Tuesday, February 7, 2012

the boys in the hood of Walvis Bay

“ashes of laughter, the ghost is clear
why do the best things always disappear
like Ophelia
please darken my door…”

-the Band

truckers parking outside the club

It’s beginning to dawn on me that I’m one of the few women in this club that isn’t a prostitute.

Well, there’s W, of course, my host friend, and there are the bartenders who are engage in friendly conversation with us, because they are curious about my new face and equally curious about W breezing back into her hometown unexpectedly. There is the large lesbian deejay who I met when I came in – I told her that I was looking forward to hearing the tunes she would spin, and ever since she has been pumping out great hit after hit in order to impress us. There are also the drag queens that sashay up to the bar with their long beautiful eyelashes and long flowing hair and long graceful legs can carry stiletto heels better than I ever could.

W tells me a lot of the girls in the bar are apparently sex workers, sitting alone in their tight dresses at the bar with their mango juice, waiting to be approached, until one of the men on leave from the factories or the ships asks to buy her a drink. Then they’ll move on to the dance floor for a little bit, the man dancing awkwardly and the girl smiles like he’s the best dancer in the world and she’s having the time of her life. Then they exchange a few words and leave the club together, the girl’s walk becoming business-like again.

I have been getting some anxious looks from some women ever since I entered the club. Unlike the bartenders, they are worried about my new face, because I might be competition for their income. Who is this new girl in town, and why is she here. She’s Asian too. There are about a dozen Philippino fishermen sitting at a table in the club, and the girls don’t like the way the men asking the same questions. W tells me the last time there an Asian prostitute showed up in Walvis Bay, other girls banded together and reported her as an illegal immigrant to the authorities so she’d be deported. All it takes is one familiar face from the homeland for the local Walvis Bay girls to lose all of their business from their Asian clients.

I like to think it would be easy to distinguish me from the sex workers. Even though I’m at the club, I’m not dressed up at all. I’m wearing a wife-beater, long black leggings that cover most of my body, and tackies, sneakers that I would assume would brand me as not sexy at all. But every once in a while one of the Asian fisherman asks if he could buy me a drink, and I emphatically shake my head – probably the biggest sign that I’m not working.

I’m just here to watch, with the best detached attitude that I can muster. I know from my organisation's work that most sex workers are not here because they want to, but because they are in a bad place and this is the best way, and sometimes the only way, that they can make enough money to support their family. It is tragic to think about the ordeals that a young woman must go through in order to survive, especially violence, and exposure to HIV and other STIs. My organisation has adopted a policy of "decriminalization & discouragement" with regards to sex work, recognizing that criminalizing and stigmatizing sex work will make it difficult for sex workers to report abuses and other problems to the police, but also at the same time working to alleviate the conditions that force women to go into sex work in the first place, including poverty, domestic violence at home, and a lack of other career options. Unfortunately, in Namibia, and many parts of Africa, there is sadness everywhere if you just look below the surface, and you are a delusional fool if you think otherwise. And this seems to be how I've found myself here in the nitty-gritty reality of Walvis Bay by the railway, and not in the fantasy resort world of Swakopmund where the rest of the tourists are.

W is sitting there at the bar next to me, smoking her cigarette and watching me with amusement while I take the whole scene in. Maybe others might be put off at being taken to a club where ladies of the night are advertising their wares, but then W knows that I don't mind wandering a bit off the beaten track. Besides, she tells me that there are only two real clubs in Walvis Bay, and this is one of them.

We decide to move to the other night club Rio Copa Discoteca, where most of the girls are actual clubbers, and only the more expensive female escorts go, because this club charges cover for admission, and most sex workers don’t want to pay to work. The deejay sees W come in, and it’s the same reaction – he starts playing all of her favourite songs to try to entice her on to the dance floor.

It’s been a constant theme for the night. Everyone notices W is back in town, and they are full of questions, but they don’t ask because she’s with me. It seems like W just comes and goes whenever she pleases, leaving everyone to sing that song by the Band when she leaves:

“oh Ophelia
where have you gone

the old neighborhood just ain't the same
nobody knows just what became of Ophelia
Tell me what went wrong…”

We are not staying in the touristy part of Walvisbaai, if such a thing even exists. We’re crashing at her friend M’s place in the black township of Kuisebmond. When you pull into Walvis Bay from Swakopmond, you can see the townships all the way from Long Beach, the township for blacks on the one side of the highway, and the township for “coloureds” on the other side along the ocean coast. Kuisebmond looks like any other post-apartheid township, full of children playing in their dirt yards, stray dogs looking for food in the roads, cheerful upbeat music pumping out from the little houses. It’s a less green and a lot more sand here than Katutura though, since we are in the Namib desert. There’s also a James Brown Street here.


