Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Windhoek Life

There's a real advantage to being based in Windhoek. Although at times living in the capital can really get you down - security issues, electric fences, traffic - there's also a lot of advantages, which means we don't just stay in every night.

The landlord's dog loves Alex

Alex and I are making the most of our social time, or what's left of it since we're leaving in 11 weeks or so, by using the facilities available in Windhoek. For example, the Goethe Centre. We've done a few German lessons at the Goethe Centre here, and have enjoyed using the library for books.  There's also social events, like the Christmas party we went to, and the recent Eurovision party - the hoots and guffaws at the Turkish group's dancing filled the whole street. "Do people in Europe really dress like that?" one neighbour asked us when the Danish group was strumming away.  "Mostly not," we replied, noting the enormous shoulder pads and military outfits, "but sometimes" we added, on second reflection. 

The Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre in Windhoek regularly organises great events, screenings, music sessions and art exhibitions.  Recently we attended a cabaret show from Paris, Mondial Cabaret, organised by the FNCC, at the Playhouse Theatre in Windhoek. Having travelled through 16 countries in Africa already, this two-man show was slick and very, very funny. The young Russian boy next to us, sat on his mother's lap, hooted loudly with delight at each act, sometimes so paralysed with raucous laughter that he writhed himself accidentally onto the floor, much to his mother's embarrassment and amusement.  "Oy, oy oy!"  he crowed, as the duo tap-danced, hooted and sang for an hour and a half. We had an fantastic evening.  If you ever get a chance to see these guys, I'd definitely recommend it. 

The Playhouse Theatre is also host to 'Spoken Word', a regular poetry event where young poets get up on stage and show their stuff.  Occasionally of dubious quality, and occasionally genius, Spoken Word is always interesting and insightful.  One week, a man in a wheelchair, paralysed from the neck down, read a poem he'd written about the car accident that had deprived him of mobility.  When he spoke about being a good father to his son and showing what real strength is, the room became very, very quiet. He had a standing ovation at the end.
Spoken Word

There's also the occasional concert in Windhoek.  Recently, the Afro Pop Jazz festival was held in the grounds of a school and featured many Namibian and international artists, such as Big Ben, Shishani, and the fantastic Zahara from South Africa.  Zahara has been making waves here recently with her blend of soulful music and fantastic guitar playing, mixing country with traditional melodies. The night out was really fantastic, especially for guitar lovers.  And I'd definitely recommend getting your hands on some Zahara and Shishani!

Shishani playing


And, of course, there are great nights out and comfortable afternoons in with friends old and new.  

With Natalia and Wendy at Que Tapas in Merua Mall - great wine and fantastic food with two lovely ladies

Colleague Charmaine and gorgeous little Gee

Coffee with Alex at the Heinitzburg Castle

And, of course, the fabulous African sunsets.  You can't beat it!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Namib and the Naukluft

At the beginning of May, Alex and I decided to have a weekend away hiking in the Naukluft mountains in the middle of the Namib desert. And since it's very close to Sossusvlei, the well-known site where tourists can climb sand dunes, we decided to have a day there too climbing 'Big Daddy' dune, which we hadn't had time to climb when we'd been there previously.

Packing our car with our camping gear and food, we set off for the Namib desert, about a 4.5 hour drive South of Windhoek. 

The view from our campsite, in 'A Little Sossus' lodge

Namibia is stunningly beautiful at this time of year.  The weather isn't too hot or cold, and there are plenty of public holidays to use to enjoy seeing the country. Our lodge campsite was fantastic - each camping pitch had its own ensuite shower and bathroom, as well as kitchenette. There was also a 'shed' for the car.

The first night there, after setting up the tent, we decided to go on a sundowner drive, driven and guided by the lodge owner's son - and his dog, who followed us the whole way.  The surrounding landscape was stunning.  Blue, blue skies and dramatic mountains, followed by a stunning sunset.  Plus, our lovely guide had brought a bottle of 'Goats Do Roam' wine from Fairview vineyard in Cape Town - the same vineyard we'd visited when we had travelled to Cape Town for my birthday in April. Lovely memories and great wine!

Driving through the bush on our way to a vantage point from which to watch the sunset

In the car, driving up the mountain

Setting up the wine with our fabulous guide

We travelled back to the lodge and cooked dinner over our gas stove.  We'd bought some whisky at the campsite store and took turns swigging it as we sat and watched the stars overhead - hundreds and hundreds of them filling the sky. Warmed, relaxed and fed, we turned in for the night and slept fantastically.

