Creature Comforts

Apparently, this is what anthropological research feels like.

By this, I mean that I am inordinately happy to have four things on this short weekend break in Ondangwa. In order of importance these are as follows:

1) Internet access. Even if it is patchy enough to induce the rage only known when the internet is temperamental enough to induce prayer in the most ardent atheist.

2) Air conditioning. I switched it on at eighteen degrees upon my arrival. I have not since touched the remote control.

3) Hot water. I can shave, and my showers do not begin with yelps of shock.

4) Decent coffee. I bought a cafetiére. Those who remember me from the dark days of my Civil Service job will know how happy/excitable/twitchy that makes me.

Oh glorious coffee, how I have missed thee!

Oh glorious coffee, how I have missed thee!

Of course these things are the sort of things I would take for granted living in most places, bar possibly the air conditioning in Europe. Living in a tent in the bush certainly makes one realise the things that make life enjoyable, the things that make life bearable, and the things that make it merely possible are often quite different. Not only that, but the various amenities I have grown up with do not always fit into the category I think they do.

Let’s take a flushing toilet for example. Now at my first field site, where I am working at the moment, I am very fortunate. We have been allowed to camp at the health centre, and is has one of these. Ekoka is the only field site that has this. But back to the question: Does a flushing toilet make life possible, bearable or enjoyable? I’ll give you a minute. Here’s some music while you decide:

Upon arrival, I would have said the second option, but really meant the first. It’s neither. You don’t really need one. Not if you have a shovel. It’s become one of those things I’d say is “nice if you can get it”.

It’s a luxury. Like internet, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, a shower, a proper bed, climate control, the means to wash your clothes, food that does anything other than fill a hole, and things to stave off boredom when you are not engaged in the business of feeding and clothing yourself, as well as (in my case) making hundreds of pages of notes and many hours of recordings.

This is something I have realised. I now look forward to hot showers and meals that didn’t come dried or in a can with almost indecent enthusiasm. I arrived at this guest house yesterday, late in the afternoon, just under twenty-four hours ago. I have showered three times, and I am on my third cafetiére-full of coffee. I appreciate little things more than I did. I think if I went and stayed in a posh hotel I would probably explode or something.

Research, such that it is, seems however to be going reasonably well. I am taking encouragement from the fact that the people at my first field site seem to like me. At the very least, they seem to be getting used to me. Only once in a remote village I had not visited before did one woman flee before me shouting that “the Boers are coming back!” Apparently white people haven’t been seen much since the South Africans blew the place up about thirty years ago.

We have had a few strange animal encounters, too. By far the most terrifying and memorable was our minor brush with one of Africa’s most venomous denizens, the Black Mamba. I do not need to give this snake an introduction, I am sure: It is legendary. Its bite, known to some as the “kiss of death”, causes collapse in forty-five minutes, and death in the seven to fifteen hours following without antivenin and treatment. Before the development of antivenin, the mortality rate from a bite was 100%.

Strangely enough, I do not fear snakes in the slightest. Spiders (almost all of which here in Namibia are completely harmless to humans) send me running for the hills, but upon our return to our camp at Ekoka after our last break the news that a mamba had been seen in the vicinity caused me more interest than alarm. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the African legend.

It took me some time to get the name of our dangerous visitor from my translator. Owambos, according to him, do not like to speak the name of it, lest they tempt fate and encourage its approach. We eventually played a strange version of Animal-Vegetable-Mineral while I endeavoured to work out why he wasn’t sitting down anywhere and wanted to borrow my torch every time he went for a pee. “Does it have legs?” and “Will I die if it bites me?” are reliable stalwarts if any of my readers here are faced with the prospect of identifying a venomous snake whose name it is unlucky to speak. I, for one, decided to call this particular one Voldemort.

Of course, as I know from a lifetime of wimping out around spiders, not seeing the snake is much more scary to most than seeing it. However we did not have long to wait. A chap who hangs around with us a lot near the health centre where we camp presented us the following afternoon with a box.

Don't panic, it was dead. That would have been the world's least funny practical joke otherwise.

Don’t panic, it was dead. That would have been the world’s least funny practical joke otherwise.

He had delivered the killing blow with a stone launched from his home-made slingshot. This consisted entirely of a Y-shaped stick and some bits of inner tube. The kill, he said, took about an hour, forcing him to dance with death around the bottom of the tree it had made its hiding place. I do not envy him. A second snake was seen some days later, however its discoverer was somewhat better-armed. A muffled boom in the distance told us that the headman’s brother had made short work of it with his shotgun. That one was bigger, I heard. Apparently little Voldy here still had some growing to do. He was already about a metre and a half long.

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It would be quite cute without the deadliness

So I’ve seen a mamba. I’m pleased about this, but still more pleased everyone involved in the ordeal is alive. Once was quite enough, and I’ve no desire at all to see more of them.

On the further subject of animals, my other run-ins have been wholly less deadly, although the first was somewhat disgusting. One of the security guards at the health centre has taken to coming around to our campsite in the evenings, sometimes to share dinner with us, and sometimes just for a chat. Her English is improving, which is, I think, part of why we hang out. She turned up one evening with a handful of something crunchy which she was eating like popcorn. She offered me one.

Spoiler: It is not popcorn.

Spoiler: It is not popcorn.

The small dried insect, which I promptly ate, was horrible. She asked how it was, eating another. I tried to be as polite as I could. I think what I said was that it “wasn’t really my thing”. What I meant was that it tasted like cow dung. Obviously I didn’t say that, as I didn’t want to be rude. She intoned, conversationally, that they live in the field, and eat cow dung.

I will not be eating any more of them.

Aside from the weird things I insist upon eating, my other encounter with animals is far more conventional, and a whole lot more adorable. My translator told me that his mother wanted another dog to replace her most recent one, and far out in the bush, at the same place where I was mistaken for a South African, one of the dogs had just had a litter. He bought one, and we took care of him for a couple of days before our return to Ondangwa, where he would find his new home. This is the couple-of-weeks old puppy, which my translator christened Buddy.

Very confused but very very adorable, I think you will agree.

Very confused but very very adorable, I think you will agree.

Sadly, the downside is that for the journey back to Ondangwa my car did have a distinct aroma of puppy pee. Washing the floor mat and a couple of air fresheners will hopefully have sorted it out by tomorrow.

For my sanity, what I have decided to do is to implement a two-week on, weekend-off cycle of research, giving me a good bit of time in a chunk at my field site for the time I am here, with some points at which I can update myself with goings-on in the world at large via WiFi (such that it is) at regular intervals. I think that should work.

It’s Sunday today, which means I have one more night in this luxurious bed with the cool of air-conditioning before returning to my tent. I think I will enjoy it. I might even have another coffee.

Tschüß!

Safari, Sand and the Sea

I’ve taken something of a break over what would be considered in Europe the winter holidays. Here, of course, it was punishingly hot, but nonetheless I had a wonderful Christmas with my hosts here, who kindly offered to put me up for the duration. I have been staying here in Windhoek in a small cottage on their land, which means I essentially have my own house. This also means that I wake up each morning to a rather nice view of the bush, while I prepare for the next, and altogether longer, odyssey into the North.

In the intervening time, too, I went on a little tour, the occasion being a two-week visit from Edinburgh of my girlfriend. We did all the typical touristy things, and I actually feel now that I have seen a lot more of the country than I would have done without any time off at all. We visited the world-famous Etosha National Park, which is an area about the size of Scotland in which much of Namibia’s native wildlife exists free of encroachment from farming and poaching. This, rather happily, includes quite a number of elephants.

We went on an early morning game safari at one of our resorts, in which I nearly froze to death. Apparently I have got very used to the heat of Namibia in the daytime. Five in the morning is not one of those times. We actually saw very little on the drive, as the animals are all students or something. We saw most of the animals driving ourselves through the park from one hotel to the next, helpfully reminded by signs every few kilometres to “STAY IN YOUR CAR” lest we be eaten by lions. Alas, no lions were forthcoming, although I am happy about not being eaten. The insurance claim would have been a nightmare. Nonetheless, the absence of top predators meant that all the other wildlife seemed very relaxed around us, and we saw giraffes, wildebeest, jackals, the occasional hyena, hartebeest, zebra, ostrich, springbok and oryx. I have eaten an embarrassingly large number of the animals on the list, actually. Oryx is definitely the best. I loved Etosha, mainly for the fact that we could proceed entirely at our own pace throughout the journey, stopping when we wanted to, although getting out the car was strictly a rest-camp-only affair. Unless a really really good picture presented itself, at which point one of us would hang out the window.

