Important Note: While these are a few things that I have observed since being in Namibia, it is important to remember that these are merely generalizations and do not apply to every Namibian.
Many things in Namibia spark memories of America, there are also many differences that take some getting used to. Although I did my research before coming here, some things still took me by surprise. Here are four things that I learned the hard way since coming to Namibia.
1. Eating meat is part of a long, cultural tradition
The diet here in Namibia focuses mainly on meat. Although I knew this before coming here, I was shocked by the actual amount of meat that is consumed. Often times a meal consists only of boiled meat or sometimes, meat and a grain (pasta, rice, or a grits like porridge called pap). When you tell someone that you are vegetarian here, they often assume you eat chicken and fish because those proteins are not really considered meat (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding). This love of meat stems from a long tradition of goat and cattle farming in Namibia. Much of the land is not productive here in the desert but grazing animals can chomp on all of the shrubbery and grasses to survive and thrive. Some tribes in Namibia only survive on the milk, blood and meat from the cows that they raise. Although meat has traditionally been the best way to make use of the land, overgrazing and health concerns have become big problems, and there is a small community of vegans based mostly in Windhoek working to promote more vegetables in the Namibian diet. See my post A Day in the Life of a Vegan PCV for more info, and stay tuned for a post on the impacts of climate change in Namibia.
2. Alcoholism is a big problem with a complex past
Alcoholism is a large problem in Namibia (as it is in the US as well). Although alcohol is not sold after 1pm on Saturday or at all on Sundays, the shebeens (bars) are seemingly always open. Beer and wine are cheap, and many people who are un or underemployed have little to hope for in terms of working their way up the ladder. This lack of hope is left over from the days of apartheid. Black Namibians were purposely under-educated so that they could only get manual labor type jobs. The more educated jobs were reserved for the whites, who had separate schools and separate areas of town to live in. Favoritism is also a large problem in Namibia, so even if you are qualified for a job, you need to know someone in order to break into a field. The high rate of alcoholism also seems to stem from a general lack of confidence ingrained into children from a young age. Many children are beaten and told that they are nothing in school and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which leads me to…
3. “Children are seen, not heard”
Children in Namibia are conditioned not to question. What an adult says, goes. While discipline is good, methods of discipline are passed down from generation to generation and some are not necessarily the most effective. Many Namibian learners are unfathomably shy, will not look at an adult in the eye, and if they do raise their hand to speak in class, they will have their hands over their mouth and appear very embarrassed. This is the norm in northern Namibian culture, but to an American looking in, it can seem very strange. The saying goes here, children are seen, not heard. Possibly the most heartbreaking example I have heard has to do with HIV/AIDS. Many of the learners will be told by their parents that they must take a pill every day, but the parents will not tell them what it is, and as Namibian children, they will oblige without questioning. In class, the children learn about the different anti-retro viral drugs that are available to prolong life for those that are HIV positive. Many learners, after learning about the different drugs, will put two and two together and realize that they are HIV positive. It can be very hard for the children to come to this realization. Fortunately, the topic of HIV/AIDS is becoming less taboo thanks to some clever advertisement campaigns and a strong cross-curricular focus on the topic in schools.
4. Wealth inequality is a sign of an oppressed past
Yes, wealth inequality is a large problem in the states, but if you drive through any Namibian town, the disparity becomes immediately evident. Namibian towns are like any small town in the US. There are schools, churches, a mall or shopping center, and Tsumeb even has an Arts and Performance Center. However, each town in Namibia is distinctly split. On one side, with shops, houses, and paved streets is called “town” where all of the whites of Namibia lived during Apartheid. On the other side, with dirt roads, shacks, and garbage dumps is known as the “location” where all of the blacks were forced to live during apartheid. On the outskirts of town, it is common to see large make-shift shanty towns with no electricity or running water. Although apartheid ended over 25 years ago, the remnants remain. Things are slowly changing for the better, but big changes take time. Just on the news the other day, people in Windhoek who own houses and have reached the age of 60 are having their loans forgiven for any remaining money that they owe on their house. It is a small step, but hopefully more programs like these will start to catch on to help out the large portion of struggling Namibians.