The International Writers Magazine: Travel
Death, Debauchery and Desert: Africa’s Wild South-West
Until a couple of months ago I knew next to nothing about Namibia. I have since discovered that the same is true for most people outside of Germany (Namibia’s former colonial ruler) and those countries that share its borders.
It is not hard to see why this might be the case. A country four times the size of Britain, Namibia has a sum total of just over 2 million inhabitants, compared to little Britain’s 62 million all invading each other’s personal space and obsessively scrapping for any blade of glass that has not been chewed up by the great cow of urbanization. Name any one of those Namibian inhabitants that anyone has ever heard of, and I’ll give you a cookie.
After some serious research, I found that Namibia’s most famous person was somebody called Frankie Fredericks. I assumed from the funky name that he was a reggae artist and went on the hunt for some of his records, only to discover that he was actually a moustachioed sprinter with two Olympic silvers to his name. But that was about 2 million years ago (actually more like 15 years, but you get the point). Furthermore, from a world news point of view, Namibia is one of the few African countries that actually has a relatively stable government and very few recent civil wars to boost its publicity. Think back to the tiny population and throw in the vast swathes of desert that separate Namibian’s from each other and make up much of the country, and this makes a lot of sense.
The trip was intended to be a standard ‘visa run’ from Cape Town. I was living in a beautiful house and making good money working illegally (that is to say working for under the table money in a restaurant, not selling my body). My three month tourist visa was up and I really didn’t feel like leaving the country anytime soon. But I was equally deterred by the horror stories I had heard about applying for an extension at the Cape Town Home Affairs Office. I decided that a quick trip to Namibia seemed favourable, and could prove to be a little bit of an adventure.
I took a bus from Cape Town to Springbok in the Northern Cape of South Africa, a dusty redneck town where people still say “kaffir” as if it was a colloquial greeting and where guns are easier to buy than drinking water. From there I managed to hitch a lift with two South African girls on a camping trip. We drove across the border and on to the Orange River, its green body like a great, meandering snake crawling across the desert. We stayed at a campsite on the river’s edge. Having failed to get either girl drunk enough to persuade them to let me squeeze into their tent with them, I spent a night awake on the grass looking at the full moon and being eaten alive by mosquitos the size of bats.
The next morning, after counting a total of 36 bites, I got on a bus north to Namibia’s second biggest town, Ketmanshoop. From there I wanted to take another bus to the coastal town of Luderitz. I had been told of an old diamond mining town near Luderitz called Kolmanskop that had been abandoned some 60 or so years ago, its buildings now gradually being reclaimed by the desert.
I found the central bus terminal (in reality a patch of sand bigger and flatter than the others around) and asked for buses to Luderitz. There were plenty of buses waiting, but “not today” seemed to be the general consensus. I sat down sweating in the midday heat and noticed on my map that I was almost straddling the Tropic of Capricorn. Even the wind was hot as it whipped up the sand and made it dance.
Just as I was about to give up hope, a car pulled up and skidded to a halt sending clouds of dust over the bus conductors who voiced their displeasure and gesticulated wildly at the culprit. A formidably large, warrior-like figure with a mountainous, clean-shaven skull emerged. “Luderitz!” he shouted and beckoned me towards the car. I followed him and jumped in.
In the car were two other equally big and bald-headed Africans. “I am Fritz” said the driver, “This is Jürgen and Bastian”. As the three of them talked away to each other in the clicking language of the Damara tribe, a language stemming from that of the indigenous San nomads of Southern Africa, I contemplated the oddity of their names; the continuing legacy of the former German colonial rule.
We talked about football. This was a fairly sure way to make friends with men anywhere in Africa. I was quickly invited to have lunch with my new friends and their families when we all arrived in Luderitz. “We are going to kill a goat” Fritz told me “Very, very fat one!” he added, bellowing with laughter.
||Fritz stopped the car at Kolmanskop for me to have a quick look around before the big sacrifice. The ghost town had once boasted schools, a cinema and even a working railway before the diamonds that brought the German settlers there began to dry up. Many had left behind furniture and other belongings, left behind whole lives and futures there in the desert. It was a sad place.
Luderitz itself looked as if someone had airlifted a provincial German town and dropped it carelessly and haphazardly in the desert on the edge of one of the most barren coastlines in the world, the aptly named Skeleton Coast. Along the beachfront signs politely asked that anybody that might stumble across diamonds would be so kind as to leave them where they found them.
We arrived at Fritz’s house and I was introduced to the families and the goat. The families marched into an outbuilding. Fritz told me to wait where I was and soon returned with a knife the size of a surfboard and placed it firmly in my hand, nodding at me as he did so. It was suddenly clear what my duty was as the guest of honour. I was handed the rope with the goat on the end of it and encouraged to lead him into the awaiting theatre of death in the outbuilding.