From Etosha, we proceeded through the arid and dusty Damaraland down to the skeleton coast. A nice idea would be, I thought, to use the small roads, although what qualifies as a “big road” in that part of the world seems to be a gravel road wide enough for two cars to pass each other. We drove for about a hundred kilometres without seeing a soul, which was eerie, but upon seeing a sign advertising “rock art this way” we decided to take a quick break, and things got a bit eerier.

What you are looking at is one of the very common rock formations in the area, apparently surrounded by a strange shrine of empty beer bottles that looked like it had not been touched in a time measurable in decades. There was even a stall with rocks for sale, untouched in a similar time. There was not a soul to be seen. We did not stop for long, either: the temperature was climbing into the forties celsius and after a look around (I was thankfully prevented from attempting to climb the rock formation thanks to the sensibility of my travelling companion and the lack of help in the area) we saw no rock art. I was reminded forcefully of the old television show Jeopardy I used to watch as a teenager back in the UK. It seemed like a bit of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind venue, at any rate. The idea of spending a night camping there ignites the Fox Mulder in me (three UFO references in as many sentences, gold!), though I suspect that it’s an abandoned tourist site. I have, however, been told that some rock formations here hold cairn tributes to a Damara god, so it could be something to do with that. The mystery deepens.

We avoided abduction and experimentation by extraterrestrials, however, and proceeded further towards the Brandberg, our next formal stop and the highest mountain in Namibia. The map was less than clear however, and just when being lost became a real possibility, for the first time in quite some hours we were passed by a local in his truck, who guided us to the right road using the medium of drawn maps in the sand. Our day in the car was longer than expected, but without major incident, thankfully.

The Skeleton Coast was our next big adventure on the tour. The best way I can think of to characterise it would be to think of it as the world’s biggest beach, on which the sand simply doesn’t stop as you go inland. Much of the distances in such a featureless landscape blend into one another, so in an odd way the place seems smaller than it really is, although it is a massive vista to look at. The road is also made of compacted salt, and it speaks to where I grew up that my initial thought was of approval as it would mean there would definitely be no problem with snow and ice, which is true, although that has little to do with the salt. It was cold, though. By cold, of course I mean that it was about twenty degrees, but come evening that was enough for me to want to put on a jumper, and it was a welcome contrast from the fires of the sun inland.

We also had the good fortune to be staying very near to one of the largest colonies of anything I have ever seen, and in this case it happened to be the rather dopey, and extremely smelly, Cape Fur Seals that make their homes here. They are not shy, and some of the smaller ones are quite photogenic.

I’ll definitely say at this point that the Namibian coast is probably one of the strangest places I have ever been in my life. The desolation and lack of habitability mean that water has to be trucked in, yet small towns flourish here, trading seemingly on the tourists and visitors that flock during the summer (Dec-Feb) to escape the inland heat. But as far as I could see, and of course my impression as a tourist is flawed, these seem to be the only inhabitants. The place feels like a succession of British seaside towns, the colonial-ness of the Afrikaner and Sudwest Deutsch adding another strange flavour to the mix. Swakopmund, in particular, made me think of Exmouth, in which my father grew up, and which I long ago visited, yet an Exmouth that was invaded by the Second Reich under Bismarck and from which they never retreated. As a curiosity, it makes for interesting buildings and a fascinating museum, but a town where this is an acceptable shop window display needs some serious introspection:

Notice, if you will, that those are not antique postcards. These are recently manufactured bumper stickers, that I could, should I so choose, purchase and put upon Helga so that everyone in Namibia could be clear about the fact that I am totally fine with genocide. I learned upon my return to Windhoek that I should have looked closer at that shop window. They are usually displaying a copy of Mein Kampf as well.

Swakopmund was a lot beyond this, however. If you can get past the idea that the Reich never seemed to leave, you’ll see a town that is seeing a lot of new inhabitants, growth and diversity pushing out the old ways, leaving them as a curiosity for disbelieving tourists to photograph. We managed to find some great food and drink, even sushi at one point, which seems to be taking the urban areas of Namibia by storm, and cocktails. Outdoor adventure things are also pretty popular here, and it was difficult to resist a trip into the dunes quadbiking and sandboarding (sledging on dunes, basically) on our last day there.

All in all, a fantastic break, and aside from a short mishap and two-hour detour on the way home thanks to me dropping my wallet in the middle of absolutely nowhere when we stopped, a nice drive over a mountain pass on the way back to Windhoek, Alison’s return to Edinburgh, and my return to work.

For now, I am readying myself and my equipment for what I will call “the real research”, in which I will gather the bulk of my data on my field sites. I have three months, at which time I shall return to Germany for some meetings and Scotland for making sure the people I care about have not forgotten me, before I return for another three months of data gathering. At that point, I should have enough material for a PhD. We can hope.

I am very much at home here these days. So much so, in fact, that I am feeling less stressed about preparing for this trip like a military exercise. I have become something of an old hand now at “making do”, a perennial practice here that with a couple of exceptions I really quite like. You can also tell how normal life here has become for me, that I am finding less and less to post about when I am not actually on fieldwork. Namibian life is simply my life now. I’m okay with that. There’s still that voice at the back of my head telling me I’m not prepared enough, though. I think I will call him “Mein Kleiner Deutschmann”. I’m pretty sure he’s kept me alive more than once.

Tschuß!

Gone Hunting

It’s been an intense two weeks. I’ve spent them camping at the health clinic at Ekoka, a tiny settlement near the Angolan border. I hoped that by being around for slightly longer than last time, I could build up some trust and assurance that I will be back, as well as getting some broad brush strokes to give me a hint as to what data I would be getting when I return for three months. In contrast to my time at the resettlement farm near Tsinsabis, I am not well-known at Ekoka, and that shows in the suspicion it took me the better part of the two weeks to break through. It’s completely understandable, though; I wouldn’t trust me right there and then. Too many government people have come and gone, taking notes and promising things, yet nothing has really come of it, at least with regard to the San (!Xun and ǂAkhwe) people who make Ekoka their home.Thankfully, they no longer think I am investigating anything on behalf of the government.

At the beginning, I found trading tobacco, coffee, tea and sugar for time spent chatting was a good approach, although of course the supplies do not last forever, as I have to keep saying. Thankfully the short trip meant that my supplies held out long enough for people to want to stop and talk to me regardless of whether I could offer them something, which I hope will be a pattern repeated on my return. When I left, at least, the greeting waves were less begrudged than at the start, and accompanied by smiles. This means a great deal, especially in tandem with the filled-up notebooks that I am happy to be able to return with.

Distributing tobacco to a lady that reminded me very much of my grandmother (father’s mother).

We are communicating in Oshiwambo, mostly, though I have a list of phonetically-spelled !Xun words in the back of my fieldnotes book that I get hilariously wrong, to general delight. I have greetings and a few phrases in Oshiwambo, too. Hardly interview material, but enough that I can be polite and engage in some sort of basic trade, which is how my German started (and remains, to be honest, albeit at a slightly more advanced level) if I recall correctly. It is proving helpful in small towns in the North here, too, where I am starting to be seen as someone who works here rather than just a flying visitor and a tourist.

The Ekoka San settlement itself has a long history, being set up first by Finnish missionaries, although the San have been here for thousands of years, passing through as mobile hunter-gatherer communities. Only with the advent of the missionary work did they start to settle down. This puts them in close proximity to the Kwanyama Owambo herders who also live here, which makes them ideal candidates for research on hunter-gatherer societies in transition. They have to negotiate encouragement from the government to settle down and start farming, something some of them are more comfortable with doing than others, as well as increasing fencing-off of land, as I saw at the resettlement farm near Tsinsabis, which limits their ability to hunt and gather bushfood. Along with sedentarisation also comes an increasing awareness of the modern world, which brings its own set of challenges, drawing the younger generations away from a traditional foraging existence, much to the chagrin of their elders, who maintain the importance of teaching the old ways.

Before we arrived at the settlement, however, we had to negotiate the way in. As I found on my last trip, calling the road to Ekoka a “road” is a bit of a stretch; the place is nearly impossible to access without the benefit of a four-wheel-drive, and even then I am often grateful for my locking differential, faced multiple times a day with being buried in thick sand.

Now imagine this happening every time you go somewhere to get a mobile signal, or if the clinic is closed and you are in labour.

