Tsumeb and Encountering the San

I’ve been meaning to write about this for weeks. Sorry it’s taken so long.

Back in the beginning of May, I participated in the second session our In-Country Training which was held in Tsumeb. Due to the vagaries of the bus schedules, it turned out that I took the bus all the way to Windhoek (an addition 5 or so hours), hung out there for a few days and then drove up to Tsumeb in the VSO “combi” (mini-van). Coming back, I was able to catch the bus directly from Tsumeb around midnight. The trip down was nice as I met a woman I know while waiting for the bus (she works at the Ministry of Health & Social Services MOHSS). She was sending her daughter back to return to school at the Polytechnic. In our chat, I learned that she was Zimbabwean, had two children with the son in school in Zimbabwe and the daughter in Windhoek, and her husband worked in Johannesburg. She was quite sad as sending her daughter back to school meant the end of their Easter holiday (they had all met up in Zimbabwe) and she was now alone. Her daughter, Tatenda, sat with me on the bus and those we didn’t talk much after the first half hour, it was much more comfortable to sit with an acquaintance than a stranger.

We arrived at 6:30am which left me in a bit of a quandary, because I needed to go the VSO office to get the key to the house where I would be staying and they obviously were not yet open. But I thought hopefully that perhaps the Mugg & Bean would be open, which was only a few blocks away, so I headed over there. Arriving about 10 minutes before 7, I thought I’d just wait outside. The staff were there and milling about a bit, clearly prepping to open. But then they welcomed me in. How nice! I ordered an bottomless cup of coffee, took off my backpack, used the toilet and my waiter even showed me the one outlet in the whole shop where I could plug in my computer. Several bottomless cups, a very nice omelet and many good hours of wi-fi use later, I was ready to head to the VSO office. Quite a pleasant morning.

I spent another whole day at Mugg & Bean (free wi-fi and decent coffee and they don’t bother you) and a day shopping (mostly window-shopping, but I also bought some Capri slacks as mine were all too big for me now). Had a beautiful (very expensive) meal with Michelle, a Filipino volunteer – fresh Norwegian salmon (put on ice and flown down. . . ). And had my first “real Namibian” cultural experience: eating kapana (roasted meat) in the market in Katatura.

Then it was up to Tsumeb, which is an old mining town (copper, but the mine closed down a few years ago), not far from the southeast corner of Etosha National Park. The main part of Tsumeb town is small and looks quite charming – small neat bungalows, tree-lined streets, a few parks. The first morning I went running and found the quite large, rambling area where most people live – street after street of shacks made from iron sheets. Tsumeb looks about 1/3 or maybe ½ the size of Katima, but they have all 3 major grocery stores (ShopRite, PicknPay, SPAR), where Katima only has 2, and it has branches of other major stores, like Cymot/Greensport, which Katima doesn’t have. So it’s a bit deceiving.

The mines in Tsumeb used to employ 15,000 people. Those people have all been laid off (there remains a smelter which employs about 200) and they still all live in Tsumeb. That is a lot of people to have sitting around with nothing to do (not to mention the families they were supporting). Apparently, they do somehow find money for alcohol and we heard from every angle (medical, police, social worker) that one of the biggest issues in town was drinking and fighting and/or domestic violence. Not too surprisingly.

We had some great presentations for our training. There is a cultural center in Tsumeb that has created demonstration houses for each tribe in Namibia. This was great to visit, because you could really see how different each group lived and we were able to hear from people from those groups who explained the basics of their culture. One of the fascinating things about Namibia is the amount of cultural diversity among such a small population (under 2.5 million). Herero, Himba, San (two different groups), Nama, Damara, Ovambo (the largest group, about 50% of the population), Kavango, Caprivian (which is actually about 6-8 different tribes) – I think I am forgetting some – all have different types of houses, different terrain, different diets, different marriage practices, different languages. I had read about this, but actually seeing some of the differences and talking to people helped deepen my understanding. We also had two presentations – on politics and on economics – with a guy who had been an MP (Member of Parliament) and a businessman. He was also newly a member of the opposition. One of the great things about Namibia is that it is free and open. Culturally perhaps not so much and politics are pretty tightly controlled. But legally, people are free. So we were able to have a very open conversation on these topics and ask quite blunt questions and he seemed to love it. How refreshing. The only other place in Africa I’ve had such open conversations was Uganda and that was many years ago. I don’t know if it is still so safe to speak freely there. (The people that ran the Cultural Center were NOT comfortable with this opposition member coming to meet with us in their Center. So clearly in practice, openness is dependent on who you are talking with, but that seems different to me than fearing you’ll be overheard and potentially hassled, arrested, or worse.)

