When we arrive at the homestay in Rundu, Namibia, we’re greeted by the house mother, a woman in her late thirties. There are also a number of relatives around the house. I can never remember who is who, but we’ll see them regularly during our stay.
The inside of the house is clean and simple. The kitchen is in a state of transition having recently been ripped out so it could be installed in the apartments she is renting out on her property. There’s a hot plate for a stove, two mini fridges, and dishes in boxes. In the dining room, there’s a plastic table and chairs.
We settle into two bedrooms and our mom shows us how she’s been living. We use a nonsensical, slow, and expensive service called Netman to go online for a tiny bit. Then it’s time for dinner.
A culture’s history is often written in its cuisine. Flavors and ingredients are much more than the moment they hit your taste buds, they have stories to tell about ideals, struggle, trade, colonization, geography.
On our first night in Rundu, our homestay mother has prepared traditional Namibian food in addition to some food my mom has ordered. She serves us mutete (a spinach-like vegetable) stew with mahangu (millet) porridge. As I sample it, I’m surprised to find that it’s flavorless.
As someone who’s hosted many foreigners, our house mother seems aware and possibly slightly amused that we don’t actually like it even though we tell her it’s alright. She is very hard to read.
I wonder if Namibian cuisine is grounded in a tradition that says food is food. I wonder if the country’s largely barren terrain or its harsh history have curtailed opportunities to experiment with flavors. Or maybe it’s a combination of one or more of the above.
That night we sleep on flimsy mattresses purchased from what are locally known as “China shops”. In Namibia’s larger towns, there are decent sized populations of Chinese immigrants. Many of them run stores selling low quality goods at cheap prices. It seems like an unlikely scenario for Namibia, but sure enough with each city we visit, I see it.
In the morning we shower with buckets, something I’ve only done a few times that I haven’t done in years. I quickly realize bucket showering requires specific skills. The first morning, I am heavy handed with the bucket and run out of water quickly. The next morning I would learn from my mistakes, and while I wouldn’t become a pro, I’d feel slightly cleaner than the morning before.
For lunch, we visit the Omashare Lodge. In Rundu, there are lodges along the Okavango River that have restaurants with outdoor seating and fancy accommodations. Rundu in one of the northernmost parts of Namibia and across the river we can see Angola. Borders always fascinate me. The fact that an invisible line determines language, opportunities, and so much more never seems to make sense when I’m looking at one. Borders thrill me as a traveler and confuse me as a human.
The few people around us at the restaurant are mostly speaking Portuguese, the official language of Angola. There’s a peacock roaming around the property. Everything’s green and the air is muggy and it’s about to rain. The scenery reminds me of Ghana, but that also enhances the feeling of how different the vibe is from Ghana’s.
It pours most of the afternoon and small millipedes come out of nowhere and everywhere. Unlike the large one we’d seen at Okonjima these were small ones in large quantities. At first they gross you out and you do everything you can to avoid stepping on them. But it’s only a matter of time before you stop worrying and all of a sudden you step and… crunch.
We spend much of the afternoon at my mom’s project site. She works with physically disabled people teaching them business and cooking skills so they can eventually start and operate their own restaurant. I am impressed with the set up, knowing that the project was started by a volunteer from another organization not all that long before. We don’t get to meet any project members because they are on a holiday break, but a customer had put in a request for baked goods so we set about making carrot cake and brownies.
That evening we have dinner with the host mother and her family again, but my mom prepares Ghanaian food. There’s nothing quite like your mom’s cooking and it’s nice to have those familiar flavors again.
As we leave Rundu the following morning, I know exactly what seems so strange to me about Namibia — the absence of emotion in the people and in the atmosphere.
Later on our trip, we’d encounter boisterous people with booming voices. I’d be shocked until my mom would tell me that they were most likely immigrants from Zimbabwe. And they always were.
Of course, I didn’t spend enough time in Namibia. And clearly, my impressions of Namibia’s people were altered by my prior experiences and expectations. My interactions with Africans had mostly been with Ghanaians and other different but similar cultures of West Africa. I’d come to see Africans as expressive and passionate people. I grew up with the Ghanaian adults encouraging kids to get on the dance floor and after we’d gone to bed, having animated discussions into the night about what was best for the country. The food had heaps of flavor and spice and yet there was always a condiment with even more flavor and spice to add to it. And perhaps what made Namibia seem even stranger to me was that I’d been to places in Asia and Latin America that seemed more similar to Ghana than Namibia did.
This one African country should be similar to this other African country, right? Right?
This was a bad case of expectations. But this is what travel is great for, shattering ideas with little substance and replacing them with new ones based upon knowledge gained from experience.
But aside from my expectations, I also feel strongly that a history of being forced to be subservient and perhaps numbness as a coping method have led to the suppression of culture and personality in Namibia.
I cannot say for sure how its history is linked to its culture today, but instinctively I feel that people and places have a need for their stories to be told and heard; that it’s hard to recover if the past is not acknowledged, if your country is looked at like a playground where tourists camp on the site of a former death camp, completely unaware of what happened there.
There are signs of change. Germany has made an apology to Namibia for the genocide (although it was criticized because it didn’t account for the whole period and the German government refuses to pay reparations). Land ownership still heavily tilts toward those of European descent who make up the smallest percentage of the population, but native Namibians are fighting to regain land that was taken from their ancestors.
Of all the places I’ve traveled to, I’ve never seen a place that seems to need lifting up like Namibia does. I hope that its story will continue to emerge from darkness and give the country a chance to heal.
(This post is a continuation of this one)