After speaking to the headman of the village, I think I may be able to use some of my contacts in Windhoek to get the government to at least put some gravel down. Apparently they have promised to do it multiple times, but Ekoka being an easily-forgotten settlement of shacks and one-room brick dwellings on the border with Angola, it’s easy for them to simply tell the residents it will happen next year. It would be good to be able to have a bit more of a tangible impact on the village by the time I leave, so I will see what I can do to put the pressure on.

It might work to make a lasting impression, which would certainly make my research easier. As it is, however, I seem to have made a few good friends in my time there. One of them, JL, was good enough to take us hunting, after he mentioned in passing that it still goes on, and even with the ban on shooting big game it was a good way to get meat. I accounted the experience in my fieldnotes. We went twice in the end, so here are some excepts of my account of our second trip:

Wenesday 26th November 2014

Went hunting again this morning. It wasn’t quite as hot as last time, but getting up at 5 after poor sleep, as well as this looming dehydration headache, means that I am writing this on the verge of collapse. We must have walked about 10km.

We got to the San houses at 0615, and found JL attempting to rouse his hunting companion from last time to join us once again. To no avail. We found a young lad on the way, though, and he was up for joining us. We drove over a field, the hunters walking ahead with the dogs. We had nowhere secure to leave the bakkie until we got to the woods, so we followed at a crawl until we could leave it behind.

JL said that as it had rained last night the sand was harder, a blessing for my feet but it made it harder to track the prey. Nonetheless, we were able to pick up the trail of a rabbit, and begun to follow it.

Can you see which way the rabbit is going? I couldn’t.

While following, I made enough noise to scare off a large game bird that was in a tree nearby. A shame, as it would have made a decent lunch. It was similar to a grouse or pheasant in the noise it made flying away, and had the rapid wingbeats and throaty call I recognise from Scottish hillsides.

There is a pattern in how the tracking happens, and it makes clear why JL wanted to go in a group of at least two (competent, i.e. excluding my translator and I) hunters. When a trail was found, one would point to it and they would discuss the various attributes of the spoor, including its size and direction. Upon finding a branch in trails, working as a pair allows them to explore each avenue separately, the one with the stronger lead will call out to the other when it looks promising. Finding the direction in general means that they are not following the spoor directly from one mark to the next, but their knowledge of the way that animals leave tracks in the ground allows them to walk in the direction they know the animal is travelling in. The pace is slow but steady. Without the tracks being directly pointed out to me, there is no way I can distinguish them at all.

We clambered over a fence and followed a track North for a while. I noticed that neither of our companions seemed to be taking any pains to keep their voices down. I suppose they know how far ahead the animal is.

JL on the trail.

As the distance narrowed, their voices became hushed. I kept my eye out for movement, and froze, but saw nothing but the dogs investigating the underbrush. Suddenly, in an explosion of activity, two of the three dogs bolted. JL laughed, then disappeared after them, and out of sight. Catching up, I was pointed to the thicket in which the rabbit had been hiding, but alas, we were not lucky enough to come upon it but a few seconds earlier. JL hurled a stick into the thicker part of the brush, in case the rabbit was hiding, as the dogs took a serious interest in the ground around us.

There were many tracks around, but we picked up the spoor again and they led us (as all rabbit tracks must do eventually) to a large warren nestled in a clearing, and a scout around there seemed promising enough when a dog took off again that JL knocked an arrow. This time, though, he was looking up at the treetops, where another of those birds was perched.  Once again, and mindful of my earlier blundering, I stopped all movement apart from my eyes, but this one was wise to us as well, and fled before JL could get a clear shot.

We got separated again, thanks to JL’s attempt to snag us a bird, and when we caught up with him he had taken off his shoes and was halfway up a tree to retrieve an arrow he had shot and missed with.

JL arrow-hunting

There was a shoot growing out of the bottom of the tree that he could use for support while climbing, but for most of the way he pressed his arms and bare feet to the trunk and and edged his way up, with considerable effort. Arrows are hard to make and they are regrettable losses. It soon dropped to earth, however, and enabled us to continue the hunt.

We found ourselves circling back and retracing our own footsteps for another half an hour or so before deciding that the day was pretty much spent (this was about 1100) and there would be no more game for the taking. It’s a shame we didn’t catch anything, but I learned loads.

In addition to this, on our first hunt (also unsuccessful in terms of meat) we did find a tortoise that JL said we should bring with us for luck. So we did. I christened him Dave.

My translator LA trying to eat Dave.

He now lives with LA here in Ondangwa, with LA’s other pet tortoises. We did not eat him.

Our counterparts on the gathering trip, apparently, had more success. I was shown some caterpillars that are a delicacy for the people here. They were squirming most unpleasantly, something they had in common with my stomach when it ran through my head that I was going to have to eat a live caterpillar.

Slimy, yet satisfying.

I mentally steeled myself.

Okay, I thought, you can do this.

But it’s a live caterpillar.

Your job is here, to form friendships, to try new things, to show we’re not that different.

But it’s a live caterpillar.

You can’t refuse to eat this. They foraged it, and they will offer it to you.

But… live caterpillar.

Just take it. You might like it.

But…

There was a paper a few years ago on how we should eat more insects because they are a great source of protein.

Eat the fucking caterpillar.

I had prepared adequately, I thought, and was ready for anything. So I asked the question:

“So do you eat these raw or cooked?”

After translation, she looked at me like I was mad.

“No, we salt them and dry them”

“Obviously” was heavily implied.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I actually ended up eating one later, when they were salted and dried. They’re really not bad. More chewy than crispy, meaty-ish but with an aftertaste of green leaves, sort of spinach-y, because of what they live on. They’d be pretty good in a stir fry I think.

Apart from eating bugs, one of the most interesting parts of getting to know the people at the community was the relationship that we managed to build up with the children there. For a lot of the time, the children have nothing to do outside of school, which means that a lot of them are in the business of getting food, sometimes a lot more successfully than we did on our hunt.

The goat they bought slaughtered, the mice are their own catch.

I like to think, however, that we were able to provide at least a passing source of interest. We were regularly surrounded by dozens of children whenever we did anything, purely as we were a source of entertainment, however we managed to distract them for a while by organising a tug-of-war Highland Games style with the rope I brought to hold up my tarpaulin. We managed to divide them into roughly equal-sized groups, with only a little shouting and signing from me . The adults thought our attempts to organise the mob were hilarious, but nonetheless we managed to referee a fair contest, the winning team walking away with a big bag of sweets.

Easily the best picture I have taken while in Namibia.

I’ll try and find one of those big packs of outdoor games that you get to take to the beach. We left them with the rope, but some other stuff would go down well, as well. LA also insisted on taking this picture, which proves once and for all that I am the biggest walking cliche alive.

Truly in the spirit of gurlgoestoafrica.tumblr.com, I think you will agree.

So I think, all told, things went fairly well at Ekoka. I am looking forward to returning for three months, even though two weeks there was exhausting. As for now, I will probably be returning to Windhoek soon for Christmas, as well as preparing the cognitive experiments that I want to run in my field sites when I am back there long-term. Hopefully some hard data will follow.

Undoubtedly even my short time at Ekoka so far has made an impact on me, and I hope to the residents too.

For now, Tschuß!

Connections are everything.

With my visa documents handed in, and email assurances and reassurances that they have been sent to the Home Office from an increasingly careworn though not unkind agent in Windhoek, I have been able to start my second reconnaissance mission into the North, and my three field sites. I quite enjoy the long drives, really. I meticulously pack up my stuff from my recent home, tidy the back of the pickup, fast becoming something of a snail or tortoise shell to me, and plan the driving of the day ahead. It’s much nicer now I’ve made the executive decision to take my driving easy from now on in, having run two experiments that were both dismal failures last time I was in the North.

My first mistake was to take advantage of the lack of livestock on the road south of the veterinary cordon fence and blast my way from there all the way down to Tsumeb at 140kph. I thought that the reduced amount of time spent on the road would make up for increased fuel consumption while driving. This is not the case, and meant that my driving was both expensive and stressful. My second mistake was to drive from Tsumeb back to Windhoek for five hours on a Sunday, hungover from a party and with no shops open to sell me a morsel of food. I have officially redefined what “irritable” means after being cut up by a taxi after four hours of nothing but gas station energy drink for sustenance and thirty-five degree heat.

My drive back up, by comparison, was a dream. I cruised up, stopping every hour or so in one of the many rest stops under trees at the roadside to sip from the flask of coffee I had thoughtfully remembered to bring. It was hampered only by my slight anxiety about finding a room in Tsumeb. I wanted to stay in the same place I spent my birthday just a few weeks beforehand, but phoning in the morning I was told it was fully booked up. They said they’d keep an eye out for cancellations, and gave me the number of another hotel. They were also fully booked, but didn’t give me the numbers of anyone else. I’d run out of places I knew in Tsumeb, and resolved to head on up to see what on earth was causing the rush just as the tourist season is winding down.