The next day, after a breakfast of Weetabix and apples, we drove out to Sossusvlei.  In complete contrast to the last time we came, there was hardly anyone there. Turning on the 4x4, we left the 2x4 track and drove into the sand along the river bed - a little nerve-wracking, but kept reminding ourselves of our friend Smittie's advice - low gear and good speed, keep going whatever, follow tracks already made by other cars and DON'T STOP.  We pulled up into the parking space by Big Daddy a few minutes later, locked up the car, and walked into the dunes.  

Dead Vlei and Big Daddy at the back

We walked over to Dead Vlei, a big salt and clay pan with the ancient skeletons of dead trees frozen in the middle, watched over by Big Daddy dune behind it.  

We decided to start our ascent.  Unfortunately, somehow we completely missed the official 'way up' Big Daddy and ended up taking the psycho-killer route up, involving near vertical stretches of sand-scrambling. And there are spiders in the sand too.

It's bigger than it looks.

After an hour of sweating and climbing, we finally made it to the top.  Exhausted, we sat down and looked around at the fabulous views that the height of the dune afforded.

The view over Dead Vlei from Big Daddy

The view looking the other way...

Tired, sweaty, covered in sunscreen - but very happy

Enjoying the view

Walking back down

And of course, we had to do some 'dune running' - taking a steep stretch of sand and running down it.

Alex goes for it

At the bottom, we're back in Dead Vlei with the cracked, baked clay that forms the pan.  It was 1pm by this point, and the heat was intense, the sun unrelenting.

We also had half the desert in our shoes

Walking back through Dead Vlei

A blue-white Tock-Tock beetle - what would Bear Grylls do with this?!

We sat and had lunch in the cool shade of a tree and thanked our stars that we had a 20l jerry can of water in the car boot. Making our way slowly back whilst appreciating the stunning scenery, we made our way back to camp. That night, our guide at the campsite invited us over to his house for a braai (barbecue), and we sat and chatted long into the night about Namibia and Europe. His family had moved to Namibia from South Africa, where he'd studied agriculture. He loved South Africa and Namibia, and the healthiness of the way of life - slow-paced, outdoors, in tune with nature. His friend, Megan, working with horses at the lodge next door, agreed.  They also told us about the fact that many Afrikaaner farmers find it hard to find wives, living in such isolated spots, and a TV show had been created to help them - 'Boer suche Frou' (Farmer looking for a wife) was a big hit in South Africa. Our guide was planning eventually to buy more cattle and bulls, and cross breed them to find a great cow.  Buying bull sperm was a tricky and political business in Namibia, apparently ('Bull suche Cow', we suggested).

Unforuntately, his puppy then decided that Alex and I were Mum and Dad and followed us back to our tent. We zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags and tent whilst telling him to go home and go to sleep, but puppy had other ideas and hurled itself onto the tent for twenty minutes, finally bringing it down. Alex got out to re-erect the tent, and the puppy shot inside, curling up in my sleeping bag before I could protest.  He stayed like that the whole night, curled snoring into my arms, before I popped him out again at 6am.

The following day, we enjoyed French pancakes in the lodge (it's called Glamping, darling) before setting off in the car to the entrance of the Naukulft National Park to go hiking.

We love our car - it's been by far the best purchase we've made in Namibia and has helped us see the country and the surrounding countries in their best and worst conditions.  And, to date (fingers crossed), it's never broken down or even had a puncture.

The lovely Naukluft mountains

At the entrance to the park, the lady on reception handed us a map and pointed to the poster on her wall detailing the hundreds of snakes to be found in the park, including the Black Mamba.  "Just stay away from them. And enjoy" she smiled.  We nodded in agreement, a little unsure.

Cattle under trees

Alex on the trail

The trail, however, was really badly marked.  Trying to find the markers was worse than our hike through Dan Viljoen, which hadn't been upgraded for, oooh at least ten years.

The lure of a warm fire, relaxation and whisky was too much and after two hours hiking we went back to the lodge.  Two Savanah's and a good chat with our host later, we went back to our campsite and cooked, played guitar and sang old songs together.  The fact that we were the only campers there meant we had the whole field to ourselves - no chance of embarassment.  A perfect evening, wrapped up with whisky, italian coffee and star gazing.  Another good night's rest.

Returning to Windhoek was a bit of a shock after such a fantastic weekend, but we were pleased we'd had some rest.  It's only 12 weeks now before we're back in Europe for good, and we've got a final push to get everything done before we go. 

Deep Waters

"We believe that divine healing was provided for in the Old and New Testament and is an integral part of the Gospel." So says article 15 of a certain church with a cult following in the region.  Many similar churches in Southern Africa have faith healing as an integral part of their belief and practice.  Witness the following forum exchange:

Guys! i have a friend who was mislead i should say. She told me she is going out with a certain guy whom i havnt seen yet because of the long distance thats between us now. Apparently somebody called this friend of mine and tell her that the brother to her boyfriend is a witch and sometimes changed to a ghost. she called me crying, claiming that she is loosing the love of her life because of that. A night ago i received a call from her sister telling me that my friend tried to overdose, or how do you call it (but i mean she wanted to kill herself) just because of that, can you imagine. I tried talking to her several times but the situation isnt improving. i thought you guys would give your usuall good advices so that i can help my friend. 

