Tuesday, November 1, 2011

an african oktoberfest

I had a conversation with a German man and his wife visiting from Cologne. He told me that Germans don’t really do Oktoberfest anymore, not as much as the foreign visitors do, and certainly not with as much vigour. I’ve begun seeing Oktoberfest as an exported Bavarian concept that each culture adopts in their own curious way, while maintaining the core principles of drinking copious amounts of beer, singing while standing on tables, and donning a lederhosen or gravity-defying dirndl.

The Canadian city I was born in has a large German population, and used to be called Berlin until World War I, when they thought it’d be a better idea politically to rename the city Kitchener. The city is still known for having the largest Okoberfest celebrations outside of the Germany. I’ve never had the chance to do the original Oktoberfest in Munich, but I did do Oktoberfest in Kitchener and had such great fun that I have very little actual memory of it except for thinking that the bus ride from Kitchener back to Toronto was way too long. I then spent Oktoberfest last year at Beau’s Brewery, “Ottawa’s” “local” beer company (okay, more like brewed in Van Kleek Hill), where true to the spirit of rural Ottawa, there was a keg throwing contest, a sausage eating contest, and a wife carrying race.

Now it was time to try my first African Oktoberfest, in the former German colony of Namibia where a staggering number of folks of German descent still reside. I was curious to see what this was going to be like. Were there going to be African elements to the festival, maybe serving biltong and boerwors instead of the usual pork sausages? Kwaito beats instead of Oom-pah brass bands? Or was it going to be like those nights we hang out at Andy’s bar, where we are completely surrounded by Afrikaners and have a hard time believing we’re in Africa and not in Europe?

There’s a special rule that you can’t show up to Oktoberfest completely sober, so we stopped off at Rochon’s good-bye party for a drink or two or three.

Rochon is an African-American who lives in Atlanta, and is reaching the end of her contract here in Namibia. She tells me that people around here get really confused by her presence. Their first assumption is that she’s African; but then she speaks and her hardcore American accent throws everybody off. I guess it’s a similar reaction to what I get in Korea, where I speak in extremely broken Korean to store owners, get frustrated, and then switch to rapid English. Anyway, Rochon’s coworkers from the CDC were all there, all incredibly friendly folks, and they helped us with our drink or two or three. Some of them helpfully served a round of Jagermeister, and one girl, S, played us that Rihanna song about it being the weekend.

By the end of our rounds of Jagermeister, Rochon’s coworkers decided that they wanted to come to Oktoberfest too. Syma called up her friends to pick us up and then we were loaded into several cars to drive to the Windhoek Sports Klub.

I was riding in the car with Tshuka, T and two of S’s friends who I’d never met before. On the drive over, T was on the phone frantically trying to deal with a family crisis: his uncle had purchased a goat which had been dropped off at their house, and so the goat needed to be slaughtered, but the only people at home were the kids and his aunt, and of course nobody could expect the aunt to kill the goat because she’s a lady. But the goat needed to be killed, because you can’t just have a live goat wandering around your house – why, someone walking by might hear it and steal it. So T was ringing up all his cousins trying to convince them to leave the club to go home to kill the goat, so he wouldn’t have to.

“Ay, it’s like my graduation all over again,” he sighed. “We were celebrating, and then they made me kill the goat.”

Finally we arrived at Oktoberfest, which was huge. Tshuka said that you just don’t see crowds of people like this in Windhoek. It was a huge sea of German people, farther than the eye could see, but the addition of me and Rochon’s coworkers added a little balance. There was indeed a full band on stage, all donned in lederhosen shorts and dirndl dress, and a brass section playing the very traditional German song “I’m Walking on Sunshine”. I swear, I don’t know if it was the Jagermeister or a love of cheesy anglo songs, but Julia’s eyes lit up like I’d never seen before and before I could blink my American friends Julia and A. had hit the dance floor, busting cheesy dance moves like they were possessed. Rochon’s coworkers joined, and I knew it was going to be great night.

Oktoberfest was in a giant tent, as Oktoberfests should be, and they were serving the usual sausages and beers, but served by an army of extremely polite African servers rather than the usual busty blonde German girls. There was also a mechanical bull that you could ride, which I did not realize was a German tradition, and all these cardboard cut-outs of Oktoberfest girls which drunken German boys would stagger up to and talk to. I’m not sure if they realized that the girls were made of cardboard, or if they did know and wanted to converse with them anyway – either answer would have made me sad.

Oktoberfest was also free for kids under 10, which was a bit of a surprise, but I’m not sure exactly why.

After we danced our hearts out to such German classics like “Sweet Caroline” and “We Will Rock You” and “99 Red Balloons” (okay, at least that one was German), the band finally made their finale and we found ourselves standing out in the parking lot. Thaddeus had walked out with one of the Oktoberfest girl cardboard cutouts, so of course we were all taking photos with her. Eventually security guards came back to take her back, saying a few curt words to T. Well, A. tried to come to T.’ defense, arguing forcefully “WE LIKE TO PARTY” (I call it the Andrew W.K. defense), so we pulled them away and the boys were left without their Oktoberfest girl.

We weren’t finished with dancing yet, so we decided to go hit up Chez Ntemba, one of clubs downtown. Unfortunately the main challenge was finding our way there, since Oktoberfest was located next to Eros Airport, and Thaddeus had gone home, probably to go kill the goat. After unsuccessfully trying to wave down taxis that were all full, Syma finally managed to talk to a few German guys driving a pickup truck, and that was how I found myself sitting in the back of the pickup truck facing the roaring wind. This seems to be one of the main forms of “public” transportation in Namibia. At any rate, it got us to Chez Ntemba, where we danced till the wee hours of the morning.