Swakopmund is the little Germany of Namibia. Sophie and I immediately saw the heavy German influence from its paved streets to its half-timbered houses to its grocery stores.
This town is known as the adventure capital of southern Africa. Having already checked sky diving off our bucket list, Sophie convinced me to sign up for a desert quad bike tour. We also booked a township tour to satisfy the cultural craving that awakened with my visit to the San community.
Let the adventuring begin
Quad biking is something I would normally never even consider. But when in Swakopmund… do as the tourists do?
I survived the bike sans injury except for one very sore right thumb!
We also had the opportunity to explore the town, which is a ghost town on the weekend. However, we popped into a few adorable souvenir shops, meandered down to the pier and lighthouse, doing our best to avoid the hasslers at the handcraft market.
A township tour to remember
Definitely the best thing I did in Swakopmund – even better than having all my laundry clean – was the township tour. We went to Mondesa, a suburb community just down the street from the picture-perfect modern town we had just explored. As has been the norm throughout this trip, our tour guide Pierce was very informative.
Mondesa was established in the 1950s for three main tribes. To keep the tribes from uniting against it, the South African government gave the tribes varying living situations from a nice three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom shack meant for seven people.
Driving in, it felt like a completely different world. Mondesa reminded me of the slums I’d seen in India and Kenya, but with slightly better conditions. Since independence in 1990, apartheid ended and anyone is free to live there. This area is seen as a pocket of opportunity for the rural poor across Namibia and now serves as home to people representing 13 different ethnic groups.
Barbershops, salons, kindergartens, and car washes were advertised every third house. Pierce explained that the unemployment rate was at 30%. By opening up these small business, citizens were doing what they could to prove to the government that they were making money.
Our first stop was at a street stall manned by an older lady. Pierce, our tour guide, explained the typical foods eaten in the area that we were to taste later: dried spinach, beans, maize, and caterpillars.
As we were walking through the community, it was easy to tell that Pierce was well known. He explained that even if you didn’t know everyone by name, you still recognize others. The community had little problems with theft and crime for that reason. Alcoholism was the biggest issue facing the community.
A peek into the real Namibia, as told by one 18 year old
Sitting in a one-room shack made from wood that normally serves as a daycare, we had a fascinating history lesson of the Herero people. All of us were leaning forward in our chairs to make sure we wouldn’t miss a word Opana, an 18-year-old Herero woman, shared with us.
Holding up a photo book to illustrate her words, Opana shared the history and lifestyle of the Herero and Himba people. Though you couldn’t tell it by looking at them, these two tribes share the same beliefs and traditions. The only thing that differs is their style of dress.
Himba people are known as cattle hearders and farmers. The cow is not holy like in the Indian culture, but it is still considered sacred. Cows are central to their livelihood and their identity. The animal gives them their clothing, their meat, and their milk. It makes perfect sense why wealth is measured in the number of cows an individual owns.
During colonization, land was becoming scarce, so the Himba people had to find different ways to survive. They spread into the country to find employment and education. The only form of employment these people could find was the domestic work of cleaning German settlers’ homes.
Himba people wear very few clothes, covering only their bottom half. Their costume, as Opana put it, is a red cream, otjize, that they apply about twice a week all over their bodies. It’s their way of imitating the body of a cow. Just like Westerns wear pants and shirts all day, they wear otjize all day.
Of course, that means everything they touch turns red. As you can imagine, German settlers did not appreciate this in their homes. The German women also did not appreciate seeing these women ‘expose’ themselves to their men.
So, Germans introduced the victorian dress to the Himba people. If you wanted to work for them, you had to give up your Himba attire permanently and adapt to the Western dress code.
It’s important to note that for a Himba lady, if she wore the victorian dress, the tribe would never allow her to be Himba again.
The word herero means to separate from one’s own. That’s where the name came about for this new group of outcasts who had lost their Himba identity. A majority of the women did end up sacrificing their traditional clothing and identity as Himba women. Not long after, many men followed suit by also wearing traditional Western clothing.
Today, the only difference between the Himba and the Herero community is their clothing. Everything else has been preserved, including the language, culture, and traditions.
Herero women did adjust the victorian dress from the traditional style. They made it slimmer and gave it a headpiece. The headpiece represents the horns of a cow, and the body of the dress represents the body of a cow. In their own way, they kept an important part of their culture alive.
