Namibia, the ‘Vast Wasteland’

April 27, 2019

Make a whole pot of coffee... or pour yourself a drink. This is long and parts of it are tough.












April 21-22, 2019, Walvis Bay, Namibia — If the name Namibia doesn’t ring a bell, you might remember your history books talked about a place called German Southwest Africa, colonized by Germany in 1884... which became Southwest Africa after the Germans left in 1915. South Africa then swallowed it up, making it their 5th province. It won independence from SA in 1990, becoming the third newest country on the continent, after Eritrea (independent from Ethiopia since 1993) and South Sudan (which broke away from Sudan in 2011). Most other sub-Saharan countries had achieved independence by 1960.


Unlike some other modern African countries, Namibia is not ethnically or tribally divided. But like so many, it suffered greatly at the hands of white European settlers. After Namibia’s Herero tribe rebelled against the colonists — who wanted to put them on reservations so they could take their land — and killed 123 Germans, the Germans retaliated with an attempt to exterminate the entire tribe. Britannica states: ‘… the conflict between the Herero people and German colonial troops ... in 1904 and the ensuing events of the next few years … resulted in the deaths of about 75 percent of the Herero population, considered by most scholars to be genocide’ — the first genocide of the 20th century. Our lecturers glossed over this. Today whites account for only 7% of the country’s 2.6 million inhabitants.


We intended to tender at Lüderitz on Easter Sunday, but the seas were too rough and we abandoned that port. Had we landed, I would have visited that Bavarian-flavored city between the vast sand dunes and the sea, famous for its Art Nouveau architecture and brightly colored houses. And I would have visited Kolmanskop, a diamond-mining village — one of the wealthiest in the world at the time. Over 5 million carats of diamonds were mined in the first 6 years since they’d struck gold, so to speak, in 1908. But when the mines played out, the populace moved out and this became the ‘ghost town of the Namib,’ with buildings literally swallowed by the dunes. I missed a terrific photo op!


We did manage to land at Walvis Bay, a day further north up the Namibian coast. The British had claimed this region in 1795, annexing it into their Cape Colony in 1878.


The Walvis Bay lagoon is home to around 80,000 wading birds, including flamingos and rare white pelicans. One friend went on a lagoon cruise where, knowing they would be fed, pelicans and seals landed on or clambered aboard the boat, to everyone’s delight.


The good news for Namibia is, they already knew they were rich in uranium and other minerals. Then in 2011, they struck oil: an estimated 11 billion (with a B) barrels’ worth was discovered off the coast. Like most other African nations, Namibia doesn’t have the financial resources to establish mines or set up drilling rigs and processing. So they appeal to international deep pockets to bankroll projects and share profits — and they play the suitors off against one another: China vs. Russia vs. USA. At this point, some 40,000 Chinese have already immigrated to Namibia for work.


The U.S. also helps Namibia with an AIDS relief fund (the country has the 7th worst HIV rate in the world); 125 Peace Corps volunteers; and U.S. Dept of Defense personnel who train the Namibian defense force. 


One lecturer concluded, it’s a country with great potential.


That’s all well and good… but my shore excursion showed me the underside of this potential. Because this is another country that can’t escape its apartheid past. The laws have changed, but the funding needed to change non-whites’ lives isn’t there — or isn’t made available.


My shore ex was called ‘Cultural Connections: Immerse Yourself in Local Life on a Township Visit.’ In the context of South Africa (which Namibia was part of until 1990), what does the word ‘township’ conjure up? Before going there, I thought of the South African/NZ/US science fiction movie District 9, filmed in a real town of rundown shacks and shanties outside Johannesburg. You’re right, I’m not the science fiction type, but this one was nominated for 4 Oscars, and it is a great movie.


Anyway. I had a mental image of what a township would look like. And while the terrain was drier than I had imagined, the rest was just what I had imagined.


We bussed from Walvis Bay to Swakopmund, a German village with German Heritage-protected architecture, German Bäckerei, restaurants serving German Schnitzel, etc.​





​Late 19th-century German settlers traded European goods for land. These modern seaside holiday condos and homes along the shore belong to Germans and South Africans who come occasionally. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie came to Namibia to have their first child. Wouldn’t have been my choice. At least the streets here are paved.








On the other side of the town, we reached Mondesa. My Viking shore ex bible says: ‘Founded in 1950, this vibrant township was built to house the black population of Swakopmund.’


Passive voice: ‘was built to house.’ Because apartheid had begun in 1948, and the Blacks were totally separated from the Whites. The Coloreds were totally separated from the Whites and from the Blacks. The 6,000 people and their descendants who live in this extensive area were banished here.


Our excellent guide I will refer to as Ha’penny. I didn’t ask him how to spell his name, but it sounded like ‘ha’penny’ and means ‘happiness’ in his Ovambo tribe’s language, Oshiwambo, a Bantu language spoken in southern Angola and northern Namibia. He’s also known as Heinrich, because he’s from a German town. He was born in the hospital in Swakopmund, but has lived his entire life in the Mondesa township. His Ovambo tribe is by far the largest in the country, with 50% of the population; other tribes are around 5, 7, or 9% of the total. He was a fantastic guide, one of the best of the entire trip.


When we disembarked our bus (a Yutong, made in China), we were in a street-side market area. By this point, the streets were hard-packed sand.




Ha’penny is holding a popular Namibian snack. The Matador Network website states: ‘Mopane worms are a unique specialty of the Oshiwambo community, and you need to try them while in Namibia. They’re actually small caterpillars, usually served fried, and are an important source of protein for many in southern Africa.’ As Ha’penny said, ‘If you don’t eat them like this, they turn into butterflies.’

