Cold, hungry, he bacame a companion

A scratched, faded Kodak slide. That was all I had of a young boy, maybe four or five years old. A grimy yellow shirt and gray hand-me-down shorts, hands clasped like he was on the verge of telling us something very important. We met during the winter of 1981, he stayed in the outbuilding behind Justus ||Garoeb’s house in Khorixas. Mornings, just as the sun was coming up, I would sit on the back stoop, hands wrapped for a bit of warmth around a tin cup filled with black coffee. Winter’s cold in the desert is sharp. For six maybe eight weeks of the year, cold takes control as the sun sets, dominates the clear star-filled night and lingers well past sunrise. For people accustomed to finding ways to stay out of the heat, those hours of cold are long. At night there was a fire to huddle close, then layers of blankets to crawl into so at least partial relief from the cold was found. But, in the morning, the blankets were left behind, a fire had to start meaning the thud of an axe breaking some wood, a few live coals to resurrect with some kindling, some water to get for brewing tea, and, if lucky enough to have food, some water to boil for morning porridge.

Iagub, that was the boy’s name, and I started sharing the mornings on those back steps. Light from sunrise was just scraping the tops of the trees, it would be a while before it slid down to ground level and gave us warmth. Next to the fireplace, Iagub shivered patiently while he waited for a fire. Tentatively he came over towards me when I called him. Black kids didn’t really know how to deal with a large white man. Some thought I was a doctor and was going to give them an injection -- this created terror. Some had never seen a white person up close. A piece of bread with butter and jam persuaded him to cross whatever threshold made him wary. Still shivering he gravitated towards my warmth. Propping him on my leg, I wrapped my jacket over him. He finished the bread silently while I watched the steam rise out of my coffee mug, and disturbed it once in a while to take a sip. His shivering stopped. This began our morning ritual.

Iagub was small for his age, but it was more than that. Skin wrapped loosely around his bones, he was too light, he was too small. There was not enough mass on his frame. The quiet, deliberate way he ate whatever I was having for breakfast on those cold mornings were never an antidote for the many days of hunger he felt in his short life. My school books talked of the long term effects of stunting and wasting. Would his chance to reverse these times of ever come?

Life takes us away down different paths. My work took me to Sesfontein, Otjimbingwe and places in between. Iagub too was carried on the tides of social obligation belonging to his elders; going out to the farm, to Outjo for a funeral, Fransfontein for a wedding. Sometimes in the following months our paths would meet again on the back stoop. Years later, on my second trip to Namibia, Iagub was in school. Still small, he lived for football. We no longer shared the stoop, he stayed at another house, closer to his classes. Work took me away from Khorixas, Iagub went to a different town for school. Independence came, we lost contact with one exception. The slide I took in 1981. Unlike the hundreds of slides stored and cataloged, his image worked its way into the collected tokens of memory that populate wherever I worked. Usually resident in a plastic box of paper clips, staples extra pens and a few other bits of memory, that slide moved from Khorixas to Windhoek to Boston to Allston to Windhoek to Khorixas to Otjimbingwe to Falmouth and a last time to Windhoek. Sometimes, when in a pause between chapters, or a break in the phrasing of a letter, I would finger the slide, hold it up to a source of light and wonder about that tiny little boy in the yellow shirt. Did he get enough food? Get into a school?

Two days ago we towed a car over to a backyard mechanic in Katutura. On a short downhill cul-de-sac we left the car. Beyond the end of the road is a river. While making arrangements for the repairs, I caught a familiar face outside the last house on the left. It was one of the young girls from Justus ||Garoeb’s house, now grown, married, a mother. In the door was a man about her age, slight, smiling, the creeping retreat of hair losing a battle with baldness atop his head. This was Iagub. He lives here. He is planning to get married. By chance his bride-to-be is related to my in-laws. Over the next few months the rituals and activities of betrothal and marriage will give ample time to get caught up.

When I got back home two nights ago, I pulled the slide out of its place. He is still there, small, hands clasped, waiting to say something. There is a chance to catch up, to learn what was on his mind that day thirty years ago. Some times you get lucky.

Musings of an old Tate

Just a few thoughts that are rambling around:

Will the Windhoek Hilton be finished before I turn 70? (Hint: I’m close but not that close.)

Why do I get the feeling that the GIPF scandal is a lot bigger than we think it is?

What is going on with agricultural land prices? Farms cost in the millions of Namibian Dollars. How can anyone just selling cattle and sheep and who just bought a commercial farm make a living? The bond payments alone are likely to leave only a few cents left to operate the enterprise. I know in some circles it is popular to blame the Affirmative Action farmers for driving up land prices. I find it difficult to believe that a fifteen hundred or so people who over the last twenty years have been using the AALS programme to buy a farm are the cause of the extreme rise of prices. Consider, the Omeya development south of Windhoek has close to 400 lots for sale at an average close to N$ 1 million apiece. Not a bad use of the less than 300 hectares of the commercial farm where the development is located. My hunch is that there’s a lot more to the high cost of commercial farm land than a few emerging farmers who qualified for a loan from Agribank. It sure would be fun to find out ....

