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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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Namibia was colonized by Germany and then occupied by South Africa from 1915 until 1990, when it finally became independent after decades of discriminatory rule and struggle. Today, it is a land of peace and political stability. I detect little tension among the twelve major ethnic groups, and a coup or guerilla movement appears as unlikely here as it would be in the States. Even with a major presidential election just weeks away, the political discourse between supporters of the competing parties seems no more extreme than what Americans are used to hearing every four years.

The ruling South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) party is historically leftist, having been based in neighboring Angola during the 70s and 80s as it fought for Namibia's independence, and it enjoys great popularity among black Namibians. Windhoek even features one of the more hilarious major intersections in the word--a traffic circle that joins Fidel Castro St. with Robert Mugabe Ave. In reality though, Namibia--like much of developing Africa--seems decidedly non-socialist, as taxes are low, economic and behavioral regulations few, and Christianity closely integrated with government.

My students were shocked when I told them that most Americans can only speak English, as essentially everyone here is fluent in at least three languages. Schooling and official business are conducted in English, while Afrikaans (a derivative of Dutch) is spoken in regular interaction. And most speak a tribal language as their mother tongue, such as Nama, which involves both speaking and tongue clicks.

Namibia does have its share of problems, and my situation has been far from perfect. Tseiblaagte is unfortunately a rather dangerous place where crime is high and stabbings are a near-weekly occurrence at the local "shebeens" (bars). Several students at my school have been victims and in some cases perpetrators of this violence, with one 9th-grader stabbed to death.

The country also has one of the highest HIV rates in the world--a major reason why its tiny population (approximately 2 million) has not been rising very quickly. That said, I can hardly go anywhere without seeing boxes of free condoms or billboards urging Namibians to get tested for HIV.

I know one does not become an expert on Africa in just a year, especially after living in just one country. But the signs of progress I have witnessed in this "location" are real and inspiring, particularly given the history of colonization and apartheid. The next time you read a story about a bloodthirsty warlord, rape epidemic, or pirate-seized ship, remember that there are also plenty of Africans who didn't make the news filling their shopping carts with groceries or headed to the video store.

Nathan Carleton is teaching for 2009 at J.A. Nel Senior Secondary School in Keetmanshoop, Namibia as a WorldTeach volunteer. He formerly worked at the Bush White House, as a Press Assistant and then as Associate Director of Communications detailed to the National Security Council.