In the front, that’s finely ground millet, for porridge. Behind it is reddish sorghum for making a fermented beery drink.









​​Ha’penny said, when we donate clothes to charity, this is where they end up, for sale in an African street market.




There are 13 tribes in Namibia, so there are 13 indigenous languages, plus English, Afrikaans (based on a Dutch dialect) and German. Namibia’s government is a multi-party parliamentary democracy, known for its transparency and for ‘good governance.’ Its president is limited to only two terms — this is uncommon in Africa, where leaders [and dictators] can rule for life [or until overthrown or assassinated]. Education is now free from age 7 – 18. Before, it wasn’t free, so a family had to decide which kid or kids they could afford to send to school; the others looked after the goats and cattle.


The Namibian economy is based on, in order: Mining (diamonds, uranium, copper, tin, gold, silver, base metals, phosphate), fishing, tourism, herding and agriculture. Agriculture in the desert? Inland it does rain enough to support crops.


Mondesa is vying for the Cleanest Town of the Year Award. People were sweeping and raking the sand streets as well as the off-street areas. Though they don’t clean up after dogs, otherwise the township is very clean. 




Homes in this first section of the township are made of brick or cinder block. They have running water and electricity — even TV dishes. ​Many adults and children and even the occasional teenager waved at our bus as we passed.




​There are many ‘tuck shops,’ i.e., snack bars.




Township residents do — or trade — whatever they can to earn an income. Hair and nail salons abound, also car washes. We visited this privately run day care center.





Hilaria, on the left, runs it. She is a member of the Herero tribe — the victims of the 1904 massacre. One of our Viking world cruisers is greeting her. We have at least a dozen black passengers onboard (I don’t know where they’re all from), and there were more on this particular shore excursion than I’d seen on any other; a number of new passengers got on in Durban for this African leg. 


Hilaria’s daughter goes to university 200 miles away and was home for the Easter weekend. She showed us an album of photos of Herero and Himba tribe members (you have seen Himba tribe members: the women have fantastical hairdos and ornamentation, and they smear their bodies with red paint) and explained the historical significance of her Victorian style dress: After the genocide, the Herero survivors started wearing their own very African ‘take’ on the men and women colonists’ Victorian style clothing, ‘to protest against the Germans who butchered them’[Daily Mail]. The dress is structured, and multi-layered, to make the woman resemble a cow. The headpiece is the cow’s horns. Telling a woman she is a cow is a compliment in Namibia, since wealth is measured by how many cattle you own, and the massacre occurred because the colonists took away the tribe’s goat and cattle grazing land. 


Inside the one-room day care center:





Viking had provided candy bars for us to distribute to the kids (it was the day after Easter). It got tough when there were more kids than candy bars. 






Continuing through this part of the township... the homes and businesses were modest but well kept, with modern conveniences. I didn’t expect this.


But things began to change as we got deeper into the township...







Here we have entered what is called the ‘Democratic Resettlement Community,’ which Wiki describes as ‘an informal settlement in Swakopmund, Erongo Region, Namibia … founded in 2001 as a temporary resettlement community for people waiting for subsidized housing in the city. It was initially built mostly of reclaimed garbage from the city landfill.’ It ​​includes an arts and crafts center cum youth development and community centre, a free health clinic and laboratory, and a hostel for orphans.

Ha’penny told us, if a resident has a little extra cash, he will buy a brick for the new home he hopes to build. A brick. Another source says the locals refer to the dump as ‘the hardware store.’


The huts are made of wood (maybe a little scrap metal). They have no electricity but they do have chemical toilets. The water comes from spigots in the streets and is collected and carried home in large plastic buckets.​

If one person has a little spare space around his house, he can rent that space to someone else — who will cram in another shack. I saw only a couple of yards with plants growing in them.


There are dogs everywhere. They all look alike.


Formerly, no one talked about sex — there was no sex education at home or in schools. The HIV crisis has changed that, and it is talked about now. Everyone can be tested for HIV if they want.


If male residents have a job at one of the 6 local uranium mines, they will have health care provided by their job. I didn’t ask if it includes all family members. The mines might be run by Chinese or French companies.


We stopped at the community’s Datango Arts & Crafts Center. The woman who runs it does some teaching... ​


The women, girls and young men take care of the younger children and make crafts to sell in their shop.


Note the walls behind the for-sale potholders: Lacking or not being able to afford construction materials, the small children fill empty plastic bottles with sand and the adults stick them together in rows with cement to form full-height walls.

Many souvenirs were purchased in the shop, and cash donations made. We left the center a case of bottled water and a brand new soccer ball, which was quickly put to good use.


​We had soft drinks, beer and lunch at a local township restaurant that happens to be in Ha’penny’s family — they converted his grandmother’s house into a shebeen (bar).

 Interior wall mural...

Lunch consisted of mashed beans, a round doughnut-like fried bread, fried chicken and wild spinach.

 A local a cappella group entertained us after lunch. And drew a local crowd. 

 Signs of some hope...​

​...and some progress, on the way out of the Mondesa.


After the township, our bus stopped at the mundanely named Dune 7, more than 1,250 feet high. Here’s the Sun’s master, Captain Olaf, coming down the dune a lot faster than he went up it. Namibia is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa. The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world, and is protected.


My Team Trivia teammate Viola went on a 4x4 Jeep jaunt through the desert and gave me these photos of beautiful shells...a handful of crushed-rubies sand.... a darling translucent, polychrome, inch-long lizard. All found in the desert sands.​




Next: Catching up with Mozambique. Then Animals, animals, animals, animals, animals everywhere! #









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