The biggest part of our In-Country training was a team exercise where we had to go out and speak with people in the community and find out what were the major issues in Tsumeb and the region and then make a presentation. This is why I know about the level of unemployment and the problems of alcohol and violence. We also learned that severe malnutrition among young children is a significant problem (the Chief Medical Officer attributed this primarily to ignorance and the staple/sometimes only food in the region being corn or millet which has very little nutritional value). And though the HIV infection rate is just a bit lower than that of Caprivi (about 24% in the region), the CMO was more worried that all the attention and funding was on that one issue and there was no attention being paid to other issues, like maternal health, which he said was getting worse and there was little chance they would reach the MDG target.

We also spent a day at the Treesleepers camp near Tsintsabis. It is called Treesleepers after the San group indigenous to Etosha. Their name is HEI//OM which means tree sleeper in their language, because apparently when they are out hunting, they sleep in trees (whereas the other San group, in the Kalahari in the east, sleep on the ground). So we camped out and I had a chance to sleep up on a platform in a tree (that’s me up on my platform taking a photo of our campsite). During this day, we had a guided bushwalk with a San guide who showed us a lot of stuff that the San traditionally use in the bush. What looks like nothing but generic brush to me is actually filled with medicinal plants, animal tracks, edible insects, and all sorts of things! One he showed us was a bush “still” used to make liquor from the merula fruit. I ate a few of these and they are quite nice fruits with a refreshing, kind of lemony flavor. The Ovambo make a very nice oil from the merula. But when I returned to Caprivi, I learned that they have the trees here, but they don’t know how to do anything with them. They don’t even eat the fruits. Interesting. The still was fascinating (hence the photo) and reminded me that I learned about this process in high school. And this is how my countrypeople have made moonshine for years. Some things are universal. . .

We also went out to the households of two San families and met them and learned a bit about their situation now. They were moved out of Etosha after independence, so that it could be made into a National Park. Each family was given a typical small concrete house and two cows. But many (most) San couldn’t live like that. So they abandoned the concrete houses and moved outside of Tsintsabis where they could spread out more, have room for a garden, etc. But two cows is nothing. So they’ve been robbed of their livelihood, lifestyle and their source of nutrition. And they look as sad as you might expect of people in this situation.

The last photo is of a young San boy we met in the first household. He, of course, has known nothing other than their current circumstances and, being a small child, is perfectly happy because he is with his family. But he was a very serious young thing and quite fascinated by this matchbox that he had.

The situation of the San reminds me, naturally, of the Maasai and of the Native Americans. It would seem that they are too small a population to fight for their rights. I know that in Kenya, the Maasai have retained (or did they lose it and gain it back again?) the right to live on their land, even if it is a designated national park. I fear the San are much more likely to end up (at best) in a situation like the Native Americans where they are either subsumed into the dominant culture or they live apart with few or no resources, having lost most of their culture.

It is interesting in Namibia that most people seem acutely aware of differences between the different black tribes and there is little feeling of unity of the blacks in opposition to the whites (mostly Afrikaaners and Germans). Politically, some people seem resentful that the Ovambo have most of the political power (due to their dominance in the independence movement, the current reigning political party – SWAPO – and the population overall), but few people seem at all bothered by the fact that the economy is completely dominated by the whites who are a very small percentage of the population (with only foreigners beginning to encroach on their “territory”). An anecdote: yesterday, my taxi dropped someone off at the Ministry of Environment offices. There were at least 500 people standing around in the yard, people on the road walking that direction and every taxi going that way. “What is going on?,” I asked. “Oh, there are a few vacant positions and they are accepting applications today.” Holy cow. I would hate to be the person who had to sort through 500-1,000 applicants for what is probably 2-5 positions! But I think this is a fairly typical scenario in a country with 51% unemployment. This is a pretty common scene all over Africa (though not always quite at this magnitude!). What I see very little of is entrepreneurship, particularly among the educated. The very poor are out there hustling, selling potatoes or bananas on the street or walking around asking for day labor or working their little garden plots. But the more educated come out of school or university expecting someone else to give them a job. When I ask, “who is going to create the businesses that create more jobs?,” I either get totally puzzled looks (the look of, “you’re odd, you clearly don’t understand how things work here”) or an answer like – the government, international NGOs, Chinese shops. . .

I would love to figure out how to encourage entrepreneurship all over Africa. In fact, I think it is the future. How will they create their future if it is not them, but foreigners (be they businesspeople, development workers, well-meaning, or exploitive – frankly I don’t think it makes a bit of difference) creating that future? I can’t see anyway scenario where that is a good thing. I’ve seen and thought about this issue for years and year, but I can’t say I’ve been able to get myself in a position to do anything more useful than raise the question.


About Seth Longacre

primal health coach, vision fast guide, itinerant discalced Episcopal Deacon, barefoot runner, photographer, spiritual director, yoga teacher, minimalist, pilgrim
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