Swakopmund just looks funny. It isn’t congruent with any sort of mental image one has of a city in Africa. Granted, that initial image is often quite misdirected to start with, given the shamefully limited amount of exposure we Americans get to African news/culture/history. It’s German influence was clearly visible; from its architecture and the manicured design of its streets to its cold meats at breakfast. The language of the predominantly white city population, however, was Afrikaans and the people were fiercely Namibian (which they made very clear if and when it came up in conversation).
The restaurants were overpriced compared to other stops we’d made, the meals costing roughly what they would back home. It was nice, however, to order some really well prepared fruit smoothies, western wraps, and grilled steak. There was a distinctly European feel to everything in that city and one could easily forget they were on the African continent.
That is, until you ventured even a few blocks outside the city. Like major metropolitan areas in South Africa (and South Africa governed Namibia until it gained independence in 1964) – Swakopmund is surrounded by sprawling townships, the raw materials utilized in the their construction getting progressively more temporary and non-robust the further out of the city you went, like the outer layers of an onion. Swakopmund’s main industry is mining – and people come from all over the country with the promise of better wages in the urban areas. However depressing, 90% of Swakopmund’s population live in the townships – and they are all people of color, known in Namibia as Black and colored (anyone with mixed blood/race), yet they earn/retain only 10% of its wealth. That is the reality here. Ethnically, Namibia’s gene pool is about as diverse as you can find here – with the main tribes living here being San, Tamara (who like the Xhosa in South Africa, have a language based around 5 clicks) Otambo, and Herero – though the Herero’s numbers are vastly diminished due to their almost being exterminated by the Germans after colonization in a massive genocide that I’d never even heard of.
Of course most of the group were busy doing the adrenaline activities Swakopmund is touristically famous for: Skydiving, quad biking, sand boarding and the like. I didn’t begrudge anyone enjoying these activities, of course, I just decided that I wanted to have a recuperative break here, and try to get to know the local communities a little better. So, together with the Frenchies Sandrine and Benoit, I elected to go on a Township tour that could be done on bicycle.
It was a wonderful experience.
First of all, it was just great getting out on a bike for the first time and getting some needed exercise. Our guide, Costa, was wonderful, generous, and enthusiastic about showing us the township which was also his home. We made several stops enroute – to try biltong being sold by women on the side of the road (this is a type of dried meat like jerky but way better tasting) and next to a Herrero woman’s home. She talked about what life was like here in the townships when the whites basically ousted all colored/black people to the outskirts of town – telling them that they would be provided better housing even though the purpose of the move was to establish segregation. She said her family were given a much better concrete house compared to the converted rail carriage that they had been living in, so they were happy.
I learned that Herreros are essentially descendants of the Himba people. The Himba were employed as servants and in general labor when the Germans first arrived here. However, the German wives were none too pleased that their husbands were in the constant company of women who walked about without shame of their nakedness. When these women started having babies that were far more light skinned than their husband’s genes would naturally procure, the wives insisted that the Himba employees clothe themselves modestly. The Herrero chose very distinct clothing to ensure that their heritage would remain very distinctive, with giant headdresses that appeared like the bulls of a horn and would make the people look taller than they were. Women of the Herrero were expected to marry young, and their husband would be chosen for them by their father’s brother. Of course, as in many African cultures, men could have multiple wives, but it was interesting to hear this woman talk about how it was the first wife’s job to choose wife number two and three, making sure that they weren’t as pretty as wife number one. For the lady whom we met, she thankfully said she’d raised seven children while being her husband’s only wife. Enquiries as to why he hadn’t married more women were politely smiled at but not answered.
Cycling further into the outskirts of the townships we were able to observe the concrete permanent structures changing to tin, corrugated metals and makeshift cardboard and the dwellings went on as far as the eye could see. Water is a precious resource in this township and it was interesting to see the line of people at the single pump for hundreds of residences, awaiting to pay money into a coin slot in order to fill up their jerry cans. When you ran out of cash, you also ran out of water…
Our guide explained how you could qualify for help with certain types of housing with the Namibian government. However, he also said that it wasn’t enough for you to have low wages; they had to be low enough to qualify, but high enough to afford the high interest rates on the mortgage. He said he didn’t earn anywhere near enough to qualify, and was stuck sharing a small two bedroom unit with about 6 of his friends.
As the sun was setting we also visited a herbalist who was Tamara and kindly also gave us a great demonstration of the five clicks of her language while talking us through the various herbs and remedies that provided her livelihood. It was so crazy to me that these people all lived together, all with such different backgrounds, cultures, each speaking their own native tongue but communicating with the majority either in English or Afrikaans. We finished our tour with some streetside bbq which was delicious and then retired to a local bar where we were serenaded by an incredible 8 member a capella group who astonished me with their beautiful faces and harmonies.
This was definitely one of the highlights of Swakopmund for me. The other came quite strangely, again, from my computer dilemnas. Attempting to find a cheap replacement laptop as well as a way to fix my camera, I met a woman called Marshall who worked at Royal Computers about 15 minutes walk from our hostel. After talking to her several times about the various models she had for sale, and discovering that she could very kindly restore the over 2000 photos that had been accidentally formatted from my SD card at a dumb internet café, she offered to drive me around the city in search of a good laptop. I couldn’t believe how kind she was, and after four or five stops, I found a decent Lenovo for just over $500 that would serve me well for the remainder of my trip, if not in life after.
She introduced me to her husband and son, and her co-worker Chri-Lei, and the small group of us hang out after the shop closed on a Saturday, chatting merrily about life and what my travels had been like thus far. I invited everyone out to lunch, but unfortunately the family had an appointment to go to. I sang Marshall a song after she requested one and choosing a Janis Joplin number, she welled up with tears as she reached to hug me goodbye when I finished. I was very moved.
Walking towards the beach in search of a deserved beer, Chris-Lei joined me and he and I ended up having several rounds of drinks over fish and chips at a great little beachside restaurant for the rest of the day. We talked about philosophy, religion, race, life in America, life for him in Namibia; there wasn’t a topic that was off the table, and it was so completely refreshing to feel such a great connection to another person. To feel that I mattered again, to someone if only for a few hours.
Returning to my hostel first to take care of some errands, we arranged to meet up later and catch a movie at the local cinema. Despite being a horrendous American Avengers movie, the cultural experience of going to a film here in Namibia made it well worthwhile. Popcorn was served only half-full – the people applying all manner of different flavored toppings before handing it back and having it filled completely. The movie theatre was packed small with people of every shade of color, all talking in multiple languages and often during the movie that had terrible sound quality. I still enjoyed myself thoroughly, especially in my new found friendship with Chris-Lei who later walked me back to my hostel.
It had been a lovely and refreshing change of pace to stay here a while. But it was time to head back out now into the southern desert.
very interesting post. sad to see such a difference between the white german town and the townships on the outskirts. makes me wonder if we will ever see a time when all races have equality, i don’t have much faith in that.
Marshall sounds like a lovely girl, so glad u got to meet her as well as Chris-Lei. you have a knack of meeting really nice people on your travels.
soaking up all the culture and the different tribe stories must have been fascinating, it was very interesting to read.