Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “Namibia”

Writers’ territory

Writers' TerritoryWriters’ Territory by Stephen Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty-seven short pieces ranging from the 16th century to the late 1960s, of people who travelled in or wrote about southern Africa. It covers most of the subcontinent, and has a variety of authors, many of them well known, and some not usually associated with southern Africa.

The selections include descriptive articles, short stories, and extracts from larger works, beginning with The Lusiads of Camoens, and ending with an extract from Terra Amata by Jean-Marie le Clezio.

Some of the authors, like Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope are known mainly for their writings outside the subcontinent, while others have a more indigenous flavour. Some are professional writers, while others, like the German soldier fighting against Hendrik Witbooi’s resistance in the dry Auob valley, are just trying to describe their own experiences. What makes it interesting is that each piece views the landscape and the people from a different point of view.

Among my favourites are those that describe places I have known, like William Plomer’s description of Zululand in the 1920s. We lived there in the 1970s, so it was interesting to see what changes had taken place since then, and it is now almost as long ago that we lived there.

Another such time warp was Etienne Leroux’s description of the south-western Free State, a part of the country I have never visited, but his description could apply to many other places as well. He begins thus:

You can describe a region and its people, you can list colours, objects, sounds, generalize about types and trace its history. Out of such material a place takes on a different character for each of us, and each creates it from his personal, transcendental world which exemplifies yet again the loneliness of each of us — your own ‘true’ image cannot be shared by anyone else. I remember the sunlight through my windows one morning, many years ago, on a farm in the soutjh-west Free State, and I am suddenly filled with a longing for something that might never have existed.

And that is what this book is about, places that may have evoked longing in the writers, but perhaps different places evoke a similar longing for their readers. Sometimes it evokes a longing for youth…

There are no ruins worth talking about; only some stones where a house once stood. A new building is erected by a later generation and the old building crumbles away into a shed, a kraal,. and eventually a gravel heap with pieces of bottle and rusted kettles. What has happened to your youth? Where has it gone? You look around and see that your playgrounds no longer exist. Vanished like the mist on the vlei — which also no longer exists. It all lives on in the memory; the past is not contained in landmarks, but in the stories old people tell — and the old people die one by one.

And my blog is one of the stories that old people tell, for I am now old, old as Leroux was in my youth, when he was writing that, for he goes on to describe a funeral he attended back then:

… the farmer sons buttoned up in tight fitting snuff-grey suits and strangled by snow-white collars; the grandsons and granddaughters from the city in the uniform of the teenager: beehive hairdos and ducktails greying with dust…

Beehive hairdos and ducktails?

That dates it to when I was 17 or 18. “Tomorrow they leave for the city on motor scooters, in Valiants and Kombis, leaving the depopulation of the south-west Free State to be felt again.”

It can be dated even more precisely from internal evidence by those old enough to remember, for he writes of “the garage painted in the glaring colours of either Shell or Atlantic or Total.” That puts it in 1959, the year that Atlantic petrol made way for BP, and after 1957, the year that Total petrol began to be sold in South Africa. And beehive hairdos were no earlier than that, even though ducktails were. And a few years later the Valiants would have had plastic oranges on their aerials.

But each place has its own memories, its own associations for each of us, and in spite of a book like this one, they cannot really be shared. They can only hint at one’s own memory of a longing for something which might never have existed.

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Timol inquest deja vu

So yesterday there was this SB fuzz bloke giving evidence at the Timol inquest on eNCA Harrowing evidence at Timol inquest:

A former security branch officer has admitted he was part of a strategic unit tasked with spreading apartheid government propaganda.

Paul Francis Erasmus was stationed at the notorious John Vorster Square police station at the time activist Ahmed Timol died in custody.

And I’m like Wow, we knew all that was going on, but they would never admit it, even at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Pau Erusmus, former SB man, giving evidence at the Timol inquest yesterday

One of the things he explained was how the police used equipment for giving electric shocks to people they were interrogating. They would wrap the electrodes in wet cotton wool and stick them in the detainees’ ears, and turn the handle to give them shocks. They referred to this as “listening to Radio Moscow.”

And my mind went back to Windhoek, Namibia, in the winter of 1971.

On 21 June 1971 the World Court gave a ruling that South Africa’s occupation of Namibia was illegal.

On 18th July, about four weeks later, the Lutheran Churches (the biggest denominations in the country) sent an open letter to B.J. Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, saying that they basically agreed with the World Court decision, and included a list of several of the bad things the South African government had done in Namibia. They also sent a pastoral letter to be read in all Lutheran Churches that day, explaining what they had done and why they had done it.

This was even more of a shock to the South African government than the World Court decision itself, because it was totally unexpected. The Lutheran Church was not seen by them as a “political” church, like the Anglicans or Methodists or Roman Catholics. It was a “good” church, which minded its own (spiritual) business and kept its nose out of politics.

So Vorster came to Windhoek to meet the Lutheran leaders and bring them back into line.

