Dawbies in Africa


29 Oct 2012


Since arriving here in Namibia we have been told that this country, and in particular this capital city of Windhoek, is “Africa for Beginners”. We have been introduced to the wonders and challenges of living in Africa in a very gentle manner.

The old & the new in Windhoek

In many respects this is a correct description. Here we have electricity at the flick of a switch (not so if we lived in the informal settlement areas of Hakahana or Havana).

The water coming out of the tap is clean (no need to boil or sterilize) and runs basically whenever you need it. We did, however, have one week where it was turned off regularly in the morning while some pipe was being repaired. While the water in Etosha was ‘safe’ to drink, it had a high mineral content and was quite warm and so did not taste particularly good. We ended up buying bottled water for 2 days. Apart from those two days, it has been water straight out of the tap for us.

The roads are generally wide and well maintained in and around the capital and between the regional centres and tourist destinations. Tourism is a major income generator for the nation and so they need a good road network. Having said this, the drivers in Namibia are fast, unpredictable and think they are the only ones on the road (generalization but basically true). Transport of people, including children, is common in the open back of utes (called bakies here), tip-trucks, or other vehicles. Car accidents, deaths and injuries are commonplace. While we think wearing seatbelts is law, very few people actually do it, and hardly any taxis have them in the back seat.

Traveling in the back of a ute (bakie) is very common in Namibia

We have access to a well-stocked supermarket where we can buy similar foods to what we are used to in Australia.  Even costs are roughly the same in both countries. We are fortunate to have an income to be able to buy food. The basic minimum wage here is between N$3.80 and $5 per hour. A loaf of bread costs N$8, one litre of milk costs N$12 and the 500g of mince I buy for dinner costs around N$30, so you can see that the 51% of Namibians who are unemployed or underemployed or earning a very basic wage struggle to feed their families, even if there is a supermarket to buy food in. (For those of you mathematically inclined N$8 = $1 Australian approximately.)

Within the city centre the dress code is reasonably “Western”, however as soon as you start to head into the suburbs you find much traditional dress. Around us, much to our surprise, are a number of Herero ladies who still prefer to wear the traditional attire including the ‘cow horn’ hat. Upon advice we have chosen to be quite conservative in our dress. Kate wears skirts that hang below the knee and a dress on Sunday. Mike wears long trousers whenever he is out of the house, but shorts inside the house as the weather is hot.

Traditional Herero dress complete with cow horn hat. We see many ladies walking around Katutura in this attire

English has been understood by basically all people that we have come across. While Afrikaans is still the preferred language of many (mainly whites) we have not found this to be a problem in the area in which we live. During the times that we are meeting with Herero people (church, Bible study, prayer meeting) everything is translated from one language into another – in which direction depends on who was the initial speaker. We have found that our most difficult time making ourselves understood in English is when working with the younger children, either at the Preschool or in the Grade 1-2 room at the After School program. We depend on our African colleagues to interpret for us at these times.

Even meal-wise we have had a gentle introduction to Africa. Kate has been doing the majority of the cooking since we have been living here in Katutura and so there has been nothing too weird or wonderful on the menu. We have had Oryx stew and eaten traditional Pap (porridge made from maize meal which is a staple here in Namibia) but neither of these were a great stretch for our stomachs!

There is a regular garbage collection once a week and recycling is just being introduced in some parts of the city (not ours). Yet we look about and there is rubbish everywhere. Kate is always nervous walking on the dirt and stone “footpaths” going to church most days as there broken bottles, rusty tins and all sorts of household garbage items to try to avoid in her lightweight shoes. Even at church the grounds are littered with rubbish. We try to set an example and pick up some of the larger pieces when we go; the kids and volunteers deserve a place to go to of which they can be proud.

Despite all this, there is a real sense of need and of poverty that we do not see in Australia, which at times can be quite confronting. The Africans have a different way of viewing the world and how to operate within it; there is an emphasis on relationship rather than task, of time later rather than now, and not always a sense of openness or teamwork. Unexpectedly, there is very little sense of customer service and most people seem very surprised when we thank them. These things take time and effort to adjust to and work with. Nevertheless we are humbled and grateful to have this experience of Africa and are quite happy to be “beginners”.