Tuesday, September 27, 2011

erongo: omandumba, part 2

(continued from part 1)

Sebastien, the empty-handed hunter

Sebastien didn’t have any luck hunting and so returned to the farm without his prize. No San women singing the oryx song for him! Meanwhile, Allison woke up with an upset tummy and couldn’t have any of the delicious breakfast provided by our hosts, which included fresh eggs from the farm and guava spread to put on our buns. We left poor Allison in bed and took off for a nice hike in the grasslands.

This wasn’t really a thoroughly planned, carefully organized hike in the African wilderness with an armed tour guide showing us the way. No, that’s for tourists. Instead, we jumped in the back of a pickup truck and had one of the farm folks Vi drive us for what felt like forever into the grasslands, drop us off, and drive off, leaving for us to find our way back home. Kind of like what you might do to abandon a dog you don’t want anymore.

Vi leaves us in the middle of nowhere.

“Er, there isn’t anything here that might eat us, is there?” Dean asked nervously.

“No, only the leopards,” Vi answered. “I’d avoid the leopards.”

“I read that if we see a leopard, we should stand still and not run away,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“No,” replied Vi, “You should probably run away.” And then she drove away and left us there.

No matter. We felt confident in our wilderness survival skills. I once skimmed a novel about the Namib Desert, you know. I even remembered how to use your wristwatch as a compass, match the hour hand to the sun...except that my watch was digital. Also, Elisa and I were wearing Converse sneakers, and Dean was wearing every single bright and unnatural colour that you would never find in the wilderness. Oh well. We set off toward a vague direction, and spotted a herd of kudu running away from us.

Dean and a bunch of butterflies lovingly surrounding him re-enact a Disney scene.

I’ve been learning a few things about the Namibian landscape. It's hot and full of sand. Do not try to fight the heat. Do not try to fight the sand. Accept the sand in between your toes. Embrace the heat, preferably with a bottle of Savannah cider (which I had not brought with me).


whoever left that coke bottle there obviously didn’t watch The Gods Must Be Crazy, and clearly doesn’t understand the political damage such litter can do to the residents here.

We found our way back to the farm, Allison was still feeling sick but had momentarily stopped vomiting, which we took as a good time to head back home.

On our drive back, we saw a lot more animals. We saw wart hogs running along the road. “Pumba!” I yelled at one, but strangely enough it didn’t answer. There were monkeys off in the distance, just sitting on boulders as though meditating. We also nearly hit a pair of baboons running across the highway – those things really aren’t afraid of anything. Every time we spotted an animal, we braked the car to reach for our cameras, while Allison turned green and swore at us quietly. Needless to say, we weren’t going fast enough this time to get pulled over by a cop.


By then it was getting quite hot. We pulled into the quiet town of Omaruru for a pit stop, and we bought basically every bottled liquid in the gas station store to make up for our previous stupidity that we had gone into the wilderness without any water. Allison felt sick again and sprinted to the side of the gas station property, heaving again. The gas station attendant, who just seemed happy to have company, informed us that Allison probably had a demon in her. He walked up to her and prayed for her. Then he asked if I was really not from China. Personally I think his prayer worked – Allison didn’t throw up for the rest of the car ride.

On our way home, we sang all the songs from the Lion King.

on the drive home: doesn’t this look like the Jerry Bruckheimer logo?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

erongo: omandumba, part 1

We left for our weekend road trip an hour late, which actually was exactly what I expected. We’d been out late the night before, drinking at Afrikaner bars in Klein Windhoek, which was a lot of Camelthorn beers and fun, but seemed less of a great idea the next morning when I woke up and remembered that there was no Tylenol in my apartment. As it stood, Eliza was the only person ready to go at the time we’d agreed on, but an hour later, we were out in our rented car and heading out to the wilderness of Erongo.

Eliza patiently waits on my porch for Dean to get his act together.

Even though he was nursing a big headache, Dean was driving because as the Brit he’s the only one used to driving on the left side of the road. As a driver harbouring a not-very-well-hidden festive side, he insisted on (his words) “really gay cheesy road trip music”, which seems to involve a lot of disco beats and saxophone solos and nothing I recognized, mainly because i am the opposite of a gay man. Eliza patiently put up with us all.

