Windhoek – Where Africa and Europe meet

Namibia Nature Notes – stapeliads
September 3, 2012
Bird’s-eye view – Crimson-breasted shrike
September 3, 2012
Namibia Nature Notes – stapeliads
September 3, 2012
Bird’s-eye view – Crimson-breasted shrike
September 3, 2012

by Michaela Kanzler

In late 2004, motorists at the intersection of Sam Nujoma Drive and Robert Mugabe Avenue – not far from the Alte Feste Fort – looked on in amazement as steaming water bubbled from a crack in the tarmac. The municipality explains the phenomenon as ‘spring water being pushed to the surface’. According to geologist Nicole Grünert, the intersection is close to an active fault line. Several faults lines run through the Windhoek area from north to south, and it is thanks to these wonderful water ducts that the city and especially the suburb of Klein Windhoek boast numerous hot springs, although most of them are dry these days, due to the low water table.

From settlement to metropolis


The hot springs are the main reason for Windhoek’s existence. Oorlam-Nama, led by Kaptein Jonker Afrikaner, settled at /Ae//gams, the ‘place of hot springs’, in 1840. From 1884 onwards the area of present-day Namibia became a German colony; in 1890 Schutztruppe Commander Curt von François chose the centrally located settlement as the future administrative headquarters. The Alte Feste is built on a hill west of Klein Windhoek, close to a spring. Windhoek served as the seat of the country’s changing administrations: the Germans were in power until 1915, followed by the South Africans. When Namibia gained independence in 1990, the country’s first government ruled that Windhoek would remain the capital.

Each of the various phases in Namibia’s history has contributed to Windhoek’s character. Buildings from the colonial era play an important role in the almost cosy flair of the city’s CBD. They include the Alte Feste (1890, now a museum); Tintenpalast (‘Ink Palace’, 1913, now the Parliament building), surrounded by the well-kept Parliament Gardens extending all the way to Christuskirche (‘Christ’s Church’, 1907); the Zoo Garden (probably 1897) which adjoins Independence Avenue and offers a full view of Gathemann Building (1913, a row of shops); and Hotel Kaiserkrone (1899, extended in 1909, a shopping complex with a restaurant) in the pedestrian precinct of Post Street.

During South Africa’s administration several functional elements were added, true to the style of the prosperous sixties and seventies, such as the main post office (1962) and the dominant City Hall (1964). A few years earlier the apartheid regime’s policy of racial segregation left its mark in urban planning. Far from the city centre and white residential areas, the suburb of Katutura (Otjiherero for ‘we will never settle here’) was established for population groups of African descent, while Khomasdal was intended for people of mixed racial background. Namibia’s apartheid laws were disbanded in the 1980s and these borders started to blur only after independence.

Examples of the post-independence era are the imposing Supreme Court building with its ornamental colonnades and the innovative National Archive, and several American-style shopping centres such as Town Square and Maerua Mall. Old houses with verandas in front are pepped up and turned into offices or residences for the young up-and-coming middleclass. More and more African features appear side by side with the old building structures. For instance statues of Hosea Kutako, Hendrik Witbooi and Theophelus Hamutumbangela reminiscent of the struggle of the Herero, Nama and Owambo against South Africa’s apartheid regime have been erected in front of the colonial Tintenpalast.

On the culture track

Windhoek may seem provincial to New Yorkers or Londoners, but those who have lived here for any length of time find that the city operates at a leisurely pace and will tell you that a few days are simply not enough to experience all it has to offer.

The history and culture of Namibia and its people are reflected in the city’s archives and museums. There are permanent and varying exhibitions at the State Museum in the Alte Feste (colonial era, exile of the liberation movement SWAPO, independence), at the Owela Museum (natural history, rock art, peoples of Namibia) and at the Railway Museum of the State Railway Company Trans-Namib in the station building. A small museum at Geological Survey of Namibia focuses on mining and the geological history – which reads like an open book of the entire country.

If you have a penchant for the arts, visit the National Gallery of Namibia (it houses the Permanent Collection and presents regular exhibitions), the Omba Gallery (varying exhibitions, including local crafts) and Atelier Kendzia (well-known artists, as well as young artists). Artists of African descent, such as Joseph Madisia and Papa Shikongeni, and their colleagues of European descent, such as Anneli Ketterer with her fascinating sand structures and Barbara Pirron (mixed media), complement and influence one another. The Katutura Arts Centre is also well worth a visit.

