All the sights and sounds of Africa.
It’s really impossible to describe unless you’ve been here. Just outside the perimeter of our school are several shebeen’s—the closest is the Fire Bar but there are a dozen or so within a 5-minute walk. Some of the regulars have seen me come and go for years and will call out, asking me to come have a beer with them. I normally do make time but this week is a full-court press as I am only here 6 days. There are people grilling meat outside their houses. They will sell anything but if they don’t sell it, they eat it themselves. If they sell all the meat, at a small profit, they send one of the kids to buy more from some underground meat provider and they get it into the system. Scroungy dogs roam the streets, living on what scraps they can find—no one wastes money on food for dogs. There are always plenty of bones and so they do well in that department. Dogs in the location are not fixed so females are often pregnant or wallowing around with huge teats. There is nearly always music coming from a shebeen or someone’s house or car stereo. Probably only 50% of the people have jobs so any time of the day there are people wandering around. When school is out, the kids mix in on the streets. Playing soccer or with homemade cars fashioned from wire or pushing a tire with a stick. The streets are dirt or salt roads so everything is dusty all the time. But there is a vibrancy that is energizing and intriguing. Very different than a quiet street in a US or other developed nation suburb. I’ve always liked wandering around Mondesa.
MYO is right in the middle of this chaos. Our brick wall mostly isolates our learners from the noise and commotion outside, so inside it is calm and orderly. Today I wandered through several classrooms, ending in the music room where Joel was teaching marimba and practicing for the concert on Saturday on the cruise ship.
Now I am at Naaz’s house—she is down in the garage doing laundry. Aneeka is in the bath. Every few minutes I call out to her and ask the Afrikaans word for something in the house; this is my trick to make sure she is still okay. I think I am clever but if too much time passes before I ask a question, then she says “Robert, I’m okay”.
Africa has it’s own strong identity which is present in a thousand different ways, yet remains elusive. It has its own smell; its own sounds and of course the iconic landscapes and visual imagery. Where else in the world will you be walking down a street lined with modern cafe’s and stores and pass well-dressed local business professionals, white Europeans and Americans dressed in days old, still creased from packaging faux safari outfits, Damara ladies in colorful filled dresses with triangular shaped hats, Ovambo women carrying baskets or bags of goods on their heads. A group of Himba ladies walk by, shirtless and covered in ochre-colored mud, carrying naked children. Car guards run back and forth across the street extorting their $5N to ‘provide security’. A good restaurant, frequented by tourists and well-off locals, will cost a family of 4 around N$300 which may well be 1/4 of a monthly income for a local. I believe our cook at school is paid N$1,200 monthly (around $120). Where else will you still see video stores? There is no Redbox and bandwidth is not adequate for Netflix in 95% of households. Of course most in Mondesa do not have TV’s and most in DRC do not have electricity.
One stark difference between African communities and developed nations is that here, people walk everywhere. Vast numbers of people walking to and from town all the time. From the middle of town, it is approximately 6 miles to Hanganani Primary School, which is on the near edge of the DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community) and sometimes referred to as ‘The Location’. Many of our kids live in the DRC—probably around 20% or so. From Hanganani, it’s another 2-3 miles to get into the heart of DRC, depending on where you are going. DRC is wood, cardboard and scrap metal shacks. Dirt floors, no running water or electricity in homes. There are outside public toilets and water stations scattered around. There are many thousands of people living there—no one knows for sure how many. Most people walk to work which will take them more than an hour to cover the 6+ miles. Some take taxis for N$5 or N$10. Taxis roam the streets constantly, honking their horns, looking for fares. They do not carry a single passenger—they pick up anyone and fill the car to capacity and then slowly make their way dropping off and picking up people as appropriate. There are no regulations and most taxis are beat up old cars.
It’s heartbreaking to see the older women walking across the large expanse of sand, carrying bags of groceries on their 5+ mile walk home after a long day of cleaning someone’s house, or hotel rooms, or cooking in a restaurant. Nearly every white person is middle class or relatively wealthy measured against the overall population. And they nearly all have ‘help’. Which is to mean a gardener or house cleaner or both. It’s a long part of the history and economy here. Increasingly blacks are finding their way in to middle class, but like most capitalistic systems, the income equality gap remains vast. The wealth of the area is concentrated in town of course, although it feels to me as if many people take steps to downplay their wealth. Probably makes sense given the amount of petty crime and theft. There could be other reasons as well. On the outskirts of town, in Mondesa where we operate and going outward from there, homes and communities are squalid and people exist in varying degrees of poverty. There is a great indignity in living in moderate to extreme poverty—but many of the people here carry on with remarkable grace in spite of their circumstances.
