Windhoek, Liberation Capital
Independence has really stamped its mark on modern day Windhoek. The old street names have been changed to reflect the heroes of the liberation struggle. Fidel Castro, Sam Nujoma, Independence, John Meinert, Hosea Kutako. Names amongst others I also encountered on Robben Island and in the story of the liberation.
Notable is Robert Mugabe Drive, which despite its dubious current reputation, shows how the loyalties run deep. It is truly a liberation capital.
The imposing huge statue of funding leader Sam Nujoma towers over the former colonial symbols of German fort and church. It is a statement of triumph, and as seen the world over, the victors write the history.
My day in Windhoek began with a familiar pattern. Coffee in an open air cafe where I can see people. I love watching all the hustle of city life and all the characters that move through the city scape.
Here sharp power dressing rules the morning, but with a colour flare that is truly an African style. Sure it is not everyone, but the colour combinations and dress composition is unique. Big costume Bling offset by outrageous colour combinations that somehow just work. Some of the snappiest dressed men I have seen in ages, composed down to the T. Amongst the Namibian population you have a lot of really beautiful women. It is obvious. Just so varied and interesting with the different indigenous peoples that make up this nation. Maybe it is just the difference that grabs my attention, but I am captivated.
Hair is a big thing. The African scalp does not seem to grow thick hair, so plait extensions, weaves and wigs are just everywhere and I mean everywhere. In Windhoek here it is unusual to see an African women without some sort of hair piece. It makes for a kind of vogue glamour look. Once I realised this I really started to look and enjoy the look of women who actually used their natural hair to make a statement. Interesting. Men pretty much all have a #1 cut. There is a style that is definitely African and here I see the urban side to it.
Men and women in uniform here and there all through the city, just reminds one that the struggle for independence is still in very recent memory. Desert Camo fatigues with black boots. Here to have the title of freedom fighter is a real honour, respected without question. A freedom city.
The thing I notice the most is that I am totally the minority here, as a white male, and I feel it. I felt self conscious in my first days here and so my camera just stayed in its bag… Bugger. !
I ventured down the pedestrian boulevards looking at stalls , shops. Nothing really amazing other than pretty standard mall environs with brand shops. It is not the high point. That is left just to the diversity of people that inhabit the city. Walking the streets of Cape Town and now Windhoek you are fairly constantly bombarded by beggars. You are obviously an outsider and an easy target. I had been warned about it but I am uneasy when it happens as I find it hard to be harsh! It is not as prevalent here as in Cape Town but it seems best to avoid eye contact with people hanging about, or wear dark glasses.
I have been looking for local music and that is how I met Antonio. A Serbian draft dodger who has made Windhoek his home for the last fifteen years. He has made a business out of promoting local music artists and a concoction of tshirt designs with images as popular as Robert Mugabe to Osama Bin Laden. He has a sense of humour and really attracted quite an eclectic bunch of punters to his stall. We talked for ages. I asked him if he knew anything about the gem markets, to which he replied that his only knowledge was that I will get robbed. He said heaps of people are robbed all the time as they try and source gems. As this is one of my main tasks travelling in Namibia it was not what I wanted to hear. He went further, he said, “my friend , you are too friendly and the muggers will see that and target you”. “Be very careful”. Just what I wanted to hear. It is an unsettling feeling walking in a city where you feel vulnerable, imagined or not!!. I bought some great cd’s and headed back out into the streets.
Lunchtime downtown is busy , with vendors of all types, food, veggies, goods, beggars. Just such a multi media experience.
Seeking Refuge I made it to the National art gallery and from there to the national museum. The art Gallery featured some work exploring the themes of land ownership and how current landless Namibians are barred from land purchase by price for land they claim was never legally bought in the first place. Stolen they claim by colonial settlers. It is politically topical as there are many protests currently regards access to land ownership. The Museum similarly questioned the disempowerment of the tribal groups through the experience of colonialism with displays detailing the long history of the indigenous peoples, along with precious artefacts and discussion around the theft of intellectual identity. Something you find here is that the politics is very much alive with a lot of debate.
I visited the Liberation Museum. A huge North Korean built Monolith , it towers over the old symbols of colonial power, the Fort and the Church. Tiled in various shades of tan and brown to symbolise the differing tribal groups of Namibia. It is a monument to the struggle with each floor detailing an aspect of the quest for autonomy. From earliest German colonialism with gruesome photos of execution of the Nama and Damara leaders, to the most recent war with the forces of the South African Apartheid regime. It is a triumphant depiction of the victory. Almost Soviet era in its use of large sculpture showing the fight and liberation. I watched some Namibians interact with the museum and it was apparent what it means to the locals of this fledgling nation. I could see the wonder and pride of the African Namibians visiting the museum whilst I was there.
This in no doubt is a liberation city. There is opportunity if you have the initiative to make something of yourself. This does not come easy to all Namibians. After 150 years of slavery , initiative was drummed out of the African Namibian. Do what the Baas says!!
Even so there is an electricity that pulses through the streets of Windhoek which you don't see in other Namibian towns, it is an electricity of freedom. I guess the city attracts those who want to participate.
There is still a huge township area on the other side of the highway. Katatura is a sprawling mass of closely grouped small houses spilling out into shanties made from new tin, then huts from old tin, and then on its edges to small grass dome huts where the dwellers can just crawl in. You can drive down the highway and see the grass huts, people's houses, subsisting on the fringes from selling cut grass for animal feed. It is quite a place with these definite contrasts. Amongst these fringes live the baboons as the wildlife seeps into the edges of the city. Africa is a wild place.
In the local paper, 'the Namibian', there is a daily two page spread where you can SMS a question or statement or complaint. It is full of hard felt appeals to the president not to forget the plight of the people. It is touching and very real. As the apparent wealth of those in government and associated circles rises there is a definite class devide widening. It is hard to avoid as those with the skills and ambition make great strides in this fast growing new nation. There is wealth to be harvested as there always has been in this resource rich land. How this filters down to grass roots is a big issue. The hope is for those that govern and lead the way to stay in touch enough with their fellow Namibians. That their hunger is still felt in the belly of the President, so that the children of the nation are fed and resourced in the same manner as the blood children of the President. It is an utopian wish but surely in a new nation fuelled with the fire of revolution, this is where utopian dreams are real. I hope so.
It takes a while to get to grips with this place, but once you do it is exciting. Despite all the criticisms there still is an optimism that Namibia is progressing to be a high functioning liberated African Nation.
It is early days.