Fritz and his eldest son heaved the goat on to the table. Fritz held its neck and head and his son held its legs together. “Cut him!” Fritz shouted, perspiration dripping down his shiny forehead. I hesitated for a second and Fritz took my hand and drove it straight through the neck of the goat. I heard the pitter patter of blood falling into the metal bowl that had been placed below the goat’s head. I had killed. As I fought back the tears, Fritz took the knife and carried on with the job at hand, quickly severing the goat’s head entirely and discarding it to the floor where it stared at me accusingly. Then one of the children picked it up, put it atop his own head like a hat and chased his younger brother out into the garden. Fritz patted me on the back firmly and said “Now you are a real African man!” laughing his deep, rumbling laugh. But I still had one duty left. I would be first to drink from the bucket of blood which had collected under the goat’s neck.
The kind of the sacrificial killing that I had just been a key accomplice to was common practice for Africans across the entire continent. I had, until that point, managed to avoid it, always seeing it as a somewhat brutal act, but now I saw that the ceremony surrounding the whole event had in fact made the goat’s death sacred and important (from where the humans were sitting at least). It was certainly very different from our generally removed and detached attitudes to the neatly-packaged meat we eat in the West. I doubt that even Western farmers who rear, kill and eat their own livestock would afford any of their killings such a ceremonious, memorable death. It had all been quite moving, and not just in the bowel department.
Fritz was so impressed that he insisted I took his wife’s car for the week and the next day I was back on the road, the metallic taste of blood still in my throat. I continued to head North, not really knowing where or why. The road was straight and empty as far as the horizon. I felt as if I was driving towards the end of the world. Desert was all around me, like a great burning ocean. Rain seemed a distant memory. The sky above was big and bright and immaculately blue. I felt small, and very, very far from home.
After a quick safari stop in the Etosha Pan National Park (it’s amazing how quickly you can become indifferent to Zebra), I ended up in a town called Opuwo, the capital of the northern Kunene region. In reality Opuwo was little more than one dusty main road with a supermarket, a few grocery stalls and shack bars named after English football clubs and a run-down night club inappropriately (or perhaps sarcastically) named The Diplomat.
|I had heard whispers on my way up the country of the beautiful, statuesque and often almost entirely naked women of the Himba tribe who still lived mostly cut off from Western influence. Somebody told me that from Opuwo it was possible to go out into the bush and find traditional Himba villages. I soon discovered that women fitting this traditional description could be seen in the town centre too, their bare chests and legs and long hair all covered in deep, red ochre and heavy copper jewellery adorning their necks, wrists and ankles as they strolled in and out of the supermarket pushing trolleys. Some even talked on mobile phones. They hinted at the possibility of a happy co-existence between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Africa, challenging the oft-repeated notions of a clash between the two.
Having spent the night sleeping in my car in the town’s only campsite, I awoke the next morning to see a young man watching me expectantly through the passenger’s window. When asked just what the expletive he might be doing, he smiled and said that his name was Michael and that he was from a Himba village nearby and had heard of my plan (news travelled fast in Opuwo it seemed). Michael studied at the college in Opuwo during the week, staying in town with an uncle, and then went home to the village on the weekends, trading his school uniform for the more traditional garb. Similarly to the women in the supermarket, he did not seem to find it hard to switch between his traditional, tribal heritage and the increasingly globalised world that was beginning to touch even the most remote parts of Africa. During his evenings in town, Michael spent most of his time on facebook.
With Michael as my guide we drove for an hour or so along a bumpy dirt track out into the bush with a car laden full of maize flour as a gift for the villagers.
We arrived at the small village which comprised roughly ten small mud huts with reed roofs. On arrival we were met by the familiar welcome of a group of naked, smiling children asking for “sweeties”, the only English word they knew and the root of terrible tooth and gum problems in such areas, another legacy left behind by my fellow Westerners. A little later I noticed that one of the children was in fact only naked from the waist down whilst a Harvard hoody covered his upper half. Meanwhile the women sat around and made bangles or stirred pots, seemingly oblivious to the few goats that were systematically devouring the edible roofs of their homes behind their backs. They beckoned me to sit with them and stroked the light hair on my arms and legs with great interest. Being as striking and scantily-clad as they were, I tried to think about the weather, but to no avail.
||That night, gifts accepted and language barriers overcome by the invasion of my personal space, we all got horrendously drunk on palm wine and the women danced and chanted around the fire, stamping their feet in sharp bursts and kicking up dust. Eventually, after a near fatal encounter with a cobra on the way, and apparently with the chief’s slurred blessing, I was carried to bed in one of his huts by two of his daughters, not entirely sure of what I might have unwittingly consented to.
Having undressed me, they proceeded to remove their small leather skirts and heavy necklaces and then, naked, lay down on either side of me, each placing an arm across my chest before they fell asleep drunk as skunks. I felt regal. As my own eyes grew heavier and hazier, I thought, just for a moment, that maybe I wouldn’t go back to South Africa after all. Besides, I reckoned I would look pretty good in a loin cloth.
© Christopher Clark July 2011