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!

Namibia Part Two: Into the North

So when I last wrote my supervisor and I had packed up the car after a few days in Windhoek and begun our journey to meet the Hai||om hunter-gatherers, and see if things at the farm where he had done his PhD fieldwork still bore much resemblance to the one he had left. We drove for about six hours from Windhoek to Tsumeb, a small mining town up in the North of the country, where we stopped briefly to resupply. It would, ideally, have been a briefer stop, but meeting a local business owner in Namibia involves the previously detailed temporal phenomenon known as Standard African Time, and we spent far longer in a petrol station Wimpy with terrible coffee in front of us that I think anyone would consider reasonable.

Much to the bewilderment of everyone else, I insisted on taking this picture:

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So for those of you not familiar with the peculiarities of the highlands of Scotland, that there is a Spar. I thought they were pretty much exclusive up there, a relic of the British past consigned to the most rural of rural areas simply because no other store could possibly imagine the benefit of opening one when the local population consists of two old guys, a herd of sheep and a black and white dog. Apparently not. They do a roaring trade in Namibia, and along with a serious moment of incongruity the mystery of how in the world they actually make money is solved. Explaining why I wanted a picture of it was quite fun, but it sounded a lot better in my head. At least three Namibians think I’m some sort of supermarket-spotter, which I imagine is several rungs below trainspotting in the hierarchy of sad, sad hobbies. Either that or I was taking part in the lamest industrial espionage ever conceived.

Nonetheless, our meeting went well, and we proceeded once again North. I was warned of bad roads, but alas the tarred road just continued on and on, much to my supervisor’s surprise, but not disappointment. We arrived at Tsinsabis (You’re probably going to have to Google Map these at some point, I still do) a few hours before nightfall, and finally got to test the camping equipment the project paid for us to hire, at a locally-run campsite known as Tree-Sleepers.

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If the last two pictures didn’t make it clear, it was really, really wet. Namibia is supposed to be the most arid country in Southern Africa, some places regularly going without rain for most of the year, and while the wet season was finishing up while we were there, I did not expect to be rained on like clockwork every single day. I cast my mind back to see if I had offended a wizard or something in the past, as my camping trips seem cursed. Either than or I’m the reincarnation of Douglas Adams’ Rain God. It finally felt like we were actually out there doing fieldwork, though, and it was brilliant. So in the mood was I that I decided to attempt a campfire, waving away the firelighters in an attempt to prove my bushcraft skills, learned as they were from my intense study of all the Ray Mears progammes. My confidence in my own abilities, much to my supervisor’s amusement, was somewhat misplaced. We had peanut butter sandwiches and droewors for dinner, and not for the last time.

The night brought, to nobody’s surprise, more rain, but in the morning we set off from Tsinsabis into what is called “the land of the soft sand” to drive to the resettlement farm where the Hai||om group we were going to see make their home.

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We started to be quite glad we’d hired a four-wheel-drive, and we made swift progress towards the farm. It is worth explaining at this point why a group of people known as hunter-gatherers would live on a farm, rather than being mobile in the bush. It’s a big question, and probably the main subject of my PhD, but in short the ownership of most of Namibia by comparatively few farmers has pushed the Hai||om to the margins. Etosha National Park, once the land of the Hai||om, is now one of the most famous game parks in Africa. When the park was established originally, the Hai||om were allowed to stay on, mostly because they were thought to be part of the wildlife. However, South African rule, and an increasing demand by the park’s mostly European visitors for a fictional “untamed wilderness” free of people (which, incidentally, means that they actually started to recognise the Hai||om as human rather than shooting them on sight) led to them being unceremoniously evicted in 1954. Most of the Hai||om today inhabit the farms around Etosha, where they were “resettled”. It’s about as nice as it sounds.

Transitioning from one form of social organisation (mobility and relative freedom from external restraints) to another (sedentary living and piecemeal, low-paid work as proletarianised farm workers) is tough. It is especially tough when you are at the sharp end of discriminatory policies that have relatively recently stopped classifying you as a member of the animal kingdom. All this is essential to understand at least some of why the Hai||om currently live as they do. Things are not all bad, however, and I remain consistently amazed at the ability of people to make the best out of what, in the understatement of the year, is a bad situation.

Incidentally, while the change to sedentary living started happening a long time ago, things are still a bit different for the Hai||om than they are for their traditionally agro-pastoralist neighbours. As I would later discover, traditional knowledge has a fair amount of resilience and is not simply a product of current living conditions. People keep a lot of what they remember, even if it changes form. At least, I think so. Ask me in three years when my PhD is published.

