Swakopmund, Namibia – Mondesa Township Tour

Discover the cultures of northern Namibia
August 31, 2012
Swakopmund Museum
August 31, 2012
Discover the cultures of northern Namibia
August 31, 2012
Swakopmund Museum
August 31, 2012
Words and photos: Ron Swilling

Small house, big welcome

A Nama man awaits us outside his small, simple house. As we arrive, he welcomes us by blowing through a long, spiralled kudu horn. The striking image is one from aeons past and the strange, deep sound resonates through my body. He puts the horn down and smiles, his eyes lighting up, inviting us into his home.

Mondesa Township Tours, provide an opportunity to visit the people of Namibia who live in the township area of Swakopmund. Mondesa, like other townships, was created by the apartheid regime to segregate people according to the colour of their skin, with the township further divided into different ethnic areas. Even though apartheid became a policy of the past when Namibia gained her independence in 1990, Mondesa still houses approximately 17 000 people on the outskirts of Swakopmund. The tour is a chance to break away from the German architecture, Atlantic Ocean and palm trees characteristic of Swakopmund and to see some of Namibia’s many faces.

Click language

We enter the house called Shalom (peace) and sit in front of a small blackboard, receiving a lesson in the interesting Nama language with its four different clicks. Not only is the language peppered with clicking sounds alien to the western ear and difficult for our clumsy tongues to master; the meaning of the words depends on the tone of the speaker. Three words written the same way, have three different meanings when verbalised, using various intonations. We say “Gan-gans (thank you),” as the wife of our teacher enters, dressed in a brightly-coloured dress and red headscarf, her wide, friendly smile accentuating her honey-coloured Nama features. We are shown traditional remedies ranging from the root of the hardy desert-growing !Nara bush boiled and drunk as an antibiotic, to fire-blackened ostrich eggshell ground into a powder for the treatment of a baby’s upset stomach. She says, “This is the first-aid kit for my family that I am sharing with you.”

She also shows us tortoise shells used as containers to hold a powder made from aromatic bushes, to be dabbed on the body as perfume, using a piece of fur kept in the top. We leave the house, serenaded this time by the haunting sound from a gemsbok horn, and depart with many waves and goodbyes that continue until we are out of sight.

There are different areas in Mondesa housing three ethnic groups – the Damara, Owambo and Herero. We have a chance to stretch our legs, visiting a boutique where three people are busy at their sewing machines, surrounded by bright Owambo dresses with wide skirts and puffed shoulders.

We walk past the New Start centre used for testing and treating people with HIV/Aids, reaching the house where Charlotte grew up with her six siblings in the Damara part of the township, which consists of colourful houses with curved roofs. Children surround us with large smiles and oodles of friendliness. Charlotte dons her traditional Owambo clothes with onyoka-shell necklace, worn for weddings and special ceremonies, and shows us how to grind a grain called mahangu in the traditional way, using a long, pounding stick, as still seen throughout rural Africa.

We continue walking through the festive atmosphere typical of a Saturday, with music drifting out to us from the houses and children playing in the street. Children’s laughter follows us into a charmingly decorated craft shop called Surprise Arts and Crafts Centre, offering crafts that include ostrich-eggshell necklaces and makalani-palm kernels.

Back in the vehicle we make a quick stop at the open market and are shown bowls of Owambo food consisting of sorghum, chilli, maize, beans and dried patties of wild spinach.

Pounding mahango

Traditional dress

Entering the Herero section of the township, we are greeted by a distinguished-looking woman in a striking purple Herero dress outlined in the blue doorway of her house. She says: “The house is small, but the welcome is big.”

Angelica talks in Afrikaans and German while Charlotte translates, explaining that a girl cannot wear the Herero dress until she has undergone a special ceremony in her late teens, after which the long dress dating back to the Victorian era can be worn with pride and poise. Herero women wear up to seven layers under the skirt to give it a large appearance and walk slowly and with great dignity. The pointed fabric hat represents cow horns, significant and symbolic for the Herero people. Angelica places a cow-horn headdress on the head of a guest and there is much laughter, merry smiles and photographic opportunities.

The final part of the journey takes us from the old part of Mondesa through a newer section to a place called the DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community). The tours during the week visit the kindergartens that Charlotte supports, as well as a soup kitchen, saying that she knows what it’s like not to have enough food in the house. We visit Sarah, who is washing clothes in a bucket outside her house, which is made from sheets of metal and cardboard boxes, and are invited to step briefly into her simple home.

Moving collage

Driving back towards the town, I look at my watch and am surprised that three hours have passed. The colourful houses, friendly children and music drift away. We have enjoyed the experience of being welcomed into the homes of Namibian people with their different cultures, learning some of their words and being introduced to their traditional remedies and staple foods.

The images from the tour form a moving collage in my mind. The vibrant purple Herero dress against a sky-blue house merges with the attractive women with plaited hair from the DRC, living in makeshift houses surrounded by sand. The image of the kudu horn merges with the smiling eyes and large smiles of the Nama couple, the unfamiliar clicking sounds combining with the deep sound of the horn, and the sound of laughing children playing in the street. (RS)

This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘08 edition of Travel News Namibia.

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