As we kept driving deeper into the desert, it just got hotter and hotter. In time we questioned our wisdom in going into the desert wilderness without packing water. We drove past a wild bush fire that was swallowing everything up and leaving a black wasteland behind. Nobody seemed to care. I think this happens pretty often here in Namibia. The big flames made me thirstier. And hungry. Speaking of hungry: I thought about how I hadn’t seen any animals so far – certainly none of the grumpy elephants on the road my guide books had warned me about. We passed termite mounds. Goatherds. Incredibly massive nests belonging to social weaver birds, so big that the trees sagged under the nests’ weights. Cows! I remembered I was still hungry.

I picked up a cheese and biltong on a Brötchen in Okhandja.

mmmm biltong

I fell asleep listening to Dean singing along to S Club 7 at the top of his lungs.

When I woke up again, there was a cop at the side of the road pulling us over for speeding. Eliza suggested we keep driving anyway. By the way, never take legal advice from Eliza. Dean manned up, got out of the car, and talked to the cop. I couldn’t see what they were saying. I tried to take a picture (because Asians love photos) of Dean and the cop standing in the tall grass of the desert plains under a hot sky in the middle of a vast nowhere, but the cop’s partner told me to put my camera away. I felt frustrated that the police partner did not appreciate the photographic beauty of the scene. We waited.

When Dean returned, it was incredibly unclear to all of us as to whether he had paid a fine or given the cop a bribe. Given that Dean handed over cash without a receipt for the cop to personally receive, I suspect the latter. Nevertheless, the lesson was learned: don’t speed in Namibia.

Dean's the man. mainly because the rest of us are females.

Eventually we arrived at our final destination: Omandumba, a farm deep in the middle of nowhere (“middle of nowhere” is also known as Erongo Park). You get there by driving forever on a sand road that is often crossed by dry river beds that flood during the rainy season. The land was dotted with barren hills and rocky terrains that strangely reminded me of my childhood stomping grounds in Highland, New York, possibly because of all the rocks and dirt, possibly because I really had no other comparator.

Our hosts anticipated our thirst from our long drive and served us this slightly sweet red-pink drink made from cactus plants, and Savannah cider, which I’ve concluded is the perfect alcohol to drink in the desert. Omandumba is a full farm – goats, cows, roosters, Daschund puppies, peacocks, dead skinned sheep hanging from a meat hook next to the kids’ trampoline – run by a German family that seems to have a wide array of German friends and visitors coming in and out of the house at any given time. Eliza, being German and fabulous, had some sort of personal connection to these folks and that was why we were there.

i do admit I found this sign to be needlessly unsettling.

The German family’s eight-year-old daughter, Anne, took an instant liking to me and the little girl showed me around her home. We got along incredibly well, not because I have a maternal instinct, but rather because I sometimes feel like an eight-year-old girl. She led me around the desert flowers, aloa vera plants, cacti, and kudu skulls in the family garden. She picked me some berries that we ate while sitting on the swing that she assured me was perfectly placed for watching the sun rise and set. She even showed me her baby pictures which seemed like perfectly normal photos of a cute baby, except this baby was playing with ostriches, chicks, and dead leopards. What a life it must be to grow up on a Namibian farm.

Anne took us to go see the San people, who lived a few kilometers around the farm. I have to admit that beforehand I felt conflicted about doing this. If you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, you’ll know that I’m referring to the Bushmen (whom I am calling the San people here, despite the debate about proper terminology, solely because the San person I met referred to himself as San). I’ve read extensively about the San people, a fascinating indigenous people of the Southern African deserts who were ingeniously resourceful in living off the land and were known for their peaceful social cohesion and communal property which sounds like something out of a utopian novel – until, of course, outsiders came in, took away the land they lived on and the animals they hunted and generally made it so the lifestyle they’d been living was basically no longer possible. To give you an example of some of the hardships they faced, sometimes a San male would wander on to a Boer farmer’s property, and kill livestock for food, because the San did not correspond to Western concepts of private property and were not aware that some folks out there viewed the cattle as belonging to someone. The farmer would grow angry, and have the San arrested, or sometimes (unforgiveably) would hunt down the San person himself and kill them brutally. It’s a familiar story that is certainly not unique to Namibia, but not any less tragic.

So after learning about their recent history, I know that what we think of San society is an idealized one that does not really exist now. Missionaries and colonialists tried to “civilize” the San. Many San people now wear Western clothes, use money, live in houses, work on farms, and struggle with social problems like alcoholism, poverty and domestic violence like others do. I felt a little awkward about being that white tourist that drives up to a grass shelter that nobody lives in and demands that the San people show me their “authentic” lifestyle, getting them to masquerade and perform for me a scene of a play that no longer exists.

