#namibia (part 2): people, tribes and townships

The second part of my journey through Namibia this summer focusing a bit more on its human geography through looking at the people of Namibia. As with part 1, photos and the rest of my notes to follow. But for now, here’s my journey through Namibia exploring its people, tribes and townships…

Entering Swakopmund the contrast with the last few days hits you straight away. Gone are the desert plains, instead replaced by clouds, fog and damp. The power of the Atlantic Ocean is ever evident as the waves pound the rocks.

Arriving on a winter’s Sunday afternoon the town is deserted. A few people wander about but it is a ghost town. The growing museum provides a background to the history and people of Namibia and this small town founded in 1892 by the Germans. The town’s growth was rapid but declined with the World Wars before growing again since the 1970s. Uranium mining at Rossing mine, 60km inland, has brought jobs both at the mine and in supporting businesses like the desalinisation plant needed to pipe fresh water for the mine’s operations. Tourism has also picked up with Windhoek residents escaping the summer heat and tour groups stopping off for a couple of days. Our hotel ‘The Delight’ and upmarket restaurants of Jetty 1905 and the Tug Restaurant we ate in for dinner for the two nights are evidence of this growing tourism.

The following day was an opportunity to join a tour of the Mondesa township and DRC informal settlement. The concept of ‘township’ or ‘poverty’ tourism is often controversial with conflicting opinions on whether or not it’s morally right to make money out of turning living in relative poverty into a tourist attraction. Yet, done well, such tourism activities offer a chance for communities to make money through social enterprise. I was happy to find this tour was locally owned and run, with visits to local businesses and 40% of the profits being invested back into the communities.

Driving into Mondesa, like driving into many South African apartheid planned townships, is driving into a regimented settlement of row upon row of single story buildings with a central door and two windows either side. Originally built in the 1950s, there were three main areas (one for each ethnic group – Owanbo, Nama and Herero). On a large number of houses additions have been made to create barber shops, tuck shops, snooker halls, hairdressers and many more businesses; businesses which are officially unregistered so their owners contribute to official unemployment rates. As you drive further into the township the buildings change as they become post-independence structures. These single story concrete block buildings built originally with no windows are given by the government once people earn a fixed amount per month; it appears the government now grants the land and the materials for the buildings rather than the building itself. ‘Owners’ currently buy the land and the house from the government over a period of 15 years for 22,000 Namibian dollars; they can use their own money to add further additions and windows.

We visited a kindergarten built onto one of the homes, run by Mama Gloria, a Herero woman. Dressed in traditional costume with a bright blue and white Victorian style dress and matching headdress that represents cow horns, Mama Gloria told us about the Herero culture including the mix of traditional ‘holy fire’ beliefs with Christianity and the different types of marriages. Her kindergarten is a private day nursery that also covers school grades 1 and 2; she currently has 56 children and employs 3 teachers with the government paying her 120 Namibian dollars for the school aged children (school education is free in Namibia). We were treated to some songs by the children, keen for a break from writing, before we left.

We drove through Modesa to the start of DRC, the rapidly growing informal settlement on its edges. New migrants in search of work have been given a piece of land for up to 4 years to give them time to gain employment and a salary to allow them to move to Modesa. But the rapid growth means the plan is now to make the DRC a more permanent settlement. One septic tank toilet is provided to each pair of plots (said to be emptied once a week along with the wheelie bins for rubbish) and pre-payment card water meters give access to clean water. Street lighting and facilities such as parks, health centres and soup kitchens are starting to become evident with some people being relocated to provide space for these facilities. 

Our next stop was to visit the home of a midwife in the DRC who talked us through traditional medicines and our guide attempted to teach us the different ‘clicks’ (a bit like tuts) that change the meanings of words in local Namibian languages. Our final stop was back in Modesa where we were treated to some local cuisine to sample and a performance by the a Capella group ‘African voices’. 

Leaving Swakopmund the next morning we drove up to Henties Bay, an expanding tourist resort that was once a tiny fishing village. A half hour walk along the beach once again illustrated the power of the Atlantic, luckily the tide was on its way out and soon the lone fisherman packed away.

Leaving the coast, we travelled inland and north to Damaraland stopping at Uis for lunch. Once a growing town with a tin mine (the slag heap greets you as you approach from the south), the mine closed in 1990 and it’s main business is now as a stop off and refuelling point for tourist traffic.

As the vegetation became denser with trees and shrubs we started to see scattered evidence of local life with mud and corrugated shack huts making up homesteads, cattle grazing and goats. The main gravel road has numerous stalls along it from which local women sell their crafts including beaded jewellery, wooden carvings and traditional dolls. We stopped off at the stall of a group of Herero women; the tour guides try to vary where they stop to distribute the ‘buyers’ amongst the sellers so all benefit. Our last stop of the journey was to look at Namibia’s highest granite massif, the Brandberg, at over 2000m above the desert plains. 

An early start the next day from the Damara Mopane Lodge to drive to Twyfelfontein (‘uncertain spring’ in Afrikaans). The rock engravings covering the sandstone slabs date between six thousand and two thousand years ago and are believed to have been done by nomadic San hunter-gathers. This UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts around 50,000 visitors per year and the information centre has been designed to leave no lasting footprint when it is demolished and replaced in the future.

Next stop was the Damara Living Museum, one of six living museums that aim to preserve the traditional tribal cultures and have been set up as social enterprise companies to create sources of income for the rural communities. Our guide took us round the ‘village’ to learn about the different aspects of Damara life from fire making to clothing to traditional medicines to the game a chief challenges another chief to if he wants to get rid of his wife. The star of the whole experience was a toddler who knew exactly what to do with one of our group’s ipad! Evidence, according to the guide, of the importance of such living museums so their next generation learn their traditional culture in an ever-changing world.

The Petrified Forest was our last stop of the day. With compulsory guides and very clear notices about the penalties for removing anything from the site, the Petrified Forest in a collection of over 200 fossilised trees that were petrified (trunks became permeated by aqueous silica which replaced the organic matter gradually over time) over 200 million years ago after being washed down the valley during times of flood and buried in the alluvium.

The last couple of days have provided a very brief, and arguably superficial, overview of the lives of people in Namibia and there long history of tribes, colonial rule under the Germans as South West Africa, annexation then rule by South Africa and post-independence. While travelling through the area I’ve been reading Neshani Andreas’ ‘The Purple Violet of Oshaantu’, the story of two Namibian women living in a tribal village with husbands who work away at the mines or in towns. The parallels between life described in the book and what I’ve learnt from my visits over the last few days are numerous.

Tomorrow we continue northwards towards Etosha National Park. Part 3 of #namibia about its animals, the Etosha saline pan and the national park to follow as my adventure continues

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