It turns out that my being hungover on the drive down, or at least the reason for it, was incredibly helpful. I’d attended a party the Saturday night with the owner of the hotel in question, and bought him an awful lot of drinks. Upon arrival at the hotel (dropping in in person always seems to help) I of course asked for him by name, which got me a bit of an odd look from the receptionist, who asked how I knew him. I told the tale of our partying escapade, and she resolved to phone every booking that had not yet turned up to check in to see if they were turning up that night. I, meanwhile, found numbers for every place to stay in Tsumeb and rang most of them. All were booked out, with nary a room at any inn within ten kilometres. I appreciate a good historical reference as much as the next man, but this one was a good six weeks too early, and I am almost definitely not pregnant.

The last person she could have phoned, it turned out, was not coming that night, and I was saved from a night wild camping next to the road somewhere, the legality of which I am unsure of. Needless to say I left enough of a tip with the reception staff to buy all of them a drink or two.

Dropping names so I don’t have to sleep in my car.

The hotel, incidentally, is the Makalani, and I thoroughly recommend it for N$450 (€30) a night and the most helpful staff I have ever met. The owner also knows his way around Tsumeb’s nightlife, to which I can attest with enthusiasm.

Tsumeb, despite being an adventure in its own way, was simply a stopping point on the way up to the Hai||om settlement on a resettlement farm at a place called Mangetti, named after the Mangetti nuts (|Gom) that grow on the trees (|Gom hais) around there. I’d been there before. It was the field site of my supervisor when he studied his PhD, and everyone there knew him well. The last time I went, however, I looked incredibly different (curly mop, beard, and about twice as big) so I did not expect them to remember me. How wrong I turned out to be. Smiles of recognition all round from everyone there, and words to the effect that they were wondering when I would be back. It is as at home as I felt with my hosts in Brakwater, and I am looking forward immensely to doing research there. As before when I was at Ekoka, I wrote field notes, and what follows are some excepts of my impressions of the place.

Wednesday 12th November 2014

So it turns out that this is something of a flying visit. I lost, or forgot to write down, [The chap who owns a campsite  in a nearby town and who has offered to provide me with an employee of his to do translation]’s number, so on this trip I just had to turn up at [his site] and hope he was there. He wasn’t, but I had my second stroke of luck in two days in meeting the owner’s second-in-command, a !Kung guy who was the person he recommended for translation for me. We sat and had a chat, and it looks like he knows or is related to almost everyone on the farm. He was free the next day to head up there for a day and a night. I greeted him in Khoekhoe, which seemed to go down well. For last night, he gave me a spot on the site to camp, complete with flushing toilet and actual shower. I was pretty pleased with this.

Yes, that is a solar hot water tank. Luxury.

Incidentally, upon waking in the morning I also found the biggest millipede I have ever seen.

Less terrifying than the giant spiders I’ve been seeing, I’m sure you will agree.

My new translator was free at ten thirty and we proceeded on our way to the farm. I have no idea how, but I remembered the way completely, having been there only once. No pointers or map consultation needed. My translator was surprised, as was I, although I didn’t tell him that.

I’m sitting in the car writing this now because the rain is absolutely intense. I’ve never seen anything like it here. Sure, a shower of rain that comes down I can deal with here, but squalls coupled with tropical blattering is something else. I keep checking the tents through the steamy car window. Not much I can do about them right now, but I hope they will be alright. This sort of reminds me of home. It’s impossible to do a single thing outside right now without getting soaked to the skin. It seems to be slowing down just now and the wind might be dropping. I hope that’s the last of it. Let me go and check the tents. They seem okay. Wouldn’t want a night of it, though.

I didn’t expect anyone here to remember me, particularly as I’ve changed so much in the intervening time, but it turns out that either the people here have great memories for faces or hats. I was wearing the same leather wide-brimmed hat as I was last time, which is how I think the school principal here recognised me, anyway. So many people who I remember from last time have come up to me and asked how I have been. I’m honestly touched. Someone even said they’d heard rumours I was back in Namibia and was wondering when I’d turned up. I wish I was staying longer.

I managed to find the new headman (the old one passed away a few months ago, I was sorry to hear), and I was happy to see it was a chap I’d got friendly with last time. He took me for a walk around the farm in March, and stopped me from unthinkingly treading on a very poisonous snake. I may well owe this man my life. His smile was broad and warm as he shook my hand. He joined us at our camp for a cup of tea and a pinch of tobacco, and I asked him whether it would be alright to do my research here, and to conduct a task I had been set by the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek; a happy “yes” on both counts, which I now understand in Khoekhoe.

Headman on the left, my translator on the right, in the shade of a |Gom hais (Mangetti tree).

The task I had been set was to follow up a signature-gathering trip on a case the LAC are working on, to ask folk whether they signed it, and whether they knew what they were signing. I had a list of a few people of interest to talk to, and the headman agreed to help me locate them.

The third woman I spoke to was incredibly frustrated with the lack of progress that all outside institutions are making when they try to make life better for people at the farm. I asked what the problems are.

“We are under a lot of pressure. The Owambos fence us in from one side (she points) and the farm to the other. We cannot hunt. We are like goats in a kraal. Many cars come and they say “we can get you somewhere to stay”, but it is just empty promises. It is like they are playing a game.”

“This is really important information” I said “and thank you for sharing it, I will pass it on.”

She nodded.

“Sorry, that must sound like another empty promise”

She laughed at that. We’re taking one of her friends to the government office in Tsinsabis tomorrow so he can pick up his disability cheque. It’s some of the little money coming into this village.

We later talked to the headman, as afternoon turned to evening underneath that same Mangetti tree.

“Hunting stopped in 2008,” he said “everything [the woman] said was true.”

My translator lamented the situation; he misses hunting.

“It’s in my blood,” he points to the veins in his arm, “it’s part of me”

I said that in March I saw a man head off into the bush with a bow, and asked if hunting still went on after the ban. I didn’t get a straight answer, nor really did I expect to. It’s my job to ask, but I wouldn’t tell me either.

The last thing we talked about was the approaching storm clouds, a seemingly appropriate metaphor for the increasing problems the Hai||om seem to be facing here. We packed up, and the headman returned home. My translator left to visit a friend, and I sat in the car to start writing.

Burnt my thumb quite badly just now trying to light the stove. It must have got wet in the rain. No tea.

As for now, I sit in a B&B in the northern town of Ondangwa. I should be heading tomorrow for Ekoka and two weeks of camping at another San settlement. I can hear wind outside even now, and while I got more than my fair share of rain at Mangetti it seems not to have found its way here yet. Maybe we will get some tonight and it will be cooler tomorrow. I can but hope. The B&B is nice, and has intermittent Wi-Fi. I hope this will post alright. I’ll probably have a connection again in a fortnight or so.

For now, Tschuß!

The Good, the Bad and the Bureaucratic.

We are still praying/hoping for more than a spot or two of rain. Peter described the weather at the moment as a “tease”: we get a rough cold downdraught of of air, and black clouds overhead, followed by thunder. We can all feel it coming when the wind gets up, but alas after a dribble of water the clouds move on. We think it might actually be raining, but the raindrops are evaporating before they hit the earth, and going back up to form clouds again. There is a meteorological name for this, however being but a mere social scientist I forgot it instantly when I was told.

It’s unsurprising the rain has never made it down, really. I found out upon my return to Windhoek that the temperatures I regarded as “unbearable” in Ondangwa were justifiable: Forty-two degrees in the shade. You cook meringues at that temperature (thanks, Mum!). You can also cook anthropologists as well. Such has been the heat that it got down to twenty degrees one evening and I had to go and find my jumper as I was shivering. It’s cooled down a tiny bit now; here in Windhoek I’d put it back down to the low thirties, which is fast becoming a comfortable temperature for me. The other thing the heat has driven me to is shaving my beard of five years completely off my face. As well as the fact that I am getting quite dark-skinned and my hair is fast becoming a foofy absurdity, I no longer recognise myself. Nor, apparently, do people who I last saw in March. I’m putting this down (at least with non-white Namibians) to the fact that I was told in Owamboland that all white people look the same. I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not, obviously being one. Answers on a postcard, please. I am also now sleeping under a net every night, besieged by beetles on every side, and hordes of mosquitoes intent on molesting me should I awake in the night and need to use the bathroom.

