Namibia! Why the exclamation point?
It has an end-of-the-earth quality to it.
In general, and plenty of times on this trip, we make lists of “most x” or “best y” or rate things 0-10, such as how much each of us likes a city, a building, a movie, with each person settling on her or his rating before we successively reveal it, and then proceed to explain, compare, and discuss. The contenders for most-end-of-the-earth quality places we’ve been turned out to be Iceland outside Reykjavik and not-even-so-northern Finland. Namibia easily joins their ranks: It’s out of the way, at the southwestern edge of Africa. It hasn’t attracted too many people, being the second emptiest (population density) country in the world. And it has the feel, with a vast (drive for hours without seeing any habitation or another soul, except in another occasional SUV), nearly barren desert landscape, offering otherworldy features, most notable among them being the dunescape of the Namib desert.
We did not for a moment think that Namibia might be a fine place to transplant ourselves, self-styled cosmopolitans that we are, and the country suffers many social and economic problems (Gini Coefficient rivaling South Africa), but when it came to rate our time there, it received two 9s and one 10 (from tough raters)! Exclamation point again. Part of why our sense of Namibia did not get dragged down (South African style) certainly was because we may have lucked out and simply not encountered the country’s worst features. But we did spend time in and around Windhoek, the capital and largest city, and in and around Walvis Bay/Swakopmund, the country’s second largest metro area, and, on the lookout as we were, we saw nothing like the horrifying social, spatial, built environmental, and economic soft-apartheid which is the calling card of South Africa — even though Namibia was for decades under the thumb of and even occupied by apartheidist South Africa, with all the racist horrors that that meant, and even though Whites own the bulk of the wealth of the country. We didn’t go to the more fertile northeast, where the poverty of subsistence farming should be more apparent but we nonetheless saw plenty of the country.
What we saw charmed us. Windhoek is a small capitol city inland, both sleepy and bustling, that seems open and orderly.
There, as elsewhere, Blacks are not merely workers or underlings to white bosses, or serving exclusively white clienteles, but are also bosses and supervisors and customers all in the same, even upscale, establishments. The sidewalks and streets are clean and well maintained, the people, with welcoming faces, smartly dressed. We were particularly attentive to the housing on the outskirts, where we presumed less well-off Blacks live, which though small in size, is manifestly of a better character and quality than the many slums and townships we saw in South Africa. It’s hard not to get race-on-the-brain when in South Africa and its spheres of influence. Enough for now.
Swakopmund is a small beach city of several distinctions.
Cooler and beachier, it appears to be the second-home, getaway for the Windhoek well-to-do. It is a tourist destination in Namibia, billing itself with help from guidebooks, as a world-class extreme sport mecca (skydiving, dune-buggy riding, etc.). It is a quaint city of German colonial architecture, in good condition, which lends it the best kind of historic-but-still-up-to-date atmosphere. And it is the home of one of the restaurants with the best gluten-free offerings we have encountered.
Yes, Namibia was until its defeat in World War I, Germany’s colony of South West Africa. There is much to say about that, but I will mention only that the Germans carried out an eliminationist onslaught against the Herero and Nama peoples, exterminating them in a most brazen way, including by publicly and seemingly proudly announcing that they would do so. Swakopmund reminded me of all this (not that I needed a reminder), including in two unexpected ways.
There is a blood-spattered monument in the center of town commemorating the German soldiers that died during the exterminationist slaughter, listing the battles of their heroism. And, reminiscent of the many German firms that were “founded” in the late thirties when their owners bought Jewish-owned firms for a song, many of the Swakopmundian German colonial-era buildings, especially the once-institutional ones, proudly announce the year of their construction, with 1906 and 1907 being prominent numerals. When the Germans finally solved their “Herero Problem” mainly in 1904-05 by slaughtering them, Germans could finally feel comfortable to invest and develop their colonial jewel. Sarah, I gather will be writing more about Swakopmund, which, by the way, was dominated tourist-wise by Germans during our visit. There’s no reason that Germans shouldn’t visit, and Germans — with vacation-time, resources, and curiosity in abundance — are champion travelers in general, so their visibility in Namibia, a former German colony, should not be remarkable. (On the other hand, it was a century ago.) Yet their overwhelming presence made me, attuned to these matters as I am, wonder: How much do they know? And (with this question, I don’t mean to imply approval of any kind), what do they think?
Then there are the various stunning landscapes, including the Namib dunes.