After the meeting one of the German missionaries serving with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Pastor Hans-Ludwig Althaus, invited a number of people from other denominations to listen to a tape of the meeting of the Lutheran leaders with Vorster. Vorster did not know it was being recorded, and if the SB (Security Police) had been aware of the existence of the recording they would no doubt have confiscated it.

So we went, like Nicodemus, by night, secretly for fear of the SB, to Pastor Althaus’s house and listened to the tape.

The tape was quite fascinating, and very revealing. Vorster berated them for saying that the police were torturing people in Ovamboland, saying that this was a general accusation, and they should give him specific instances, so that he could deal with the rogue policemen concerned. Bishop Auala then named an
example, and Vorster said, “But that’s an isolated case.” Then Pastor Rieh, another German missionary,  astounded me by saying that they were not talking about isolated cases, but an apparatus, with which police stations were equipped, for giving electric shocks. Vorster rapidly changed the subject. I was surprised at Rieh saying this, and boldly too, because had previously struck me as a government yes man.

That was in October 1971. In December 1971 Pastor Althaus and his family were deported from Namibia, and returned to Germany. I think that was the first time a Lutheran leader had been deported from Namibia.

The Althaus family, deported from Namibia in December 1971

And, back to the present, here is this ex-SB man telling in open court, and broadcast on TV, about this apparatus, and how it was used  And he told us how they dealt with the “rogue policemen” that Vorster spoke of — they had a “sweeper”, someone whose job it was to make sure that these policemen never got into trouble.

And when he described John Vorster Square, the SB Joburg headquarters,  that was more deja vu. Actually his description left out some of the things that struck me most when I was called to see Lieutenant Jordaan in Auguat 1968. I had had an appointment to see a Detective Sergeant van den Heever at the SB headquarters at The Grays in 1966, but got on a plane to England instead, and so did not keep the appointment. The SB had moved, however, to its new purpose-built offices in John Vorster Square, where Ahmed Timol was held.

So I went to this new building in Commissioner Street, next to the new freeway bridge, and just up the road from the JMT bus garage. I went into the building, and looked at the lifts in the foyer, but they did not seem to go to the floor I needed to get to. I asked at the counter, and they told me to go down a little narrow passageway at the side, and there was another lift there, a small one. And it too did not seem to go to the floor I needed to be at, but they had said at the counter that I must go there anyway. So I pressed the button and the lift went up to the 9th floor, and when the door opened there was a bloke at a desk. He asked me who I wanted to see, and if I had an appointment, and he phoned and checked, and then said I must get back in the lift, and he would send me up to the 11th floor. So I got back in the lift,
and got sent up two floors — there was no way of getting there from inside the lift, it was controlled from outside.

There were more checks and I went down a passage with three hefty strongroom doors, and eventually I met Lieutenant Jordaan. He had my file on his desk, and it was about 8-9 inches thick. He asked me questions about where I lived, and who had access, and all the rest of the questions to be asked of a person for whom a banning order was required.

At one point he left me alone in the room whole he went out, and I wondered if they were watching on CCTV to see if I would try to open the file or do something with it, so I didn’t, but I did read the heading on the form he was filling in with my answers.

And zip back to the present, and from what this Erasmus bloke said in court yesterday, I’m pretty sure Lieutenant Jordaan did deliberately leave me alone in the room to see what I would do when his back was turned. So now, nearly 50 years later, we catch glimpses of what was going on backstage during the apartheid dog and pony show.

Neoinklings: Tolkien in South Africa

At 10:30 we went to Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road for our monthly Literary Coffee Klatsch of Neoinklings, and David Levey joined us to inkle, as he put it. It seemed a rather felicitous term.

He told us of a thesis someone had written, or was writing, on Tolkien’s South African connections, and we had a rather discursive discussion about that — Tolkien had left South Africa when he was 3 or 4, and as far as I know he never returned. Most of one’s memories of that age seem to be a series of still pictures. I recalled Leo Aylen, a poet who was the son of a former Anglican bishop of Zululand, who visited there about 35 years ago. He said the Australian aborigines had a concept of early childhood as one’s dream time, and he was revisiting the scenes of his dream time to give him something to write about.

Goanikontes, Namibia

Goanikontes, Namibia

We talked of the landscape — the Free State, where Tolkien was born, seems to be like the land of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings, and Val said that Goanikontes, in the Namib desert, was like Mordor though it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have visited it. Goanikontes had been where Val’s great great great grandparents, Frank and Frances Stewardson, had lived for a while, in the 1850s, and it may have been there that Frank Stewardson had been mauled by a lion.

