When I tell people I spent the summer teaching in Namibia, their reaction usually is: “Uh, where is that again?”
Since Namibia celebrated 20 years of independence this past March—and has a population of only two million—it is understandable that not too many people know much about it. At times, it was unthinkable being in a country so young that I would have been one year old when it broke free from South Africa’s rule and became a new democratic nation under its first president, Sam Nujoma. Although Namibia is a seemingly inconsequential and often forgotten African nation, many countries have something to learn from its impressive and quick success, and something to gain from its people.
All Namibians know someone who fought in the war for its independence. The fighters, members of the South West Africa People’s Organisation, were known for guerrilla warfare tactics and would ambush South Africa’s soldiers then retreat into bordering Angola. When SWAPO members were exiled, many went abroad to study and then came back to Namibia to help shape the new government, now ruled by the majority SWAPO party. My host mother’s brother went abroad to study architecture in Europe, and he now designs shrines commemorating the freedom struggle in Namibia. One of his shrines is in Eenhana, the town that I taught in for two months.
The shrine, built in 2007 after a mass grave of SWAPO supporters was discovered nearby, commemorates the bodies with two marble slabs and displays a huge statue of a woman fighter. I asked a local man about the significance behind it. He explained that women played a vital role in Namibia’s quest for independence. Women risked their lives to house, feed, and care for soldiers, and some even joined the battles themselves. This fact compliments and perhaps partially explains the progress Namibia is making in gender equality. Gender equity is protected by the constitution, and gender equity laws also promote women’s rights. The minimum legal age for marriage—for both men and women—is 18. The Namibian government actively promotes the equal treatment of women, and it is very common for women to be the breadwinner in many households. My host mother, for instance, is a teacher and supports her husband, seven kids, and three grandchildren while her spouse resides at their village home in the bush. The mayor of Eenhana is a woman, as is the principal at the school where I worked.
Before independence, Namibians were a group of many different tribes, separated by language barriers. The language Namibians were required to learn was Afrikaans (which is now considered a language of status). When Southwest Africa became Namibia, the official language changed to English, and the country made sweeping efforts to ensure its citizens had a command of the language. My host mother, who has been a teacher in Namibia since 1975, went back to university so she could learn English properly and would be able to teach in English.
While the towns below the red line—a line that separates domestic from wild cattle—are more developed and very Western, towns in the north are working toward development. Many northern towns were formed after independence, and the government sets aside a large amount of money toward improvement in education—more than 20 percent of the national budget—in addition to funds for infrastructure and development in these cities. The government also pays for food programs and housing for some of the bushmen, known as the San people.
What impressed me most about this newly formed nation was the strong sense of national pride, uniting all Namibians, black and white, Damara and Herero, Caprivians and Oshiwambos. At every morning assembly, the students at Eenhana Senior Secondary School sang the national anthem with pride as they faced the Namibian flag. Namibians from all parts boast about the safety and friendliness of their country. They asked me if I had seen the beauty of their sand dunes in the south, their popular and massive national park, Etosha, in the north, or their huge waterfall, Ruacana, by the Angola border. They talked about how many Angolans and Zimbabweans come to Namibia in hopes of a more stable future and secure jobs. They wanted to know whether their national celebrities, white pop singer Stefan Ludik and the Oshiwambo rapper, Gazza, are popular in the U.S. as well.
Although I only lived in the country for two short months, I felt its pride and knew I would take a piece of Namibia back with me to the U.S.—in the form of greeting everyone with a smile, making the best out of bad situations, and giving to others what you cannot afford for yourself. In spite of its young age and modest population, those who would argue that the situation of Africa is hopeless need only look as far as Namibia as a model for hope. Although it still has a ways to go before recognizing its full potential, Namibia has made great strides since independence, and is one of the most prosperous and safest countries in Africa today.
Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.