Namibia, the Lonely Place

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

So, at this point, you’re going to have to forgive my slight obsession with Pico Iyer and his travel literature. I recently read a book of his called ‘Falling off the Map: some Lonely Places of the World,’ in which he travels to countries not known as ultimate travel destinations; they are neither exotic nor compellingly unique, seemingly lost on international wavelengths in the ever-increasingly globalised culture of travel.

Iyer describes these destinations as ‘Lonely Places.’ Specifically, they are places that “don’t fit in; places that have no seat at our international dinner tables.” Amongst these places he includes North Korea, Paraguay, Bhutan, Cuba, and Iceland. His prose, however, belies the supposed ‘loneliness’ of each place – he speaks to the quirkiness that he finds in the perplexing people, in the unkempt corners of cobbled streets and in the hazy crooks of small bars. He is a brilliantly engaging author, defying popular perceptions of places that are usually so far removed from our collective consciousness.

Having spent the last couple of days in Windhoek with Benny, I would argue that Namibia is the perfect example of one of Iyer’s ‘Lonely Places.’ It is somewhat lost, not knowing how to carry itself, unsure of what it is or what it could be. It is shy, defensive, curious. It does not know how to behave, or how to portray itself. Essentially, it is a place that is still under construction, both literally (given the amount of physical work being done around the city) and figuratively.

We decided to couchsurf in Windhoek, which, for those unfamiliar the concept, is a hospitality exchange and social networking site that involves being ‘hosted,’ for free, by a local of whichever city or town you travel to. It is a fantastic way to travel – there is nothing more authentic than a local’s perspective, while the host gets the opportunity to meet and connect with foreigners from all parts of the world. It is a type of travel completely reliant on the kindness of other people, who open their homes and lives to strangers, and it is also a great way to travel on a budget. Mwamba Justin Mwanakatwe accepted our request to stay in his house while in Namibia, and we honestly could not have had a better host.

He is a superbly knowledgeable and thoughtful man, with a great sense of humour and a natural benevolence for other people. Having been born and raised in Zambia alongside 6 brothers and 6 sisters, he moved to Windhoek in 2006 in his capacity as an architecture student; currently, he is doing his masters through the University of Cape Town in South Africa, to which he travels down four times a year, while also running his own private architecture business from his home in Windhoek, called Mwanakatwe Studio Architecture Inc.

Mwamba, Benny and I had many great conversations over the course of our stay, ranging a variety of topics. The discussion of more personal topics, such as political and religious views or entertaining stories from the past will be the focus of my next piece – firstly, I want to talk about Namibia and its existence as a Lonely Place, which in turn was mostly informed through our many talks and adventures.

“Windhoek is nice but it is quiet,” Mwamba told us soon after we met. “The problem with Namibia is that it is too small. It only a population of 2.1 million, and Windhoek only has around 375,000 people.” Given that the size of the country is around 825,000 square kilometres, Namibia does indeed house a surprisingly small number of people, especially in comparison to somewhere like South Africa, which houses almost 50 million in 1.2 million square kilometres. “You know Windhoek isn’t actually a city,” Mwamba continued. “It is too small to be a city. There are no cities in Namibia – Windhoek is a municipality, a town at most.”

Once we were settled and somewhat unpacked in Mwamba’s spare room, he offered to drop us in the town centre so we could do some exploring ourselves. What we found a place struggling to part from its South African roots (given that it was only granted full independence from South Africa in 1990) – we knew, and knew well, all the shops we came across from our home in Cape Town: Markhams, Truworths, Spur, Mr Price, Pick ‘n Pay, Checkers, Takkie Town, Fruit & Veg City, and plenty more, while all the banks, such as Standard Bank, FNB and Nedbank, were familiar. We couldn’t find anything with a specific Namibian identity, a solely Namibian brand that would have helped define who exactly it is.

A place seemingly designed for such an endeavour was the Independence Memorial Museum. It was a magnificent gold-coloured building, 6 stories high with glass lifts on either side so as to enable unobstructed views over the city as you rattled up. However, while the building was an architectural success, the museum itself left us disappointed. It relied heavily on glorified paintings and confused pictures to tell the story of their struggle against German and South African oppressors, without much in the way of actual information. And, while there was some stunning photography, it was lost in amongst the overbearing and ultimately misleading paintings.