History and structural conditions aside for a moment (sorry Marxists) I was running all of this through my head as we approached the farm settlement, and wondering what to expect. I was excited to finally be in the field, and hoping I’d make a good impression with those who would hopefully become my field subjects.

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These guys.

The quick amongst you will notice that the houses are not necessarily the best for mobile living (well done by the way, have you considered anthropology?). They are in fact a fairly recent adoption for those Hai||om who have settled down on farms. However, two older ladies who lived next to our campsite would not sleep under anything other than the traditional Hai||om style of house, and I wanted to find an excuse to post just because they’re cool:

ImageYou’ll also probably notice how green everything is. The grass is lush and thick at the end of the rainy season, the insects are utterly deafening and the livestock are all encouragingly fat.

An unfortunate part of the reason that the insects were deafening is because some of them looked like this:

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AAAAAAHH! KILL IT WITH FIRE!

Now. I come from Northern Europe. Insects are roughly one centimetre in length here. That is normal. The demon hellspawn you see above, however, is not. Pulling one of those off your tent, car, clothes or anything else is tough. They are strong, and they make a hissing noise when angry. They are also everywhere. One more of those things I just have to get used to as I’ll be camping there for much of the rest of the year. Another of them is a spider that apparently is very poisonous, so the guy I was with decided to poke it with a stick. Natürlich.

I haven’t seen a Baboon Spider yet, but I am emphatically not looking forward to it.

Despite my encounters with insects and the odd snake (my life was saved by Hai||om travelling companions at least once), I knew I could not research traditional knowledge without taking a few trips into the bush myself. It turns out that even though the Hai||om at this settlement have been in one place for some years, there are still regular trips of groups of kids into the surrounding scrubland to gather bush potatoes (wild root vegetables), black beetles and other foods in addition to the firewood they come back with each day. I accompanied some of the young girls and boys from the village (all between about 8 and 15) as they went on one of these trips. I traipsed along after them for a good few kilometres, hoping that it was plants we were after rather than animals, as I was not being particularly stealthy. Patiently, I was shown the leaves of the |harusa, or bush potato, and instructed to help in the search. Quite quickly I managed to point one out, and was promptly handed the digging stick and it was clear that if I wanted that one I needed to dig it out myself. I made a terrible hash of it, but eventually liberated it from the earth. This done, I pocketed my prize and we wandered further away from the settlement deeper into the grazing land.

This, by the way, is a bush potato, taken from a later trip with one of the two Hai||om in the village who could speak English.

If you listen really closely you can hear my attempts at Khoekhoegowab. They are not great.

What is also worth mentioning at this point is that by the end of the rainy season, the bush has grown up so thick in the pastures around the Hai||om settlement that visibility is barely ten metres, and I recognise absolutely none of the plants you can see in a given glance. I might as well be on an alien planet where every plant has inch-long thorns and all the animals are both capable and willing to kill you. Each block of a couple of metres looks absolutely the same as the last one, and I was completely and utterly in the hands of my young guides. I had my uses, however. Being twice the size of all the youngsters with me made me the perfect candidate for party pack-mule when it came to firewood. No complaints from me, however. I like to think I reimbursed them for having to put up with a wheezing white guy brandishing a camera.

Even with me in tow, that particular gathering trip was reasonably successful, the only truly paltry haul of |harusa coming from me, but at least I had most of a forest under my right arm.

Later, I was introduced to my English-speaking friend, and a few days afterwards he decided to take me on another walk through the bush, explaining to me all the plants and animals we saw, as well as their uses. I learned a lot from him, and hopefully will in the future, but the highlight of our walk was definitely this chameleon:

Awesome. I did discover, however, that I am not in fact that great at being a hunter-gatherer, as when I make up half the team, this is what we come back with:

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I can’t even claim credit for the MASSIVE bush potato either. Damn.

It was great fun, I must say, although without a lifetime of experience backing me up I know I couldn’t live on it. Hopefully I might get better at finding the stuff in the 12 months I’m around. I’ll be somewhat useful, then. All I can say is that I can’t wait to go back.

Stay tuned for part three, folks, that’s all for now. Tschuß!

Namibia Part One: Windhoek

Well, hello everyone! It’s been a hell of a long time. Something like six weeks. my last post was while I was preparing to go, and I already knew then that the update when I came back was going to be a mammoth one, so I’ve decided to split it up. The old laptop decided it would die a death when I was two days into my trip, so updates along the way were out. Now I’ve got to remember it all. Luckily we took something like fifteen hundred pictures, and spending two hours last week browsing through them has brought back a great deal of what it felt like to be there.

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Windhoek at sunset.

