Travels in Namibia
by John Cho



On the second story of a concrete block house in the colored township of Khomasdal, Namibia sits the grandiosely monikered Eldorado Youth Hostel. The only gold you will see there are the optimistically colored chains draped around the necks of the three male fixtures: Freddy, Carlo, and Alex. Freddy is the man in charge, all jive and smiles, Carlo, the stuttering hanger-on with a vacantly worried look, and Alex is the aspiring rap star who had spent some years in Germany, freeloading his way with a hipper-than-thou insouciance through his "poverty phase."

The hostel hosts an international stream of drop-ins and drop-outs, but the most common point of origin is Cape Town, South Africa. It's 1993, i.e., three years post-independence here but pre-Mandela in South Africa, and the middle-class holiday makers from the Cape are curious as to how things are going under the black-majority, SWAPO rule in Namibia. By this time the writing on the wall reads "ANC" back home and those who are not blind realize that Namibia is a peek into their own future. Cape Town, then, with a large colored population that tends to hedge its bets conservatively with the National Party, is a natural source of guests for Eldorado.

This term "colored" imparts a musty, antediluvian flavor to us Americans, but in Namibia it is a sad fact that years of apartheid have effectively quantized the black-white spectrum into the sanctioned three shades: black, colored, and white. That is, the creation of quarter-castes, octoroons, and finer gradations of mixture of the so-called races was suppressed because of the illegality of "miscegenation," and consequently the half-tone coloreds had become a social group of their own. The absurd racial laws were further reenforced by self-segregation because the coloreds were more privileged under this structure than the blacks. Thus, townships like Khomasdal developed as monochrome entities. (Americans cannot be smug about this, since many of our cities continue to be segregated without the excuse of apartheid legislation.)

Alex is way beyond any of this nonsense. He is totally plugged into the real value system of today. Just look at his customized baseball cap, which has the lettering "LcS" that, on closer inspection, turns out to be the symbols for the pound sterling, cent, and dollar. Who cares about racial identity except as a marketing niche? In fact, who cares about this sorry-ass country called Namibia?

Apparently Carlo cares. Not able to afford a night out in the nearby capital Windhoek, Alex and Carlo couchpotato it with the one channel available on the black-and-white television--NBC (Namibian Broadcasting Corporation). Top item on the news: President Nujoma plants a tree in Keetmanshoop, gives a speech about national reconciliation. Alex giggles; annoyed glance from Carlo. Next up: an interview with Miss Universe, a blonde Namibian bombshell. Carlo visibly swells with pride and excitement. She says she is setting up a trust fund for the poor children of Namibia, and will be heading to Hollywood for a possible movie career after her reign is over. Alex guffaws; Carlo fumes. Next: police officers are threatened with punishment if they use Afrikaans on duty. Before Alex can snidely remark "SWAPO gestapo" Carlo erupts painfully, "Wh-why don't you g-g-go back to b-b-b-bloody Germany?"

* * *

After a swing through the southwestern part of the country, camping in the Namib Desert, Lüderitz, the Fish River Canyon, Ai-Ais Hot Springs, and the Hardap Game Park, I return nine days later to Khomasdal hungry for vegetables and company. Although Lüderitz, a decaying seaport with an abandoned diamond mine, provided a welcome dose of fresh seafood (kingclip and raw oysters) as well as the jarring sight of jackass penguins against a backdrop of gently sloping desert dunes, my diet read like the mantra of a carnivorous ascetic: meat, bread, crackers, meat, bread, chips . . . Enviable, perhaps, in some other countries, but I am beginning to miss the aesthetic and nutritional qualities of earth-grown produce. I quickly stalk through the weed-infested lot behind the hostel to the small supermarket next to the disco. There I pick out a couple of green peppers individually wrapped in plastic like the precious gems that they are in this desert nation.

Back in the hostel kitchen I whip up some macaroni with cheese and bell peppers and tomato sauce. Freddy the manager comes by and asks me how my trip was. He complains to me that his girlfriend is taking up too much of his mind. I silently wonder how much of his mind is taken up by his wife. He looks sharp in a light-grey suit with the self-satisfied demeanor of a man who has worked out the system. He's on his way to an evening church service. I ask him where Carlo is. Freddy chuckles. Carlo was in a knife fight and is in the hospital. "He'll be fine," Freddy says. "Sometimes, Carlo, he doesn't think too much."

While wolfing down my red, green, and creamy yellow dinner, I fall into a conversation with Chris, an Australian union leader who is consulting a black union in Johannesburg. He paints a rather violent picture of Joburg life, with much of the head bashing instigated by the township police. Heavy-duty arms are easy to obtain since RENAMO in Mozambique restructured itself from a guerilla force to a political party; AK47s are flowing across the border and being sold for a few dollars of hard currency. Carjackings are rampant, and the joke of the moment is that BMWs are called "German takeaways." Chris feels, though, that it's an exciting time, and that the ANC has solid support. His assessment of South African industry is negative. "Government is too confrontational with labor. Outdated technology, shitty products. Like American car makers." Later I hear him grilling a local man who works at an auto parts manufacturer. "You make pistons? Import clutch plates? How many factory workers?"