We talked about the identity, or lack of it, of white English-speaking South Africans. It will be interesting to see if the thesis mentions whether Tolkien had such an identity, but generally speaking white English-speaking South Africans do not have a distinctive identity or a distinct culture. There is no consciousness of being a “volk”, like the Afrikaners. Though one could put them in a Venn diagram, it would be far less significant than a set of white Afrikaans -speaking South Africans, or Zulu or Tswana-speaking South Africans. I mentioned a friend who had recently written of “we”, referring to white South Africans, and that I find that to be one of the primary markers of racism, using “we” to refer to a group defined by race, and “they” or “these people” to refer to the outgroup. David said that John Lambert, one of the former history lecturers at Unisa, was writing about white English-speaking South Africans, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

He also mentioned that the history department at Unisa has now been reduced to one lecturer, which is very sad, and does not augur well for the future of South Africa — all of history before 1994 will, in effect, become dream time, and labelled “Van Riebeeck”.

 

Inside Quatro: ANC and Swapo prison camps

Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPOInside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO by Paul Trewhela
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s taken me nearly six years to read this book. It’s about prison camps run by the ANC and Swapo, mostly in Angola and Zambia, in which party dissidents were detained without trial, and sometimes tortured. The book consists mainly of essays reprinted from a publication called Searchlight South Africa edited by the author, Paul Trewhela, and his colleague Baruch Hirson, both of whom had been jailed for anti-apartheid activities in South Africa.

The articles, it seemed to me, varied greatly in quality, and that was one reason it took me so long to read it. Another reason was that there seemed to be no way of verifying the claims that are made, and so I didn’t really feel competent to write a review — so let anyone reading this review beware.

Some of the articles seemed factual, and thus believable, while others seemed to be much more tendentuious. The title, too, is misleading. It is not the exile history of the ANC and Swapo — that has yet to be written, or maybe it has been, but I haven’t seen it. There were some things I knew a bit more about — churches in Namibia, for example — but Trewhela dealt with a period after I had been deported from Namibia, and so was out of touch. But again, it did seem to be very patchy and incomplete. In part that is because of the nature of the material.The articles were all topical articles in a magazine, and so could not really be expected to provide a comprehensive history.

I was initially put off be a couple of the early articles, which had “Stalinist” in almost every paragraph, to describe the ANC. Paul Trewhela had been a member of the South African Communist Party, which was inclined to be Stalinist. He left it and became a Trotskyist, and I had read somewhere that many of the American Neocons who had pushed the US into war in the early years of the century had originally been Trotskyists, and some of the early essays seemed to lend support to that thesis. They seemed to be the kind of thing the National Party government would say to try to discredit the ANC and Swapo as “communist”. So I put the book aside, and only picked it up occasionally to read another of the essays.

The later ones generally seem better than the earlier ones, but there is no way of determining how accurate they are without a great deal of historical research, and that is the kind of research that I would prefer to leave to others. I’m interested in writing about periods that I do know something about, where I have at least some first-hand knowledge.
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10th Anniversary of Notes from Underground blog

It’s ten years since I started this blog, which I’ve kept going more or less continuously since then.

It was the day that we got an ADSL broadband connection to the Internet, instead of dial-up, with a whole 2 Gigabytes monthly allowance, so for the first time I browsed the Web instead of just going to a specific site, looking at what I needed to look at, and logging off. And in doing that I encountered the Blogger site, and so started this blog on a whim, because Blogger looked easy to use.

I already had three online journals, so I thought starting a new one was an extravagance, but Blogger looked easier to use than the others — you could just start typing stuff. The others had a much clunkier user interface. The LiveJournal one is still there, though I don’t use it much any more.  I was introduced to that by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, who still blogs there, and what he writes is always worth reading. One of the nice things about LiveJournal is that you can have “friends”, whose journals can be presented to you in a continuous feed, so you can see what they have written. You can see my LiveJournal friends feed here. The other online journals were on Yahoo 360 (long since killed by Yahoo), and something called MyDiary, which had the clunkiest user interface of all.

But Blogger had a streamlined user interface that made it easy to just write thoughts down — ideas that you wanted to share and discuss with people, half-baked ideas that you wanted other people to help you bake by commenting on them, adding to them, or even shooting them down.

When I started this blog on Blogger I didn’t even know what to say, but a blog is supposed to be, first of all, a web log, a log of web sites visited, so I wrote about a site for finding old friends, and you can see the first post here Notes from underground: Seek and ye shall find, And yes, the “Reverse People Finder” I wrote about is still there, and you can still use it.

You may have noticed that this post is not on the original site. blogspot.com, and that is because quite soon after I started blogging there, Google, who had taken over Blogger, began messing with the blog editor, and it suddenly became a lot more difficult to use, and lots of things didn’t work any more. In 2006 there was a mass migration of bloggers from Blogger to the WordPress platform, and I started a blog on WordPress, called Khanya, just to be on the safe side. At first it was there as a kind of emergency fallback, in case Blogger became completely unusable, but then I began using it for different things, so the two blogs continued side by side. Eventually the Blogger editor stabilised, and I continued to use it for quick ‘n dirty posts. One major difference was that WordPress allowed you to use captions on pictures, but Blogger made it easier to add pictures without captions.