(No, you are not getting a picture. I eschew blog “selfies” because I am 24 years old now and officially a grumpy old man. Get off my lawn.)

I returned to Windhoek to renew my visa, and intended to stay only for a few days. We are into week number two now, mainly because getting hold of the necessary documents, which now need to be certified copies thanks to a recent rule-change, has proven somewhat difficult. My thanks to the good people at the Legal Assistance Centre (link in the sidebar) for providing me with a letter of association as well as some tasks to accomplish on their behalf when I return to fieldwork and the North. Nonetheless, it should be done and dealt with come the end of the week. I can then stay until February, when the process shall begin again. Joy of joys. The good news is that the LAC is also home to a number of people who can help me immeasurably with my research, in return for the odd bit of proofreading, which I am more than happy to do, as well as well-acquainted with  thanks to my position as one of the few native speakers in my English-medium graduate school in Germany. I’ve also been in contact with a number of researchers who have recently done work in some of my field sites, and have some reading to do of my own. All being well, I should be able to be published in a Namibian journal this year, provided I have something of value to say, which one would expect.

Windhoek has had some other advantages, too. I bought myself a guitar for camp entertainment, as I’ve been missing playing music enormously. It was a N$700 (€50) pawnshop prize, and I’m rather pleased with her. She needs a name, though.

I went into what I think is Windhoek’s only music shop in order to get spare strings and picks, and found two guys there not only incredibly happy to help, but who were also metalheads. We had a great time chatting about Opeth for a while before I reluctantly left behind a N$4000 Fender to go to Cash Crusaders and what eventually became my guitar. Some things I don’t think I can justify on expenses. Nonetheless, she seems to be holding together well, and I hope that people at the San communities I will be visiting like folk music, although it is more for my sanity than anything else.

On Saturday my hosts invited some of their relatives over for lunch. We had a great time, eating, chatting, then probably after not long enough a swim in the alarmingly green pool. However, the lack of fencing on the plot, as well as the large number of animals roaming around, developed into something of a horse-shaped problem.

At that point, the charming “Biggie” (not also known as “The Notorious H.O.R.S.E., although he really should be) had his head in the fruit bowl in the kitchen, and would not move for anyone. Eventually we took the hint and I charmed him and his cohort out of the house and garden with the promise of two bales of hay up at the stable. It’s quite hard to imagine that at one point I was quite scared of horses. This doesn’t fly here.

Lastly, I have booked myself a holiday. I’m staying in country, of course, but in between Christmas and New Year my girlfriend is coming out to visit me here in Namibia, all the way from Scotland. It will be amazing to see her after all this time, but also great to be able to do all the Namibian tourist-y stuff like visiting Etosha National Park and the Skeleton Coast without feeling guilty and like I should be working. I can’t wait to be honest, and it will be brilliant to have a two-week break just after Christmas. I might even finally get to see a big cat, although I’ve been reliably informed that this homestead here in Brakwater is home to a certain leopard, who may or may not have some cubs in the scrapheap next to the entrance. Rest assured, if I can think of a way to take pictures of them without having my arm ripped off by an irate mother, I will do so. Going and looking for them seems a prime way to get myself a Darwin Award, though.

I’m afraid that is pretty much what has been going on recently. It’s a short post, but hopefully soon I should have this visa business sorted, and be back up North doing research, as I am supposed to me. Ever it is bureaucracy that stands in the way of progress, but quite a lot of good has come of being here in Windhoek, and I’m planned out all the way through until January. Ideally next time I post I should have some more fieldnote extracts for you. We, as ever, shall see.

Tschuß!

First Forays into the Field

I spent the last two weeks on my first foray into the North, and thus begins the actual research that I will be basing this PhD on. When last I posted I was in a hotel in Tsumeb, a small mining town near the famous Etosha National Park, and I find myself here again two weeks later. It was my twenty-fourth birthday yesterday, and I took what I think was a fairly well-earned break and did very little, sheltering from the heat of the day, which here is climbing to the upper thirties as spring turns into summer, and joining Namibians in hoping that the promised rains start soon. I’m actually on my way back down to Windhoek again, as I need to extend my visa. The current one expires in a month, sadly, so I am back to dealing with bureaucracy, a trial best endured in person rather than on the phone, or god forbid via email, replying to which seems to be regarded as optional here. No matter. I am getting rather the hang of driving Helga, I think, having experienced some serious off-roading in the last few days, and I must say I’m really impressed. Having driven about two thousand kilometres in the last week, I am a little concerned with the amount I am spending on diesel, although I am reassured by the fact that this early part of research is bound to include a lot more back-and-forth than it will later. I hope this is the case, anyway. My daily allowance from the University of Cologne, already nowhere near enough to cover all my expenses, halves after sixty days. Let’s just say I am obsessively hoarding receipts.

The last two weeks began with a drive past what is known as the Red Line (the veterinary cordon marking the point North of which cattle cannot be sold to the EU) into Owamboland, accompanied by a local contact I met at university in Cologne, and his friend, who will be working with me as an English-Oshiwambo translator when I go to work with the Hai||om people there. Things are… different up there, and undoubtedly more what you might call “African”, in contrast to the European-friendly extension of South Africa that seems to be the prevailing feeling in most of Namibia. The marked absence of other white people was also definitely something I noticed. It seems there are not many that live up there. We arrived late at night, and my contact kindly offered a room in his house for me to sleep in for a few hours before we began the arduous trek of the next few days.

In order to conduct research among the Hai||om people in Owamboland, we needed permission to do so. Firstly, we needed to speak to the regional councillors of both the areas which we intend to study, as well as speaking to the Headmen of the two communities. We also needed to to this in two days, as my contact had meetings back in Windhoek shortly after. The two areas, unfortunately, are also hundreds of kilometers apart. In between, we earned a well-earned rest at one of Ondangwa’s many roadside bars, sitting on garden furniture on the sand beside the main road and sipping mercifully cold Windhoek lager.

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The first meeting with the officials and the headman of the area near the Angolan border went incredibly well. The councillor was pleasantly affable about our research, probably because of its incredibly vanilla and apolitical nature, and the headman (who I was much more concerned with impressing than the government) welcomed the research with enthusiasm. When I told him what I would be looking at (traditions, folk knowledge and skills) he even confessed that he thought my research needed to be done, and would be very interested in the results. We were welcome to camp at the clinic near the Hai||om community and talk to those he represents. His enthusiasm totally blew me away, and has opened lots of doors in that region. I did not expect such interest, but it gives me a huge amount of motivation and strength to know that I might not just be doing it for my own benefit after all. He sounded like he has dealt with anthropologists before, too, which makes it much easier when I reassure the people I will be working with that I am not from the government or an aid agency and I am not evaluating them.

Unfortunately, the second region, nearer to the border with Etosha, met with less success from some highly obstructive civil servants. I dare not speak to the Headman without government approval, as the idea of being turfed out by the Namibian Police Force is not one I relish. Hopefully we can get permission soon. I suspect it is because this region has not had anthropologists in it before.

I had aimed to spend two or three days with each community while up there, and since we had the green light for one of them, one of my contact’s appointed translators and I proceeded towards the border with Angola to conduct the first reconnaissance trip of this fieldwork excursion. I was excited to finally be on my way, and this was dampened only slightly by getting suck in the deep sand on the road to the community, known as Ekoka. Dug out, we continued, and eventually reached the health clinic whereupon we set up camp. It even has toilets, making it positively luxurious in contrast to other field sites I will be spending time.

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After a quick chat with some of Ekoka’s inhabitants, we discovered that thanks to the extremely long days working on the farms nearby, the best time to go and speak to people was in the early mornings. For three days, we went along at about half past seven to have a chat with people, and try to get a broad sketch of what life is like there, partly to see whether they can contribute to my PhD. I wrote lots, and what follows is a couple of small excerpts from my field notebook. I’ve left out people’s names, and heavily edited down the ten pages of biro scribbles, but here is an impression of my first time this trip among the Hai||om:

21st October 2014

The smell of goats. That seems to be the defining feature of the place so far. Never really liked goats, but I will get used to it. Ekoka is a big spread-out sort of settlement, but the Hai||om seem to all be squashed into little one-room brick dwellings that are all arranged in two long lines. I asked one of the inhabitants about them. He said they get more space inside the houses, but they were not meant to live in straight lines like this. I think it might be so they can all have electricity and water, but I’m not sure about that yet. Or, to be frank, whether the electricity and water works.