So I was very aware that it was a show, and a historically incomplete show at that. On the other hand, being able to meet real San people was an opportunity that I knew would be rare. And even if it was a “show” of some sort, I still felt honoured to have a chance to have these folks show me how their ancestors had lived for so long. I reasoned that when we go to Upper Canada Village and learn about how people lived “in the olden days”, no tourist is fooled into believing this is how things still are, but accept it as a learning experience. So as the San people gathered around the grass hut to meet us, I found myself accepting it as just that – a learning experience, while remaining keenly aware of what must lies backstage of this show, and trying to be respectful at all times. They themselves were describing what they were doing as a “living museum”, which I thought was an appropriate name.

and what a learning experience. What I came to realize is that even if their lifestyles have been altered and the San are now fully aware of the “outside” world (unlike in The Gods Must Be Crazy), many of them have still retained memory of their traditions and skills. The women showed us how they carved ostrich egg shells into gorgeous necklaces (I must admit I went the tourist route and bought one). The men showed us how to make fire, spin rope, and set animal traps.

making fire, without a barbecue lighter

making ropes

making traps

They let me shoot an (unpoisoned) arrow, although I was disappointed to find out that I do not carry that Korean gene for excellent archery. On the bright side, I didn’t hurt anyone.

everybody, duck!

how to do it properly

What I loved most was the songs that they sang. I love music and discovering what local people like to sing, everywhere that I travel. The San people showed us their oryx song, the song that the women sing when their men hunt an oryx and bring it home.

As you might discern from the video quality, these songs had a certain ephemeral quality that needs to be experienced in person. Descriptions and recordings simply can’t capture the energy and spirit of this stuff, much like culture in general. I was really glad to have a chance to hear some of it, and I hope that it's not lost over the years.

this was the gift shop

When we got back, the owners served us a dinner featuring yummy oryx meat and baked squash. It was absolutely lekker. After dinner, we sat around a fire while I taught Anne how to play the ukulele. We’d made some good progress when all of a sudden a desert storm hit and the wind picked up in a way that was frightening, toppling the chairs over into the fire and fiercely blowing sparks from the fire all the way to the veranda. The German family went to bed and we decided to move inside and hang out with two young male German architecture students staying at the farm.

This proved to be a bit difficult, because they spoke very little English and we spoke no German, except of course for Elisa, who ended up acting as a rudimentary interpreter. But there are two universal things you can always do, even if you can barely communicate: drink and play poker. Axel poured us gin and tonics; Allison brought out the playing cards. Due to the gin and tonics, the game soon descended into what I call Communist poker (where the winner takes pity on the loser and gives him a bunch of chips so they can keep playing).

After Eliza went to bed and our interpreter was gone, the game fell apart and we ended up using Scrabble tiles communicate to each other, mostly four-letter words to teach swear words in each other’s languages. We learned that Sebastien intended to go hunting at 5AM the next morning. He finished off his drink and showed us his gun, putting his bullets on the table. “Okay,” Allison announced suddenly at the appearance of the gun, “this is my cue to go to bed.” The German put away his bullets and we went to sleep.

Part 2 comes tomorrow, featuring animal watching, hiking, an attempted exorcism and no more run-ins with the police.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

black and white and YELLOW

A few thoughts on race issues, and being an Asian woman in Windhoek.

After apartheid, officially sanctioned racial segregation was no longer imposed, but you still see quite a divide drawn along racial lines. The townships of small modest sometimes rundown houses are still full of black and coloured people, whereas the affluent neighbourhoods with barbed wire fences, electric gates, guard houses, and palatial structures are mostly white people. What I find very interesting, and sometimes annoying, is the way that I am considered to be “white” here, because of my relative position of privilege. As a foreigner, I’m perceived to be a tourist here, and therefore rich. My closest friends that I’ve made here are white, and I live in one of those affluent white neighbourhoods. At nice restaurants, the service staff treat us extra politely and the chef sends us complimentary dishes from the kitchen, I guess because people assume we are important (HA HA HA). People have even offhandedly referred to me as being white, and I can’t deny the feeling of not being “one of us” from the men who catcall me in the streets.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not white. Back in Canada, nobody ever treats me like I’m white – in fact I am constantly reminded of my Asian identity back home. I eat Korean food at home with my Korean parents every night. My grandmothers speak to me in Korean. I still hold on to some Korean etiquette even in Canadian settings – feeling uncomfortable and horrified, for example, when French Canadians try to greet me with a kiss (why can’t we just bow respectfully from a safe distance?), or when my friend’s mother asks me to call her by her first name.

