Skin Deep: Encounters with Race in Namibia
Conversation was a bit awkward since we had only met about an hour ago; we made small talk about our favorite music and what the school would be like. His thick Oshiwambo accent became so hard for me to understand that I often laughed awkwardly, pretending I understood what he was saying. “School will stot with mo’ning devotion at 7:30 and after 4th peri-odd they get a break to pray.” I think he meant to say “play.” He seemed serious about schooling. He was only 28 years old and already a middle school English teacher. He was still wearing his school clothes on a Saturday: a bright pastel yellow button-down. The dust on his black shoes matched his gray slacks.
“Which way are we going?” I asked. He pointed to what seemed like an arbitrary location in the air. “This side!” he said. It was amazing how keen Aamambo’s sense of direction was. Here there are no clear signs to tell you which way is towards the main road in town. You’re stuck with relying on landmarks like the big mahangoo tree or that one palm tree that towers in front of the sunset or the tire tracks carved into the sand. The place is deserted, and you feel like the only people left on earth. But then, you see a Mémé and her two children walking from the direction you’re headed and you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere after all. This was going to take some getting used to.
After nearly an hour of walking, we made it into town. Cows milled along the side of the road on the nonexistent sidewalk, eating from the few blotches that sprouted up from the grass. The town of Ondangwa was more lackluster than I expected, but after a few hours walking in the deserted countryside, I was glad to see stores and other life again.
“You are an albeeno, neh?” he shouted over the house music playing on his mobile and the sound of trucks whooshing past us.
“What?” I responded. “Albeeno?”
“Yes, your skin.”
“Oh, Albino? No, I’m not. I’m black,” I said, pronouncing each word with great diction.
“Eyy! You are not serious!” he said, surprised. “Really? One of your parents is white, neh?”
“No, both are black,” I replied. He scrunched his face as if I were lying to him. Apparently he had never seen a black person this light in complexion. I looked around. Everyone around me had almost nearly the same dark complexion as him.
He continued to walk east towards the grocery store. Passing by the China Shops, “New Times Square Mall” and “Hollywood Mall,” Aamambo made jokes about the Chinese people.
“Oh, herro! You want to buy? I give you best price! 230 dollars can?” I laughed awkwardly as I cringed internally. I could feel my cheeks getting tired from the obligated smiles.
It was the end of my first week of school and I decided to do something fun with my class. I let them ask me questions. Anything they wanted. “Sir! Sir M.C.!” they called me, since McGuire was too difficult to pronounce. “How is Amelica?”
“America is good….” I said hesitating. This was always a hard question to answer. America to me meant mainly Chicago, so when someone asked I usually responded with: “It’s cold, and it snows! Actually, but right now it’s summer time there, so it is hot.” They all looked over with glazed eyes.
“What do you do?” they asked. I always tried to respond to this as professionally as possible, so that my students wouldn’t realize I was only 20 years old. “I like to run and read. And I am studying to be a doctor.”
“Do you know Jay-Z?” one asked.
Laughing, I said, “No, I don’t know him personally, but I have seen him in concert.”
“Sir! What tribe are you from?” they laughed.
“He is Amelican! He is white!” one shouted.
Culture shock. My Lonely Planet guidebook had described it as “more German than Germany.” Swakopmund is one of the bigger cities in Namibia—a beach resort town kissing the Atlantic. Pastel-colored colonial buildings lined every street, juxtaposed with modern condominiums and hotels. The palm trees gave the feel of California, beach houses like Malibu, to be specific. All feelings of being in “Africa” were lost. Angelina Jolie gave birth to her baby, Shiloh, here. Ritzy.
One weekend, Lisa, Michael, and I decided to take a trip to “Swakop” to visit one of the other volunteers, Damaris. The cold coastal air smacked us in the face as we got off the kombi. It was refreshing to walk again, after being stuck on a crowded 16-seater van for over eight hours. During our trip down, the black locals had stared awkwardly at our little group. I had two assumptions: they either thought we were all white people, or they thought it was weird that I was traveling with white people. I’d like to at least hope the latter.
Anyway, it was during this trip I concluded that I hated traveling with other Americans in Africa. And when I say “Americans,” I mean “white people.” It’s not that I hate white people. I’m not a racist. But usually when they’re around, I’m automatically identified as an American. This isn’t the Black-American-travelling-in-Africa dream. I wanted that feeling of being welcomed home. Embraced.
Swakopmund was heavily populated by Germans and Afrikaaners. It had been founded in the late 1800s as the main harbor for the German colony. During the Herero Wars, Swakopmund was home to several Herero concentration camps, forcing thousands of natives into slave labor. I was happy to be on vacation and near the ocean, but the other part of me felt uncomfortable being in a town with such histories. I fought to remember that I was still in the same country as Ondangwa.