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That same man told us where to find a contact recommended by the headman the other day, who should be able to direct us to the right people to speak to about knowledge and skills, and we will meet him tomorrow. He even showed us a shortcut through the bush back to our camp, which shortened our journey back by some considerable amount. Very grateful. The sand is hard to walk in for any length of time.

Under a tree at the centre of the settlement, I interviewed an assembled group of six elders […] I learned that hunting does not go on at all any longer, and only the old ones have the knowledge, although they are no longer physically capable of doing it. They were emphatic about how much they would like to hunt again, though […] Apparently, the younger people don’t like bushfood (gathered fruits and roots) any more, either, since they started cultivating mahangu (millet) as a staple food […] This could all be accurate of course, or it could just be get-off-my-lawn griping of the old people about the younger generation. I will have to test this.

22nd October 2014

We decided to go back to the Hai||om settlement again early this morning, echoing our trip yesterday. This turned out to be the right thing to do, as the morning sees tolerable temperatures before midday brings highs of nearly forty degrees. In the shade, as I sit writing now, it is almost livable if you do not move much […] I thought the best thing to do in contrast to yesterday’s relatively well-organised group meeting was to wander informally around the settlement and speak to people individually.

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Speaking to an older woman of about sixty who was weaving a basket, I found out that she makes them to sell in town […] She takes fronds of the tough, palm-like Makalani plant and makes concentric rings, wrapping thicker, flatter stems around them and sewing them together with what looks like a stiff, blunt darning needle. She collects the Makalani herself, and has to go into the bush to gather ones that are just the right “texture”, wetting her hands while doing it to ensure the fronds remain firm and supple. I would also imagine that the contraction of the drying fibres will work to tighten the weave of the basket. She told me that she was taught to weave in that way by her mother, who had been making these baskets for some time. We thanked her for her time and gave her some pipe tobacco for her trouble, and sweets to the children.

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As we walked past the bakkie (pickup truck) on the way up the settlement, we noticed a gaggle of young boys sheltering from the developing heat in its shadow. One of them had with him a home-made slingshot, which looked as if he had made it from sticks and inner-tube. I asked for a demonstration of how good he was, and watched him hit an empty plastic bottle with a stone at about ten metres. I asked for a go myself and he obliged. I managed to repeat his feat on the second try, although my own misspent youth and former possession of a similar slingshot myself were undoubtedly on my side […] I’m sure he is a menace to the local avian population and his parents alike.

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[The chap who guided us back to camp on our first night] went into his house and emerged with his bow and arrow, complete with metal arrowhead and chicken-feather fletching. He was definitely proud to show me this, and had only yesterday enlightened me as to how important he thinks hunting is […] Thanks to the illegality of big game hunting for the Hai||om, however, he has not made a kill in four or five years.

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When hunting, the arrow would be poisoned using a particular tree known in Oshiwambo as Ombo and in Khoekhoegowab as |gou , which he still knows how to find and extract the poison from. I want to see if he can demonstrate this for me when I return […] The bow does not look like it has been much used, though. Whether this is due to lack of use or simply meticulous care is difficult to say […] I asked about range and power, and he indicated through reference points that we could both see that at six to seven metres the arrow would punch straight through most animals (he indicated his neck at this point) and the bow had a slightly less effective range of about fifteen metres, and at this point the hunter relies on the poison to slow the animal down so that it can be spoored (tracked). As such, the closer one gets to the quarry, the better […] He said he got his first kill when he was fifteen, and smiled when I said that must have been a great day.

So I got a huge amount of information in those short three days there. I’ve got a good idea of where I’d like to go from here, and in reassuringly familiar anthropological style my talking to the Hai||om has raised so many more questions than it has answered. This is good. I am looking forward to running these short impressions past other anthropologists when I return to Windhoek to sort out the visa, and to see whether I have the right end of the stick, or whether I am going in totally the wrong direction with my questioning.

As of now, I am sitting in a wonderfully air-conditioned hotel room on my way south. When I return, I hope to be armed with more questions and, more importantly, more confidence in my own abilities. I think this should go okay. I’m glad I have a bit of experience just there to prepare me for what is to come, and to get me accustomed to the role of leading an expedition for scientific data. We shall see how it goes, but thanks to the people I have met at Ekoka, I am looking forward to my return.

For now, Tschuß!

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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Trucks, mysterious animals and how I might be becoming a farmer.

I’m not quite sure whether I can really say I’ve been busy the past two weeks or so. I’ve had a lot to do, certainly, and I’ve definitely made sure I’ve done things quickly when I’ve had them to do, but there has been an awful lot of waiting. In the very recent past, this might have made me stressful, but the process of learning to follow African Time seems  to have begun. It’s been three weeks or so since I landed, and unfortunately I am still in Windhoek. However, things are slowly coming together.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my hosts kindly offered me the use of an old Mark One VW Golf while I waited to find the car I would buy, and this has had a number of side effects. Here is a photo of the aforementioned car on its first journey with me:

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You may notice that it is in fact stationary. This is not because I wanted to get out and take a picture, but because I was in fact waiting for rescue. This, by the way, is fantastic.

There is nothing like relying on a slightly temperamental car to get you to learn a lot about how they work. Previous to my trip here, I knew almost nothing about what sits under the bonnet, yet on my breakdowns in the Golf since, I’ve been able to fix the problem myself and continue on my way. I have got rather attached to it. Peter thinks it will be back under a tree for two years when I have finished with it, but I hope not. When it gets itself together to go, it’s quite enjoyable to drive.

Alas, I no longer need its services, for I have finally managed to buy myself a car. I picked it up this morning, and this is part of the reason I am still in Windhoek, waiting as I was on one of those international bank transfers. Based on the naming tradition I started with Gretel, I want to give her a good German name. Meet Helga:

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I took that just picture now, and while looking it over have already had a couple of offers to buy it from people here at the Legal Assistance Centre, where I sit in the daytime and poach the internet. I’ve given Peter first refusal, but even so I may well make my money back in a year’s time. Of course, if I got more than I bought it for, then I can always pocket the difference. We will see how good a dealer I am come next September.

I’m in for a bit of a stressful drive home, though; I am yet to nail down my insurance. I’ll be driving even more carefully than I usually do in a giant car. She’s got a bunch of extra features, too: An extra fuel tank, attachments for a roof tent, anti-theft film, and a water tank that I am wondering if I can fill with beer at the Windhoek brewery. It feels great to finally have some wheels of my own, and my trip into the North feels closer than ever. I’ll buy my camping equipment early next week, and I will hopefully be in Owamboland by next weekend.

On that subject, I also met up with a Namibian guy I first met in Cologne. He just completed his Masters there and wants to do a bit of translating work. He has even offered to have me stay with his family up in Ondangwa, which is fantastic. He’s one of those chilled-out guys for whom nothing is a big deal, so I reckon he will be a great influence on me. I’m definitely looking forward to travelling with him up North. The internet up there is going to be patchy at best. I’ll keep up with my blog as much as I can, though, and post when I can get enough bandwidth to upload anything. The pitfalls of being in Namibia, I guess. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, able to log on at least once every day, and it has made me realise how much of my life I spend on the internet. I’m sure I remember a time when Mum and Dad limited me to an hour, after 6pm when the phoneline was cheaper, and even then I struggled to find enough to do on the internet to last all that time.

Normally, when I set myself up in the evening for browsing the internet, Skype and catching up with friends, I’ll put my computer in Peter and Michaela’s study. This works really well, but lately I’ve noticed one of their cats has been behaving very oddly. I was hearing scratching and shuffling from the draws inside the desk, and then I’d see the cat rush out from behind them and scarper when she saw me. I thought there must have been a hole in the back of the drawers, and paid no further heed.

However, one night, after the usual scarpering of the cat, I heard the scratching and shuffling again. Peter and Michaela had already gone to bed, and it’s the start of snake and spider season, so you can bet your life I left those drawers firmly shut. Curiosity was tough to resist, indeed for me it is usually impossible, but my lack of enthusiasm for a night-time trip to the hospital to get a dose of antivenin trumped any desire I had to see what creature lurked in the drawers. It happened for a couple of nights, and was one of those things I wondered about while I was there, but forgot when I was gone.

This changed when Peter went into the study one afternoon to get something. He must have opened the drawer, as I was called to have a look at what he found. Apprehensive, I approached the draw expecting some Lovecraftian denizen to attempt to eat my face, only to find not a creature lurking there, but creatures.

These creatures, to be exact:

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They’ve just opened their eyes, and their Mum has since absconded with them elsewhere, obviously not trusting humans to leave her brood alone. The plaintive mewing behind the unused range cooker in the kitchen is a dead giveaway as to where they’ve been moved, though. This brings the number of cats about on the homestead up to at least fifteen. They’re lovely of course, but I’ve been less well-disposed to the cats since one of them decided to use their daughter’s room, which I am temporarily occupying, as a toilet during the extremely hot day.

