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!

Here we go

So it turned out I could shave a good couple of hundred Euros off my flights if I booked ones for tomorrow (Saturday 13th) rather than today, so that is what I did. Thanks to the excellent German public transport network, I can fly from Munich. As the Germans are big on reducing folks’ carbon footprint, many airlines, South African Airways included, have signed up to the Rail-and-Fly program. This means the six-hour, normally €140 journey on the high-speed ICE train costs me nothing, and I get to sit in a special Lufthansa carriage all the way there, getting a nice view of the Bavarian scenery. One ticket, costing €750, will get me all the way from Köln Ehrenfeld station, about two hundred metres from my room where I now sit, to Hosea Kutako airport Windhoek. Incredible. My travel schedule, however, is a long one. Six hours on the train to Munich, a wait in the airport, a ten-hour flight to Johannesburg, another wait in the airport, then two hours flying to Windhoek. This is over about two days, and I will catch the train at about eleven tomorrow morning, arriving in Windhoek at twenty past three on Sunday afternoon. I’ve booked a guest house to check into at four.

It’s all sorted, everything is booked, and all I need to do now is check in to my flights this evening online, scrambling with everyone else on the flight to get myself a bulkhead seat for my unfeasibly long legs. I then need to find a printing shop on the way to the station to print off the boarding pass, which shouldn’t be too difficult.

Packing has been a bit of a chore, although thanks to the guy replacing me in my room being 1) a car owner and 2) absolutely brilliant, getting the stuff I’m not taking to Namibia to the office to live under my desk for a year was not too much trouble. Gretel is now safely stowed in another friend’s basement, and after what I think qualifies as an actual physical fight with my stuff, I’ve also packed my bags.

Here is the stuff I’m putting in the hold, which all fit into a 65L hiking rucksack (reluctantly) and weighs about nineteen kilos.

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Yes, that is an Irish tin whistle and accompanying book. As I’ve had to leave my guitar and mandolin in Cologne for the next year (although I plan to buy a cheap guitar there) I thought I might take the opportunity to learn some tunes on the whistle. I’ve always liked the idea of an instrument I can fit in my pocket, but the draw of the mandolin for fiddle tunes has, until now, proved too much. No choice now, so time to learn. The funny black thing in the bottom right corner is also an amazingly-compact giant solar panel, which I found in the office. Apparently there are perks to being on an anthropological project with a hefty budget. I’ve also had to pack a little strategically: Johannesburg airport has a bit of a theft problem, and I lost a mobile phone last time. I am preparing by topping off the side and lid pockets with my dirty socks from the days before. Heh heh heh.

Here is what I am taking with me on the plane:

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The Indy hat, I will admit, seems overkill, but it was invaluable last time against the terrifyingly powerful Namibian sun. The map of Namibia that has been on the wall for the last couple of months is also coming with me.

And here is the lot of it together:

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This is everything I will own in Namibia until I buy a car. I will then fill that car with camping equipment and live out of it for the next year. It should be good.

I’ve got a good couple of hours before I can check in online for my flight, and similar to my earlier blog post about Karneval, just before I left last time, I think that this one was probably a little frenetic. I certainly feel frenetic. Maybe I’ll wax my boots again. I sure as hell am not repacking the bloody rucksack.

See you in Africa, Tschuß!