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Back on the Bike …

For a day, at least.  A sturdy yellow three-speed, with the saddle too low and chunky tires and a funky shifter that you had to stop peddling in order not to pop the chain.  

I was joined by a couple from the Netherlands, and we were led by a waif-sized African woman with mismatched clothes, a jaunty straw hat, a lot of spunk and some very strong opinions which she let fly for the full four hours.

This made for a very interesting and educational morning.

She issued us effective yellow safety vests, marginally effective helmets, had us sign a lengthy liability waiver and then delivered a lecture about how – when we do this tour – we are not observing the animals in Etosha and staying in a vehicle aiming our cameras at the people.  Instead we are going to bike into the community and be part of the community.  (It is worth noting that we saw nobody else on a bike the entire four hours. And it is also why I was terrified to pull out my camera at all on this ride – her message was clearly received.)

We are not going into the poorest areas with the shanties and no water or electricity and desperately poor people because there is nothing to be gained from gawking and it’s not safe … plus they might take the bikes.  Can’t have that.  And we aren’t going down the streets with all the shebeens (bars) because that’s where all the fighting and dangerous people are and … again … they might take the bikes.  And we aren’t going into the children’s home or the hospitals or other places because she doesn’t like tourism like that and this isn’t a poverty or a save the children tour.

Instead we will see the markets and the houses and learn how Katutura functions.  Because all Namibian people and Namibian life aren’t like the marginalized Bushmen and the exploited Himba people who have their culture and lifestyle marginalized and sold for the benefit of others.  And we will see what it’s like for most people still living in the black townships today.

So with those ground rules firmly in place, off we went into the township of Katutura,  And there was no way in hell I would be pulling out my camera.

Katutura was created under apartheid when South Africa controlled Namibia.  This township was designated under the homelands law, when thousands of people were uprooted and forcibly moved to designated areas based on their race.  Katutura means “we have no permanent place” in Herero, one of the many tribes that were uprooted and forced to live together in the artificial “black” community … even though Namibia’s tribes are very different in the culture and dress and customs.  This is the Soweto of Namibia.

After independence from South Africa in 1990, the township has improved utilities and built its community and improved housing.  New residents still build shanties and live without basic services or sanitation or utilities … these are the people who have moved into Windhoek from rural areas looking for work, and those who can’t afford homes because of the incredibly high cost of housing here in Namibia … simple homes can cost hundreds of thousands of Namibian dollars.

We biked through the streets and passed markets set up by the city to provide cost effective space to rent a stall and sell small things to get by.  And we biked passed the big homes of Luxury Hill where the whites who supervised the contractors who built themselves housing under apartheid to live in during construction.  And we biked passed the single room dorm-style housing for the construction workers who did nothing but work for 18 months stretches building township housing, leaving their families behind in the rural areas.  

But the most interesting place was the market.  We saw shoes handmade from leather with fluffy springbok tails decorating the top for a little furry fun on your feet … some fluffs dyed hot pink.  Kudu leather shoes with old tires repurposed as the shoe soles. Cow hide leather loafers, complete with hair on the outside. 

Most towns and cities have chain grocery stores that are fairly similar in packaged merchandise.  But the local markets are where you get the food the local people eat.  There was a line of vendors grilling braai – or a variety grilled meats that you would dip into various rubs and eat standing up in front of the grill.  Immediately behind the Braai were the butchers’ stalls with skinned carcasses laid out on blocks, and piles of entrails for those interested in offal for dinner.  One butcher who I spoke with kindly pointed out the cow head and forelegs on the floor.

Since most people don’t have refrigerators, most food is dried to preserve it.  There were some fresh vegetables, almost no fruit.  But dried herbs were plentiful.  Wild spinach was also everywhere, which is a wholesome green eaten most days.  Millet and flour and cornmeal – which makes the mealie pap that serves as a polenta-like staple of almost every meal.   And there were various sources of proteins, including dried caterpillars and catfish … which are reportedly delicious when prepared properly. 

But the biggest draw of the market was the incoming shipment of fish from the coast – boxes of sardines.  A long line waited outside the fish mongers stall for those sardines.

As usual, I wandered around politely saying hello to people and seeing what interesting things happened from being friendly.  And as usual this generated the most interesting encounters of the day, including admiring the butchered cow head and tasting delicious samples of braai from a vendor who said, “Wait, I want to know you.”  So I went around to talk with him.  When he asked me how old I was I told him and he nearly dropped his meat fork in shock to the amusement of everyone around who laughed at him, and who told me … “He doesn’t believe you.  You don’t look that old.”  I assured them that I was indeed very old, and thanked him for the meat.

One thing that is clear about Namibia – and South Africa – and that our spunky guide said today in candor that we rarely heard directly this entire six weeks, is that even after independence nothing much has changed in daily lives.  People still live separately.  Whites are still privileged.  Social structures are still in place that make it hard for blacks to advance.  

It is literally dangerous for a white person to wander around a township like Katutura without someone local with them.  You don’t belong there.  You are in the wrong place.  And in the white places, people live behind high walls topped with razor-wire and alarm systems. The only black people are domestic help or waiters or others in service jobs. And as a white person traveling here we are definitely privileged and treated with deference.

So it’s challenging to try and learn about a community without being a voyeur … to try and learn about a place so separated by race that we literally are warned not to enter – by whites and blacks.  People like Anna, who led this bike tour today and Ella, who led the township tour in Knyssa, South Africa are finding their own way to bridge this gap and help people learn.  They are doing it differently, but I think it’s good that they are trying.

I’ve certainly learned a lot as a traveller who wants to understand better.  And, I hope perhaps local folks might see people like me a little differently after, too.


Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate lives in Seattle, WA. She is a two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate, a communications specialist and writer, a nature lover and fan of beaches, mountains and big trees in the Pacific Northwest.