In the sparsely populated country of Namibia, it can be easy to stick to the African safari trajectory, seeking out animals and making little contact with the people of the country and everyday life. Although it was undoubtedly the least comfortable part of our trip, I was glad that we had the opportunity to veer off the safari trail and have a local Namibia experience when we spent two nights at my mom’s homestay in Rundu.
As much as I wanted to believe that I wasn’t affected by the accepted and misguided idea that sub-Saharan Africa is more homogenous than it is, I was. I thought my experiences with being thrown into local culture while spending time with relatives in Ghana would be useful precursors to visiting Namibia. They weren’t. As we made our way from Onkonjima to Rundu, Namibian people began to seem increasingly enigmatic and hard to discern. It made me want to know more about the country’s past.
Namibia’s Painful History
Namibia is the youngest country I’ve visited. It was only in 1990 that it became an independent country when it broke free from the tenacious grasp of the South African apartheid government. As I was preparing to visit, I wondered what it would feel like to be in a country where colonization and institutionalized racism were so recent and most likely palpable in way I’d never experienced before.
Prior to South Africa controlling it, Namibia was a colony of Germany which claimed it in 1884 during the Scramble for Africa. German rule over Namibia was incredibly harsh. The first act of genocide of the 20th century occurred in Namibia after the native Herero and Nama people rebelled against the Germans in the early 1900s.
After the Herero uprising, the German army indiscriminately killed members of the tribe and drove the rest off their land into the desert. They were prevented from returning to more hospitable land, and many of them died of thirst and starvation. Eventually the remaining survivors were put in concentration camps where they were forced to work under terrible and deadly conditions. Others were sent to death camps.
Horrific medical experiments were performed on Herero and Nama people and 3,000 skulls were sent to Germany for further experimentation. It was only a year ago in October 2011 that the German government started to return the skulls to Namibia for burial. In the end, about 50% of the Nama population and 75% of the Herero population were killed. Tactics used during that period in Namibia would later become a blueprint for the Holocaust.
In 1915, Germany lost its colonies after WWI, and Namibia was taken over by South Africa. People of European descent still had the power and owned disproportionate percentages of the land. And of course, when apartheid was instituted in South Africa, it was enforced in Namibia as well.
The treatment of the native people of Namibia in the very recent past has been incredibly vile, and the evil that the native people of the country have endured is exacerbated by the fact that Namibia’s story is rarely told or acknowledged. When I was in Berlin, I constantly came across memorials and museums to remember the atrocities and repression of previous eras. In Ghana, you can tour castles where slaves were kept before they were taken on the horrific journey to the Americas. There are memorial plaques that urge us to not forget what happened there and to not let happen again. In Namibia, there is not a single monument, museum or plaque commemorating these injustices. Its history remains buried in the sand.
How does this sort of past shape people when current members of the population have lived through some of it and the genocide of the German colonial rule occurred just a few generations ago? How does it affect people when their harrowing history is a kept a secret?
The Long Road to Rundu
After the cheetah experience, we left Okonjima and headed north. Along the way, we made a stop in Otjiwarango at grocery store called Super Spar. As we parked the car, a man came up to us and offered to watch our vehicle in exchange for money. I was skeptical of the possibility of a car getting broken into in a crowded lot in broad daylight, but apparently it was indeed a potential problem.
The store was crowded with people preparing for the holidays. The atmosphere was so unusual and I couldn’t figure out why it felt that way. It would take a day or two to pinpoint what exactly seemed so weird to me.
At the store, we got glimpses of some of the cultural groups of Namibia. We saw Herero women in their Victorian-influenced dresses and hats with horns that resemble those of the local cattle, a nod to culture’s cattle herding lifestyle. We also saw people of European descent here and there. There didn’t appear to be any friendly mixing of races, but it seemed that people were tolerating each other.
The prepared foods in the store left a lot to be desired. There were a lot of unrecognizable processed meats that looked like they had been sitting out for days. I decided to stock up on fruits, nuts, and crackers for lunch instead. Further along, we came across the butchery section which was decorated with trophy heads of game animals.
One might assume that supermarkets would be easy to navigate displays of globalization, but so often they remind me just how different people are in the distinct corners of the world. At first glance, the rows of plastic wrapped goods and bright florescent lights seem so familiar. But just a few steps later, you see that you’re most certainly not at home.
Back on the road, there was a lot of nothing and storm here and there. The climate morphed from arid to tropical and the landscape from grassland to farmland. As we got closer to Rundu, we drove through miles of villages comprised of hut compounds. Sometimes pedestrians would cross the road with a cow in tow. Some people set up shop by the roadside selling wood carvings or marula fruit, their stands often left unattended.
Then we reached Rundu, Namibia’s second largest city with a population of 80,000. There were no predators to get close to, no stunning sights to see, no physical feats to conquer in Rundu. This part of the trip was dedicated to the adventure of getting inside Namibian culture.