I click you

The Namibian township of Mondesa is a home for people of twelve different ethnicities who lived in peaceful coexistence, even when the colonizers tried to stir jealousy between them. White people hardly ever came to the township before Namibia’s independence in 1990 – but locally organized cultural tours are about to change that.

written for the Peace Boat website, Jan 17, 2013 >>, traducción español >>

  • "I have 627 children" says Bertha Kadhila, principal of Hanganeni Primary School. She feels a motherly responsibility for each of them, spending a part of her own salary on improving their living conditions.
  • The school outside of Svakopmund in Namibia receives nearly daily visits of tourists and non-governmental organisations. This provides it with some money to maintain its facilities.
  • Agoste, a medicine woman of the Nama ethnicity, welcomed participants in her house, showing them herbs against illnesses and for good luck.
  • "Yummy, a worm!" Most in-port programme participants tried the specialities of the Ovambo ethnicity at the local shebeen (pub) "Back of the Moon" - mopane worms as well as mahango (millet), ekaka (wild spinach) and omaluvu (traditional African sorgam beer).
  • The local boygroup "Vocal Galere" performed for Peace Boat participants.
  • Oma Lina was already 65 years old, when apartheid in Namibia finally ended in 1990. As a Damara chief she judges on domestic and community issues.

Bertha Kadhila has her eyes everywhere. The strong woman stands in the middle of a dusty school yard in the Namibian township of Mondesa in an immaculate white blazer, multitasking by posing for photos with Peace Boat visitors, giving an interview and sharing advice and motherly hugs with the children who tug on her sleeves. While explaining the education policies of Namibia, she stops two school girls rushing by. “Johanna, Alina, please show the classrooms to our visitors.” Guided by Peace Boat’s partner organisation Hata Angu Cultural Tours, 46 participants visited the small township on the outskirts of Svakopmund to learn about the coexistence of different ethnicities and the legacy of apartheid and colonialism. Namibia gained independence only very recently in 1990, after having been a German imperial protectorate from 1884 until the end of World War I and a South African colony until 1990. “Before independence white people never came to the townships. We want to change that” explains tour guide Castro Shangombe, who lives in the settlement and has taken evening classes in tourism. Raymond Inixab, a Damara, and his wife Michelle Lewis founded Hatu Angu (“Let’s get to know each other”) in 2001. A part of the profit goes to the institutions and individuals visited as well as to community projects.

Raised in a poor family in Mondesa herself, Bertha Kadhila is passionate about improving the future of “her” children as she calls them. The principal of Hanganeni Primary School acts as manager and mother, teacher and fundraiser, spokesperson and tourist guide. Her dedication and her skills in multitasking seem to keep it all together – a school with only 19 teachers for 627 children from vulnerable backgrounds. Many of them live in provisional huts without any electricity or water access in the so called “reception area” outside the township known as DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community). Many have parents who are without work and struggling to care for them. A significant number have no parents at all, lost to the HIV/ AIDS epidemic which Namibia is suffering from. “94 new learners haven’t shown up yet, although we are two weeks into the school year” she says as to remind herself. “I urgently have to speak to their parents. And I need to find sponsors to buy school equipment and maintain our facilities.”

Since the beginning of 2013, the Namibian government has provided free education to all students, finally implementing a law which was already passed in 1990. “Now more parents can send their children to school” Bertha Kadhila says. According to her, 90 per cent of all the children in Mondesa currently attend school, 60 per cent of those who finish primary school continue with secondary school and 45 per cent of those who pass their final exam there, start university. But whereas the government waives the school fees and provides stationary and maize plants for meals, Namibian schools are left with providing equipment, maintenance, cooks and school uniforms for poor students. What is no problem for private schools in Svakopmund, but is indeed a challenge for Mondesa. Bertha Kadhila receives donations from NGOs, fishing companies and individual visitors and pays two cooks from her own salary. “Hanganeni”, the name of the school, means “Let’s unite!”. ‘Everything is possible’ is the message Bertha Kadhila tries to spread, if only we stand together. “My children speak Damara, Obambo, Herero and Afrikaans, but we can understand each others languages” she says. “Ethnicity doesn’t play a role.”

When driving along Mondesa’s large sand roads in mini buses, tour guide Castro Shinbundo points at a colourful wooden shacks. “Those houses have only one bedroom” he says. “In 1960, the colonial administration gave them to the Ovambo, while Damara families received two bedrooms and Herero three. These injustices were supposed to stir jealousy, so that the groups would not unite to fight against the colonizers.” But the twelve different ethnicities that have been coexisting in Namibia for centuries did not let government policies come between them. Castro Shinbundo himself is a mixture of Damara, Shinbundo from neighbouring Angola and Herero. He taught participants greetings for their visits at Nama, Damara, Herero and Ovambo houses (“Inai-tses! Matisa! Kore-e! Ongeni!”) as well as the different click sounds. “Be careful” he says, laughing. “Depending on how you stress the clicks, ‘nam’ can mean vessel, close, hug or love. You don’t want to confuse that.”

Like many Herero women, Thalida dreams of becoming a first wife. “A first wife doesn’t have to do anything, while the second one takes care of the children and the third one does the cleaning”, she explains to Peace Boat participants who are visiting her in her garden. Herero is the only ethnicity which allows polygamy in Namibia, but according to Thalida the number of wives per man has reduced to “only” four in recent years due to HIV/ AIDS. “There are hardly any conflicts between the wives, because the first one chooses the other wives, not the man” she says, visibly enjoying the surprised faces of the participants. “But the husband invents excuses, when he is visiting the other ladies.” Not far from Thalida’s house, the Nama woman Agoste lives in a poor shack. As a young woman she has been chosen and trained to become a medicine woman, but the number of her clients decline as young people increasingly consult Western doctors. “This is Xunru, it cures throat infections” she says, handing around a glass with brown seeds she has collected in the surrounding steppe. There is Xucha to revive the appetite of the sick, Xarab against chest pain, there are herbs against stress, to increase breast milk, for good luck and as an aphrodisiac. Namibians have the same choice between traditional and modern methods when it comes to jurisdiction. With minor domestic or committee issues like violence or inheritance they can either address a judge or a tribal committee. The latter usually meets at Oma (“grandmom”) Lina’s place. As a chief of the local Damara group, the fragile 87-year-old is an influential woman. “Once we have decided about an issue, it has to be accepted and cannot be dealt with in court again.”

Driving back to Walvis Bay along the oldest dunes of the world, the Peace Boat group passes golf courses and a holiday resort “for people who are so rich that the money must fall out of their mouth” as Castro Shinbundo puts it. He remembers the time when international paparazzi beleaguered the resort, because the actress Angelina Jolie had her first biological baby there. “Unfortunately the journalists have never made their way to Mondesa.” Although some black and coloured Namibians have risen into middle class due to the Black Economic Empowerment programme after apartheid, most continue to live in the townships. But unlike South Africans who are struggling for the redistribution of land (maybe you could put a link to the Cape Town PoC article here – thanks!), hardly any inhabitant of Mondesa considers moving to Svakopmund. “Our township is far more lively and the social cohesion is better” Castro Shangombe explains. In the afternoon, the students of Hanganeni Primary School walk in all directions – towards the provisional huts of the resettlement area and towards the wooden buildings of Mondesa. Impossible to tell who is a Damara, a Herero or an Ovambo. Impossible also to tell whose house has one, two or three bedrooms. Their uniforms can be seen far through the dust of the streets, points of grey and red and blue, jumping and running.