Conversations with Mwamba

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

“When I finished grade 12, my brother brought me the forms for university – I wanted to do engineering, so I put that as my first choice. Then my brother was telling me about architecture, but I didn’t know anything about – I don’t think I’d really heard of it - but I thought, why not, so I put it as my second choice. Then, when my brother took the forms to the university, he swapped it around, and put architecture as my first choice! So, when I got the letter saying that I had been accepted for architecture, I was very confused. I went online straight away and read up on it as much as could, and I actually found it really interesting. So I went to university and started first year architecture. At the same time I had applied to study medicine at Lusaka University. After one year doing architecture, I was accepted for medicine, but I chose to stay with architecture because I was enjoying it. I don’t regret it at all!

“Why did your brother change the preferences on your form?”

“I actually asked him about that a few years later – he said that there were too many engineers in the family.”

Mwamba picked us up from the Intercape bus station in a beautiful big black jeep. He looked a well-built man, wearing a grey collared t-shirt and dark grey tracksuit pants with sunglasses casually balancing on his head against short thick dreadlocks. When he got out the car, he was on his phone, but he quickly beckoned us around the back of the jeep so we could lug our bags in.

As we climbed into the jeep, Mwamba finished his business call and turned to me:

“So you are Simeon!” I assumed he recognised me from my couchsurfing picture.

“Yes!” I said. “And that’s Benny,” I continued, pointing to the back seat. “Nice to meet you!”

“Yes, yes, nice to meet you, nice to meet you,” Mwamba smiled as he fired the automatic Jeep into drive.

We would stay for two nights in Mwamba’s home, which, in all honesty, can only be described as a bachelors pad. It is a very open plan design, a small kitchen complemented by a large dining room and living room, complete with an L-shaped couch facing towards the TV surrounded by stacks of DVD’s and PlayStation games. In the corner was his office from where he worked at home: a messy desk overseen by a large Apple Mac desktop. Out the back, a small overgrown garden was bathed in the Windhoek sunshine.

We were soon talking about Cape Town:

“Cape Town is addictive,” Mwamba said, referring to the four times a year he travels down there in his capacity as an Architecture Masters student at the University of Cape Town. Over the course of the two days we would hear familiar stories of Lions Head, Club 31, Bob’s Bar and Mzoli’s, amusing stories of being assumed to be a drug dealer by the police because of his dreadlocks, and less-amusing stories of crime and robbery in the Mother City.

Our hikes set the scene for many of our conversations. I asked him about Guy Scott, the interim President of Zambia, his home country, and the first white leader of an independent African state: “Ah yes, he is of Scottish inheritance but he was born in Zambia. He’s a good guy, but, you know, politics can turn good people bad!” “Yes and it can turn bad people evil,” Benny laughed.

“I don’t often go across to vote in Zambia,” Mwamba said when I asked him about the upcoming elections. “We don’t have that system where you can vote from other countries. But it will be a waste if I go and vote, because I think it is rigged anyway!”

We also spoke at length about our Cape-Cairo trip, as we told him about the story of the American lady who didn’t make it across the South African-Namibian border: “You know what, it is easy to navigate Africa if you are white!” Mwamba laughed. “You just have to nice, polite and smile, and they’ll put you ahead of everyone else. I don’t know if it is because of fear or because of trust. For me, I am black and I have dreadlocks, so they always think that I’m hiding drugs.”

Sure enough, Mwamba asked us about the Pistorius furore in South Africa. After agreeing that we all thought he got off lightly, and much lamenting about the media circus and the portrayal of the trial as a soap opera or a reality TV show, Mwamba told us that it “is not much compared to Namibia. There was a guy here about three years ago who shot his wife in the back – he paid N$27000 [R27 000] and that was it. Everyone said ‘no way’ and said that if something isn’t done, then they will kill him themselves. So they took him back to the High Court, but the man disappeared and was never found. He was a businessman, so he had money; not rich, but he had money.”

“I don’t like guns. Human beings are very impulsive. One angry moment and something bad happens,” Mwamba deliberated, carefully. “My neighbour has a gun. Whenever he invites he round, I say no, rather you come here!”

Perhaps the most interesting conversation of our time with Mwamba, however, was when we were at the shabeen: he turned to us quite suddenly, and changed the topic to religion.

“The whole idea of religion doesn’t work for me,” he pondered. “I think that religion is the single biggest factor of trouble and conflict in the world.” It was a point that was hard to disagree with. “My brother is in IT, and he believes the Christian perceptions of Judaism where Israel is seen to be the Holy Land – but this affects his business and becomes personal, because, outside of Zambia, he only works with Israeli clients.”

“There are lessons to be learnt from religion,” we agreed. “Like a good set of morals and values, for instance, but the problem lies with what comes with it.”

“I believe more in spirituality, which aims to seek understanding; religion seeks reward,” Mwamba continued. “You do things for something in return. I actually distance myself from religious people, because I know that I will not get on with them.”

It was an intriguing point of view, especially in a continent where religion plays such a big part in everyday life. While conflict in Africa is often the result of tribal clashes, religion also plays an influential role (in Sudan, for instance). Even on this point, Mwamba was thought provoking:

“You know that in a lot of places around Africa, pastors are actually criminals! God isn’t involved in their church, and often their church is just a primary school or something like that. But then the pastors have nice houses and nice cars, and you wonder where they come from… you know, I actually heard of this pastor that put an ATM in his church, so if people said ‘ah pastor, I’m sorry, I didn’t bring any money with me today,’ then he can just show them to the ATM.”

Both Benny and I thoroughly enjoyed our first experience of couchsurfing. It proved to be the perfect platform to experience a town or city away from the travel guides and away from other tourists; it was more personal, more authentic. We went along with Mwamba’s agenda and his recommendations, and this in turn enabled a genuine experience of Windhoek. It also set the platform for sincere discussions and conversations, which is the most effective way of learning and teaching through travel. By exposing ourselves to different cultures, opinions, and points of views we can further develop our own conceptions of the intricacies of the world. That, for me, is the ultimate goal of travel.