So it continued until Google began messing with the Blogger editor again, which you can read about here Notes from underground: Blogger’s new user-hostile interface and other atrocities. So I moved the whole blog over to WordPress, and all was well until WordPress began messing with their editor and introduced the new Beep Beep Boop one, which I found completely unusable, and at one point, when they hid the old editor so I could not find it, I began using the old site again. Bad as the new Blogger editor was, it was still better than the new WordPress one. Eventually I found where WordPress had hidden the old editor, and though it is a schlep to find, at least it is still there.

Unless your a dedicated blogger, you probably haven’t got this far, because of all that boring stuff about blog writing software. One result of the deterioration of blogging software is that people have been abandoning blogs and prefer to use sites like Facebook. It’s a pity, because there are many things for which blogs are a much better medium than sites like Facebook. For one thing you can easily find stuff again, even years later, whereas on Facebook you can spend half an hour looking for something that was posted five minutes before, and anything more than 3 days old is gone forever.

There was something else to record on this day 10 years ago. We were visited by an old friend, Trevor Stone. I didn’t blog about that at the time, so I’ll add it here. I knew Trevor from Namibia in the early 1970s. He had come from the UK as a volunteer to work at the Anglican mission at Odibo in Ovamboland as a mechanic maintaining the church  vehicles.

Monday 28 November 2005

Trevor Stone, Pretoria, 28 Nov 2005

Trevor Stone, Pretoria, 28 Nov 2005

Trevor Stone came to see us. He brought news of people from Namibia that I had not heard, and has remained active in support of the work of the Anglican Church there. I learned that Nestor Kakonda, who in the early 1970s had been secretary of St Mary’s Mission, had been killed in a South African raid on Cassinga in Angola, during the wars there. Trevor collected books about Namibian history, and collected information especially about the Kwanyama people and their history. He was arranging for collections of Kwanyama artifacts in Britain to be photographed, so that they could be sent to the University of Namibia and schools there, to be available to students so they could know their own history.

 

 

Growing up in apartheid South Africa (book review)

The Persistence of MemoryThe Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa — a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.

I would like to be able to say that this book “tells it like it was” in the same way that Andre Brink‘s A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,

The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks. Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn’t his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Makhana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.

At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that is central to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent memory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.

If the protagonist’s memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist’s memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from “telling it like it is”, the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet‘s The Balcony.

So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three.

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Thunder on the Blaauwberg

Thunder on the BlaauwbergThunder on the Blaauwberg by Lawrence G. Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this family), and indeed chapter 3, with the title “Blood Royal”, is all about Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and his lover Julie de St Laurent, whom he had to give up when he needed to make a suitable marriage tio produce an heir to the throne.

So far, so good. But the story is that the prince and Julie had a son, William Goodall Gteen, who was the ancestor of the Green family in South Africa. Unfortunately that is not so. The full story is told by Mollie Gillen in her book The Prince and his Lady. William Goodall Green was born in 1790 in Quebec, a year before Edward and Julie had ever set foot in Canada; his father was William Goodall, a London businessman, and his mother was Eliza Green, the daughter of a Quebec butcher. Green tells some fascinating stories, but at the most significant points this one is untrue. I’ve covered this in more detail here: Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Another chapter, about a British spy in German South West Africa, mentions another mystery of our family history. The spy was Alexander Patterson Scotland, manager of a store on the border between the Cape Colony and German South West Africa. The Namas and Hereros rebelled against the Germans, and one of the leaders of the rebels was Abraham Morris, who was known to Scotland, and Lawrence G. Green tells something of his story in in chapter 6, “Hauptmann Schottland”. Abraham Morris was also related though we are not sure how yet, and that is one of the problems we are working on in our current family history research.

I’ve read several of Lawrence G. Green’s books, and most of them deal with stories of interesting characters or places, many of whom featured in news stories of their day, or sometimes rumours — stories of outlaws like Scotty Smith, guerrilla fighters like Abraham Morris, spies like Alexander Scotland and many more. This one includes a diamond prospector, Solomon Rabinowitz, a visionary theorist of time, John William Dunne, a legenderay escaper and others. But the second half ofr the book was rather disappointing, where Green doesn’t focus of people and places, and goes into themes, like tastes, sounds and smells of Africa, where he jumps from one place to another, and the story becomes rather fragmented.

As I said at the beginning, some of Green’s stories, like the “Blood Royal” one, have been debunked, and most need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he is a marvellous raconteur, and they are enjoyable reads, even if the history is sometimes doubtful.

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Christian martyrs in the 21st century

I’ve seen claims on some web sites and postings on Facebook and other social media sites of huge numbers of Christian martyrs in the 21st century, usually without anything to substantiate the numbers claimed.