I get a lot of curious looks when W and I walk around, I assume because folks aren’t used to Asian girls hanging around the township.

“I was wondering why men have all of a sudden started calling out strange things to me,” W commented. “And then I realized that it’s because I’m with you.” I’ve grown so used to it that I don’t even noticing people chanting “China” anymore.

Walvis Bay is Namibia’s main deep water harbour. It’s about thirty kilometers down the coast from the touristy-pretty resort town of Swakopmund, and this is where people live. It’s W’s hometown, before she left for Windhoek, and she tells me that there’s nothing to do in Walvis Bay but drink, smoke, and have sex, as there’s a lot of that here, as one can deduce from the night clubs. Most of the folks here employed as fishermen or factory workers, unless they are unemployed. Almost everyone speaks Afrikaans, no matter what your ethnicity is. Obviously this is a bit of a problem for me, so W’s friends kindly try to speak in English in front of me, although they are so unused to it that they make fun of each other. It’s easier, in the end, for me to just try to follow along in Afrikaans.

the shipyard

M’s place is at the bottom floor of a small apartment complex, where every unit seems to always be playing party music and nobody seems to lock their doors. There always seems to be, strangely enough, small children dropping in to the apartment, to escape the heat and watch the Disney channel on M’s cable television. None of them are M’s kids, but he’s a kind enough man that he lets them hang out at his place. He’s even turned the geyser on for us while we are staying there, so we can bathe in hot water.

We have dinner at the Raft, a restaurant right on the water with a magnificent view of the port. W used to work here, so all the servers come by, one by one, to say hi, and to try to find a way to ask where she’s been without pointedly saying it. I’m excited to try the seafood on the coast, particularly oysters, because I keep hearing rumours that Namibia has the best oysters in the world, although to be fair, it’s usually Namibians that say this.

We get oysters as starters and they are quite good, although I douse them in lemon juice and pepper. When I was a teenager, I stopped eating seafood and basically have not eaten any for over ten years. It’s only very recently that I’ve decided to try seafood again, and I’m very particular about where I eat it. I refuse to eat seafood in Windhoek, for example, being so far from any body of water. But Walvis Bay seems safe.

“I like to kill mine in hot sauce,” W says, pulling out a bottle of hot sauce.

I assume she’s joking. “I heard some people eat live oysters,” I comment.

“These are live oysters,” she tells me. “How else would you eat them?”

Hmmm. It has been a long time since I’ve last eaten oysters. I reach for my glass of vodka and take a long, long sip. I would also like to make sure things are killed when they reach my stomach.

Our main course is a fish dish of butterfish, kingklip, and monkfish, and to my relief they are all dead and thoroughly cooked. There are all sorts of local fish here in Namibia that I have never heard of, and I intend to try eating every single one.

my fish dish is helpfully labelled

After our tour of the Walvis Bay night club scene and my firsthand education in the Walvis Bay sex trade, we head back to M’s place, where children have fallen asleep in front of the TV watching some mind-numbingly vapid show about spoiled rich kids on the Disney Channel. While I fall asleep, W sneaks out with M’s roommate, a teenage dishwasher, to hit up a few more bars “deep in the hood”. She sneaks back in at 4AM, and I don’t notice a thing.

I wake up at eight in the morning to the sounds of someone partying next door with loud kwaito music. The random children have returned and are watching noisy Sunday morning cartoons. Groggily I pull W out of bed and we walk over to her dad’s place nearby, to visit her kids who live there.

We take her two boys out to Wimpy’s for Sunday morning brunch. The boys are excited to see their mother, but are even more excited to be out of the house, and they climb all over the plastic playground in the store, while W tries to deal with her hangover. There is about a Afrikaner biker gang sitting at the next table, filling the room with smoke and loud conversation, all donning leather jackets with various patches which all have some meaning I'm sure. We decide to pull the boys from the playground away from the noisy bikers to go back to the harbor, where we get ice cream at Anchors, a restaurant where W’s friend M.A. works. Once again I try my Afrikaans with her. The boys are too excited to be at the waterfront to eat their ice cream, so they let us eat it while they climb all over the harbor. We’re blessed again with beautiful weather and I wonder if I’m going to get a sunburn again.

Eventually we have to leave. I manage to distract the younger son with new crayons but the older son is upset to be separated from his mom so quickly. It’s heart breaking to hear his howls. But we have to go back to Windhoek, because I have to work the next day, so we climb back into a combie van where we are seated four in the back to what is I’m sure actually only a three-seater. Cramped with my elbow in W’s ribs and my shoulder in my her face, we pull out of Kuisebmond, away from W’s son’s howling and the rest of the town watching W leave once again, wondering when she’ll come back.

“they got your number, scared and runnin'
but I'm still waitin' for the second coming
of Ophelia
come back home…”