Africa for beginners

Deneuve was the first Namibian I spoke with. He was also the last. On the first occasion, he came up to me as I exited the Hosea Kutako International airport, asked if I wanted a taxi, and ushered me into his Volkswagen Jetta. He was in his late twenties, a coloured man of medium height and build, with a chin strip goatee beneath a pencil moustache. He was not a chatty driver. When I commented that his English was excellent, he smiled, and returned the compliment. On the forty-minute drive to Windhoek he answered my questions perfunctorily: his father lived in Cape Town, his mother in Windhoek; he could surely earn more with a desk job, but preferred to work outdoors and be on the move; on weekends he shopped at the mall, spent time with his girlfriend, and watched football; he was a Liverpool fan.

On the second instance, as he drove me to the airport for my flight back to Germany, he spoke of the kudu’s habit of charging at cars when caught in the headlights. Once, when he met a herd beside the road, he slowed to a crawling pace, turned off the headlights, and held his breath as he passed the antelopes. These days there were fewer animals along this stretch to the airport. A lone fox trotting across the road was our only sighting.

A fortnight and two days separated these conversations, a time I spent — with my wife P, who joined me after a brief halt in South Africa — driving in the desert and along the coast. I left Namibia with a full notebook, a camera carrying something of the vast nothingness, and sand in my ears, under my fingernails, all over my shoes.


* * *


For most travelers venturing into the interior, Windhoek is only a stopover, an entry-exit port and little more. But we had planned a couple of days here, to slow down and absorb something of the city’s character.

On the first morning, following a short walk on Independence Avenue and in Zoo Park, I hailed a taxi and rode to the Maerua mall. It was one of the two large malls in the city, and in one sense it looked like any modern European mall, with brightly-lit interiors, glazed shop windows, prominent brands and fast-food outlets. But the shoppers were mostly black. Fashionably dressed young women and men carried themselves with confidence, teenage boys and girls in spotless school uniforms chatted and laughed out loud. A baby girl slept cosily in a large stroller while her brother stood playing a video game. These were commonplace images here, no doubt, but I found them striking. Living in Germany I’d learned to expect the opposite: blacks there are mostly refugees, at the margins of that society.

This notion — of black people at the center of modernity, not its periphery — was reinforced when I watched Black Panther at the cinema. The rush of joy was palpable in the air; it was a fantasy the audience felt at home with. And after the movie the reality outside did not seem incongruous: blacks were the majority race here, they were in power. (What was perhaps incongruous, not to me but to others in the mall, was the sight of an Indian tourist. People eyed me with curiosity, not sideways but directly. I’d had the experience of being stared at by whites in a remote German or Swiss village, but this felt different.)

Outside the mall, I ignored the men accosting me with taxi offers and followed others who stood on the pavement waving down taxis. It was a hot afternoon. The taxis bore three-digit numbers on their sides, and their drivers stopped to exchange a word or two with prospective clients, before picking them up (or moving on).

“To the Hilton. How much?”

“Twenty.”

The driver, a black man in ripped jeans and a baseball cap, picked up two more passengers. One of these pickups took place at an intersection, while waiting for the green light. A young black woman wearing sunglasses stood on a traffic island, not far from us. Our driver rolled down the window and, without looking at the woman, mumbled something. The woman whispered something back. No eye contact was made. She then got into the car, and later, she handed him a ten dollar note before hopping off.

Twenty Namibian dollars was a special rate for this Indian who asked for the price. The others did not ask, they just paid ten. For the movie I paid sixty dollars, which was about four Euros. The Namibian currency is pegged 1:1 to the South African rand. I discovered this the following day, after arguing with P that the rand is a different currency. Don’t be silly, I said to her, this is not the European Union. Soon I found that the rand was accepted everywhere, and ATMs dispensed both currencies.

Namibia had been a German colony — German South West Africa — for three decades, but for most of the twentieth century South Africa dominated Namibian affairs. In 1915, South African forces defeated the last of the German Schutztruppe — Imperial Army — and by 1920 the country had assumed control of the diamond mines and the farms owned previously by German settlers. South African occupation lasted until 1990, spanning decades of resistance to UN resolutions seeking the end of its control over Namibia. Although politically free now, Namibia’s economy has close ties to South Africa, which explained the currency linkage.


* * *


That evening, after P arrived, we stepped out of the hotel looking for a restaurant listed in our guidebook. It was 7 pm, and in the fading light Independence Avenue, busy with pedestrians and cars only an hour ago, appeared quiet. Wide roads and high-rises gave this part of Windhoek a contemporary feel, but our first impression was misleading. The streets revealed little steel and glass, and often we saw concrete buildings with straight lines that were out of a book on Bauhaus architecture. The typography on some signboards and neon signs were a throwback to the eighties, appearing like a frame in a David Lynch movie.