I would’ve never thought we’d find a Mexican restaurant on our first night there. It was the kind of place we often daydreamed about when we were back in our villages, our mouths watering to the memory of the taste of fresh Chipotle guacamole. We walked into 3 N’amigos: Sombreros, papel picado, and portraits of Frida Kahlo lined the bright orange walls. The room was full of white Europeans. Wait—where was I?
After being surrounded by black Namibians in rural Ondangwa for the past several weeks, it was strange to be in the minority again. I imagined that Michael, Damaris, and Lisa basked in the sea of people that looked a bit more like them.
Our waitress walked over and proceeded to speak to us in either Afrikaans or German. I should have expected this, I guess, considering I was at a table with three white people. We all looked at her in confusion and quickly Damaris responded, “We only speak English. Sorry.” She instantly turned pink from embarrassment, apologized, and then took our orders in English. The small talk continued at our table as we waited for our burritos and margaritas to arrive. To my friends, the whole scene wasn’t a big deal, but it left me feeling disconnected from the conversation. I wondered how the waitress would have greeted me had I been sitting with black Namibians. Would she still have greeted me in Afrikaans? Sitting with them started to kill me inside.
I hate traveling with Americans.
The Tour Guide
So I’ve been in Namibia for over a month and I’m adjusting well! This weekend a few volunteers and I decided to drive to Epupa Falls, a waterfall and popular tourist attraction in the northwest corner of the country. We’re staying at the resting camp at the top of the falls on the edge of the Kunene River, literally across from Angola! The moon is shining over the water upstream, and you can hear the waterfall crashing upon the rocks in the background. It sounds like one of those audiotapes my dad has that help you fall asleep, except in real time.
Earlier when we first arrived we took a swim upstream of the waterfall. There were a few Himba women doing their laundry in the water while their children played. Later that night we found out there’re alligators in that area. Oops.
During sunset, we made our way to the falls just in time to watch the sunset below the mountains. We passed the traditional naked Himba women, covered in otjize, a red butterfat and ochre mixture that left their skin glowing and smooth. They had stands of handmade jewelry and dolls for sale. We climbed up to the side of the waterfall overlooking the mountains and made it just in time to snap a few pictures of the sunset. (Stereotypical picture #2, after the picture with indigenous Himba women, of course). After the sun disappeared, we all sat around the rocks admiring the falls. A bunch of children came over to us. Four little girls and three older teenage guys. I think they were Himba too, but they weren’t wearing traditional clothing like most did in the area. They saw our cameras and begged to take pictures with us. Michael, Lisa, and I smiled while they held their blank faces until after the flash. They asked why we couldn’t develop them instantly. One of the girls began feeling on Karina’s long straight Latina brown hair. “Oh,
it’s so soft! Can I braid it?” she said. “Where are you from?” she carried on.
“I live in Opuwo for right now, but I’m from America,” Karina responded. They all whispered to each other in amazement. “Where are you from?” one of the guys asked me.
“I am from Vamboland,” I responded, with a smirk on my face.
“Vamboland? Really? You look like a Herero.” I was astonished. Finally, someone here recognized I’m black. “No, I am Vambo. I’m from Ondangwa,” I continued jokingly, making sure I didn’t give away my true identity.
“Oh!” he shook his head. “So you are their tour guide, neh?” The other volunteers and I smirked at each other.
“Yes! But these are also my friends from America!” I said.
He continued to flirt with Karina. “Are you Chinese? Will you marry me? What is your number?” She smiled awkwardly, and we all looked at each other.
School was over for the weekend, and I was off to Ondangwa to visit Saima and her baby, Angelo, at her house. When I finally made it to the main road from the village, I noticed three little boys giggling and walking behind me in their ragged blue school uniforms. “Oshilumbu!” I heard them shout. I pretended to act like I didn’t hear them. They probably assumed I didn’t know what they were saying. I was taught that “oshilumbu” meant white person.
“Oshilumbu, oshilumbu!” They continued to shout and laugh, pointing in my direction. I adjusted the straps on my NorthFace book bag and heard them snickering even more. I was used to little children laughing at every ordinary thing I did. “Aawe!” I shouted: “No!” I spun around and shouted with a smirk on my face. They stopped in their tracks and looked at me in fear as if I were about to attack. I guess they weren’t expecting me to respond in Oshiwambo. I turned around and kept walking, tripping over the rugged sidewalk on my way to Saima’s house.
Today it was time to do laundry. I’d made it almost a month, but I was on my last pair of underwear. I piled up the dirty clothes stuffed into my suitcase under my bed and sorted them one by one, making sure there were no bugs hiding in the folds. Usually I could get away with doing the sort-smell test: smelly: definitely wash; no smell: hold off until next time. Unfortunately everything I owned smelled of sweat and braai smoke, and was covered in tiny grains of sand. I piled up everything into the yellow wash bucket and headed outside to begin my chore.
