Digging Deeper to Find True Understanding: Why You Should Care about Namibia’s Oppressed Communities

We are all a product of our experiences. Different experiences lend us new perspectives. No one is to blame for their upbringing, but at certain times we must step out of our comfort zone to spend some time in another person’s shoes. With each new experience comes further open-mindedness and acceptance. A different outlook may surprise you, may shock you, and may help you to see that history constantly repeats itself.

Namibia’s Diverse History

Namibia is home, and has always been home, to a diverse group of peoples. The Bushmen are assumed to be the earliest inhabitants of the region. They were hunter gatherers with a nomadic lifestyle. Over time, many different ethnic groups settled in Namibia. These groups were the Ovambo and Kavango in the north, the Nama in the south, the Damara in the center, the Herero in the northwest and center, the Oorlams in the south, and eventually, Europeans.

Namibia’s Bushmen, thought to be the earliest inhabitants of the region.

Europeans set foot in Namibia as early as the 1400s, but did not really mix with Namibians until missionaries started to arrive in the early 1800s. It was not until the late 1800s during the “Scramble for Africa” that Germany was pressured to take Namibia as a colony. It did so in 1884 and named it German South West Africa. Conflicts began to flare up with natives, and Germany deployed troops to the area. The Germans overpowered the natives, and told many to leave the country or be killed. The Herero retreated to the Kalahari Desert where many of them died of thirst. Others died from consuming well water that had been poisoned by the Germans. It is estimated that 50 -70% of the total Herero population was killed during this time along with 50% of the Nama population.

Surviving Herero, emaciated, after their escape through the Omaheke desert.

German rule remained until the end of World War I. Since Germany lost, they were required to turn over power of South West Africa to then British ruled, South Africa. South Africa decided to continue with German traditions, which kept a white minority in power and suppressed the black majority.

In the 1960s, European powers began granting independence to their colonies in Africa. Having been granted their own independence, pressure was put on South Africa to do the same with Namibia, however the apartheid government resisted. With seemingly no other options to choose from, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia began guerrilla attacks on South African forced in 1966. There was huge international pressure on South Africa to release Namibia, including UN mandates, but South Africa refused to recognize any plans or steps to set Namibia free. After decades of bloody conflict, an agreement was finally made, and Namibia became independent on March 21, 1990.

Building a New Namibia Post-Independence

Since independence, Namibia has completed the transition from white minority apartheid rule to a democratic society. However, eliminating apartheid was only the first step of many to make the country truly equal. Apartheid has resulted in a situation where approximately 20% of the population owns 75% of all of the land. Land reform started immediately after independence, but it has been very slow, since the constitution only allows land to be bought from farmers willing to sell. Apartheid also left blacks under-educated and under-employed. During apartheid, black schools were separate from white schools and blacks were purposely taught only enough to be able to perform in manual labor jobs.

Signs like this were common in the apartheid era

This isn’t a situation where the black community could just work hard and get ahead. Years of oppression had left them ill equipped to compete in the modern world. They were without any productive land and without proper education or opportunity to get properly educated (the reason why I am here to help). When apartheid was lifted, money didn’t suddenly appear in the black communities out of nowhere. Teachers didn’t magically become qualified and bring up the level of education. Real life didn’t stop. People still have families and need food. Whites still owned a majority of the businesses and could discriminate in their hiring process if they wanted to. Apartheid law was easy to abolish, but the remnants of apartheid will remain for years to come.

This exact same thing happened in the US and continues to happen today.

In the US, Europeans came over and absolutely decimated the Native American population. The colonists took their land, forced them to move to the middle of the desert, and didn’t even want to consider them citizens after independence.

African Americans were literally bought from their homes and forced into slavery. Even after they were freed, African Americans faced segregation until the 1960s. Many are still living in marginalized communities in the least desirable parts of cities and towns, proving just how hard it is to break free from the shackles of an oppressive system.

Race based segregation in the USA lasted until The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed

Since being in Namibia, it has become strikingly clear to me that you cannot expect repressed communities to just bounce back after decades or even centuries of oppression. Countless times I have heard people discredit affirmative action or say that the people who rely on food stamps are just lazy. Now can you see how these programs are necessary if we ever want to reach equality?

So I am asking you, go walk in someone else’s shoes. Go volunteer in an under-served community and talk to those that are struggling. Try to understand how someone else sees the world. Be open to new perspectives. You might be surprised by what you find.

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