World Hot Spots
An Introduction To NamibiaJune 18, 2000
By Runoko Rashidi
Map of Namibia
On February 14, 2000 I received an official invitation from the Pan Afrikan Centre of Namibia to come to Namibia in May to present a series of five lectures in commemoration of Africa Day 2000. The letter was signed by Ben Uugwanga, a PACON board member. I love Africa and accepted the invitation joyfully and without hesitation. Namibia, a large and rather arid country, is in southwest Africa. It became independent in 1980, is rich in minerals, has a progressive Black president and enjoys a majority Black population of less than two million people. I'd always hoped that I would be able to go to Namibia. Considering that the only part of Africa that I had previously visited was Egypt and that PACON promised to cover all of my expenses I was ecstatic. Why wouldn't I be? Indeed, I was so honored and became so excited that I soon made up my mind that if necessary I would pay my own expenses to get there. It meant just that much to me. It seemed that my time had finally come to see more of Mother Africa--the birthplace of humanity and civilization.
In truth I must confess that I had been actively avoiding travel to the rest of Africa. I essentially took the rest of Africa for granted. I think of Africa all the time and knew that I would eventually get there. As an historian Egypt has been an exception for me because of her abundance of antiquities. Egypt is obviously not the only country in Africa with antiquities but the ruins of ancient Egypt have no parallel in the world. Besides, the origins of pharaonic Egyptian civilization is such an intense battleground right now that it became obvious to me some time ago that as a historian travel to Egypt was virtually essential and I have now been able to visit Egypt on five separate occasions. I have never been able to resist Egypt. I never wanted to resist it and I don't now. Egypt casts a kind of spell on you and compels you to return.
In regards to Africa beyond Egypt I knew that I would eventually see a great deal of it. And I knew that once I started to go there then other travel destinations would dramatically diminish in importance. I love Africa. More than any other part of the world it is my home and I knew that I would become addicted to it once I started to travel there. As a result I've tried to explore other realms of the Global African Community. The Ancestors have really blessed me in this area and I now travel fairly regularly on international circuits. I take great pride in having been fortunate enough to lecture on every continent in the world save Antarctica. Indeed, I have often been heard to say that "if I can find some Black people in Antarctica then I will go down there too, just to make things complete."
I love Africa and all my presentations, mostly slide presentations with lots of stunning and stirring photographs, are about Africa's place in history and African populations scattered around the earth. In fact, I am coming to believe that there may be more Africans outside of Africa than are in Africa itself! Africa and African people are really all that I talk about. I am an African historian with a strong African-centered and Pan-African perspective and I think that the major mission in my life, more than anything else, is to help make Africans proud of themselves. Africans around the world must realize their attachment to Africa and its essential importance to us. We have a major stake in the future of Africa. Along with countless others I believe that Africa can never truly be free unless African people scattered around the globe play an active part in the freedom process. At the same time, African people outside of Africa can never be truly free until Africa itself is united, independent and in control of its natural resources. As African people we must work together.
NAMIBIAN NIGHTS: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
The Namibian presentations were scheduled to take place between May 23 and May 28. They were sponsored by the Pan Afrikan Centre of Namibia. We had been exchanging messages via the internet and I am so grateful to PACON for bringing me to Africa. My itinerary called for me to fly to Windhoek, the Namibian capital, via Frankfurt, Germany. PACON wanted me to journey to Namibia on Air Namibia, the national airline. It seemed appropriate. Besides, I suppose that flying through Germany with an almost thirteen hour layover in Frankfurt provided a practical kind of orientation for me. Germany colonized Namibia, brutalized and nearly exterminated large numbers of its people and even today plays a highly important role in Namibia's reality. In Namibia itself the major ethnic groups are the Ovambo, the largest group, followed by the Herero, Damara, Nama, Caprivian and San. Overall, I found the masses of people in Namibia to be very poor with a daily uphill struggle. The White people of Namibia, on the other hand, seemed to be very prosperous. This bothered me. Why should African people be poor and homeless in the land of the plenty? Windhoek itself is a very European looking city and highly segregated.
While initially reluctant to fly through Germany it worked out okay. The international airport is a huge place. I was a little concerned by the fact that I was traveling by myself, spoke no German and had only passed through Frankfurt once before. At is turned out, however, English was widely spoken, people were generally friendly and I was surprised at how many Africans worked in the airport. I was even able to walk outside a bit and do a little exploring of the adjoining area.