What should i do?

My friend, this witchcraft happened in our country. 

My advice are,1. if your friend is a chrisian she should start praying to god,pls tell her not to go to witch doctor.devil will never beat devil. 
Meaning, you can not go into darkness and wait to see,no.unless to take a light to go in dark than you can see. 

2. Tell her to visit a church in hochland park called,[***name removed***] there is a pastor who can chase devil away and healing people with any sickness,i mean any.check him @ TBN TV every sunday @15:00 
Note,only if you belive in jesus. 

3.people who kill themself will neva go in heaven. 

Good lucky to her

Where this practice proves problematic in Namibia is if HIV is the sickness ("a pastor who can chase devil away and healing people with any sickness, i mean any").  HIV healing is not a theoretical problem here, but a real cause of death.  Earlier this year I participated in a community discussion on the issue in the northern town of Rundu.  People reported that almost every week someone dies through complications because they abandoned their ARV drug regimes after faith healing.  A local HIV testing centre reported that townspeople regularly insist on being re-tested to check that they have been healed of their sickness.  The practice of faith healing encourages false confidence and so also helps to create the perfect environment for the development of drug-resistant strains of HIV.  

I usually try and take a positive view of HIV.  HIV is just another manageable condition, like diabetes - it is nothing to get hysterical about.  But the fact remains that the Namibian public has access to only two lines of ARV treatment.  If you default once and the second available line does not work for you, that often means there is no second chance.  And "people who kill themself will neva go in heaven".

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Public opinion in Namibia

It has taken me a few months to get the confidence to draft press releases on current affairs in Namibia, but recently the LAC's AIDS Law Unit has been busier than usual and events forced my hand.

There was the case of the Namibian Ministry of Education advertising for foreign scholarships for students testing HIV negative.  The test is discriminatory and unconstitutional, and in flagrant disregard of a number of international treaties Namibia has signed up to. I came up with something that, to my mind, combined vehemence with legal argument and it seemed to work.  Soon we had a flurry of phone calls and emails and the AIDS Law Unit's director was once again in the spotlight with TV and radio slots and a series of newspaper articles.  One of my favourite media responses to the campaign came from Pancho Mulongeni writing in The Namibian, who challenged the assumption underlying refusal of scholarships to HIV positive young people - that it is not worth investing in an HIV positive child. "Educate yourselves" Pancho urged Namibians, "Listen to the HIV clinicians in Namibia speak about the life prolonging antiretroviral therapies, listen to the scientists who showed that this treatment can also work as HIV prevention and finally listen to HIV orphans who will tell you, through song and dance, about their aspirations."

Anyway, the reality is that the practice of official stigmatisation of HIV positive students persists with, it would appear, the full endorsement of the government. The sad fact is that the LAC has campaigned on the issue for a number of years with the backing of the national media and yet still nothing has changed. There hasn't even been a public statement on the matter from the Ministry of Education.  This makes me worry a little for the state of Namibia's democracy: freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed here, and exercised with moderate self-censorship by the media. But without politicians showing any accountability to the public, advocacy and campaigning is rather hamstrung.  I think it could work if the media were to learn to bare their teeth e.g. if any journalist actually felt driven to try and get a statement off a politician by attempting to pose a question directly outside the parliament building, or even by making persistent telephone calls to their offices.  But this is not a part of the culture here: direct confrontation is un-Namibian, criticism of the government is unpatriotic and also seen as reactionary, and criticizing politicians who are in the position of elders is basically un-African.

Another case concerns sex workers.  A Namibian politican with a reputation for being the local firebrand, Kazenambo Kazenambo (or KK as he is called) made a speech in the National Assembly calling again for the legalization of sex work.  The Namibian newapaper reported that the speech was met with guffaws and
hoots of derision.  Anyway, the leading argument on the matter from the point of view of the Legal Assistnace Centre focusses on the protection of sex workers. If their trade is decriminalized they have the freedom to report violence against them and to stand up to the police who, according to reports made to us by the African Sex Workers' Alliance, frequently take advantage of their legal vulnerability and abuse them with impunity. I drafted another press release but this time met with a cooler response for the media.  I think the country is a long way off being at the right place in terms of sensibility before this sort of legislation could find public favour.  Perhaps more urgent is the need to decriminalise sodomy which, again, will be the work of many years.  I can do my bit to help my colleagues at the AIDS Law Unit with these campaigns, but at the end of the day this should not be an agenda pushed by foreigners like me.