Friday, 2 September 2011

"Some build palaces, while others build shacks"

We saw a wonderful theatre piece at the National Theatre of Namibia a few nights ago, where a choir sang about different religions, and compared the distinct lines drawn between 'saved' and 'unsaved' in each religion to segregation. Apartheid still existed, essentially, and not just because the political and social infrastructure in Namibia favoured some over others, but that fundamentalism and fanaticism was also a kind of religious apartheid. The point was, that your God is in your heart. In essence, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists... all worship the same God but with different rites. There should be no discrimination based on between colour, race, faith. The piece was beautiful, and the singing wonderful.

Being here now for over six weeks means that I'm learning more and more about the old system of apartheid and how it still impacts Namibian society today. Namibia only gained independence from South Africa 21 years ago, and old systems and institutions die hard. Although Namibia is classed as a middle-income country, the wealth of the country is still concentrated in the hands of a few (usually white) people. And yet, due to its middle-income status, international donors and organisations are leaving in droves. And yet the problems are still there - there are areas of Namibia that are some of the worst HIV affected areas in the world: in the Caprivi region, it's around 33% of the population. In the UK, those living with HIV amount to around 0.2% of the population. So I think it's a mistake that VSO, too, are leaving Namibia. Lots of programs are ending next March, and the HIV program will only continue until 2013.

A colleague of ours, who has been giving us language lessons, was telling us that it took a lot of time to get used to talking with white people after Independence - to eating with them, being able to touch them, working with them. She said that the war had made her very afraid, and after Independence she was still afraid as she did not know what would happen - and then good things were promised and everyone was happy and expectant... but that they are still waiting for the good things to happen. People are asking what the government is doing, exactly.

Our teacher at the Goethe institute is from the north of Namibia, and was telling us what life was like under apartheid. Her father had work in Windhoek doing manual labour and was given housing in a hostel-type residence with lots of other men. However, this hostel was 'single' living room only, and she and her mother hid in the room to stay with him. They would sneak out every day at 3 o'clock to hide in the bushes nearby so that the people checking the rooms wouldn't find out they were living there. But for many families, living together in this way was not an option - and so families were split up and often only saw each other three times a year. Our teacher says she remembers the traffic on long weekends from Windhoek up to the north of the country was enormous - lines and lines of cars travelling to see family. And yet this separation of families has become now an alternative form of family life, and it has become almost a norm that a man will leave his partner to bring up their children, while he works elsewhere and has other girlfriends. Scholars call it 'post-traumatic slave syndrome', whereby the institutions (family, marriage, etc) of a whole community have been damaged and changed by apartheid. The repercussions are enormous in terms of the transmission of HIV - multiple partnerships are one of the drivers of the HIV epidemic here, for example, compounded by gender norms that reduce a woman's ability to negotiate sex and relationships that suit her.

The Namibian government is currently buying land off the white farmers at market value and giving it back to the black communities - a policy that differs vastly to that of neighbouring countries. Relations are easier for it - and yet, there is still a huge amount of distrust on both sides, and no easy solution. When looking to buy a car recently, Alex and I pondered over a Mitsubishi Pajero, until the garage owner came over and said "Ah, you're volunteers? Wonderful. You'll love it here, it's a beautiful country. You just have to get used to the blacks. Me, I'm born African, but you can see my genetics are European." As we walked out, mouths open, he called after us "Of course, there are some nice blacks too!" Even if he'd had last year's BMW for £500, we wouldn't have stayed. We got our Isuzu Trooper from a different garage.

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