Now it seems that someone has investigated the claimed figures: BBC Statistics Programme Disputes “100,000 Christian Martyrs Each Year” Claim Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion:

John Allen, author of The Global War on Christians, explained that martyrdom referred to “a situation of witness”. A martyr is not just someone who is killed for holding Christian beliefs; it can be someone who is killed because their beliefs prompt them to acts of moral courage that put them in danger. Allen gives the example of a woman killed in Congo for persuading young people not to join to militias, which is fair enough – but it’s difficult to see how this can be extrapolated to all Christian victims of the war.

According to Bartholomew’s article, the inflated figures are arrived at by counting all Christian war casualties as martyrs, in such conflicts as the Congo civil war.

It’s not just the inflated figures that disturb me, however, but it’s rather the whinging attitude that seems to lie behind them.

Butovo Martyrs

Butovo Martyrs

There were probably more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in any other century in history. That was because there were ideologies like Bolshevism that promoted atheism, and persecuted not only Christians, but Jews, Muslims and Buddhists as well. Many Christians died in such events as the Butovo Massacres, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been going through the historical records and documenting as many instances as possible. Closer to home there were the martyrs of Epinga in Namibia, whose story both state and church tried to suppress.

Many Christians have died as martyrs in the current civil war in Syria, and in other 21st-century conflicts in the region, xso there have been many Christian martyrs in the 21st century, though probably not as many as some have claimed.

I can think of two good reasons for publicising martyrdom, one secular and the other eternal.

The secular reason is that it draws attention to the need for freedom of religion protected by law.

In South Africa we now have freedom of religion protected by law. Before 1994 we did not, and many Christians were persecuted for their faith, both in South Africa itself and in South African-ruled Namibia. The Epinga martyrs were one instance of this.

Chinese Martyrs

Chinese Martyrs

One of the things that arises from this is that the response to instances of violent death can show what values really motivate people.

A couple of months ago there was a terrorist occupation of a shopping mall in Kenya. In the same week there were also the bombing of a Christian church in Pakistan, and violent attacks on travellers in Nigeria. The Western media chose to hype the first incident and play down the others, barely mentioning them at all, in spite of the fact that more people were killed in those incidents than in the attack on the Kenyan shopping mall.

One is tempted to say that this was because the attack on the shopping mall was an attack on the established religion of the West — Mammonism. People tend to give more prominence to the things that interest them.

But Christians are no exception to this tendency, it seems. Christians complained about the bombing of Christian churches in Kosovo, but a number of mosques were also bombed there. A policy of religious freedom benefits all,

From the secular point of view, then violence against people because of their religious views, or any other characteristic, is seen as a bad thing. In some countries it has created a new legal category — the “hate crime”. And, if they are fair, such laws should cover xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, Antisemitism and Christianophobia equally. And I think it is right that Christians should point out the evil of such acts of violence and other human rights abuses.

But in the light of eternity, Christians have a different approach.

Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you,
and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice and be exceedingly glad:
for great is your reward in heaven.

In the light of that, Christian whinging about persecution, whether actual or merely perceived, seems inappropriate. Perhaps a more excellent way can be found here: Redeeming the past: a journey from freedom fighter to healer | Khanya

Across northern Namibia

This post is part of a photoblog of a holiday trip we took to Botswana and Namibia in May 2013. You can see a list of all the posts here, and this one is continued from Ovamboland, Namibia 17-20 May 2013, with flashbacks to the 1970s | Khanya.

Old road from Odibo to Oshikango

Old road from Odibo to Oshikango

We left Odibo at about 8:30 am on Monday 20 May, and took the old road to Oshikango, which was less car-shaking than the new one we had used before, and gave better views of the countryside, with more rural scenery. But it also went into a part of Oshikango with a market of corrugated iron shacks, new and shiny and galvanised, but ugly as sin. It looked even worse than Albania.

Oshikango - now a bustling commercial centre and  entrepôt

Oshikango – now a bustling commercial centre

Oshikango was much bigger than I remembered it, in fact I hardly remembered it at all, having passed through it only once in daylight, and then as quickly and unobtrusively as possible, to avoid being seen by the police, since I had no permit to be there. It seemed to be a brash frontier town, with big 26-wheelers queuing up to cross the border into Angola, and even that early people rushing around everywhere. Lots of shops had trilingual signs, in English, Portuguese and Kwanyama.

A busy entrepôt, but is it worth the price of autarky?

A busy entrepôt, but is it worth the price of autarky?

In some ways all this economic activity is a sign of prosperity and progress, but it is also a mixed blessing, and I can’t help thinking that the loss of the old autarky is the loss of something that was valuable. The locally-grown food was nutritious, and 40 years ago Ovamboland was one of the few rural areas in southern Africa where there was no malnutition. People went outside Ovamboland to work for cash to buy luxury items like radios and sewing machines to take back home. There was no need at all to import food. The local diet may have been boring but it was nutritious. In 1969 a deacon, Petrus Nandi, 90 years old, came to Windhoek for a synod, and he spoke of two things that struck him about his first visit to the city: magazine articles and pictures showing the first moon landing, and the first time he had tasted ice cream in his long life.

