"You must forget to move forward"
The last night in Namibia, we were invited to a traditional meal in the Apartheid-era township of Katatura, a place whose very name translates loosely to "the place where you don't want to be." Dinner that night consisted of all kinds of unique tastes, such as goat head, tripe, chicken feet, and a healthy dose of Windhoek Lager, the town's surprisingly good beer.
Joining us were a cross section of community leaders, electeds & government officials. More than a handful were former Freedom Fighters, and I ended up spending time with one such man, who by this time wholly responsible for my elevated blood alcohol level. He eagerly told the stories of pictures on the wall from that era, and as a white man, I listened uncomfortably as described being beaten by South African police. Remarkable, he bore no sense of ill will. So I asked - how do you move on, to which he says, "you must forget to move forward."
This is a place where bad things happened - and not that long ago. Yet in 25 years since independence, they've built a country that is safe, functional and growing.
The City of Windhoek symbolizes that growth. At the time of independence, 80,000 called it home. Today official population is 320,000 - though driving around, it's much bigger. One city official pegged as "probably over 400k."
The city is clean, public services are delivered efficiently, the police are trusted, and it's very competently run. Yet the challenges there are remarkable. Several hundred people a week move into the informal settlements, fleeing the rural areas in search of work. With each new arrival, the city must absorb them, provide security as well as basic water & sewage. And the scope of their work here is immense, Windhoek itself is one of the world's largest cities in terms of geography, and a classic case of urban sprawl.
But like everyone else here, they just seem to figure it out.
The CEO of the city is another Apartheid-era freedom fighter, a former school teacher who went to college after independence when he was 40. He is a self described technocrat, though the word is an unfair descriptor: he was easily one of the more charismatic people I spoke with.
He summed up Namibia's progress & challenges in one sentence: "We've spent 25 years building a country, now we must build a nation."
You can see where it could fall apart. 90 percent of the wealth is held by 10 percent of residents, and not surprisingly, that falls largely on racial lines. As the Prime Minister described it: "we are a rich country of poor people." Unemployment is over 20 percent, and over 40 percent among youth. Housing costs are shockingly high: a three bedroom in Windhoek can cost $3 million Namibian, or roughly $250k in the US - arguably more pricey than my community of Tallahassee, despite being a nation where per capita income would fall at about 70% of the US poverty line. Gender-based violence is a major issue. Way too many people have HIV. Access to sanitation here is worse than places like Angola, and the percentage of undernourished people rivals failed states like the DRC and Zimbabwe. There are major land reform issues to be resolved, a looming water & power crisis, and as one elder described it, a "restless youth." You can sense corruption remains a problem. It's a staggering list. It's understandable to predict a bad outcome.
But I don't think it will suffer the same fate as many of its neighbors. There is a commitment to democracy here and freedom of press. It's not transparent by western standards, but it is by African. But most importantly, I think it's going to work because everyone here seems committed to its success. There is a real pride here, a sense of community key to the concept of national identity. The boundaries here were drawn by foreigners, but again, Namibians seem willing to forget.
People should come here. It's a beautiful country, with warm and welcoming residents. The food is amazing. It's easy to get around and plenty safe. Now I'll admit, it's a little of to see streets named after Castro and Mugabe, which pay homage to those dictators that supported the revolution. But this place isn't like those. You should also come here because they've earned our support. They is largely a free market, democratic state.
The Windhoek CEO also was a big beer fan (if you are a non-drinking vegetarian, this place is not for you). As he kept plying me with even more Windhoek Lager, he left me with another thought: "we must just keep moving forward." And that's the sense you get from everyone.
The nation is overwhelmingly Lutheran, which as one observer suggested, probably has made reconciliation easier. But I think it's more basic: there is almost a chip on the shoulder of leaders, a sense that they have something to prove. I'm willing to bet on it.