Namibia was my first destination in sub-Saharan Africa – and Windhoek provided a gentle introduction to this historically difficult continent. I landed at sunset on a Tuesday night, thrilled to be entering this region of the world for the very first time.
English is the official language in Namibia, which made traveling around easier and allowed me to meet and interact with more locals. A former German colony and part of South Africa until its independence in 1990, Namibia’s infrastructure was well established long before becoming its own country. The existing infrastructure and organization gave this new republic a strong starting base.
When you first meet them, the people of Windhoek, like the terrain, have a certain toughness. I met Claud on my first visit to Windhoek. A born businessman, he is eager to talk about his work and his city. He owns a small print shop and various other enterprises around Windhoek. On weekends and evenings, Claud showed me around Windhoek and helped me to understand the ethnic diversity and challenges of Namibians dealing with their past oppression under apartheid, but also the opportunities that abound in this talented community.
In a country with a recent revolutionary past, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find so many roads in Windhoek named after famous revolutionary leaders from around the world. Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Sam Nujoma each have their own thoroughfares. Buildings throughout the city reflect Windhoek’s German heritage. Some historic buildings are sandwiched between modern high rises and repurposed into nightclubs and restaurants, while others – like the Windhoek railway station – continue to serve their original purpose.
Although many Namibians resent the legacy of German colonization as a precursor to the onset of South African apartheid rule, the benefits of German planning are also in evidence. While walking around the city, I was impressed by how clean the city was. The ordered streets have black and white marked curbs and public trash cans are available and emptied, indicating that the municipality is at least fulfilling its basic duties.
In Windhoek as well as on the coast, there are lots of signs of progress with new buildings and social improvements. Growing the economy has been an important goal to improve the local quality of life, and last year Namibia was named the top emerging market economy in Africa. Little by little, the industry and growth in Windhoek is bettering the life of its citizens. Between my trips in 2007 and 2011, I saw substantial improvements in the quality of life – I noticed more cars, clothes, nightlife, restaurants, and new building construction throughout the city.
Namibians do not shy away from leveraging technology to their advantage, whenever possible. One innovation that is especially important here is water technology. Windhoek was founded close to a nearby chain of fresh water springs. One of the biggest problems has always been to maintain the water supply – and with very little rainfall, Windhoek depends on water conservation. On my second trip to Windhoek, I was told that the city’s Goreangab Water Reclamation Plant is the only water plant in the world that converts domestic sewage into drinking water… Until then, I had been drinking water straight from the tap, but this new information made me think twice before gulping down any more of this very public resource!
Driving around Windhoek one night, I accompanied Claud into the shanty towns. Shacks line the hillsides to the north and west of the city, often the first stop for villagers in search of a better life. In daytime, these silver corrugated boxes shimmer in the heat, lending the hillsides an otherworldly appearance. At night, they reflect the cool moonlight moving across the valleys.
We drove in as far as we could, then threaded our way through the narrow alleys of the township, past dark doorways, to reach our destination. Here, we met his client and a couple of friends at a lean-to shack that served as a bar with a red dirt floor. The trepidation one feels when looking at this warren of boxes spread across the hillside soon fades when welcomed into the populous neighborhoods. Later, we shared some Windhoek lagers and discussed how a lone American found himself deep inside this township. Broaching the subject of how out of place I felt provided a common point of understanding. We talked late into the night about the challenges of life in Namibia, its past and history, and our hopes for the future. We shared stories of our respective homes, continents apart, and became friends under the desert moonlight in one of the world’s most unique cities.
All pictures, incl. the header image, by Brett Baker