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.
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.