We later asked Mwamba about the museum: “yes everything in there is glorified; it is edited to suit some sort of agenda. They are trying to make history, not write it.” The whole ordeal reflected a society that didn’t quite know what it was, where it had come from or how it had come to be; either that or it was simply unable to acknowledge the realities of its past. Additionally, the fact that we were told that we cannot “go to the fourth, fifth or sixth floor because there is nothing up there” indicates the wastefulness of what was a beautiful building. While it is important to remember one’s past, it is equally if not more important to do so accurately, without glorifying it to make it something that it was not.

Mwamba then offered to take us on a sunset hike later that day. We jumped at the opportunity, given the promise of a Namibian sunset and a chance to see Windhoek from above. The hike itself was simple enough, as after 30 minutes or so we reached the top of what can only be explained as a slightly large hill; however, it was high enough to see the whole of Windhoek. In fact, as a German man we met at the top told us, “this is the only place you can see the whole town.”

Seeing Windhoek from above justified my conjecture about its status as a Lonely Place. The town is squeezed in between hundreds of hills coloured by dirty yellow grass and mud-flushed rocks, each of which is sporadically populated by small, sparse and irregularly green-leaved trees. No one single hill towers over the town, but the combination of all the hills make Windhoek seem even smaller than it is. Benny noted, “if you were over the first couple of hills, you would have no idea that there was a town tucked in here.” Not just a town, but a town fronting as a capital city. Standing above Windhoek, above that capital city or that capital town if you will, and sensing such stillness, such unobtrusiveness … it just seemed lonely, almost embarrassed, hiding from the world outside underneath the hills that leered from around it.

The sunset, on the other hand, was anything but unobtrusive. The suns rays reflected off the underside of the scattered clouds, dancing down onto the buildings and up onto the three of us standing on top of the hill. The colours were awe-inspiring: a golden red mixed with a honey orange while the top of the clouds still boasted a sparkling white against a piercing blue sky. The left-hand side, with hills as far as the eye could see, darkened to a purple as the right-hand side mirrored the effect. Indeed, Windhoek seemed all the more lonely and insignificant given the sunset’s power and resplendence. We descended as the buzzing of the night insects rose around us, taking back their hill as darkness enfolded the domineering peaks.

That evening, Mwamba took us out to a local bar for supper. It was a cosy bar nested next to a theatre of some sorts, where a poetry evening was taking place. While we ordered beers and food, a local band took to the stage in the bar. They were ominously named ‘Rat,’ fronted by a young dreadlocked local proudly sporting high-top sneakers covered in the Namibian flag, and ably assisted by an older lady covered in tattoos and piercings and an even older drummer reliving the glories of his youth.

We weren’t entirely sure what to expect to be honest, but, while their banter in between songs was cringe-worthy, they played towards a soft rock/pop genre with an endearing sincerity and geniality. Quirky, in fact, is probably the best way to describe it. They played a number of their own songs, all seemingly written by the young dreadlocked frontman, interjected by covers of Adele, Radiohead, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan. However, the whole experience had such a small town feel to it, given the fact that everyone in the somewhat sparse bar seemed to know the band members and vice-versa, while we were pretty sure that the parents of the frontman sat, foot-tapping, next to us. Pico Iyer remarks that “you wind back the clock when you visit a Lonely Place,” and that, while an enjoyable evening, is exactly what it felt like.

The next morning, we hiked a different mountain that overlooked the State House of Windhoek, where the President lives and works. It is a magnificent building, with large grounds surrounded by gold-ridden fences. An eagle statue soared proudly in front the house characterised by swirling pillars and symmetrical roofs. It was a residence far beyond the necessitates of a country the size of Namibia, and we joked about how it represented Windhoek’s very own Nkandla, referring to President Jacob Zuma’s infamous dwelling in South Africa.

“You can see the influence of the West,” Mwamba remarked. “In Africa, when you are in power, you believe that you need some sort of White House … once you are in power then you are a King and you think you need big things. So now Namibia see the big Parliaments in the West and believe that they need one, while the people are saying ‘why?! – it is different here than to the West!’” Namibia gave the impression of being built not by itself but by those that influenced it.

While the influence of the West and of South African pasts is apparent in certain areas, the influence of the East, specifically China, is equally if not more apparent. “The Chinese have been here since independence. The thing is that they are the only ones who can do the job – the local contractors can’t build two/three storey buildings. People started dissenting against the Chinese about two years ago but they are still here.” Contradictorily, in no way do the Chinese attempt to hide or play down their presence, as from the other side of the hill one could see the enormous Chinese Embassy, to which Mwamba lives near. Looking down on it from above, we could see the full extent of their grounds: large offices at the front, with some individual houses off to the side and blocks upon blocks of flats at the back, all circled around a big pool in the middle and encircled by high intimidating gates.