More importantly, I am still sometimes discriminated against because of the fact that I am not white, but a woman of Korean ethnicity. Canadian men who sexually harass me on the streets, for example, say very specific things to me that they do not say to white women. As much as I embrace Western culture and values, and have many friends of many ethnic origins, I do not identify as being white, nor do I have any particular desire to be identified as such. So to be classified as white here in Namibia is a bit of a jolt to me and my identity at times. I mean, I understand it – clearly I’m a person of privilege and I’m not black – but my feelings towards this alternates between amusement and annoyance.

The status of being Asian in Namibia is pretty interesting on its own. The other Asian worker I met here told me that she has travelled all over the country, and from what she’s seen, it is quite probable that I am the only Korean person in this whole country. Which means I probably won’t find someone else to make me kimchi chigae, sadly. When I asked a Chinese girl who had visited Namibia how ordinary folks viewed Asians, she told me perhaps jokingly that folks here believe that all Asians know kung fu, so they’ll leave you alone. There are other Asian people here, mostly Chinese businessmen, which probably only contributes to Namibian’s perceptions of me being rich. Trust me, though, I am not a Chinese businessman.

My personal experience has been that some of the locals view me to be an unusual creature. I guess it is still quite rare to see young Asian women in some parts here, so a few men can’t resist but try to talk to me, or at least yell “China” at me (an exclamation that I don’t quite understand). As I was told by another female intern, most of this street attention is not terribly derogatory, and it's almost never hostile, unlike in Canada, where sadly some men yell at me shocking things that i am sure they would never say in front of their mothers (sidenote: this is a great website about street harrassment in ottawa). Here in Windhoek, it's mostly along the lines of “Sister I must tell you: you are beautiful”. I feel like these folks mean no harm and are just curious, which is much better than whatever is motivating those jerks back at home. Either way, I suppose it could be worse. There are worse stereotypes than assuming that I am beautiful, exotic, rich, and know kung fu.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

my neighbourhood klein windhoek

well, I’ve been slowly settling into the daily rhythm of living in Windhoek. Our landlord, a kind old German man, took us out for a drive last night around our neighbourhood Klein Windhoek. We drove by the giant complexes that were the South African high commission and the American embassy...and then the tiny house that holds the Canadian embassy.

Suddenly I got a sense that I had too little time in this country, and I felt a real reluctance to ever go home. There is so much to see here! Of course there are all the national parks, the beautiful ocean coast, the deserts, the northern towns all over Namibia. Then within Namibia, is the city of Windhoek, and there’s the urban life to explore, all the music festivals, craft markets, literary readings. Now I’ve realized that within Windhoek there’s my own little neighbourhood I must discover.

Klein Windhoek: rolling hills and Lays potato chips

It’s occurred to me that Klein Windhoek is somewhat of a Namibian version of Vancouver’s Kitsilano, or Ottawa’s Glebe. Away from the bustling downtown streets of Independence Avenue, Klein Windhoek is quietly tucked in a mountain valley. It’s much quieter than downtown, but it’s full of designer boutiques that create custom fashions, music stores, trendy cafes, butcheries selling fresh game meat biltong, farmers markets selling organic produce, classy mountaintop restaurants with surreal interior décor, and romantic beach bars. I’m in heaven!

bougainvillea shopping

I also found an Asian grocery store steps from my apartment, and a Chinese restaurant for days when I’m missing home. Win!

My daily walk to work involves me going past a lot of fancy schmancy houses guarded by barbed wire and big barking dogs. Also, cactus plants. Back at home, I don’t normally worry about accidentally stepping on a wild cactus with my sandals, but I guess this is what it means to be living in the desert. It means you can’t just lean up against a tree when you’re tired, because a lot of these trees have thorns. Living in the desert also means there is dust everywhere. Everywhere! I keep thinking that my feet are getting really tanned, but then I realize that they’re just really dirty.

Tonight, Allison, Eliza and I decided to ditch Dean at the office and went for after-work drinks at Am Weinberg, this lovely mountainside restaurant with a million-dollar view of the valley – and, to my delight, a beach bar. It was a tad bit pricey (not surprising given its location) but worth it for the atmosphere. If I ever get my own property, I’m going to replace the lawn with sand and find a way keep palm trees alive through the winter.

no dean: time for a girls' night at Am Weinberg

view from the beach bar

Allison's pineapple cocktail

sunset at the beach bar

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

a little on the little I’ve learned from Namibia so far

Yesterday was my first day at work. I’ve been settling in fine; they’ve arranged things so I hit the ground running. I have a view of the hills from my office. Listening to Teen Daze’s Beach Dreams album and thinking about beaches in the summer while looking at deserts in September gives me a funny feeling, but it isn’t a bad one. I like having palm trees follow me wherever I go.