Now people buy food in Ovamboland, and there are supermarkets of the big chains like Shoprite there. What they buy is not local, but all imported from elsewhere. So there was the old boring but nutitious diet, and the new advantage of being able to buy junk food. And most of the economic activity seems to be service industries. Most of it doesn’t seem to be stuff that anyone makes, but buying and selling stuff that other people make. There were also signs of the growing Chinese influence and trade in Africa.

Growing Chinese trade in Africa

Growing Chinese trade in Africa: they sell their stuff in Ovamboland, but what do they buy there?

We saw only one petrol station, which seemed surprising for such a busy place, and went there to fill up for the trip to Rundu. Either their card machine was not working, or we had a problem with our cards, and we had to scrape together what cash we had between us to pay for the petrol, and left, somewhat relieved to do so. The place was just too frenetic and not conducive to a relaxing holiday.

The endless highway, crossing northern Namibia from west to east

The endless highway, crossing northern Namibia from west to east

We drove about 14 kilometres on the road to Ondangwa, which was becoming quite familiar now, and then turned off to Eenhana and Rundu, along a fairly new tarred road (on our map it was still marked as a gravel road). After a while we left the urban sprawl behind, and passed a few traditional Ovambo homesteads, though many of them had one or two square houses in them, and some had the fences made partly or wholly of wire and old corrugated iron.
sheets.

Ovamboland rural homestead

Ovamboland rural homestead

At Eenhana there were two large shopping malls, both looking brand new, and not much else. Perhaps the cash economy came here more recently, or perhaps it is because Eenhana is the capital of the Ohangwena Region, and they are expecting an influx of civil servants. Looking at the map, the Ohangwena Region seems to cover the part of Ukwanyama that lies in Namibia (as opposed to Angola), and is probably where most of the Anglicans in Namibia live.

Ovambo fences

Ovambo fences

We stopped to draw money from an ATM, so Val’s card still worked at least, to buy cold drinks for the journey, and went on eastwards, travelling quite slowly. Though the road was dead straight, without the gentle curves of the Trans-Kalahari Highway, it was still interesting, with gradual changes in vegetation, and passing through occasional villages, most of which had several of the shiny galvanised iron buildings, which must be horribly hot in summer.

Modern Ovambo village

Modern Ovambo village

As we travelled the day got cooler and rather overcast. We passed Okongo, the last Ovambo village marked on the map, and thereafter there was much less traffic, though we still saw cattle along the way, showing that the country was not entirely uninhabited. It was probably the western end of the Kavango region.

Ovambo cattle

Ovambo cattle

We stopped a couple of times to take photos of the different kinds of vegetation, and the sitplekkies at the side of the road, which, unlike South African ones, were invariably immaculately clean.

Roadside sitplekkie in northern Namibia - much cleaner than their South African (or Botswana) counterparts

Roadside sitplekkie in northern Namibia – much cleaner than their South African (or Botswana) counterparts

At one point we came to a confusing crossroads, with a sign showing Nkurenkuru to the left, and Tsumeb to the right, and we didn’t want to go to either place, as Nkurenkuru was shown on the map as way off to the north of the road. We nevertheless took that road, and eventually concluded that when it had been tarred, the whole road had been moved further to the north.

Roadside vegetation in northern Namibia. The variety is endless

Roadside vegetation in northern Namibia. The variety is endless

After that, about 140 km from Rundu, the country opened out, and looked very similar to the parts north of Pretoria, the less urbanised parts of the former KwaNdebele “homeland”. There were more traditional dwellings than in Ovamboland, and also some bars and shebeens with fanciful names, but they looked somehow more mellow and part of the landscape, and there were fewer of them, though perhaps that was an effect of the overcast weather. One of the most memorable was the “Best Gloomy House”, but we did not stop to take a photo of it.

Flat-bottomed trees found right across northern Namibia. Do they grow like that naturally, or is the bottom just the height that goats cannot reach?

Flat-bottomed trees found right across northern Namibia. Do they grow like that naturally, or is the bottom just the height that goats cannot reach?

At times we got glimpses of the Okavango river in its shallow valley to the north, with Angola on the other side. The vegetation changed occasionally, and at one point there were a lot of tall palm trees.

We speculated about what Rundu would be like when we got there. I had last seen it 44 years ago, when it was a civil service town, with a police station, a magistrates office, and a few other government officials and the main means of communication with the outside world was radio — it was only a couple of years later that the telephone line was opened, with a great fanfare of publicity and press releases. So I thought it might look like Giyani in South Africa, back in 1985, when we had last been there, or possibly like Oshikango. Val thought it might be like Tsumeb. In the end it turned out to be a bit like Oshikango, with uneven Albanian-type streets with drive-through potholes, and horrendous traffic jams, as half the garages seemed to have run out of petrol, and everyone was queuing to get to the other ones, and the main street was blocked to traffic while it was being rebuilt. It has also rained earlier in the afternoon, so the streets were muddy as well as crowded. It turned out that it was payday for civil servants, which was probably why everyone was in town to do their shopping and fill up with petrol. The rain was welcome, but too little and too late. There has been a devastating drought in Namibia this year.

