Thursday, April 22, 2010

Okahao Afternoon

A friend of mine called me Tuesday afternoon telling me he was in town and wanted to meet up. Elvis is currently living in Windhoek but his job has him travelling around the country. He grew up in a homestead in a rural area near to Okahao and was looking forward to touring the area. He said it had been over ten years since he'd gone deep into the bush where he spent his childhood. After a couple of beer at a local shebeen, Elvis, his cousin Shiimi (who, coincidentally is my favourite taxi driver and one of my favourite Okahao residents) and I drove deep into the bush down rural dirt roads, through oshanas and standing water, as Elvis recounted tales and stories from his childhood relating to the different structures, trees, bushes and termite mounds that we passed.

Elvis told me the history of a dirt road that was built as a personal driveway for a minister “puppet” during the liberation struggle who was known especially for his cruelty and punishment of the people in the area. He forbid anyone to use this road, aside from himself and his personal guests. Those found driving or walking on his road (off to the side in the bush and grasses was fine, so long as you were not on the road) would be punished, often by means of beating or humiliation. The cruel minister met his demise when locals had finally had enough and planted a bomb along the road. His cruelty, lavishness and self-importance had made him an easy target for liberation fighters. Of course, after his death, he was replaced by another minister, but it was a moral victory for the oppressed Ovambos of the area.

We were stopped by some kukus (old women) who were collecting money for their parish so we sat and chatted with them along the roadside, sharing caterpillars and discussing how Okahao has changed. They were family friends of Elvis – who they know by his Ovambo name Hamutenya, meaning sunshine – and shared old stories of his childhood.

I waded through the Oshanas (stagnant flood/rain water) with Shiimi to collect omavo, which are beautiful water lilies that, below the surface of the mud produce tubers or “ground nuts” that, when cooked are similar to a sweet potato. The omavo became my favourite last year, when the floods were really bad. They filled the oshanas on both sides of the main road, creating a beautiful freshwater meadow of purple and white.

Then Elvis let me shoot his gun. Unfortunately guns are quite common, especially in rural areas, for protection from both people and animals. I've become desensitized to them, as every security guard at every atm and many stores in Oshakati and other towns, openly carries a rifle to dissuade any funny business. I have always wanted to shoot a gun. Not at anything in particular, just to experience it. I thought I would be so cool, but was surprised at how nervous I was. It was heavy, and I felt this frightening power holding onto it with both hands. It was louder than I expected, and had more of a kickback than I anticipated – reminding me of the story my dad told me of his first hunting trip in northern Canada, from which he returned with a prize caribou and a black eye. After two shots I handed Elvis back his gun, satisfied..and collected my shells as souvenirs.

We stopped at a collection of shebeens about 5km outside of Okahao where we stopped for drinks and socialised. People are always surprised to see a white person in rural northern areas, and even more surprised when I greet and try to converse with them in Oshivambo. So between us showing up in a car, buying a round of drinks, and my skin colour, we attracted quite a bit of attention and interest. We shared some drinks, miscommunications and laughs. I politely refused a vulgar marriage proposal, bought two pairs of earrings off of a big meme who introduced herself to me only as “Big Mama Africa” and we were on our way again.

We concluded the afternoon with a turn through the location in Okahao and discussing the original buildings and infrastructure, most of which is now decrepit and crumbling. I was told of one of the first self-made developers, Tate Etombo, in Okahao who made the first (of only two) two-story building in Okahao. Etombo in Oshivambo means testicles, a nickname which he gave himself to signify power or force, not unlike the saying back home “he's got balls”. He took pride in the fact that he was not educated but had made a name for himself just by doing. He designed and built the two-story building by himself, without a construction background, which explains the now sagging outer staircase and crumbling walls. Tate testicles is no longer in business for himself – that I am aware of – and most of his projects are left abandoned and in disrepair in the town.

The evening finished with a dinner of butternut, rice and potato salad for me – meat only for my Namibian comrades, then I returned home just in time for a night of Star Wars episode 3 with the neighbouring children.

That evening, as the kids were swinging metal poles as their imaginary light sabres and I was watching the sun illuminate the silhouettes of the palms and baobabs on the horizon I found myself so at peace and content with myself and my surroundings. When it comes down to it, my nightly reflections are not about examinations, timetables and vocational and cultural frustrations but instead on the magic that happens when I surrender to the beauty, history and fascinating wonder that embraces me around every corner.

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