“They are also buying all the land around the Embassy!” Mwamba exclaimed. “Most of them live inside – it is a nice life for them, with a pool, flat complexes, they often go for walks at night outside the Embassy; it is a quiet life with lots of sun so they enjoy it. Some of them are independent contractors, and they often have very cheap Chinese labour working for them. I think they are probably Chinese prisoners sent over here, which is why they work for so cheap.“ It is clear that, alongside other African states, the Chinese influence is here to stay; thus demeaning Namibian attempts to develop its own identity.

We asked Mwamba why Namibian contractors were unable to do the jobs that the Chinese are: “The lack of skills in Namibia is still a result of apartheid-era educations schemes, like Bantu education.” From a personal point of view, I was actually unaware of the extent to which Namibia was simultaneously affected by the structural violations of apartheid; the extent being quite significant given that to this day they still seemingly suffer the consequences. “Namibian education isn’t very good, because they haven’t taken advantage of countries around them,” Mwamba said, referring to the relative successes of places like Zambia. We learn of a Namibia that is ostracised from those nearby, lonely, defensive, stuttering, and unsure.

That afternoon Mwamba took us to the Katutura township, which was perhaps the highlight of our stay in Windhoek. “The township is still divided along tribal lines, so certain tribes stay in certain areas, again a result of apartheid divisions,” Mwamba told us as we drove in. “The government does have a low-cost housing scheme, but it is very difficult to get right.”

In many ways, Katutura township reminded me of the townships in South Africa. Children kicked a ragged ball on the pavement in front of shacks of varying colours which lined the streets; washing lines spun in every direction off the residences, while there seemed to be a small hairdressers on every street. It was fascinating, however, to see the cars that most people were driving: “If you are Namibian, it is very easy to get a loan, so you see lots of people with nice cars. It is about image and reputation,” Mwamba laughed. We saw shacks with Hummers, Land Rovers, double-cab bakkies, and Mercedes Benz’s proudly standing outside, and it seemed the utmost paradox. “Often young people will still live at home but they will get a loan so they can have a nice car, so they don’t have to pay rent or food every month, just the bond on their car; they have to pay it off in 5 years,” Mwamba continued.

Our host took us directly to a meat market in Katutura, which by all accounts is the grand social gathering in the township. There were very specific divisions in the market: there was the meat section, the veggies section and then beyond that a number of fully booked pool tables. The meat section was hounded, and I mean absolutely hounded, by flies; they surrounded every piece of uncooked meat like a pack of hyenas would do in the bush. The air hummed.

As we went there to experience the food, Mwamba first took us to the veggies section, where we ordered onions, peppers and tomato to be chopped up and enjoyed with the meat. This was put in one half of a polystyrene takeaway box; we then moved around to the meat section. The idea is to pay one of the ‘braai masters’ to cook the meat for you, and there was certainly an element of competition in this as men eagerly beckoned us over to taste a bit of the meat that they were cooking. Once we’d settled on our chosen braai master (they all cooked beef in any case), we were quickly cooked up 20 pieces of meat, which was put in the other half of the polystyrene box. From there, it is a fully hands-on experience: you grab a piece of meat with your fingers, scoop up a mix of onion, pepper and tomato and funnel it into your mouth. The meat, with small amounts of fat, was hot and spiced, and, as expected, full of flavour, undeniably tasty; this was complemented superbly by the cold veggies. The three of us hoovered up the first offering, after which we still had plenty of veggies left such that we bought 20 more pieces from a different vendor. It was a fantastic experience, quick, easy and cheap, certainly opening my eyes to the various quirks that Windhoek does indeed hold.

From there we moved down to a shabeen, which apparently also fronted as a car wash, a hairdresser, a small food market and a gold exchange. For a Thursday afternoon, it was busy, which I’m told is the norm; interestingly, cider seemed to the drink of choice as opposed to beer. In any case, the drinks were cheap and cold, and the idea was to grab chairs from the side and make your own circle in the middle. Music pumped rhythmically as the background beat to loud chatter and good conversation.

We left Windhoek the next day and, in all honesty, we felt like we did all that we could do in the town. The town, and a town it is, felt small, inconspicuous, stuck between Western and Eastern influences while still dragging their heels in South Africa’s muddy past, unable or unwilling to define or find itself in amongst other cultural capitals of Africa and the travel-mad globalisation of the world. However, in many respects it was the perfect way to ease into our trip just because of the relative familiarity of it all. It was an absolute pleasure to meet Mwamba, and we discovered what quirkiness exists, in that the hikes were beautiful, the nightlife was small-town attractive and Katutura township was a great experience.