When the first telephone landline to Rundu had been opened, in about 1971, at a cost of R200000, only about ten or 20 people there had telephones. I was then working on the Windhoek Advertiser, where the chief reporter was J.M. Smith, commonly known as Smittie (it was said that the initials stood for “Jakkals Mal”), the craziest journalist south of the equator. The opening of the telephone line was front-page news for the Advertiser, and two weeks later Smittie had occasion to use it. It was said that a white man at Rundu had been charged with illegal hunting, and Smittie was trying to get the story. As the only whites in Rundu were civil servants, who all knew each other, they weren’t keen to answer questions from the press, and the line went dead. Smittie tried again to get the operator in Rundu, and yelled “Hellooo! Helllooo! Just say hello and at least we’ll be communicating.” He muttered, as an aside to those in the office, “Two hundred thousand rand we spend on this blerrie thing and you can’t even say ‘Hello'”. Then he tried again to reach the Rundu operator. “When I reach the hereafter there is one thing I will hear echoing in the distance, ‘Hellooooo, hellooooo, hellooooo.”

And now Rundu has its very own traffic jams. That’s progress for you.

We had booked to stay at the Kaisosi River Lodge, about 7 km outside Rundu, overlooking the river. Of all the commercial establishments we stayed at on our journey, it was the best.

Our chalet at Kaisosi River Lodge, Rundu

Our chalet at Kaisosi River Lodge, Rundu

We arrived about sunset, and we watched a professional photographer (we assumed) filming a group of people crossing and recrossing the river in dugout canoes. He would keep telling them to do it again, so he could reshoot the sequence — presumably they were paid extras. We took advantage of it to take photos of our own.

Crossing the Okavango River from Angola to Namibia, for the benefit of the photographer

Crossing the Okavango River from Angola to Namibia, for the benefit of the photographer

As we did at most of the commercial places we stayed in Namibia, we left some BookCrossing books, and, for the first time in the 10 years we’ve been participating in BookCrossing, someone picked up one of the books and responded — Ricochet | BookCrossing.com.

For anyone interested, the story of our journey down the Okavango continues at Drowning in the Okavango: in the steps (and wake) of the brothers Green | Hayes & Greene family history

In the Etosha National Park 15-17 May 2013

We spent a couple of days at the Etosha National Park on the way north to Ovamboland. We drove north from the Sasa Safari Lodge through Outjo, with many of the tall north-leaning anthills found in this part of Namibia, with lots of mopane trees. In one place the trees had been cleared, and it looked as though someone was farming anthills, as they seemed to be planted in neat rows. There was also a sign of the changing landscape and a changing world – telephone poles stretching into the distance with not a wire left on them, as cell phones take over the world.

The changing landscape -- a disgth that will soon disappear -- landline telephone poles

Documenting the changing landscape — a sight that will soon disappear — landline telephone poles in northern Namibia

On the way our little Toyota Yaris reached the 200000 km mark, and we stopped to take photos of it on the endless flat road.

Our little Toyota Yaris passed the 200000 km mark between Outjo and the Etosha National Park

Our little Toyota Yaris passed the 200000 km mark between Outjo and the Etosha National Park

We entered the Etosha National Park at the Anderson or Andersson Gate (the spelling varies on maps), and I wondered if it had been named after C.J. Anderson, the Swedish naturalist and trader in these parts, who was a friend and partner of Fred Green, Val’s Great great grandfather, the elephant hunter. Most of what we know of Fred Green’s life comes from Andersson’s letters and diaries.

We stayed at the Halali resort, the middle of three on the southern “shore” of the pan, with Okaukuejo about 75 km to the west, and Namutoni about 75 km to the east. One has to book well in advance, and when we booked the only accommodation available was a “family chalet”, at the highest point in the camp, so we had a good view and a choice of two bedrooms.

Our "family chalet" at Halali camp in the Etosha National Park, Namibia

Our “family chalet” at Halali camp in the Etosha National Park, Namibia

It had been a dry year, and so the animals tended to congregate in great numbers at waterholes that were fed by boreholes, and the one that seemed to have most of the animals most of the time was Nebrownii, about 10 km east of Okaukuejo. There were always large herds of zebras, springbok, and gemsbok drinking there. drink. It was interesting to see how they all walked sedately and orderly in single file. The first time we went there a young zebra foal was amusing itself by running around and chasing the springbok, looking like a sheepdog herding sheep, though less purposefully.