Namibia is a phenomenal place. Just a month there and I started to feel at home, I’ve got contacts, people to work with, and more people speak English than in Germany. More than that though, there’s something about it I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s that it’s a young country bigger than the British Isles with only about two and a half million people in it, but Namibia feels more like a small town than a country. Windhoek, the country’s capital, can’t be that much bigger than Inverness, and most of the “towns” up in the north you’d call villages if you were anywhere else. We were supposed to meet one anthropologist working there, only to find that she would be late as she’s been called last-minute to appear on a panel of experts on Namibia’s national television station. I must say, the programme was fairly well-directed, and I only heard one of the crew’s mobile phones ring once.

Windhoek saw some meetings, and my first couple of days on the African continent, for which I didn’t really know how to prepare beforehand. It turns out I didn’t really have to. My previous anthropological work in India had prepared me for a similar culture shock and mental rollercoaster as I tried to navigate a new city, but I had no such feelings upon landing. It was, of course, partly due to the presence of my supervisor at that point, who has spent probably more years in Namibia than I have spent studying anthropology at all, but partly due to the fact that Namibia just doesn’t seem quite frenetic enough to cause the same shock that I had landing in Delhi.

There’s a phenomenon my fellow Africanists call “Standard African Time”. Things happen when they happen. It might be when you were told they would happen, it might be two hours later, it might be not at all. When they are happening, though, you are definitely sure that they are in fact happening. This is the only time you can be sure. Very Zen. Admittedly Standard African Time is somewhat frustrating when you have a fifty-minute connection in Johannesburg International, and one of the two people very slowly stamping passports for a plane’s worth of people decides that then is the best time to clock off for breakfast, but for most of the trip it is sort of something you get used to. I’m confident I will get used to it: I’m probably going to go there in August this year until August 2015.

The meetings we had were incredibly interesting. There’s a legal advocacy group based in Windhoek that are currently bringing a case to bear on behalf of some of Namibia’s indigenous minorities to attempt to secure them rights to land. It’s the first case of its kind in the world, and I was privileged enough to be able to sit in on their meetings while they decided the best direction in which to take it. More importantly for me, because of the focus that my PhD has on traditional knowledge and its relationship to the land, there is the possibility that my own work can in some way be involved in this case, which would mean that a beginner social scientist like me would actually have the chance to contribute. While up North, I helped run interviews for them with some of the older people in the Hai||om villages about their past their connection to their land, and it helped me work out my own interview techniques, as well as training me in the fine art of acquiring translators.

The other great thing about attending these meetings is that I’ve started to build myself a network in the country, which I am going to need to use every last part of when I go back this summer. I’ve got a year, and I need results. Fortunately, and largely thanks to being introduced to this legal advocacy network, I’m not going to be totally on my own.

Apart from the meetings, Thomas and I got to put in a little bit of central Windhoek sightseeing, finding a city looking increasingly like Pyongyang.

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 The new Independence Museum on Robert Mugabe Avenue. That statue out front is the former President.

It turns out this resemblance is more than coincidental. I knew about lots of building contracts in Africa going to China, but it turns out that also in on the deal are the North Koreans, who designed and build the monstrosity above. The inside is an exercise in Socialist Realism, which apparently both totally still exists and is a thing.

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             Bonus points for the creepy baby with the face of a man.

A short trip in my car outside the city limits brought me to a monument that forever quelled the nagging desire I had to go to former Soviet-bloc countries to find out if architecture really can look like this:

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           And Boy Howdy, can it.

But step back a few paces, and the illusion somewhat breaks:

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   Coke, Communism and Baboons. Killer combo.

I suppose you can forgive some of this nation-building stuff when a country is only six months older than I am, but it set an interesting context for the exploration of what indigenous Namibians actually experience, or, as it turns out, don’t experience of their government on a day-to-day basis. These are the trappings of a country that was colonized by the Germans in 1880, by the South Africans in 1915, and only practically began to self-determine in 1990 after a bloody civil war. It’s an odd place in some respects, and very much feels like I imagine the Midwest of America might have felt like a hundred and fifty years ago.

Everything revolves around land, and the property rights of those that own it are almost absolute. Land is what many Namibians, after successfully liberating themselves from apartheid, strive for. Land is also what makes German and South African white people still the richest and in some respects most powerful group in the country, despite being a minority. The lack of land is the root of the problems that the people I study face, and it is unavoidable.

Even while in Windhoek, the ideas that form the backbone of my research question were surfacing. I’d finally started on the path to doing actual anthropological research.

So, the scene appropriately set, and the right hands appropriately shaken, My supervisor and I prepared for our voyage North into the lands where the Hai||om people make their home. It was visiting old friends for him, but for me something of an adventure. More to come!

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