Monday, April 2, 2012

Namibia's Independence Day

"Now, in the post-apartheid era, what is their excuse? Well, this is the great epoch of freedom. And freedom comes with conspicuous consumption and instant gratification: people of his clan don't only wear brands but see themselves as brands. They purchase and market themselves as such."
-Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda, "Black Diamond"

I catch a cab at the end of my street in Khomasdal, the coloured township of Windhoek. There are already two passengers in it, wishing everyone a happy Independence Day. The cab driver has been listening to some of the celebrations in Mariental being aired on the radio. It is a bunch of speeches from various government officials thanking other government officials. It all sounds kind of dry and I'm glad that I didn't make the trek to Mariental for the festivities and had stayed in Windhoek instead.

The cab driver changes the radio to a music station where the Afrikaner deejay is blathering on about the freedoms we should be thankful for now, like the freedom to go to the mall and shop and the like.

"Freedom," the cab driver snorts. "We are not free here."

"Nee?" I ask. He seems to want to talk.

"We do not have freedom when anyone can walk into our homes, rob our house and attack our women," he says passionately. "This is not freedom. When you are not safe, we are not free."

"Yes, there is a lot of crime," I agree. "There still is a long way to go." I was going to add some dramatic comment about how it is a long walk to freedom, and then realize that someone else had already said it before.

Instead, at that point the cab runs out of petrol and stops at the side of Sam Nujoma Drive. I get out of the cab and walk the rest of the way. I feel bad leaving the cab stranded there on the road, but I am late.

I meet briefly with my old landlord, an old German man who tells me how his family used to go to Angola on vacation to get away from the apartheid regime. "It felt so free there," he says, "for those of us who were a little more liberal-minded and didn't agree with the system." He tells me how the black Angolans used to come up to his small blonde children, fascinated, and ask permission to touch their hair.

Afterwards, I meet up with A, who has been out of town working on a study of the behaviour of men who have sex with men, some still closeted, to assess their risk in terms of HIV exposure. We head over to Singles Quarters the Katutura township to have kapana for lunch.

Singles Quarters is where the apartheid regime had kept their male labourers, separate from their wives and families, while they worked. Now it is a giant meat market where you can also get delicious kapana. We pass a cow's skull on the ground and approach one of the stands where a man was cooking his meat. He invites us to sample a piece of beef. It agrees with A., who then orders sixty namibian dollars worth of meat, which the man finishes cooking on his grill and then wraps up in newspaper before handing it to us. L runs to another stand in the market to purchase some diced tomatoes to go on the side, and we sit ourselves at a nearby table to enjoy kapana with some Fanta. As a Korean-Canadian, I'll always be biased toward Korean barbecue, but kapana is still quit good. I eat a piece that is pure fat (it looks like a baked potato) and am struck in wonder how how full of flavour it is. I am suddenly afraid I might become Jack Sprat's wife who eats no lean.

By that point, AN and S. have joined us, and we decide to spend the afternoon at Goreangab Dam. On the way, we spot F partying on a balcony, so we pick her up and bring her along.

Goreangab is jumping; all of Katutura's residents are out celebrating Independence Day. We give up trying to find a spot at a picnic table and instead park our cars under the shade of a tree. We open the trunk and sit on the bumper, blasting kwaito rap and drinking beers. AN remarks that it feels like an awful lot like tailgating. To me, it feel like high school for some reason and I find it comforting.

The two Oshiwambo girls F and L are wishing everyone a Happy Independence Day. F has been celebrating all night, dancing in the shebeens until 5:30AM and then starting up again at 7AM. She looks totally punk rock. I resolve to do the same for Canada Day.

Everyone is having a good time, drinking, partying, dancing to great Namibian tunes like Gazza. At one point, a pickup truck full of guys backs up straight at us and hits the tree dead on, barely missing AN and leaving a huge dent in the back of the truck. Nobody seems to care, and the drivers drives off as nonchalantly as he can. I envision him telling drunk stories later that night about how a tree had come out of nowhere and rear-ended him.

"Happy Independence Day," F says again, cracking open another beer. I look at the lot of us and feel thankful about our freedom to do this, in our independence after apartheid, to hang out with our friends, a mix of whites, blacks, asians.

Soon the weather takes a turn for the worse - not just rain, but thunder and lightning. F squeals and dives into the trunk of A.'s car, insisting that it's time to move, anywhere, anywhere indoors. We pile into A.'s fake sports car and An. and S.'s station wagon and go to one of the dozens of shebeens on Eveline Street. Eveline Street is like Newfoundland's George Street, heavily concentrated in rowdy bars, but Katutura-style. Seems like every shebeen is also a car wash or a barbershop. It's as though those are the three things Katutura residents love to do the most: drink beer, wash their cars, and get their hair done. You'd think we were deep in Texas.