Lastly, I had an extremely interesting day yesterday. Not only did I witness the Namibian justice system at work by sitting in the public gallery of a court in session with one of the cases the Legal Assistance Centre was bringing, but I also visited the Windhoek Show, which I have now christened the Windhoek Highland Show as I was reminded so much of my childhood in Aberdeenshire as to make things extremely weird.

The court case concerned a man who had had his house and all his property demolished by the local government, without a court order, which is surprisingly common here. Apparently when you are out in the sticks the government simply function as the biggest, scariest gang, making Namibia more and more like I imagine the Wild West to be each day. The government lawyer was not the most likeable chap in the world, thanks to his smarmy grin and post-case gloating, and thanks to his bogging the court down in technicalities it looks like the client is going to have to come back with a whole lot more evidence than he thought. It’s a shame, but chatting to one of the advocates gives me hope that he will eventually get some justice. Fortunately he has somewhere else to live in the meantime. It was a great insight into the conflict between Namibian Common Law, mostly based upon South African Law (Roman Dutch Law and English Common Law being the ancestors of that), and Namibian Customary Law, which is more based upon the legal systems of the individual social groups and organisations that inhabit the country (you could describe it as “tribal law” if you like, but I and many of those that live here would really rather you didn’t). I do hope the Centre can bring the government to heel in this case.

The show was our attempt to cheer ourselves up after a rather disappointing morning in court. Apparently, it started as an agricultural show, and sort of developed from there, sprouting goods stalls, bars and funfair attractions as a prize bull cowpat does mushrooms, and has turned into a strange hybrid of what I remember from Banchory Show mixed with a trade expo for the government.

The winners were utterly magnificent:

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Having not eaten all day by that point, we were starting to think they looked a bit tasty, so we thought it was best to stop somewhere for a steak roll. While eating, we could here music coming from over by the funfair, and I could have sworn I recognised it. It was hard to pinpoint where I’d heard it before, as I was in the unfamiliar environment of Namibia and full of thoughts about Scotland and the Highland Shows, but then it hit me.

Karneval.

They were playing Schlager music at the funfair, thus completing the strange confluence of my experiences that day into a trifecta of Scotland, Germany and Namibia. I felt thoroughly confused, and was only made to feel more secure again by looking at how much the car dealers wanted for a bakkie (pickup truck) like mine (lots), nodding sagely at extremely large farming equipment and pretending we were in the market for a tractor.

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What has happened to me? Three weeks in a farming economy and I have an preoccupation with massive agricultural machinery. It doesn’t help that a a very proud Mum and Dad were showing off on Skype the first meat from their pigs they sent off to slaughter a week or so ago.

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Being reminded of all this farming stuff really do makes me miss the croft.

The show might have reminded me of home, but I did get a couple of reminders I was not in Scotland, but definitely in Namibia:

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Look! It comes with brakes! Bargain. Well, I think it means that the brakes are on the service plan, but Namlish (Namibian English) has some brilliant ambiguities, apparently.

So a lot has happened to me in the last two weeks. I had to actually write myself out a plan for this post, as much as there was to tell you all, but even then I’m sure there is some stuff I missed out. Hopefully next time I write I shall be in the North, further towards Angola and what is called “Africa Proper” than I have ever been before. Until then, Tschuß!

Day Seven – Cars, homesickness and a new place to stay.

It’s been a week. I’m finally starting to get used to the idea of living here in Namibia. My week so far has been punctuated by moments of stress, moments of relief and a severe bout of homesickness on the night of the 18th/19th. The first guest house, Rivendell, has been fantastic. It was within walking distance of the centre of town, as well as about six car dealerships, and served as a place to crash and come to terms with what the hell I was actually doing in Namibia for an entire year. The place had a real colonial-house vibe to it, and it was easy to get talking to the other guests. Obviously, they were mostly tourists, and so in the week I was there my conversations tended to follow two lines of enquiry:

  1. What!? A YEAR!? What on earth are you doing for all that time?
  2. You’re Scottish? Oh, so what about that independence thing, eh?

I didn’t mind too much, and in fact made things seem a bit more real, having to go over the reason I was in Namibia umpteen times. The tourists were all nice enough too. I was on the lookout for a car, and the Swedish lady next door asked me each time she saw me if I’d had any luck.

I spent a good few days touring round dealerships and investigating cars. The first couple of days settled into a bit of a rhythm. I would get up, have a look for four wheel drives for sale over breakfast, and head out to the dealerships on foot at about ten thirty, often shoehorning in there a trip to the supermarket to get provisions for lunch and dinner. Of course, this meant I was out and walking around during the hottest part of the day, and while I am enormously grateful for Windhoek’s tiny size (think smaller than Inverness; there is only about 300,000 people there) the paltry 5km I was walking meant I was usually good for absolutely nothing by the time I got back to the guest house at about three o’clock. It is probably going to take me quite some time to get used to the heat. Fortunately, the guest house had a pleasantly cold swimming pool behind it, and submersion in water for about half an hour usually made me feel a bit less filthy when I would settle down for the evening’s renewed internet car search, along with my feline companion.

I seem to attract the animals here.

If you’re interested what I’m looking at, by the way, I’ve been frequenting http://www.namcars.com.na and clicking on 4×4. You can have a look at what I’m going for there. I’m interested in Hiluxes and Land Cruisers mainly, because not only does EVERYONE seem to drive a Toyota here, making the parts easy to come by, but I’ve heard pretty reliably that you can run them in a pinch on a mixture of duct tape and hope. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, though. I know very little about cars, but I’ve been rehearsing lines about service records and locking differentials, as well as getting myself familiar with ~10 year-old Toyota engines so I can recognise when something looks a bit shifty under the bonnet. I’m reminded forcefully of when my sister’s starter motor conked out in Edinburgh about a year ago, and I thought that as a man and an older brother I should take a look under the bonnet to have a look. “Yup, definitely a car” I thought. Never before has the phrase “fake it ’til you make it” meant more to me than now. I am convinced that one day, somewhere out in the world, I will meet a used car dealer who I’d classify as an honest person. I’ve not met them yet though. They’re nice enough of course, but a lot of questions about reliability and previous owners lead no answers I’d consider helpful. One chap who took me on what I would definitely classify as a rally in a Mitsubishi Pajero (Shogun, for British readers) was from the Damara community, so I built up a bit of a rapport with him based on my research, which ended with my remembering how to say “Goodbye” in Khoekhoegowab. He of course attempted to convince me to buy right then because another British guy was coming to pay cash for in in about three hours, which for some strange reason didn’t stop him phoning me a few days later to ask why I never came back, and offered me about N$10,000 (€750) off the asking price again. I’ve since been advised against Mitsubishis, though.

Also with regard to “faking it ’til you make it”, I feel pretty safe wandering around Windhoek on my own these days. I’ve got used to it, and while obviously it is an African capital city, and thanks to the one of the largest wealth inequalities in the world, has a bit of a crime problem, there is a way of conducting yourself that certainly works for me. I just walk around the city as if I live here, and I know the way to go, and if people stop me to talk to me (they often do), I just engage with them and am as friendly as possible. It’s worked well so far for me, and in this first week I’ve experienced no problems at all. I’m a bit more cautious than I am in Europe, of course, I don’t get my wallet or phone out on the street at all, and I don’t give anything to anyone who asks, apart from possibly cigarettes, but that is just common sense really. Faking an aura of “I live here, I know what I’m doing” seems to have had the desired affect. Crossing roads is still a pain, though. Namibians, apparently, drive like maniacs. What’s hilarious is that they have adopted what look exactly like German road crossings. They just totally ignore them. Walking across a dual carriageway is a great way to appreciate the fact that you are alive. Anyone who has walked anywhere in Delhi, as I did a few years ago, I’m sure will empathise.

My last night in the guest house was the one of the 18th/19th. Anyone familiar with the “Scottish” part of “Scottish PhD Student” in the blog’s tagline will know that the 18th was a huge day for my home country. We voted on whether we wanted to continue to be part of the UK or to go forward as independent. It was a strange and slightly unpleasant time to be away from home, especially as my permanent address is in Germany and that means that I did not get a vote. I just had to watch from afar. I do miss Scotland an awful lot, but was cheered up immeasurably by the cartoon I found in Thursday’s issue of The Namibian.

