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.