In the common room Alex is still parked in front of the TV, despairing at the predictability of an American sitcom ("Family Matters") and laughing at the production quality of the local shows. He looks like a young, short Youssou N'Dour with that baseball cap. He also bitches that a Windhoek recording producer blew off an appointment with him. In all the time that I see him, he never works on his music. Meanwhile a strange news item is announced on TV: the government dismisses rumors that Cuban soldiers have landed in Lüderitz Bay on their way to support Angola's MPLA government. Strange, because the Cubans would have to cross almost all of Namibia, through hundreds of miles of the world's oldest desert, to reach the Angolan border from Lüderitz.

Later I meet Connie and Petra from eastern Germany. We agree to share the cost of my rental vehicle to tour the Etosha Pan Game Park.

* * *

Etosha is a low-key, do-it-yourself game park with a stunning range of inhabitants. I try to keep a list of every creature I could identify: zebras, wildebeests, springboks, gemsboks, giraffes, elephants, a kudu, steenboks, turtles, hyenas, ostriches, herons, vultures, pelicans, black-faced impalas, black rhinos, a lion, hartebeests, and jackals. There are many more that I cannot identify. For me the highlight is a sunrise encounter with a lioness who comes out to drink at a water hole. She ambles out of the bush so slowly, with supreme confidence, crosses in front of our parked car, takes a long drink, pisses, then leisurely heads back. Then she meowls. Just like a big version of a domestic cat! Her teats are full--she must be calling to her cubs.

Between sunset and sunrise we are required by park regulation to retreat to one of the secure camping sites, so there is nothing to do but talk. Connie, Petra, and I free-associate our way through a gamut of topics: our families, natural disasters, computers, native Americans, Erich Honnecker, and water resource management. Connie is a college student, while Petra works in her father's bookstore. They are both around twenty. Connie seems to be afraid of many things in the world. This trip must have required a great deal of resolve. Petra, on the other hand, is much more nonchalant and unselfconscious. She is lying there reading Nadine Gordimer in her underwear. I wonder what lies ahead of her with neither college education nor apprenticeship. Marriage and children, I suppose.

After Etosha I part ways with the women and visit Bushmen rock painting and engraving sites, a sort of natural museum tour. Some sites have the added attraction of requiring a stiff hike or a climb. I also spend some time in Swakopmund, where a small German community from the pre-WWI colonial era still maintains their Brautradition and Konditoreien. Then, after seriously burning my butt walking around naked on the Skeleton Coast, I decide to drop in on some Peace Corps volunteers in Khorixas. I just know that a town of that size would have a few secondary education volunteers, so I stop at a store where some students are hanging out and ask where the Peace Corps live. I am right. A bespectacled boy shows me the way to the house of Rebecca, George, and Marie.

George is a gregarious ethnic Filipino. He says the only other Asians the kids there see are in the ubiquitous Hong Kong kung fu flicks, with predictable consequences for George. This is just an annoying bolus of life for an Asian PCV in non-Asian countries. I tell him that every teenager in Sierra Leone recognized me instantly as Golden Fox. There are worse things than being mistaken for an action star of grade D movies.

But, in fact, there are worse things here. Rebecca and Marie both have plenty of anecdotes about unreconstructed white supremacists (mostly Boers). The volunteers find themselves trusted by neither the black nor the white community, with some of the latter accusing them of being brainwashed by the U.S. government and media. Unfortunately the paranoia of the whites and the dissatisfaction of the blacks are both justified to some extent, since the government is arbitrarily replacing white civil servants with black ones, but does not have any kind of land reform to loosen the strangle hold on the ranches and farms by the white minority. So the dwindling circle of whites in Khorixas hold nostalgic costume parties in the clubhouse ballroom trying to recreate the good old days, while young black dropouts get into drunken knife fights because three-years post-independence they still cannot see a future.

Driving back toward Windhoek the next day, though, the NBC radio jingle is gratingly upbeat in 1960s lingo: "Together we can make a better scene . . ."

* * *

When I return to Eldorado I note that Carlo is back with stitches in his abdominal stab wound. Freddy is bickering with his girlfriend. Alex is still waiting for Godot. Today's news: the head of the National Development Brigade (a white) denies that they are a secret SWAPO army infiltrating areas of weak support.

I share a room with Alex and two young women from Cape Town, one white (Elizabeth) and one colored (Bonita). They came intending to find jobs and staying on for a while, but they are ready to give up after one week. "Too boring here," they say. They are both so wired and animated, like creatures in a Tex Avery cartoon, that I can't imagine any place being happening enough for them. "Come to the Cape," they say. "It's a party town."

No, cartoon isn't quite right. They are more like a working-class sitcom without the expletives deleted, and better because the dialogue is not as predictable. (Finally, an interesting program for Alex!) The shit is flung back and forth furiously, and nothing is left unsplattered, especially sex and race. It's fascinating to me that they are so absolutely comfortable with racist humor. But they are certainly fair in goring all parties including their own.

