28 Mai 2007 | Windhoek

Africa at the other end of the road

But a world away from the curio shops, historic monuments, shopping centres a la American mall and the meticulously trimmed hedges, where comfortable familiarities are lost, there lies something waiting to be discovered - something many a tourist might have paid the fare of a flight ticket for to see, supposedly, the 'real' Africa. From our vantage point high above the roofs of Windhoek, our guide Rebbeka Hidulika, from Wanderzone Tours, focuses our attention to the northeast, towards the hills covered in colourful huts and shacks.

Windhoek combines many realities, but the "steamy place", as the capital is called in Otjiherero, is by no means a boiling stew or even a melting pot: Far away from the enclosed villas of Ludwigsdorf and the European-style architecture of the city centre, where Bismarck-era buildings are combined with modern glass facades, at the other end of Independence Avenue, lies Katutura. Worlds apart seem the places we encounter on our three-hour city tour.
Rebbeka quickly covers the city centre: Alte Feste, Christuskirche, the Houses of Parliament. These are the usual stops - pretty photo shots, perfect for postcards, camera objects dating back to the time around 1900, surrounded by palm trees and flowerbeds. But this is also where the history of those who live beyond the idyllic, tourist-friendly world was shaped. To shed light on this, our guide stops at the old township cemetery in Hochland Park. In 1959, residents of this area were forced to leave the graves of their ancestors behind when the apartheid regime relocated them to the newly founded Katutura. Therefore the cemetery is in an advanced state of neglect - a desolate place with small stones in the sand being the only indication of the presence of graves. One does stand out, however, decorated with a wreath of withered flowers: "Heroes and Heroines - Martyrs of our Revolution", says the inscription, dedicated to the nine protesters that died during the events. "Only once a year, on Independence Day", Rebbeka tells us, "people still congregate here."

Our main destination however is the famous quarter in the northeast, to which the residents were forced to move back then. The successful have left "the place, where we don't want to live". But contrary to its meaning in Otjiherero, Katutura is bursting at the seams. "Practically, the government's programme for decentralisation," says Rebbeka, "doesn't seem to have any effect." Every month, an approximate 600 people moves to Katutura from the rural areas in the hope of finding a job and a better standard of living. Most of them do not manage to realise this dream. "Around 37 percent of the population is unemployed, relying on odd jobs to come by," comments our tourguide the sights on our way: "Temporary employment agencies", she calls the busy intersections packed with people that are wrapped in overalls sitting on the pavement, ready to take any job that presents itself.
The boundary to the township, although unofficial, is easily distinguished. To us, Windhoek appears completely turned around as we pass the invisible barrier. Suddenly the streets are crowded with people. Women are walking home, carrying their groceries back from the street markets. Here and there, traditional dances are being performed in the yards; children are playing on the pavements - every now and then a ball rolls across the street. And the only thing that offers a bit of residential privacy is the heavily laden washing line.

It's difficult to imagine any sense of order in this collaboration of colour, broken down cars and corrugated iron. As if not bad enough that the black population has been herded into this suburb for the past fifty decades, the competing ethnic groups were separated into different sectors. Not much has changed in this regard. "It's still a pretty big issue around here, whether you're a Nama, Damara or Ovambo," Rebbeka tells us.

New arrivals have to settle in the outlying areas, building provisional lodgings out of cartons and sheets of corrugated iron. We brave the bumpy road to get there, only to find that running water and electricity hasn't managed to find it's way here yet. Water rations can only be bought at specific community water points, using coupons.
Though it is probably better not to question the structural integrity of these makeshift shacks, the creativity of their architects - even if born out of necessity - is remarkable. Every little spare part or packaging scattered on the roadside find a new purpose within the architecture of the colourful houses. A couple of cardboard boxes are arranged to form a barbershop the size of a farmhouse loo, and vividly decorated to attract attention. A couple of tree branches and a plastic sail become a supermarket, a shopping cart is transformed into a take-away barbeque.

Even the untrained eye will recognise a bit more structure in the Soweto Market, which was established several years ago by the city's municipality. There is the deli section, where meats are cut and everything from chillies to dried fish and Mopane-worms can be purchased. It is bordering yet another section of small, garage-like boxes that offer all kinds of products and services. "This is my all-in-one-shop," says Rebbeka, "here you will find anything - from cell phones to wedding dresses - on offer".

Contrasting its first appearance, Katutura is an astonishing place. It is a world far removed from the familiar tourist routine. It is a shame that tourists, especially white visitors, only get a brief glimpse of this creative, unique world born of need and improvisation. So far tour companies have rarely managed or even bothered to show this aspect of Namibian life to its guests. "Too dangerous", access seems denied. "You can hire me, tourist!" a teenage boy calls to me as I prepare my camera to capture some of the fascination on film. Dialog - it appears - is unwanted and unfortunately not encouraged by the guide; the feeling of a human zoo is too poignant when cruising through Katutura's bumpy dirt roads in an air-conditioned bus with locked doors back to the city centre. Nevertheless, Rebbeka and Wanderzone Tours remain one of the few operators one can start out with to try and bridge that divide - one small step at a time, towards the other end of the road. Fact file:
For further information about Wanderzone Tours' packages and reservations, contact tel. +264(0)81-2148404, +264(0)61-300558, or via internet: www.wanderzonetours.com and per email: [email protected]
A couple of tour organizers now offer tours through Namibia's capital, although they're point of view may vary. Be Local focuses on the historical aspects of Windhoek, for instance the origins of the various quarters and their significance (tel.: +264(0)81-2752257 or www.be-local.com). Face to Face Tours focuses on the cultural and historical aspects of life in Katutura, and their tours offer the opportunity to take part in night drives and traditional events (tel.: +264(0)61-265446, email: [email protected]).

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