The main reason I shop at the Spar in Maerua Mall is the produce section filled with goods from Namibian farmers. Buy Namibian, support our local food producers.

Watching the unrest and discontent in North Africa and the Middle East makes me realize why we have TIPEEG. The main cause of the demonstrations is years of chronic and high unemployment. These societies have generally produced a lot of skilled graduates who can’t find work. They have been the dry tinder just waiting for a spark. Our official unemployment rate is over 50% of the work force. Last year the Namibian newspaper interviewed a few of the men who sit by the road looking for a job. One of these men was in his mid 30s, had some education, but in 20 years of Independence had never had a job. You wonder what goes through his mind while he waits by the road with his stomach roiling in hunger.

If you want to see what gets the people running the City of Windhoek excited when they talk about needing more land, just fire up Google Earth. Go to a view of slightly to the west of Otjumuise, behind the old Ramatex buildings. (The place is about 22° 33” 70’ S and 17° 00” 43’ E, or just to the west of Dusseldorf St.and south of Frankfurt St.) Down on the left there is a button to click for historical images. When you click the button a slider will appear and the first archived image from 2004 fills the window. Gradually move the slider to the right year by year. Pay attention to what you see when you reach the image of 31 January 2008. Compare it with the image two years later from 31 January 2010. With the slider you can switch back and forth between the two images. This is urbanisation, and it probably keeps a lot of people at the City of Windhoek administration up at night. Urban growth will be a big issue for us all in the coming decades.

Anyone wondering about the impact the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant will have on the uranium mines that are blooming in the Erongo Region?

Sam Nujoma

I was asked to name a hero the other day while in the midst of a team building exercise at work. I chose HE Sam Nujoma. I explained to my colleagues that the reasons why I chose him was the fact that during the past 30+ years I have studied, researched and written about Namibia, he has been the constant and dominating personality. But, he is my hero because of the way he has dominated. When SWAPO was a liberation organisaton, he made sure that educational opportunities were available to many young Namibians. He said Namibia would be free, and it is. He promised peace, stability and economic growth, and we have it. More importantly he has set a tone for the way this country operates. That tone was evident back in the 1990s, when colleagues and I were doing a lot of field research on development problems. On long dusty drives from one small place to another equally small community, we noticed the simple fact that the government delivered on its promises. When a school was supposed to be built, it appeared. The same with clinics, roads, agricultural centres, water systems, and phone services. It was clear back then that the people running the government were serious about keeping the promises made to every day Namibians. Looking around in Africa, there are plenty of other countries where the people who lead the process of Independence decided to not keep their promises. Even now, after decades, the average person in those places still waits for a school, health care or basic services.
Sam Nujoma, the Founding Father, made sure that Namibia would take a different path. The wisdom of his decision became clear after HIV and AIDS became a major threat to society. The country was able to respond -- often very successfully -- to the challenge of HIV and AIDS, because the basic infrastructure needed to roll out services and medications was already in place. Currently, the nation faces problems of unemployment and unequal income distribution. The attitude HE Sam Nujoma instilled in this generation of leaders, that we take care of our people, means that major efforts to bring jobs and income to those in need will occur. So when I think of Sam Nujoma as one of my hero’s, the words I will always associate with him are “When it came to the promises he made to Namibia, he delivered.”

The Perfect Tomato

Below is the dreaded Red Spider Mite. The Scourge of all gardeners who want to grow a decent tomato. There are two explanations of its rise.
First, it’s not indigenous to Southern Africa, which means no natural predators. Second, it has always been here, and its natural predators were wiped out by the overuse of pesticides. For years I’ve watched helplessly as unseen thousands colonized my tomato plants, turing them into disfigured, wrinkled and barren bits of foliage. After much time at local nurseries and hours spent following directions of this or that, Google turned out to be my friend.

One suggestion I found was to plant later in the year, outside the Mite’s main growth season. Usually, here in Southern Africa, we plant somewhere in November, and expect a crop in late January. Inexorably, however, the Mite won out. The Google link brought me back to the last, and only time I had decent tomato plants -- one year when I was preoccupied, and only got them into the ground in late March. It was a mild winter so those plants were still producing that November when I pulled them out of the ground to make way for the new recruits. So this year, at the end of February, I ripped out this season’s already withered plants, waited a couple of weeks, and got the last batch of seedlings. They are now tall, green and full of fruits. It’s not the same as plucking a fresh vine tomato on a hot hot day and taking a bite and thinking of a bowl of gazpacho, but probably for making sauce and soups they’ll do just fine.

Namibia Notes

Comments on Nambian Society from a long term perspective