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The Africa I Know

Reflections on life in Namibia.

12:00 AM, Oct 14, 2009 • By NATHAN CARLETON
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Keetmanshoop, Namibia

I have made a major transition in my life over the past two years: moving from the West Wing of the White House--where I worked as an aide to Press Secretary Tony Snow and the Communications Office--to Tseiblaagte, a "location" in the dusty African town of Keetmanshoop, Namibia. I am teaching for the year at a high school, living among black Namibians who were once forced to live here under apartheid (thus the term "location") and who just 20 ago were not allowed to buy white bread at markets or be in town past a certain hour.

My news intake has changed greatly, as I have gone from scanning news wires for hours each day as part of my job to just skimming headlines and reading a handful of major stories at the local Internet café. This less-comprehensive view of the news has made me realize how selectively--and unfairly--Africa is depicted in the Western press. Almost every story I see is about something horrible: a rape epidemic in the Congo, human rights violations in Zimbabwe, continuing violence in Darfur, or ships being hijacked off Somalia's coast.

These stories are real and newsworthy, and I do not mean to downplay them. Yet the Africa I will remember after my year in Namibia and my travels throughout the southern part of the continent is not a place of just violence and starvation, but a land more similar to home than most Americans realize. Indeed, for every Zimbabwe or Chad that makes the news, there is a stable African nation such as Namibia, Botswana, or Zambia that ought to be heralded for its progress.

I came to Namibia in January as a volunteer with the Harvard-affiliated WorldTeach program and was placed at a public school teaching eighth grade Math and ninth grade English. My classes typically have almost 40 students, and due to a lack of textbooks, teaching usually means writing notes and exercises on the chalkboard and discussing them while the kids copy them into notebooks.

The first question I received as a teacher was "Do you know 50 Cent?" Second was "Do you know Chris Brown?" And the third was "Do you know Lil' Wayne?" That's right, music seems to be far and away the most influential aspect of American culture here, at least among teenagers. WWE professional wrestling is also humorously popular among Namibians of all ages, as one of the public television stations shows a weekly summary of the league's happenings.

President Obama is well known, but the enthusiasm for him here in this part of Africa isn't nearly as high as I was expecting. The Namibians who ask me about the President typically know only a few basic facts about him and show little interest beyond that. I watched inauguration alone on one of the school hostel's only TVs while the other residents, both young and old, played outside or sat in the shade as usual.

The residents of Tseiblaagte are by no means wealthy, yet most bear little resemblance to the emaciated or bloody refugees often shown on news reports about Africa. I am more used to seeing someone from my neighborhood buying cell phone credit or a week's worth of groceries than begging for food or shelter.

Most of the students I teach own a cell phone, a few pairs of shoes, and a variety of clothes. Many in fact have been wearing coats, gloves, and scarves during the past months of near-freezing winter temperatures. They regularly watch television, play video games, and buy snack cakes with their spare change.

Keetmanshoop has most of the same amenities as a typical American city of its size (about 15,000): half a dozen sit-down restaurants, a pharmacy, two modern grocery stores, hardware, furniture, and clothing stores, a library, a hospital, barber shops and salons, a swimming pool, a train station, and even a video store. The sidewalks and streets are clean, the electricity is reliable, and I drink water straight from the tap.

Most everyone here travels on occasion to Windhoek, Namibia's modern capital located 310 miles north on a well-maintained highway with gas stations and picnic areas along the way. Windhoek is a wholly 21st century city with office buildings, shopping malls, massive grocery stores, car dealerships, a movie theater, and very popular fast food restaurants.