I saw a Herero woman at the grocery store in full gear, sporting a huge Victorian dress and a head scarf that resembled two bull horns. I also had the pleasure of listening to some of my coworkers speak to each other in Namara-Dama, which involves the interesting clicking sound in their language. All of the things that I’ve been reading in books about Namibia have finally started coming alive for me.

So to oversimplify the recent history of Namibia, here’s a summary. The land and the various folks living in it were colonized first by the Germans. The Herero people in particular fought against them in the early 1900s and as a result were massacred in horrific slaughters, reduced to a quarter of their population (this behavior of the Germans was repeated in another area of the world, some decades later, as we know). Then the Germans lost the land after World War II, and South Africa was asked to take care of the country, just for safekeeping and making sure things ran smoothly. But as soon as the international community turned its back, South Africa had claimed the land to be part of its own, becoming the newest colonial power. Many international forces tried to reason with South Africa about this, but South Africa stubbornly held on until the 1990s, when Namibia finally was granted independence.

By then, the land that was known as Southwest Africa was renamed as Namibia. Namibia joyfully scrapped the apartheid system that South Africa had forced on the country for all these years, and immediately set down to write up a new constitution, with the help of many United Nations folks. As a result of being one of the newest African countries, Namibia now has one of the most advanced constitutions, which addresses all sorts of human rights issues. My work here in Namibia involves helping in my smallest little bit to translate those human rights promises made by the law into practical reality for Namibian people.

What I have been most impressed by the Namibians is the way they treat the past and the future. Namibians are all too aware about their country’s history and quite recent oppression under apartheid. Yet at the same time, the population as a whole does not seem to dwell on the hurt, but instead moves on, excited about the future. This requires an extraordinary amount of maturity and wisdom in a nation, I think.

This has translated to curious oddities, like the fact that in the middle of the beautiful Zoo Park is a giant monument honouring the German soldiers that killed the Herero people at the turn of the last century. Seeing the way people tore down Saddam Hussein’s statue in a big hurry, I’m surprised that this monument is still up there, and well maintained.

Another example of this, as pointed out by my friend D while he was drinking, was the fact that folks, not just white folks, but all folks, still speak Afrikaans as a common language, the language of their oppressors. Yet at the same time, after much serious consideration the country has also adopted English as the official national language, because it is another common language that all people of all tribes can speak, without the colonial taint (my words) of Afrikaans. And people have enthusiastically adopted this, eagerly learning English over the last twenty years. Seeing how far Namibia has come into its own after years of colonial oppression has impressed me beyond words.

There are still big problems in Namibia. For one, there is a staggering 40% unemployment rate in the country. This blows my mind, given the fact that wages here are pretty low and they hire people to do just about everything – bag groceries, help people push their carts, work as security guards guarding our little NGO office. And this of course spawns a lot of other problems. Crime in Namibia is not as bad as other African countries, but still remains a concern. Most of the crime problems here are economically related – pickpocketing, mugging, breaking and entering, robbery – and obviously this is related to the high unemployment rate. My favourite Namibian lady at cell phone store told me that she thinks so many people are unemployed because they are lazy and don’t want to work. I’m not so sure that is the case.

Another issue that I think is related to the unemployment problem is domestic violence, which is the main issue that I am working on while I am here in Namibia. Obviously I think there are a number of reasons why domestic violence occurs, including gender inequality, and strict gender hierarchy enforced by the Victorian/Christian colonialists, but it would appear that a major contributing factor is poverty, due to unemployment. There is a huge feeling of frustration in many men in being unable to provide their families, which sometimes translates to alcoholism, drug use, and unfortunately domestic violence.

The thing is, these problems are not uniquely restricted to Namibia. In fact, sometimes I wonder about the futility of trying to eliminate violence against women in this country when we have not achieved this ourselves in Canada. Unemployment in Canada may not be as high as 40%, but it is still rising to unacceptable levels, and a bunch of overeducated, underemployed young people are growing unhappy about it – including me and my own friends. I’m hoping that this whole experience will not only allow me to make some kind of meaningful contribution (no matter how small) to the Namibian legal system, but also will let me learn something about these social issues that are prevalent across international borders.