We also have very frank discussions about sex, but a story that Elizabeth recounts puzzles me. It seems that while she was taking an afternoon nap one of the Cape Town men staying in the hostel came into the room and started fondling her beneath her clothes. (She wrinkles her nose: "So disgusting!") But instead of getting up and slugging his face she pretended to be still asleep and merely turned over to get his hands off her breasts. After she finishes telling us, she looks sheepish and blames herself for seeming like a girl who would be easy!

Late at night we get the munchies so I drive the women to a 24-hour petrol station for some junk food and sodas. They swoon over my Toyota Hilux 4x4. "Dreamy," they say. I feel as if I've been sucked into a syndicated rerun.

* * *

Eight days later I am back from my final excursion, which took me through the Caprivi corridor into Botswana and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls and the Great Zimbabwe ruins, then back through the Kalahari to Namibia. There were many peculiar moments like trying to tow out a Landrover that tumbled off the road and down towards the Chobe River after passing me and swerving to avoid an elephant. Or having exactly one tent stake stolen while camping in a city park. Or finding myself trading the shirt off my back for a soapstone carving. Or dining at Buffalo Bill's in Bulawayo under a Confederate flag and a disco version of "Let's do the Time Warp" playing in the background. Or being offered a tryst in the back room by the proprietress of a hair salon that also sold vegetables and live chicks. But what made all the hard hours of driving over washboard roads entertaining were the hitchhikers.

The Boer manager of Namib 4x4 had warned me not to ("Don't give rides to the blacks. It's dangerous."), but it seemed silly for me to be driving alone in a double-cab truck, and the ride was actually better with more weight in the back, so I picked up hitchers whenever there were any. How are these people expected to travel in a country with almost no public transport anyway?

I kept a list of these people:

Old man with empty petrol can. Speaks some German. Complains about drought. Thanks me profusely for ride.

Two women with children going to a hospital.

Three men going to Bagami.

An older man going to the agricultural station at Omega 1.

Three young men from Omega headed to Katima. One (Patrick) is a talker with good English. A soldier during the civil war, he now works for the National Development Brigade. We discuss the meaning of "race" in America. I explain that both the coloreds and the blacks would be called "black" in the States. He has the notion that "negro" is a tribe and concatenates Blackamerican into a single word different from "real" Americans. He himself is black and says that people call the coloreds "bastards." He is in favor of keeping the races separate. As he gets out in Katima, he whispers that he wants to sell me some diamonds for smuggling out.

Chris, a water resource Peace Corps volunteer traveling from Katima to Chobe. He is still wistful about his previous stint in the Solomon Islands. Once he spent five weeks doing a survey on a remote island where "women went around bare-breasted with flowers in their hair, and everyone sat around a fire at night singing and dancing."

Two Brit girls, a New Zealander, and a local man headed south from Vic Falls. The Kiwi talks non-stop. A racist who doesn't realize that he is.

Several Zimbabwean men going toward Masvingo. They become very friendly when they find out that I'm American. One of them is a miner who complains that even though he has completed secondary school he can't find a better job. He wants to move to South Africa like his brother did; he is sure there is better opportunity across the border.

An old woman on the road to Ghanzi. She only seems to speak Setswana. She is actually surprised when I give her a ride, and has trouble figuring out how to open the door.

A middle-aged man just outside Ghanzi. He is a brick maker. He is the first hitcher who tells me that things are going well, that his business is growing.

* * *

I spend a cool, sunny Saturday strolling in Windhoek. My last full day in Namibia. After browsing through the crafts market in the pedestrian mall, I take a break in the very Central European garden of the Tintenpalast. A wedding party comes through with the familiar accouterments of white satin and black tuxedos. One of the men in the party comes over and sits next to me on the bench. He does not look well and explains to me that he is severely hung over from the previous night's stag party. He still reeks of liquor. Then, without provocation, he launches into an epic diatribe.

This man...

1) studied in Europe,
2) married a Finn,
3) supported the South African puppet regime ("They were good--the only mistake they made was not recognizing blacks as humans."), and
4) works as an economist for Mobil.

And yet, he goes on and on about the SWAPO technocrats who are too Western, the evils of American foreign policy, and the need to reject the Western economic model. I may agree with some of his opinions but he is too intoxicated by his self-righteousness that my views do not matter. He looks at me and just sees another American imperialist.

* * *

Back at the Eldorado Youth Hostel business is slow. The dance hall in the next block is pumping out distorted disco beats. Freddy is out as usual, while Alex and Carlo argue in front of the TV. Michael Jackson is being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. I sip my glass of South African pomegranate juice and wish for another month of vacation.

Copyright 1996, John Nagamichi Cho. Contact John Cho at: jcho@pemtropics.mit.edu or visit his website at http://pemtropics.mit.edu/~jcho/

John Cho at Large / Technobeat Central