It was Sunday afternoon and most people were either at church or at their homestead, so once again I was alone. I walked outside and dropped the bucket onto the concrete walkway that circled the house. It was hot, but not so hot that it felt good to be hand-washing three weeks worth of underwear and socks outside. I wondered how much a washing machine would cost? Everything seemed pretty cheap here so far. It seemed totally feasible, except if you looked at where I was, you’d probably have thought I was crazy.
A herd of cows walked by the gate, chewing the remnants of what maybe used to be grass. Honestly, it looked like they’re eating the remains of cow dung camouflaged with sand and the shells of the makalani nuts that had fallen from the palm trees last summer. A little boy ran past carrying a stick in his hand “Indeni!” he yelled, hoping the cows somehow understood Oshiwambo too. They didn’t move, and he began to yell even more. “Indeni! Indeni!” “Go! Go!”
“Ongiini,” I said to him, hoping for a response. Even though he looked like he was only eight, I was in the mood to make new friends. He looked at me with a blank expression and continued toward the cows. I guess he knew I wasn’t from here. Maybe it was the music I was blasting from the laptop in my room. I quickly ran inside and switched to The Dogg. Maybe he’ll think I’m cool. I ran back outside, knocking over half my pile of clothes, only to notice that he and the cows were already far off in the distance. Rejected by an eight year old. New lows.
I continued hand washing, making sure my clothes never touched the ground. One DJ Cleo album and ten pieces of underwear later, it was time to take a break. I was getting cold from the breeze on my wet, prune-like fingers. Time for a drink. I remembered how the Peace Corp volunteers reminded me to always down a bottle of wine before hand washing. Classy.
With no wine in sight, I walked back into the kitchen to get a Windhoek Lager, then pulled a chair towards the doorway to watch the sun begin making its descent. In the distance I could see an old Kuku wandering aimlessly. Wearing a dingy white collared shirt with faded navy blue pants and a cowboy hat, he must’ve just come from church.
“Wu hala po, Taté,” I exclaimed. Good Afternoon, Taté.
“Eeee,” he smirked.
“Wu hala po?” he asked.
“Eeee!” Yes! I smiled.
I was happy every time I was able to successfully greet someone in Oshiwambo. I picked up my Windhoek Lager again, thinking he would keep walking past, until I realized he was still walking towards me. I stood up. He continued speaking in Oshiwambo, ignoring the fact that I wasn’t responding anymore. My mind searched for the phrase, “I don’t speak Oshiwambo,” but it could not be found. I stood there smiling, wishing I had my notes from my language lessons in front of me.
“Oshiingilisa!” English!, I said confidently as if I had said something revolutionary. He continued in Oshiwambo. “Oshiingilisa,” I muttered again. I guess he didn’t understand that I only spoke English. I guess maybe I was confusing him since I was saying this in Oshiwambo. Maybe if I start speaking English really fast he’ll get the point: Ipledgeallegiancetotheflagoftheuni…
After a few minutes of awkward and confused stares he got the hint. “Inda po nawa!” Go well, sir, I said, shaking his frail hand.
The American Boyfriend
It was January. Sunny and 80 degrees. Bloody carcasses hung from the rusty hangers while the flies happily feasted. Tatés sat below them, surrounded by grills, laughing and enjoying their meat. Across the way, and noticeably separated, the Mémés were lined up with their goods, all selling the same exact thing. Hand weaved baskets, Mopani worms, mangos, and traditional pink dresses. Saima and I had decided to go to the open market to have lunch. I had been craving kapana for the past two days, since the last time I went. Freshly slaughtered cow meat, grilled to perfection with just a touch of salt. Yum. It was like the traditional fast food of Namibia.
We walked over to Mémé Kaino, and she sat us down at her small table. “Wu hala po, Mémé,” I said to her, practicing my Oshiwambo. She responded with a smile and asked how much food we wanted. “$20 is fine,” I said. Saima looked at me and smiled. She responded to Mémé in Oshiwambo and all I could seem to pick up was mbuku—mouse. We liked to joke around with each other, calling each other names like mouse and cat. This time I guess I was the mouse. “What did you say to her?” I asked.
“Ohhh nothing,” she grinned. “I was telling her how beautiful the day was.”
Sipping pineapple Fanta, we waited for our food to finish cooking. Saima took selfies on my phone as I flipped through a copy of The Namibian. Mémé Kaino brought over the plastic plate, piled with meat and braai spice on the side. Two fat cakes were always the essential sides. Saima and I caught each other up. She asked questions about America and I asked about the North. The Tatés at the table next to us began talking and laughing. Saima interrupted them in Oshiwambo and they exchanged a few curt words. “They want to know why I have an American boyfriend,” she said, annoyed at their impertinence. I wondered if she hated traveling with Americans too.
Richard McGuire is a recent graduate of Oberlin College. He is currently studying for his M.S. in Medical Physiology at Case Western. Fairly new to travel writing, he often daydreams about all of the countries he’ll visit and new experiences he’ll have in the future.
Photo by the author.