After almost two days of travel I finally arrived in Windhoek early on the morning of May 23, 2000. From the moment I touched down, collected my luggage and went through customs I went straight to work. Jet lag and fatigue were not allowed to become factors. Just out of customs I was met by Mr. Bankie Forster Bankie, who was to be my almost constant companion during the Namibian leg of my African journey. Mr. Bankie turned out to be a very good brother. Himself a strong and ardent Pan-Africanist and something of a career diplomat, he turned out to be business like and very detail oriented and kept us on a tight and disciplined schedule. It would even be accurate to say that much of the success of the trip is due directly to Bankie himself. I salute him.
Right after greeting me at the airport we hit the ground running and Bankie informed me that we were on our way to tape a television program and handed me a nice freshly pressed African shirt to change into. Although it not bother me I do not recall receiving an invitation to stop for breakfast or to check into the hotel for a nap. There was simply no time. I was brought to Africa to work! Well, as a soldier in the army of African victory I was up to the job. The tv program went well and was subsequently broadcast all over Namibia. Indeed, at the risk of sounding vain and with all due modesty, it was not unusual for me to turn on the tv at seemingly any hour and see images of myself lecturing and being interviewed. Actually it was kind of nice. It got to a point that wherever I went it was common for people to see me and say, "I just saw you on tv!" All things considered I got very good reviews.
Early on the afternoon of May 23 in a government owned car and with our own private driver Bankie and I headed off to Walvis Bay for a lecture in the Black township there. It was the first of three trips outside of Windhoek. After driving for several hours across what seemed like mostly uninhabited country I was able to give the first of my presentations. Before the presentation I was introduced to the regional governor. In fact, at each presentation that I gave, each in a different regional capital, the governor of the respective region was on hand to welcome me and offer every possible assistance. These governors were present at each program from beginning to end and all expressed great satisfaction at the results. I quickly and happily realized that the brothers and sisters in Namibia were hungry for history and thirsty for greater knowledge of themselves.
The Walvis Bay presentation, a general presentation entitled "Unexpected Faces in Unexpected Places: The African Presence Globally," went well and was followed by a lively discussion period. Indeed, PACON insisted that significant room be left at the end of each presentation for dialogue with the audience. Although we were in a Black township quite a number of White people showed up, including several White teenage students enrolled at the local schools. As a matter of fact there was not a single presentation that I gave in Namibia where at least one White person did not show up. Well, just because there were White people in the audience I wasn't going to compromise my message or change my focus. As a matter of fact PACON kept assuring me that they wanted a straight-forward approach and a non-compromising delivery. They urged me to speak my mind and not hold back. Well, they got their wish.
It was obvious to me that theWhite people that I encountered in Namibia were rather nervous but remained arrogant. Although Africans effectively run the country White people dominate the economy and own much of the land. With the reclaiming of African land in Zimbabwe now taking place, however, there is a great concern in Namibia that the same phenomenon inevitably is going to spread beyond the borders of Zimbabwe to effect the rest of Africa.
I was also struck by another category of people in Namibia. These people are called Coloreds and are the descendants of mixed African and European unions. Many of these unions were obviously not of a voluntary nature. During the pre-independence apartheid years these Coloreds occupied an intermediary status between the masses of conquered Blacks and the descendants of White invaders. They seemed to take great pride in their status as collaborators to apartheid and I generally found them to be more hostile even than the Whites themselves. During the discussion after the Walvis Bay presentation one such student asked me what I thought of the concept of White Africans? I told her that I considered the notion absurd. She became highly indignant and pointed out that while I had just arrived in Africa that day that she and "her foreparents had been in Africa for four-hundred years and that she was an African by birth!" Again I responded by saying that her White foreparents had invaded Africa and stolen the land. I told her that both her culture and pedigree were European and that the Boers had not been invited to Africa. This unsettled both the Whites and the Coloreds in the audience. The Blacks, on the other hand, were delighted. I finished it off with a quote from Kwame Ture who used to like to say that "just because a cat has babies in an oven you don't call the babies biscuits." Place of birth by itself doesn't determine nationality.
On the long drive back from Walvis Bay in Namibia's Erongo Region I was startled by how cold it got. In fact, I was absolutely shocked at how dramatically the temperatures in southern Namibia dropped at night. Riding back through the desert, in what seemed like the only car on the highway, I was also dazzled by the brightness and seemingly closeness of the stars in the Namibian skies. It seemed that all I had to do was to reach out and touch one. I have never seen anything like the skies of Namibia at night. Even the moon seemed be brighter than I ever imagined. I will never forget these cold and star lit Namibian nights. They were quite simply magical and awe-inspiring.