Like poverty everywhere, the impoverished are often blamed for their condition. They are too lazy to work or didn’t take advantage of their educational opportunities. Talk of cultural devastation, near genocides, decade upon decade of systemic, brutal, institutionalized racism is rarely mentioned as being relevant. One is, I suppose, led to believe that it is circumstantial that a disproportionate amount of the wealth remains in the hands of whites who came up under the Apartheid system. Most people with wealth will admit that things had to change, but will not go so far as to agree that their wealth was enabled by an unfair system. Is it fair to ask wealthy whites to give up a portion of their accumulated wealth if it was obtained at the expense of others through an unjust system? I have had this conversation and we know the answer. No one wants to give back what they have, regardless of how they got it. Humans are amazingly good at rationalization. It is probably not inappropriate to compare the current economics in Namibia to Mississippi or Alabama around 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Blacks remained extremely poor relative to rich while landowners, and continued to supply the manual labor for agriculture and menial jobs for wages that were barely above or even below poverty level. It takes many generations to overcome the inertia of systems that were designed to deliberately exploit a whole race and who had the full backing of government and police force and military to do it. In both examples, blacks were deliberately denied access to credible education, economic opportunities or even the ability to move about freely to pursue work and dignity in other locations. And all of this, after deliberate destruction and isolation from all their cultural proclivities and norms.
More than anything, to me, MYO has always been about trying to provide a catalyst in the form of education to bring forward the long slog towards economic equality following the abolishment of an oppressive system of exploitation. More than 150 years after slavery ended in the US, there is still a significant imbalance in economic and social justice between blacks and whites. In theory it may take a bit less time in African countries because the stats are reversed. In US, about 15% of people are black and in Namibia about 85% of people are black or colored. So it’s conceivable (and I think becoming apparent) that change is happening. The good thing is that many blacks are starting to find their way into middle class and upper class demographic—the downside is that they often are exactly as corruptible and indifferent to their fellow man as the whites are. So human fallibility remains our largest obstacle to social equality. Those that have, simply are not willing to share to attempt to achieve balance.
When I am here, I am consumed with frenetic energy and run from place to place. This week I was often trying to find internet access to work on some MYO side projects and to stay in touch with my job projects and running to various stores for things for MYO. Money flows. I pay for university and hostel fees for alumni, donate semi-used computers (two on this trip), I buy all meals for everyone, I bought a PC terminal for the office, new mice for our computer room, furniture for a friend who had none, and gave money to our cook, whose father passed away and she needed money to take the Kombis to Omaruru for the funeral. There is never enough time and I leave always with a mixture of sadness and gratitude and an overwhelming feeling that I should do more. But there is a never ending list of chores— today, I need to write a letter to a lady at UNAM who is sitting on a refund due to me for Ndeshipanda’s housing in Windhoek; I have called multiple times and no one answers their phone or returns a call so now I have to write a letter and put a ’seal’ on it. No idea what that means. Perhaps I will draw a picture of a seal. I also am supposed to try to connect with the brother of one of our former learners who is writing a book and looking for advice. He came to MYO yesterday for my talk with the alumni, but I was so busy after speaking to former learners that we did not have time before I had to leave. I am pretty sure ‘advice’ means money, but will see what he brings to me.
Nearly all the locals constantly warn me about giving out gifts or money, suggesting I am being manipulated or being taken advantage of. I find it offensive for multiple reasons, including simply that I can do whatever I want with money I have earned, but also I am not nearly as naive or ignorant as their comments suggest. I have my share of limitations, but I am far better than most at reading and understanding people. It’s like tipping in a non-tipping country—locals ask you not to tip to American standards because it ‘sets a precedent’ and soon people will expect it. I have never felt taken advantage of here and so I question their motives in suggesting it. But my money and if I want to help someone I will and were it not for the bounds of friendship I would ask why they don’t give more. Which actually seems fair—if someone can ask me to give less, can I not then ask them to give more? I have seen little evidence here of real benevolence. Some small bits of charity here and there, but more akin to someone who volunteers at the food bank once a month in the US, rather then any serious sharing of resources to try to help others. Most, if not all, benefitted much of their lives from a gamed system, but it is not human nature I guess to acknowledge that and try to help others who were on the wrong side of the game board. At least not in any significant way.
This sounds negative. I don’t mean it to me. This is a moment in time. Eventually the current wealth will die off and be replaced, but diluted, by their offspring. And in the meantime, bright young locals will keep pushing at the fabric and break through in places.
This morning I ran a 5K with some of the grade 4 and grade 5 learners. It was fun. I matched up with a young girl named Helena and we ran the last 2/3 of the race together. I spent my last hours with the kids at MYO, the staff, Naaz and Aneeka.
Work is looming and I cannot push it off anymore or I won’t be able to catch up. I can feel it out there. My workload should become more manageable with this reorganization, so once I get caught up I should be okay.
My world is varied and starkly different from one week to the next. Sitting here at the Walvis Bay airport, I can look out the windows in all four directions and there is nothing but desert as far off as I can see. Virtually no life—just an airstrip, parking lot, and a few buildings in middle of a sea of sand. But when I am in the Tokyo office, looking out the windows of our office, all I can see in all directions is buildings, skyscrapers and roads. A mass of humanity.