Monday, October 24, 2011

katutura versus the hilton

Namibia is supposed to have one of the biggest disparities between the rich and the poor, and my weekend certainly reflected that. Thursday night, I hit up a birthday party being thrown at the rooftop bar at the Hilton. I may or may not have barely known the birthday girl; but i managed to look rich and confident enough to stroll past the guards.

I might have pushed my luck a bit too far with the swimming pool – I got politely kicked out after swimming for about five minutes, after a very nice bouncer explained to me that the pool was reserved for house guests only. Ah well. I was still free to linger at the bar and enjoy the beautiful rooftop view of the skyline.

I was a little less stoked about the drink prices. My one vodka soda cost me eighty-five Namibian dollars. Keep this price in mind for when I talk about my next night.

The birthday party itself was pretty fun, full of a bunch of random interesting young people, international aid workers and American government folks. We’d also brought along Tshuka, a young law student from our French class, who invited us all out to hang out the next night in his neck of the woods, Katutura. I’d been curious about Katutura for a while now, and now that a local was inviting us along, I finally had a chance.

Friday was Eliza’s last night out in Windhoek, so before going out to Katutura, we decided to treat her to a special picnic. We packed what we believed were her favourite food – chocolate cake, cheese sticks, Savanna cider , plus some sandwiches and salad – and headed over to what we believed would be the perfect picnic spot: one of the highest points in the mountains in the city of Windhoek, where we could watch the sun go down.

picnic feast!

To get to this spot, we got off at Bahnhoff street and had to hike up what seemed like an endless set of stairs. Endless. Set. Of. Stairs. They reminded me very much of the Stairs of Gloria in Barcelona. I don’t feel comfortable with my name being associated with so much pain.

stairs of pain

And then by the time we got to the top of the stairs, there was a barbed wire fence.

By that point we were too tired to do anything – go back, go down, go over – so we sat down at the top of the stairs and just had our picnic there.

After our delicious feast, we were far too full to go back down the stairs again, and perhaps feeling adventurous after our Savanna cider, so we decided to take on the barbed wire fence. I jumped right over without any problem, either because I am part monkey or because I am a tough Canadian girl. Eliza struggled a bit more, probably because she is not a monkey or a tough Canadian girl. We all eventually made it over to the other side without injury. On the other side of the fence was a public road. I still don’t understand why that fence was there.

Our next plan for the night was to go visit Tshuka in Katutura to go hang out in the shebeens. For a bit of history, during apartheid, Katutura was the township where the blacks were relocated to after being forcibly removed from their homes in the 1960s. Appropriately, Katutura means “the place we don’t want to go.” It has a sad history and a tragic name, but has grown into a huge community full of life. It is still predominantly inhabited by black folks (and is therefore very different from Klein Windhoek where I live), and from what I gather, the thing to do on a Friday night is to hang out at your local shebeen (unlicensed drinking establishment) with your buds.

After getting quite lost in the maze of Katutura (our cab driver was a coloured man whose clients were mostly affluent white people and therefore knew very little about getting around Katutura), we finally met up with Tshuka who had us stop by his house first. We met up with his numerous brothers and sisters and even more numerous friends, all incredibly polite and friendly and ready for a good night out. We also met his dog which was not so friendly, but that perhaps is what makes a good guard dog. Tshuka’s house was quite nice, cosy and spacious, which put to bed any preconceived notion that all parts of Katutura are very poor neighbourhoods consisting of tin shacks. There certainly are a lot of those too, but Tshuka and his family had a great place. He loves living here in Katutura. “I’ve lived in Klein Windhoek,” he explained, “and it’s so dead at night. In Katutura, there’s always something going on, and I know all my neighbours all the way to the next five blocks. It’s great here.”

Tshuka is a pretty impressive character himself. He’s only 22, but less than a year shy of becoming a lawyer. Not only is he incredibly smart and friendly, he’s got his own community radio show and he runs a Namibian law magazine. This Christmas he’s moving to Paris. I only wish I was as accomplished at his age.

We also met up with his friend Veejay, a sweet young Herero man, and headed out to the first shebeen. It felt an awful lot like drinking in someone’s dad’s garage, right down to the aluminum walls.

What I really digged were the 750 ml beers, which thirteen Namibian dollars each. Yes, I am serious: those giant beers were less than CAD$2. Remember, my drink at the Hilton the previous night had cost me eighty-five Namibian dollars. This could get dangerous…

Gloria and the big big beer

We moved on to another shebeen after a while which was a little more happening. Music was pumping, and people were dancing, including a mom and her baby and a middle-aged lady who had rollers in her hair. Hey, if you have to wait for your hair to set, why not spend the time shaking your booty at the local bar? This shebeen also had a pool table, so Tshuka took the opportunity to beat everyone in the bar, including me.

From the discussions that I’ve had with other people about Katutura, there is a big perception among many white people of Katutura being a rough, poor, dangerous place where you are certain to get robbed. And while certain aspects of it may be true, I’ve come to realize it’s such a one-sided idea of the township. Maybe all of the houses aren’t surrounded by high majestic gates, barbed wire and guard dogs (although some are, like Tshuka’s), but there also seems to be more of a visible sense of community. I don’t know any of my neighbours in Klein Windhoek, because they are always behind those tall electric fences. In the Katutura shebeens, there was a unmistakable friendly spirit – despite the fact that three white people and one “China” were walking into an entirely black bar, all the folks greeted us warmly and were eager to chat with us. As we left that night, women begged us from their houses to take us with them (probably expecting us to go on adventures rather than heading for bed in sleepy Klein Windhoek). I’m not trying to romanticize or idealize Katutura. It’s no Hilton, and it certainly struggles with problems of poverty, alcoholism, violence and not to mention a sad history. But a lot of times that’s all you hear, and if you avoid the place completely for that reason, then you are missing out on a whole different world.

Well, there was a gang of young guys that swarmed our cab as we were leaving, but luckily they seemed in more of a joking mood than a threatening one.

“Watch out, cabbie, those white people are going to rob you,” they called out after the cab.

“Hey, I’m not white!” I protested as we drove away.

“Okay, not that coloured one,” they corrected themselves. I actually felt pleased for once to be called coloured – it’s a refreshing change from China.

conclusion: $2 beers and playing pool > $12 drinks and getting kicked out of pools