In Namibia I gave five separate major presentations in five provinces over a period of five days. Following Walvis Bay on May 23, on May 24 we headed southeast to Keetmanshoop near the South African border in the Karas Region. Like the previous evening we were joined by the regional governor who I thought bore a strong resemblance to Nelson Mandela. What made this presentation stand out was that it was heavily attended by Namas. These very interesting brothers and sisters, sometimes called Khoikhoi and pejoratively known as Hottentots, came and introduced themselves and gave me considerable background as to their history and present status in southern Africa. They had suffered greatly at the hands of the Germans and had fought a heroic resistance. Their mere presence fascinated me and I was tremendously honored by their attendance.
Back at the Safari Hotel on the afternoon of May 25 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek the biggest Africa Day program was held. Africa Day celebrates the founding in 1963 of the Organization of African Unity. The ruling party of Namibia, the South West African People's Organization, prides itself on its Pan-African principles. My job that day was to show that African people exist all over the world and that our emphasis therefore cannot be confined to just continental African unity but, rather, the global unity of African people. My presentation that day, the last presentation of a very long program, was one of my best. On that day I spoke before ambassadors, ministers, diplomats, students and just plain folks and really lit the auditorium up. The response was so good that I became very emotional and sometimes spoke with a faltering voice. I spoke considerably longer than I was scheduled to speak but nobody interrupted. The entire program for that day, of which my presentation was a central part, was broadcast repeatedly across the nation. I knew that on least that one day that I had indeed succeeded in helping making African people proud of themselves.
Following the official Africa Day commemoration in Windhoek on May 25 I was not allowed to rest on my laurels. In fact, on May 26 I had to get up earlier than ever, check out of the hotel, and embark upon my longest journey in Namibia, northeast to Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Region. I was working hard but I was enjoying it, learning a great deal, trying to absorb everything and savoring the experience.
From Windhoek to Katima Mulilo is distance of more than 500 kilometers. It was a long ride. The Caprivi Region shares a common border with Angola and during part of the journey we had to ride in a military convoy. This convoy system of travel was deemed necesary because at the time of my trip in late May UNITA's renegade army led by Jonas Savimbi was launching violent incursions across the border into Namibian territory and slaughtering innocent civilians. This trip took so long that May 26 was the only day in Namibia that I did not lecture. It was a day devoted almost entirely to travel. We arrived in Katima Mulilo at night and were fortunate to find a series of nice log cabins. For once I had a quiet, peaceful and relatively early evening and took the opportunity to peruse through two excellent books written in French on the life of Alexander Sergeivich Pushkin that had been loaned to me by Brother Bankie. I am happy to say that by this time that Bankie and I had really begun to bond and had developed a very good relationship. By this time we didn't just respect each other; we believed in each other.
On May 27, my last full day in Namibia, I lectured at Caprivi College in Katima Mulilo, just across the Zambezi River from Zambia. The governor of Caprivi Region was there and this time, in the college gymnasium I spoke in front of a large group of mostly children. The adults, however, during the discussion period, grilled me with really serious questions. Some of the questions that came up repeatedly during my stay in Namibia focused on the image of Africa in the western media, the role of African-Americans in the African freedom process, the current status of Africans in America, my general impressions of Africa, and whether there would ever be an African-American president. I tried to address every single question thoughtfully and honestly.
The evening of May 27 I gave my last and best presentation in Namibia. Maybe because I knew that it was my last Namibian presentation, at least on this go around, I was forceful and yet relaxed. I had enjoyed my stay in Namibia and wanted to end it on a high note. This was a fairly small audience in a rather small room and provided the gathering with a pleasant kind of intimacy. It was a Saturday night in an African township in the city of Rundu in Kavango Province, with only a small river separating it from Angola. This time not only was the regional governor in attendance, but the national minister of education John Mutorwa. It was a real honor when he sent me a handwritten note welcoming me to Africa. The program began with a series of performances by the Kambundu Cultural Group. They were excellent dancers and exceptionally graceful. A regally beautiful and enthusiastic African woman moderated the program. We had an excellent translator and the slide projector worked perfectly. The slides seem to speak to all of us, and the sense of communion on this last evening of my Namibian journey was profound. That night everybody went home happy and inspired, full of hope for the African future and proud of our African history and heritage. On this night, one of thosecold, magical, star-filled Namibian nights, more than at any other time on this wonderful trip, I would like to think that the Ancestors were truly satisfied.
*Runoko Rashidi is an historian, public lecturer and writer engaged in a love affair with Africa. He is currently organizing educational tours to Kenya and Tanzania in April 2001 and Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand in November 2001. For information on the tours, to schedule lectures and order audio and video tapes contact Rashidi at RRashidi@swbell.net or call (210) 648-5178. Please visit Rashidi's Global African Presence web site at http://www.cwo.com/~lucumi/runoko.html
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