Not far from the hotel a barefoot urchin appeared before us with his palm outstretched. A black boy with curious eyes, around eight years old. I dug into my wallet and handed him a coin, but at the next block he caught up with us and showed me the coin. It was a Euro, not a Namibian dollar: the coin worth fifteen dollars was useless to him. I did not have Namibian coins, and to prove this I showed him the coin pouch in my wallet. It was a spontaneous gesture, and a foolish one.

My wallet was an inch from the boy’s hand. I barely had a grip on it — he could have snatched it with ease and run away. Instead, he pointed to the notes in the wallet: give me one of those!

I smiled and shook my head — no, no no — but he suddenly seemed distracted by some voices nearby. An approaching group of three black men were shooing the boy away using words I did not understand. The boy persisted for a moment, then turned around and disappeared into a side street. The men came to us, and one of them spoke in English.

“We are sorry you were bothered. You have to be alert you know — Namibia is a safe country, but like everywhere theft is possible.”

The gesture was well-intentioned but misplaced. I did not mind the boy asking me for money — it was part of the experience of a new place. People ask for money everywhere, even in upscale European neighbourhoods, and the way this is done says something about the place and its people. There’s often a made-up story, and their indifference to your refusal can reveal how long they’ve been in this business, or what they think of you, or how their day is going. In Cape Town a few years ago a girl came up as I was waiting at a pedestrian crossing, tapped my arm, and said: Sir, give me some money. When I asked why she was begging instead of studying or playing, she replied, in flawless English: At least I’m not stealing from you, sir.

We thanked the men and turned left into Fidel Castro street. The shops had all closed and the street had emptied out. Unable to find the restaurant after walking around the block, we decided to return to the hotel. It was dark, and as we walked the empty streets I sensed a growing anxiety. A tall black man with unkempt hair stumbled out of a bar and began to walk behind us. There was no reason to think he was following us, but the thought occurred, nevertheless. A plump young black woman squatting below a street sign asked for money. Some instinct — perhaps conceived during the urchin incident — prevented me from drawing my wallet out. I said “No” as I walked past without looking at her.

“You don’t need to give, but you don’t have to say NO!”

The woman’s booming voice echoed in the darkness as I cringed and slipped away.


* * *


From the seventh-floor window of our room the view appeared familiar, an urban sprawl of stationary and trailing lights, but down below things were anything but familiar. The differences — or the unfamiliarity — had begun at the airport that morning. There was no airbridge, so we disembarked from the plane and walked to the main building under a sky blue without blemish on this February morning. Our long shadows on the tarmac pointed outwards to dry, featureless landscape beyond the airstrip. In the immigration queue, occupied mostly by German tourists, I helped a stocky Russian fill out his form. He was a shipwright traveling to Walvis Bay, to work at the port expansion project run by a Chinese company. A Russian expert working with the Chinese on a project in Namibia: not a typical weave in the globalisation quilt.

Outside the airport I’d expected to see a host of black taxi drivers, not an empty parking lot with only a person of mixed origin like Deneuve. And unlike the complacent taxi drivers in Germany, Deneuve was keen on more business. He asked for my phone number and promised to pick my wife up when her flight arrived that afternoon. Two weeks later he sent me WhatsApp messages to arrange an airport drop for our return flight.

In Zoo park that morning, the young black men I saw with Canon cameras around their necks were curious about my camera, but they did not try to sell me anything. At the other end of the park, a middle-aged black man named George wanted a donation for paintings by orphans his “organisation” was supporting. I declined saying I needed to see the paintings first. George repeated his request once, showing me some documents, then let it be. The touts here were not the aggressive types you encounter in Johannesburg or Lagos.

The Windhoek I’d seen thus far was very clean. It had affluent neighbourhoods with impressive mansions behind walled compounds, Japanese and German cars driving on smooth roads, outdoor cafes where whites and blacks sat sipping drinks and fiddling with mobile phones. Architecturally the city stood in the second half of the twentieth century, barring a handful of relics of German architecture like the Christuskirche, a century-old Lutheran church that sprang into view on a large traffic island like a miracle. There were no bicycles on the road, and few two-wheelers. If you didn’t look closely at the street names (and missed gems like Robert Mugabe Avenue or Fidel Castro street), you could mistake these parts of Windhoek for a city in the U.S.

‘Africa for beginners’ is the epithet Namibia had received from the west. If this was a beginner’s course, it was one that could, in a matter of hours, complicate the picture of Africa you carry in your head.


* * *


Food in Namibia, for the black population at least, has always been more about survival than inspiration… you are unlikely to encounter the basic food eaten by most Namibians on most tourist menus.” So begins the uninspiring section on Namibian cuisine in my Lonely Planet guidebook. The rest of the section details German influences on local fare, listing, among other names, Apfelstrudel, Sachertorte, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.

For most of our road trip we’d planned to stay in remotely situated resorts, where the food they serve is what we eat, but here in Windhoek we supposed we could exercise some choice. My want had been modest, but our luck poor. Restaurants I chose from the Lonely Planet were no longer open, and for lunch on day two we entered the Hilton restaurant yet again.