The bar patrons seemed confused at the influx of foreigners in the bar, but at that point the rain is coming down hard and everyone's just looking for shelter. I order a cheap Windhoek Lager that costs barely over a dollar and look at the tin walls and the tin roof and the bodies all pressed against each other, girls dancing on the floor, guys chatting each other up while sitting on the pool table. I feel a bit claustrophobic but at least we are out of the rain.

Once the rain lets up, F. convinces us to squeeze into the station wagon and drive around Katutura to find some cute boys that she had met the night before. Instead, we end up finding T at Druzo's, which is like the same thing. By that point I feel like I've done enough drinking for the day so I decide to head home to "my" hood, Khomasdal. L and F give me one more hug and one more happy independence day, and then we depart. This is the last time I'm going to see them before I leave Namibia.

At home, my favourite gay Serbian N is waiting for me, ready to cook a risotto as my last dinner in Namibia. We pick up some drinks at the neighbourhood shebeen Benny's so we have some beers for the night, and then M and W come over just in time to drink it. N serves the risotto which is delicious. ZK refuses to eat it because the dish is vegetarian and he is Herero and Hereros apparently only consider meat to be food. M is also a self-identified Herero, but he doesn't pass up a good free meal.

I try to make a toast. "Happy Independence Day," I say without thinking, and then my voice falters. "...do you guys do Independence Day?"

And then ensues a heated debate between Hereros M and ZK, and W, who is a mix of I'm not quite sure what. I should have known better than to bring up patriotic rhetoric in front of queer Herero folks, but then I've been partying with Oshiwambo girls all day.

"Independence Day is the one day I tell my white boyfriend to leave me alone," W replies.

"No," M says at the same time. "Independence Day is what Ovambos celebrate."

"Oh, Hereros have to come off that," W says. "You guys have got to stop whining."

"We were the first ones to fight," M replies. "Back when everyone was still trying to figure out what to do, we were already here on the ground fighting. And now what? The Ovambos are in power and wasting our money, paying fifty thousand namibian dollars to exile kids like you."

M is referring to the fact that W had been sent out of the country as a child for safety reasons until after Independence. "You're talking about wasting money?" W retorts. "Who spent millions of dollars sending a bunch of Herero representatives to Germany to retrieve like ten skulls? How many Hereros does it take to carry some skulls anyway?"

All throughout this, ZK is emphatically punctuating all these comments with his own exclamations of approval or disapproval. He's eighteen years old and was born after Independence, which is hard to think about. I can barely follow along the debate, still having 100 pages to read in my History of Namibia book. Meanwhile, in all the excitement, N has accidentally sliced his hand open on a broken bottle neck of a beer and is bleeding all over the kitchen floor.

"Are you okay with blood?" he asks me, holding his hand with his other hand.

"Yes," I lie, closing my eyes. He instructs me to tear off a cloth strip from an old shirt so he can wrap it around his hand, which just won't stop bleeding. That's when I find out he is a doctor, having just completed a fellowship at Harvard.

The political debate in the kitchen ends when W checks her phone and discovers that one of her (many) admirers have sent her a, shall we say, adult photo. We then discuss how she should reply. Eventually we decdie to send her a series of close-up phtoos of other body parts: M's beard, ZK's nostril, my shoulder, and N's bloody finger. Two black guys, a white guy, and an Asian woman. Happy Independence Day. W's suitor replies that he wishes the photos were clearer.

At that point of the night, all of the day's drinking has left me sleepy and I find myself curling up on my mattress on the floor, turning in early on my own good-bye dinner. N thoughtfully closes the door and I sleep while the others keep drinking.

I wake up at one point in the night to hear my friends still talking in the kitchen. W and N are discussing what their notions of freedoms are, and whether they think they are free. They conclude that they are. I want to get out of bed to join in this discussion, but realize I have nothing to add. Instead I snuggle into my covers and think about where I am. I think about W and N, one an exile kid smuggled out of the country while being shot at during the war against apartheid only to return a decade later to a home she no longer recognize; and the other one having spent his childhood caught in the Bosnian war and then his adolescence with his town under fire and not being able to go to school. And then I think about me, having never lived through war and free to come to Africa and leave as I please. I think about how if they are free, then so am I, and I feel happy for it.