The colours of the township

Seals thrive off the coast of Namibia
July 26, 2012
A day in Harare
July 26, 2012
Seals thrive off the coast of Namibia
July 26, 2012
A day in Harare
July 26, 2012

Text and photographs Ron Swilling

Fragments of music and the bubbling sound of children’s laughter waft through the streets. The aroma of kapana (strips of meat) sizzling on braziers is picked up and carried briefly on the wind that buffets the weather-beaten tri-colour Swapo flags proudly cresting the tops of an array of colourful houses.

Leaving the swaying palms and coffee shops of Swakopmund behind, I join Hata Angu’s Mondesa tour (and a minibus full of international guests) to experience ‘the other Namibia’, as an Italian guest aptly describes it.

The bustle of people walking in the streets, children playing, food being sold on street corners and the beat of popular tunes merge to create our first impression as we enter township territory. Small tuck shops, shebeens and barbershops nestling amongst the houses become visible. A child cartwheels down the street with glee, and children take turns skipping over rope and leaping into the air a small distance away.

A remnant of racial segregation from before Namibian independence in 1990, the ‘township’ endures long after apartheid has turned cold. A melting pot for various local groups, it survives as an integral part of the country, providing affordable living space for hundreds of thousands of Namibians.

Townships often came into being due to contract labourers travelling from their homes to the towns, and continue to attract rural people, who arrive hopefully in search of employment. With a high national unemployment rate, however, the dream of a salary often remains elusive. The township includes houses with all the modern amenities, as well as an informal section with makeshift homes where communal water points are provided by the municipality.

For travellers to Namibia unable to visit local cultures in the rural areas, always the preferred option, township tours provide an opportunity for an introduction to the various Namibian cultures and to see how a large section of the Namibian population lives. In Windhoek, operators offer trips into Katutura; in Walvis Bay to Kuisebmond; and in Keetmanshoop to Tseiblaagte.

The DRC and Herero culture

On the outskirts of Swakopmund, we begin our four-hour Mondesa tour with a stop in the DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community). In the informal settlement, the ramshackle houses are accentuated by the desert surrounds and the windy afternoon. We step gingerly into the quaintly painted home of a Nama herbalist, Christa Auguste, to receive a lesson on traditional remedies, while mica dust floats in the breeze, catching sunbeams.

Several intriguing remedies surprise the motley group of Dutch, Canadian and Italian tourists, such as the smoke of burning aardwolf dung believed to chase away bad luck; and of elephant dung boiled and swallowed to assist women giving birth. Some of us recognise the more popular cures, such as hoodia extracts used to suppress the appetite, and devil’s-thorn tea to relieve arthritic conditions. After the bottles of tubers, twigs and bark have been passed around, our guide follows with a short lesson on the four clicks in the Nama language, made by placing the tongue in different parts of the mouth. The click prefix changes the meaning of the word dramatically; the word ‘kill’ being but a click away from the word ‘love’. We now have the appropriate terminology and can bid Christa ‘!gai//oas’ as we depart.

Our next stop gives us an introduction to Herero culture. Dressed traditionally in the cow-horn headdress and striking, long full skirt that Herero women usually wear at ceremonies, Naftalena welcomes us into her house. Sitting at her desk, with a cellphone in hand, she answers questions about her dress, the system of polygamy still practised by the Herero who reside predominantly in the central regions of the country, and her role as an HIV/AIDS counsellor supporting a group of AIDS orphans. Everyone laughs when she describes the practice of polygamy in the Herero culture – in which cattle are recognised as a form of wealth – simply by saying: “If a man has lots of cattle, he can have more than one wife.”

Many distinct cultures

The final destination, after a quick and windy walk around a block in the neighbourhood, is to a shebeen, the name derived from the illegal bars once dotting the country. Here, at Back of the Moon, the interesting Oshiwambo cuisine is laid out for sampling. Delicacies such as mopane worms fill a pottery bowl on the table, among servings of stiff porridge made with mahangu (a kind of pearl millet cultivated in northern Namibia), which is complemented by the sandy spinach dish, ekaka; different cooked varieties of locally grown beans; dried eembe and makalani fruit; and a grainy omaluvu drink. Although several people try the mahangu porridge, using the right hand to scoop up the spinach mixture, only a few brave diners sample the mopane worms, reacting with amusing facial expressions.

As the sun begins to dip in the sky, we return to the vehicle and make our way back into the wide streets of central Swakopmund and the world with which we are familiar. Most of the travellers continue on their Namibian tour to visit the country’s extraordinary highlights. Something has changed, however. Each one of us now has an understanding that Namibia is home to many cultures, each with its own distinct languages and remedies that have survived into the twenty-first century, and belief systems that often exist in conjunction with Christianity. It also reminds us how the past of a country influences and shapes its present as it learns to stand solidly on its own feet. Enriched by our brief introduction, we disperse to continue on our different journeys.

The friendliness of the children remains after our short sojourn in the township, as does the understanding that Africa, although influenced dramatically by the western world, has a rich, diverse and vibrant cultural heritage.

This article appeared in the July’12 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.

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