Safari, Sand and the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tschuß!

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:

2014-09-22 13.31.54

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:

DSCF0074

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:

2014-09-29 18.32.45

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:

DSCF0069

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.

DSCF0058

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.

fandb

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:

DSCF0059

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!

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.

Image

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.

Image

 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.

Image

             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:

Image

           And Boy Howdy, can it.

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

Image

   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!

Image