Roadtrips, Royalty and Rednecks

I’ve started my journey North, finally.

I’ve got my car in my possession, paid for and insured. I’ve bought camping equipment, most of what I need. I’m now in a hotel in the town of Tsumeb having just driven about six hours and 436km (270mi) up the country. I plan to buy provisions here before going the next 270km (168mi) to Ondangwa and my next destination. Driving was actually quite fun; I got to see how fast my bakkie can go fully-loaded with everything I own here (145kph/90mph, just) and I got to play lots of music through my mp3 player. Helga’s even got air conditioning. Piling everything in my car does make me feel a bit like a tortoise, though.

I’m staying for two nights, as I have a meeting with someone who will be doing some interview transcription for me. I’ve been here before, and I’ve even stayed in this hotel before, so it is something of a Last Homely House before I make a start into the part of Namibia called “Africa Proper”, where German and South African colonists never really managed to establish themselves. The present government of Namibia does hold sway up there, especially since Ovamboland (named after its majority Ovambo inhabitants) was the seeding-place for the anti-apartheid SWAPO rebellion (supported by the Soviet Union, the DDR and Cuba, against the British, American and Israeli-supported South Africa) that secured Namibian Independence in 1990. Ovamboland’s lack of submission to colonial rule, however, is evident in the fact that much of the land is still communally-owned in accordance with ancient Ovambo law and custom, and much authority is places in the kings of the eight Ovambo tribes.

I have only spent half a day there before, but much of the next year will be spent documenting the knowledge and skills of the Hai||om hunter-gatherers that live in some of the less-inhabited regions. My translator, fresh from getting his Masters from the University of Cologne, will be an invaluable asset in introducing me to the people that will make or break my ability to conduct research there.

A satellite image of Eastern Ovamboland. the white expanse is the Etosha Salt Pan, enclosed by the famous national park. Circled in red is my stopover in the mining town of Tsumeb, and where my translator and I think the Hai||om groups are.

A satellite image of Eastern Ovamboland. the white expanse is the Etosha Salt Pan, enclosed by the famous national park. Circled in red is my stopover in the mining town of Tsumeb, as well as the two places where my translator and I think the Hai||om groups are.

Incidentally, I met the king of the Aambalantu tribe recently during my days of poaching the internet at the office of my host in the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. He was extremely nice, but any special customs I should have observed I did not as I had absolutely no idea who he was, and besuited Namibians are not exactly hard to find at a Windhoek legal office. After I was introduced as a colleague and greeted him with my usual “Hello, sir, how are you?”, he did however call me “sir” in return. I’m not sure how many people have been called “sir” by royalty without the customary knighthood, but he is thoroughly more approachable than Queen Liz at Braemar games, anyway, although to be fair we haven’t actually spoken.

My last days in Windhoek before heading North have also been punctuated with some anthropologically interesting interactions. On my quest to get insurance for Helga, I spent about three days attempting to open a Namibian bank account. This was a dismal failure, and I was left mystified as to why Namibian banks were so reluctant to let me bring a lot of money into their country, when I have learned that getting it out is a good deal easier than I thought. After a disastrous meeting in which I was told I did not have the right documentation (cue flashbacks to my eighteen months as a call centre employee at the Student Awards Agency for Scotland) I thought I would cheer myself up by following some friends’ advice and making a visit to the Windhoek gun shop.

I have, I must admit, an incredible fascination with rural culture. Reluctant urbanite of six years though I am, I am drawn to the facets of “redneck” culture that remind me of where my parents live (pickup trucks, farm equipment, self-sufficiency and home-made alcohol) as well as the bluegrass culture that spawned the banjo I am still terrible on. I want to go into Appalachia at some point for some post-doc research. Part of this culture is centred around guns, and in Namibia it is no different. I grew up in Britain, which has the good fortune to be a place in which guns are very unusual alien things, unless you happen to be part of either the landed gentry, the military or a club for enthusiasts. They hold a fascinating (for me) central position in the libertarian don’t-tread-on-me anti-government ethos, one which when held by outdoorspeople and frontier-dwellers is a goldmine for research, though admittedly when held by white twenty-something college men is a source of whiny self-righteousness and no end of annoyance for the rest of us (here’s looking at you, Robert Nozik. Smug git).

So I found myself browsing shelves and shelves of rifles, pistols and scary knives. I contented myself with buying a Leatherman multi-tool to help keep Helga in tip-top shape, but I’d be damned if I was leaving before getting talking to the guy who ran the place. Turns out he was really interesting. We had a long chat, in which I practised an interview technique I like to call “agreeing with everything they say so they tell you more stuff”. It worked fantastically. We bitched about the government regulations in Europe taking everyone’s guns away, and he was astonished when I told him that all of the rather imposing handguns he had on display were illegal to own in the UK. So much so, in fact, that our Olympic pistol-shooting team has to practice in Ireland. I neglected to go into why I thought that wasn’t too bad a thing, and such was his sympathy for me that he proceeded to get out most of the handguns he had on display, and enthusiastically go through their merits as to how easy they were to conceal vs how big a hole they would make in someone trying to mug you.

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I have to say, part of me really enjoyed it. I’ve long suspected that the popularity of firearms, particularly with men, has something to do with having personal power as well as their representations in entertainment media, though having never held a real gun in my life I had no personal evidence to back it up. Now, however, I’m pretty sure it’s true. It took a superhuman effort from me not to quote Dirty Harry upon being handed a revolver, but I managed to hold it together enough for him to hand me his card, and let me know that even though I’m not licensed in Namibia (or anywhere) I can come back any time I like when the range has been revamped to try out the ones he showed me for three hundred dollars (twenty euros) an hour. I will probably go back just to talk to him again.

So before leaving Windhoek I had an interesting taste of the Namibian culture that I would probably say most of the tourists that come here are a part of: Shooting. As well as that, I’ve been introduced to some Namibians that would definitely fit the American definition of “redneck”, and this has been backed up latterly by an interesting conversation with a fellow anthropologist here who has the same interests in pursuing research like this. As nice as the gun shop chap was, and as fun as it was to examine another gun breathlessly described by the shopkeeper as “straight out of the Bundeswehr”, I’m still not really comfortable around instruments of death, and am going to stick to the pickups, bluegrass and booze when it comes to rednecks for now. Also horses. Horses make excellent lawnmowers in the garden, apparently:

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I’ve even been told I can have a riding lesson when I get back from the North, which I am definitely looking forward to. I can’t look as much of a berk as I did the first time I got on a horse, but we shall see. There will be pictures.

My journey North, however, is me settling back into what I am more used to, not to mention trained for. I’ve probably got a few things still to sort, but at least if I have to come back to Windhoek the journey will be measured in hours rather than days as it is back to Europe from here, so I’m nowhere near as frantic with preparation as I was in the days before my coming to Namibia. I’m here in my hotel, having driven for six hours, and will shortly make a trip to the excellent hotel bar for a beer and a wind-down.

I was very reluctant to leave the previous house and my amazing hosts, but if they will have me again I will certainly be back. Tschuß!

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