On the first afternoon, at the Maerua mall, I’d eaten a vegetarian pizza. In the evening, after the unsuccessful hunt for the nearby restaurant — it was named Gourmet, a place where the guidebook promised “one of the most comprehensive menus you’ll find“ — P and I had returned to the hotel where, at the restaurant, there was a comprehensive Indian buffet. Buffets seldom meet my expectation. There’s a lot on display but — for a vegetarian with a whitelist of vegetables — not much to choose from, and often little to like. This one was no different: the dal makhni was bland, the mutter paneer too oily, and the vegetable biryani dotted with broccoli.

On the second afternoon, we crossed Zoo park and walked around the Post St Mall, a pedestrian zone with hawkers selling handicrafts and curios. It was a touristy area with many restaurants, but the ones we saw either sold fast food or were vegetarian unfriendly. Restaurant Gathemann, “the splash-out spot that serves gourmet Namibian cuisine that fully utilises the country’s unique list of ingredients” was not where the Lonely Planet said it would be. We returned to the hotel. I ate pasta, and P chose a prawn curry with rice. (She is not a vegetarian; she claims she eats most things that move.)

Our poor luck was the result of poor planning. Browsing later through TripAdvisor, we found that the most recent reviews of Gourmet and Gathemann were two years old. P had wanted to look up their reviews on the internet, but I brushed the suggestion aside saying the Lonely Planet carried strong recommendations. On the second evening she ignored me and my guidebook, and launched her web browser instead. Diligent research comparing half a dozen options led her to Joe’s Beer house. She called the restaurant and made a reservation. Curious to see what it said about Joe’s Beer house, I looked up the Lonely Planet.

A legendary Windhoek institution, this is where you can indulge in flame-boiled fillets of all those amazing animals you’ve seen on safari! Seriously. We’re talking huge cuts of Zebra tenderloin served with garlic butter, ostrich skewers, peppered springbok steak, oryx sirloin, crocodile on a hotplate and marinated kudu steak.

That evening, I ate boiled vegetables with cheese.


* * *


Windhoek has a clutch of museums covering Namibia’s ancient and colonial history, but I was keen to see what its recent culture had spawned. On our second day in the city we visited the Namibian Gallery of Modern art, a two storey building near the city center. The gallery featured an exhibition of local artists. One work displayed concentric circles of empty beer bottles, a reminder — the artist’s note said — of the alcoholism that consumed his family and many others. (In the bar attached to the museum cafe, crates of similar bottles were being unloaded for consumption.) There were simplistic sketches of village life, a wrought iron sculpture of two dogs fighting, a display of intricate and repeating patterns with a chair positioned in front (inviting the viewer to sit and meditate). It all seemed rudimentary. Did the lack of sophistication say something about this society? But this was only one exhibition in one gallery in one city.

We collected our 4×4 vehicle — a Toyota Fortuner — from the car rental agency, and on our way back we stopped at Maerua mall to pick up some road-trip essentials. In the parking garage, a sign — to the 4×4 parking area — I’d missed made me slam on the brakes. We should have gone that way, I told P, shifting gears. In a hurry to correct my error I backed up without looking, and hit the Land Rover behind me.

We were lucky. The Land Rover sustained no damage (a thick iron fender protected it), and only a small dent scarred our Toyota’s smooth rear. The women in the Land Rover — one white and one black — seemed relaxed. They were unconcerned about the incident, and the black woman even advised us to tell the insurance folks that we had no idea how the dent had happened. She worked for an insurance company, she said, assuring us that this tactic would serve us well in our claim.

At the Checkers supermarket inside the mall we walked about looking at the well-stocked shelves. This was mostly a familiar world, an instance of the global bazaar with wares and brands we recognised, but what caught my attention were the baby pictures on nappy packets. Here, alongside packets carrying images of white babies, there were others of coloured babies with curly brown hair. (If you Google for “Baby nappies,” the result will depend on your location; Google’s search, like the local supermarket’s selection, is fine-tuned to reach the right target segment.) All price tags were in Namibian dollars, and I ignored them as I added items to my cart: three packets of chocolate brownies, two loaves of whole wheat bread, a peanut butter jar, two packets of cheese slices, a lemon cake, a packet of blueberry muffins, several cream and salted biscuit packets, a dozen bananas, a bag of apples and another one of oranges. Our resorts for the days to follow had been warned about the imminent arrival of a fussy vegetarian guest, but I did not want to take any chances.

3 thoughts on “Africa for beginners

    1. Many indeed, but this is something I inferred from the different tribes we encountered traveling through the country. A local told us that even their ‘click’ languages and dialects — all sounding similar to us — are so different that a person speaking in one can be unintelligible to someone who speaks another. We visited a school where the teacher gave us a brief lesson in the click consonants; she was thrilled to see how well I caught on, although I had no clue what I was mouthing.

      My RSS feed tells me you haven’t visited your own blog for almost a year. Where are you lurking these days?

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