Sure, it’s a weak joke, but it’s nice to be thought of.

I followed The Guardian‘s live blog for most of the night when I wasn’t sleeping, and awoke the next morning aware of the fact that Scotland had decided to stay with the union. I have mixed and conflicting feelings about that. This isn’t a political blog, though, so I don’t want to go into detail here about it. I never made time to thoroughly work out my opinion on the matter, knowing as I did that I would not get a vote. All I know is that I missed my homeland, and hope Scotland can work through the last few months and go on to make Scotland the sort of place I will enjoy coming back to in a few years. Best of luck to the people there.

I moved on Friday, and now am living with an amazing couple, both of whom are lawyers working on human rights issues here in Namibia. I met them back in March, and once again they have graciously offered me their spare room and run of their house while I am here. They won’t take any money from me, but I’m playing guitar for them occasionally in the evenings and helping out on the homestead when they need it. This includes feeding their eight(!) horses.

Here are most of them. It’s a good job I’m not still feart of them these days.

It also entails chasing them out of the vegetable patch, as they have the run of the homestead for most of the day. Apparently they have a bit of a liking for strawberries. So much so that my hosts have not yet eaten any this year. They’re quite endearing, if stubborn. I’m careful not to walk behind them.

While I don’t yet have a car, they’ve even offered to lend me the use of their spare one, and Peter is accompanying me on my car-searching trips, as he knows enough about them that we fixed up their car between the two of us, making me feel thoroughly manly as I now know what at least a few bits of that mess of metal underneath the bonnet do. This might mean I could be developing actual, marketable skills that aren’t academic. Don’t hold your collective breaths, though.

My shiny 1986 wheels until I get myself a 4WD.

I should be testing it out tonight when I drive into Windhoek to meet a couple of anthropologists for dinner. I’m immensely grateful to Peter and Michaela for putting me up here, and helping me out so much. I’m not sure how much helping out on the homestead I can do to repay such generosity, but I’ll do my best. It’s nice to have a network here, and good to know that even if I royally muck something up at least I won’t be out on the streets. Being on a homestead also makes me feel at home, too. It reminds me a lot of Mum and Dad’s, and my brief experience on a tractor and with their animals means that I am at least a little useful here. At some point I might actually get round to some anthropology.

Tschuss!

Day One

Well, I’m here. It’s my first morning in Namibia, and after two days of pretty intense travelling, I have landed and am in my first guest house, which I have until Wednesday. I’ve got a few important things to get on with in these first few days, the most pressing of which is to secure myself some transportation, which means buying a four-wheel drive that will serve my purposes as a main repository for my stuff as well as my transport for the next year. It’s quite daunting, and I’ll feel better once I have it.

My journey began with six hours on the high-speed train from Cologne to Munich Airport. All went without incident, and Munich airport is imposing and terrifying in equal measure, but feels very much like something from the future.DSCF0034

That is from just outside the check-in desk. The train turns up underground just underneath it, and in comparison to the airports I normally frequent (Edinburgh, Düsseldorf Weeze and, increasingly, Hosea Kutako International in Windhoek) it is staggeringly massive and modern. I had a long wait, nervous as I was I turned up far too many hours in advance, and had to wait for some time for the bag drop to open at all, even though it did so three hours before the plane departed. Fortunately, just opposite the desk was an airport pub, and I thought I would get myself a little last taste of Germany before I left, which made me realise I would indeed miss it when I was gone.

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I proceeded along my (increasingly) merry way, and slept through most of the ten-hour night flight to Johannesburg, which was nice. Security at German airports seems thoroughly relaxed in comparison to my homeland, and they were a bit surprised when I automatically took off my shoes, as I have yet to pass through Heathrow Terminal 5 without being asked to do so. I’m becoming somewhat good at not setting off the metal detectors, now.

Arriving blearily at Johannesburg, dehydrated, achey and dog-tired, I was greeted with the world’s longest queue, and was relieved that South African Airways had made my layover six hours. Apparently, O R Tambo Johannesburg thinks it is perfectly fine to have a flight from Frankfurt, and one from Munich, each containing about four hundred people, most of whom are tired and irritable Germans, arrive ten minutes apart. I really don’t think their international transfers section is designed to handle that. Having been briefed on Standard African time previously, I was patient, and two hours later I found somewhere to buy two litres of water and a quiet place to sit and drink all of it while reading National Geographic from cover to cover (there was something about the diets of hunter-gatherers in it, and a nice little bit about Nero). Thankfully, I did not fall asleep. I still had a few hours, and decided to browse some of the terminal shops, which are great if you want the skin of pretty much anything:

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Made into pretty much anything:

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Or you are just hungry:

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I wasn’t really hungry. The coffee was alright though, and at quarter past one I was on my final plane for what I hope to be a reasonably long time, and on the final leg of my journey to Namibia. They’ve got a brand new plane for the leg, too, and fortunately my checking in early got me a seat by the window just behind business class, where I slept for most of that flight as well.

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The view was nice, if hazy as it is the dry season and dust covers most of the land. I think that is Botswana below us at that point.

Normally, when you enter Namibia as a foreigner, you have to complete a landing card, which is pretty much the same as the visa form I filled in a few months ago, but with the added bonus that it is completed in hasty biro scribble while the cabin crew are telling you to put up your tray table as the plane is landing. However, this time, they had run out of them, and all we got to fill in was this:

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I cast a quick glance over the others in my row, and none of them seemed to have Ebola either, so I think we’re alright. We had to hand those to a lady who stood outside the terminal building, next to another lady who took the temperature of our necks with what looked like a police radar gun. Nobody was stopped, and I was reassured about this. All I can say is that I’m glad I slept with my head back rather than on my chest, with regard to the temperature of my neck. I’m pretty sure that there have been no cases of Ebola here in Namibia to date, but it’s nice to know they’re being careful. I note as well that South Africa didn’t ask for a form like that. I think the Namibian authorities just like forms a lot. It’s either their slightly socialist bent (no complaints from me) or maybe their German influence.

Then came the moment of truth. I’d applied for my work visa, I had the form all ready, I just needed to see if I was accepted into the country (at least until November, when I need it extended). I had butterflies, and all the documents that I needed to acquire the visa in the folder with the certificate, just in case. I stood at the counter for what seemed like forever, then the worst possible thing for my mental state happened. I was ushered, stampless, into a tiny office where I interrupted a very in-depth conversation in English between a well-dressed man and the customs official. They were talking about how it was illegal to bring “that much” Tanzanian currency into the country. You will forgive me, I’m sure, for not thinking I was in the best of company.

The official stopped the exchange with one wave of an authoritative hand, and motioned for me to hand him my form and passport. I duly did, quaking in my boots and not looking forward to the next flight back to Europe. It turns out that the regular passport checking desk didn’t have the work visa stamp, so it was done in a flash and he took my form, even taking the time to check I had nothing else important in the plastic wallet that I wanted to keep. I was in, and he presumably  resumed his conversation with the well-dressed man.

My next task after picking up my luggage was to find a taxi to take me the 50km to Windhoek. As I expected, I was inundated with taxi offers from the moment I exited arrivals, and took up the offer of a guy who waited for me to withdraw some local currency, and I left to enter Namibia proper.

We loaded up his car, and he mentioned that he was leaving to pay the parking fee. He left me standing beside the open car, and the first thing I noticed was that there was nothing on the car at all to indicate that it was in fact a taxi. I was pretty suspicious, and all the stories of kidnapped foreigners ran through my head at once, and the fact that he had left me beside the open car in full view of large numbers of Namibian police totally left my mind. I had visions of all sorts of awful things, and in the ten minutes he was gone I photographed his license plate and tax disk as well as checking the glove compartment for a weapon. Obviously, there was nothing there, and when we passed the police checkpoint on the way in he shook hands with the policeman, as he was a friend of his. It turns out my tiredness and leftover anxiety from getting stamped in the wee office was getting the better of me, and not only did he take the time on the drive in to teach me a phrase or two in Oshiwambo, but when I got to the guest house and had paid the extremely little he charged me for a 50km drive, he waited to make sure I got in alright before driving on, to ensure I wasn’t left on the street with nowhere to go. Needless to say, I took his card, and will call him again when I next need a ride. He just bought his car last week, and hasn’t got around to getting the taxi stickers yet. I tipped him extremely well, although he doesn’t know why, and was reminded why I felt so safe in Namibia so quickly the last time I was here.

Maybe I’m a bit cynical. Just maybe.

So today I’ve got some meetings to arrange, a guest house to call, and some dealerships to research. I feel more relaxed already.

Tschuß!