there may be 4+ people in the house I haven’t met, and at first it was frustrating, but once I spent more time outside of Eros where we stayed I began to understand why. Helio was homebase for everybody, because there was the space and importantly the resources, such as Wifi, seemingly endless amount of food, and even the convenience of running tap water.

During our trip we spent a good portion of our time out in the city of Katatura, where most of the people we interacted with, such as our driver and friend Dario and his friend Ruben, and the kids from our NGO Physically Active Youth, lived. It was where the people stayed, and importantly the largest portion of the Youth in Namibia stayed. On our drives out there, pavement sometimes turned to dirt roads, and there were faint or strong smells of sewage at certain points. On the sides of the street there were stray dogs—referred to as “Brown Dogs”—and groups of people just hanging out everywhere drinking, smoking, or maybe selling something they had made by hand such as jewelry. Almost every other block was a bar and barbershop run by self-employed locals. At one point in our drive through Katatura we stopped and had a drink at a local bar, which to most in the USA would probably not look like a bar, but it had what you needed— ice cold beer and a working jukebox.

[Having a Drink in Katatura: Dario (left), Larry & Rondey (center), Ruben (right)]

We eventually wandered into deeper parts of Katatura where people had to walk potentially miles to a metered water spicket that requires a chip/card that charges you by the drop of water poured into whatever containers people chose to use and carry the water in. I actually had the opportunity to see how the spicket worked, and watched a woman with two large buckets fill them and carry them by herself back to her work. In one of the most humbling experience of my trip, I offered to carry one of the buckets for her, quickly realizing even one bucket was too heavy for me alone. At one point I dropped the bucket, and a small amount of water spilled from it, which was mortifying knowing the cost of water, but with no hesitation or showing of anger over the water this woman picked up the handle with me and we carried it together. As we were walking a man kept shouting to me to carry the bucket on my head, and I definitely became a sight to see for the locals on the street. I walked away from this experience thinking first “how does she carry these alone buckets alone?” and then coming to terms with it’s because they have to—there’s no one else to do it and people need water.

[Attempting to Help Carry Water]

I learned quickly of the employment situation in Namibia—that there is an almost 50% unemployment rate, and that the rate of unemployment hits the youth harder than anyone else. That many of the young people I interacted with did have college degrees, but no steady form of income. That it wasn’t uncommon for the youth to move home back to the north after finishing school because of a lack of work in the city. Even the people I did know who had the fortune of a “good job”, which I learned was working in government or as an engineer, weren’t guaranteed to maintain steady employment. The idea of people being self-employed and working multiple jobs to make ends meet also wasn’t uncommon.

[Visiting the self-employed Himba women at one of the last remaining vendors markets: Bonita (left), Myself (center), and Maria and her Daughter (Right)]

Despite economic hardships and uncertainty, even after reflecting on my trip I cannot think a single moment I heard anyone young or old complain about their personal situation or lack of what they had. From my understanding it wasn’t about the things people had, because often times the people I saw did not have many material items. But nevertheless, I watched time and time again when one person had anything, whether it be food, drink, or a material item like sunglasses, they were more than happy to share with everyone around. This made me realize that the welcoming I felt when I first arrived was not an anomaly, or something necessarily personal to me, but rather just a culture. The people of Namibia took the time to get to know each other, took the time to ask how the family was doing, and even when in a hurry always made time to politely greet people have a proper interaction before moving on, which is starkly contrasting to the fast-past lifestyle I experience in the USA where people are scared to even make eye-contact with one another.

Very quickly after arriving and jumping right into work, I began to understand the demographic confusion I had on my flight into Windhoek, and it stemmed from a position of privilege. In the USA, most people I know have rode on planes across the country, and even to other countries—it’s a normalized activity and behavior. Even on my Madrid and Jo-burg flights, I heard people discussing their vacations and planned trips abroad. This normalization I realized is not necessarily a reality for many of the people in Windhoek that I have initially met. Many of the people I spoke to had only every traveled to the North or the coast, and if they were fortunate maybe they had visited South Africa a time or two via driving. The demographic discrepancy of groups on flights are a product of economic privilege, being able to afford the luxury of that type of travel. Even in a space I anticipated on being predominately Black (and it was), was not free of the racial-economic disparity of who has access to X and who has the opportunity for Y.

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