Opana said something interesting to this point. She said it must be weird for us to see these two groups of people so alike, one almost naked and the other in this victorian-style dress. She explained, “It’s our kind of normal. The same for us when we see a Scottish man wearing a skirt. That’s their kind of normal.”
The first genocide of the 20th century
In 1904-1908, the Herero people experienced a horrific genocide that wiped out 80% of their population. Before the genocide, the Herero people were one of the largest groups in the country. They owned most of the land and the land was very valuable because of the cows.
A German governor wanted to take over the land to build houses, railroads, and other developments for foreign settlers. The Herero people defended their land and killed about 100 German troops.
German troops retaliated, killing all Herero people including men, women, children, and the elderly. Those captured were forced into concentration camps. Many died because of the camp’s terrible living and working conditions.
The Herero people tried to gain support from other tribes in the region, but none wanted to get involved. The exception was the Nama people. However, both tribes were not strong enough to overcome the German troops.
The only escape was through the desert. They almost survived, until the German troops poisoned their water supply.
By the end of the genocide, estimates suggest around 80,000 Hereros and 10,000 Namas were killed, about 50% of the Nama population at that time. Herero people went from the largest to one of the smallest groups in Namibia.
I did a little bit of research online about this genocide and saw that in 2004, the German government apologized for the events. But it took until 2015 for Germany to recognize the tragedy as a genocide.
Getting to know a Namibian
Opana was incredibly well-spoken, bright, and personable. After our history lesson, our questions turned a little more personal. We wanted to get to know this beautiful young woman in front of us. She told us her age and her future plans to go to university once she saves enough money to afford tuition. It costs about $2,300 per year, and the university requires half of the fees paid up front every year. She hopes to study business administration.
I didn’t want our connection to her to end there. I asked her if she had a Facebook account to which she laughed at me and said, “Of course, it’s 2018. I have Instagram too!” So now we’re friends on both. I’m looking forward to staying in touch with her. I thank her for teaching us about her tribe’s history. It was fascinating and something I’m truly grateful for.
A language lesson followed by a traditional meal
The tour continued with a drive into Democratic Resettlement Community (DRC), a neighborhood slum in Mendosa established in 2001 with no electricity or running water. Impoverished people came here because the government was giving out free land in DRC. While the conditions may be poor, the opportunities to make money are unmatched when you compare it to a rural community.
We stopped at a little shack where a man, holding a pointer, was dressed up in a tie and sweater vest. On a piece of cardboard, he had written out some letters and symbols. Our language teacher, he explained the four main clicks in the Nama language. One wrong click sound can make the difference between the word ‘love’ and ‘kill,’ so it’s best to fully understand the sounds before talking to people! He also shared his artwork, as his passion is to teach young people art and give them an opportunity to make money.
Our last stop was a cultural center, where we were presented with a traditional meal from the ingredients we had seen earlier on the street: beef stew, a sort of bean hummus, spinach, and the infamous caterpillars.
We all tried the caterpillars. They did not go down well. Tony, a fellow Dragoman traveler, tricked us girls and said it wasn’t that bad. I popped a big one in my mouth with some pap trying not to think too long about it. I couldn’t tell you what it tasted like anymore.
Pauline’s, Tony’s wife, face during that dinner brought humor to a strange situation. The staff kept laughing at us despite our best attempts at hiding our true feelings about the meal.
After dinner, an incredibly talented accapella group from the community, Vocal Galore, sang four songs for us. It was a very special moment for me, especially since we were able to ask questions and learn more about the group and its members.
The tour showed me the resilience of the Mendosa community and the friendliness of the Namibian people. Despite what might seem to Westerners as a dire situation, these people are making the best from what they can. Instead of sitting around waiting for their situation to change, they are taking control of their future and creating a life for themselves.
An unexpected goodbye
With the end of that tour, it was the end of our time in Swakopmund. I did want to mention that we had to say goodbye to two members of our Drago group, Helen and Jon.
I have to say that the two of them are, hands down, some of the greatest people I have met while traveling. I don’t know if they knew how much I admired them, but I was so grateful to have spent as much time with them as I did. I won’t soon forget despising star jumps with Helen during an early morning workout session or swapping stories in the back of the truck on a long drive day.
I hope someday, we’ll find each other again in another little corner of the world. This blog post is dedicated to Jon and Helen. I can’t express how much I enjoyed meeting you and having you on this journey with me.