The delightful variety of arts and crafts is most inspiring. There are the classic businesses with long traditions, as well as small ordinary projects with which Windhoekers who have no formal training but plenty of talent earn a living. The range includes heavyweights such as the embroidery business anin (products are available in the Namibia Crafts Centre, among others) and weavers (Dorka Carpets in the Elephant Crossing, Ibenstein Weavers in the Namibia Crafts Centre and Woven Arts in the backyard of the Old Brewery building), and the many established jewellers, goldsmiths and specialist shops offering jewellery created from Namibia’s multitude of gemstones. Some designs combine African and European features in the most beautiful way. The same is true for Namibia’s well-known furrier goods made from karakul pelts and ostrich, kudu and other leather. Wooden carvings and other souvenirs can be found at street stalls on Independence Avenue and in Post Street Mall.

View of Katutura township

Many of the arts and crafts workshops are open to visitors, especially in the suburbs. Examples are Penduka (the name urges women to ‘Wake up’) and Matukondjo Dolls (‘Life is a struggle, but we will persevere’) on the outskirts of Katutura. Mainly women are involved in these initiatives, and they print on home textiles, do tailoring, and make pottery and dolls. Many of the items produced through such projects are sold at outlets in the city. In the Namibia Crafts Centre, housed in the hall of a former brewery, all kinds of arts and crafts are on offer at 25 stands spread over three storeys. In the middle of all these activities, tired feet can have a rest while their owners enjoy cake, a wholesome meal or perhaps a sundowner at the Craft Café.

Cuisine from every continent

Speaking of gastronomy, even though Windhoek is not a big city, you will find yourself spoilt for choice when it comes to culinary delights. In Independence Avenue Café Zoo sports a beautiful outdoor terrace shaded by trees. Café Schneider and Mugg & Bean in the centre of town are places where office workers meet for lunch. The small open-air café of the weekly Green Market in Klein Windhoek, where local bio-products can be bought, makes for a pleasant meeting place on Saturday mornings.

For dinner you have the full range to choose from – be it Chinese, Indian or Portuguese cuisine. Establishments include a traditional Italian pizzeria, an Argentinean steakhouse and several classy gourmet restaurants. The rustic Joe’s Beerhouse in Klein Windhoek with its cult status offers truly Namibian cuisine, especially game specialities. Of course, you can also dine the African way. A hot tip is the Otjikaendu Restaurant (‘large, corpulent woman’) in Katutura where Milba Tjahere, the owner and model for the name, prepares her ‘Smilies’, stuffed heads of sheep and goats that are famous all over the town. If you prefer a dish that doesn’t grin at you, there’s chicken curry or grilled steak.

Thus fortified, you can plunge into the cultural scene or the nightlife of the capital – preferably at the end of the week. The Friday issues of the daily newspapers, The Namibian (English), Republikein (Afrikaans) and Allgemeine Zeitung (German) contain details of what is on in and around town. The Warehouse Theatre in the Old Brewery is highly recommended. In a stimulating atmosphere, local and international theatre and cabaret performances are presented to a mixed audience – which gets up to dance when a music group takes the stage. Every now and then the National Theatre puts on concerts, musicals and ballets that are produced in Windhoek or neighbouring countries (mostly South Africa). At times there are cultural events from further abroad at the Goethe Zentrum or the Franco Namibian Cultural Centre.

Between Katutura and Heroes’ Acre

Apart from its European face, Windhoek also has one that is African. The best way to get to know it is with Katutura Face to Face Tours. Qualified guides take you through their part of town in a charmingly uninhibited manner. They show you the small houses of the township, the Penduka project and the Soweto Market with its hairdressing salon, tailor shop and barbecue stall. The excursion ends with a drink in a shebeen (African bar). During the tour, lingering traces of apartheid will be pointed out to you.

In commemoration of the struggle against South African oppression, a memorial site called Heroes’ Acre was established on the southern outskirts of Windhoek. If you’re interested in plants or simply looking for a quiet spot, the Botanical Garden (see the article on p 22) is just the place. A sensation of wild Africa can be experienced close by at Daan Viljoen Game Reserve, 20 km west of Windhoek in the Khomas Hochland. In the hilly landscape and typical African bush savannah, you can go hiking and encounter game – a mere 15-minute drive from the pulsating life of Windhoek’s city centre.

This article appeared in the May/June ‘05 edition of Travel News Namibia.

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