Springbok, gemsbok and zebra at Nebrownii waterhold near Okaukuejo, Etosha National Park

Springbok, gemsbok and zebra at Nebrownii waterhole near Okaukuejo, Etosha National Park

At the Rietfontien waterhole near Halali we saw a rhino, the only one we saw in our time at Etosha, It was a white rhino. When I lived in Namibia 40 years ago there were no white rhino in the country. They were then an endangered species, with a couple of small hers in Natal. Brack rhino, on the other hand, were plentiful in northern Namibia. A huge effort by the Natal Parks Board saved the white rhinos, and exported them all over the continent, and then black rhino became an endangerted species. Now both are endangered species, as poachers kill them indiscrtiminately because some people in Asia believe (falsely) that rhino horn is an aphrodisac, and are prepared to pay huge prices for powdered rhino horn when they could achieve exactly the same result by chewing their own fingernails. As Val said,m it is sad that the white rhinos have had toi be saved from extinction twice in one’s lifetime.

White rhino at Rietfontein waterhole near Halali in the Etosha National Park

White rhino at Rietfontein waterhole near Halali in the Etosha National Park

On Wednesday morning (16 May), we spent the whole day driving around the south-western end of the Etosha Pan, which is about 50 km from north to south, and 100 km from east to west.

Etosha Pan looking north-west from Salvadora

Etosha Pan looking north-west from Salvadora

As we approached Nebrownii from Halali, there were some vehicles stopped on a culvert on the main road a little way from the waterhole, where there were also several elephants. Some were white from having sprayed sand over themselves. Someone said that there were lions at the culvert, and indeed at one point they ran out, and then went back under the culvert. We went on to the waterhole, and the elephants moved away, some black and some white, from the dust they had sprayed over themselves. The springbok at the waterhole were obviously aware of the lions, and kept glancing nervously in the direction of the culvert, and we wondered if the lions would rush out and try to grab one of them, but they did not.

Black and white elephants

Black and white elephants

When the elephants had gone we went back to the culvert where we had seen the lions, but they were well-hidden under the road. Then a bus came, stopped over the culvert and revved its engine, and the lions came bounding out to see what was going on. The bus moved on, and the lions went back under the culvert, but we got a couple of photos of them. It made the advice to stay in one’s car all the more impressive — it would be quite easy to stop and get out there, thinking that there were no animals around, while in fact there could be a whole pride of lions under one’s feet, and they could come bounding out with amazing speed.

Lions emerging from a culvert near Nebrownii waterhole in the Etosha National Park

Lions emerging from a culvert near Nebrownii waterhole in the Etosha National Park

We went on to Okondeka, on the western side of the pan north of Oklaukuejo, and there was a pied crow perched on the stone marking the spot, and a couple of giraffes drinking, rather far off, with the pan shimmering in the background. The Namibian giraffes seem to be darker in colour than the South African ones.

Pied crow

Pied crow

At the restaurant at Halali mosr of the tables were on a covered veranda, and a couple of glossy starlings would perch in the rafters watching to see when people left a table. Then they would call, and flocks of starlings would appear from nowhere, steaching for leftover crumbs before the waitress cleared the table. On one occasion a couple of people left half-eaten muffins on the table, and went inside to get coffee, and the starlings came to grab the muffins, but a waitress appeared and shooed them away.

Starlings grab food from unwary diners at Halali camp

Starlings grab food from unwary diners at Halali camp

We passed a herd of red hartebeest on the way back to Halali.

Red hartebeest (tsessebe). When your face is butt-ugly, you turn your best side to the camera

Red hartebeest (tsessebe). When your face is butt-ugly, you turn your best side to the camera

On our last day in the Etosha National Park we had breakfast and left Halali at 6:34 am, and went to a viewpoint out on the pan, which was reminiscent of crossing the causeway to Holy Island, at Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. Once out on the pan, however, one became completely disoriented, and the horizion, which must have been 30-40 kilometres away seemed no more than a couple of hundred metres away, up a steep hill, and it looked as if one was at the bottom of a conical depression, because there was nothing to establish perspective or distance, so the horizon looked quite close.

This picture can give a small idea of the illusion of the pan -- if you scan the hotizon from lkeft to right, the horizon appears to come closer, and the flat surface looks like a sloping dune. The effect is much more pronounced when you are out on the pan

This picture can give a small idea of the illusion of the pan — if you scan the horizon from left to right, the horizon appears to come closer, and the flat surface looks like a sloping dune. The effect is much more pronounced when you are out on the pan

In some of the photos we had taken with the pan as a background it looked like a wall. Looking back to the shore there would be a line of green vegetation, but looking north, towards the opposite shore, was completely disorienting. We drove on towards Namutoni, and as we approached it began to see anthills again. We had not seen any since entering the park at the Anderson Gate, and there were none around Halali or Okaukueyo.

Gemsbok in the Etosha National Park

Gemsbok in the Etosha National Park

This is part of a series of posts on our journey through Namibia and Botswana in May 2013. You can read the previous post in the series here.

From Etosha we went on to Ovamboland, Namibia 17-20 May 2013, with flashbacks to the 1970s | Khanya

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