6/17/14

Contemplating the Difference in Namibia

The mission of WorldTeach is to partner with governments and other organizations in developing countries to provide volunteer teachers to meet local needs and promote responsible global citizenship. One of the most important parts of promoting global citizenship is facilitating cross-cultural exchange and changing traditional perspectives, including ours and that of the people who we encounter abroad.

Elizabeth Skurdahl, who is currently teaching in Namibia, relays her experience in Namibia as someone from a completely different cultural background. She tells us of her take on the process of changing traditional perspectives of race and creating a greater cultural understanding. 

Well, the first week of term 2 is officially over! The kids came back on Tuesday (although we didn’t start teaching till Friday . . . an example of Namibia’s inefficiencies, but that’s a story for a different time). It’s been really good to see the kids (I missed them!) and I feel like I am settling back into the routine of village life pretty easily. I’m a third of the way done with my time here, strange!

When looking over my blog posts, I realized I have been neglecting to tell you about some the harder truths about life in Namibia. So many things about Namibia and my time here are wonderful, but I also want to share some of the difficult realities Namibians (and me while I am here) still face. One such reality is the legacy of apartheid.

Namibia is a young country still – just 24 years old. Prior to its independence in 1990, it was known as South-West Africa and was governed by South Africa, which means Namibia, too, suffered under Apartheid. Cities and towns were segregated, with white people living in the upscale neighborhoods and black people crowded together in poorer neighborhoods known as “the location.” Travel from rural areas and farms (which tended to be populated by black farmers) into cities and towns was restricted. The Red Line, a pest-exclusion fence built to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from farms in the North to farms in the South, was used as a police zone to prevent the movement of black Namibians into the southern, predominately white cities. (As a result, half of Namibia’s population today lives above the Red Line.) In short, institutionalized racism was the name of the game.
Fortunately, with the Namibian independence in 1990 came the end of Apartheid in the country. Unfortunately, the vestiges of that regime are still apparent today.

So what does that mean, in regards to the Namibia I live in and experience everyday?

It means that almost every town or city – from Omaruru to Swakopmund to Windhoek – still has a “location” where the large majority of the black population lives. There’s usually a significant difference in the quality of housing, etc, between the Location and the rest of the city. I got a hike to Swakop once that took me through the location there before dropping me off at my lodge – it was like being in two completely different cities. (Interestingly, despite being a uniformly Herero community – aside from me – people in Omatjete refer to the outlying farms in the area as the location. I’m not sure why.)

It means that my driver back from Omaruru this afternoon asked if white women were allowed to marry black men in the US (this conversation eventually led to a marriage proposal so I could “stay in Namibia forever,” but that’s a story for another time).

It means that my neighbor, Founa, asked me if I had ever gone to school with a black person and expressed complete shock when I said I had gone to school with people of many races.

It means that on another hike to Swakop, my Afrikaner driver explained very calmly and rationally why he thought Apartheid worked well.

It means that my learners often ask me “Why do white people _______” (drink a lot of water/brush their hair/eat green beans . . . etc.)

It means that I sometimes get preferential treatment – like the front seat of a car – because of the color of my skin.

It means that my learners are the first generation of Namibians since colonization in the 1800′s to be born free of political oppression.

Now this is not to say that Namibia is not making strides on improving this situation – or that the US or other Western countries are perfect examples of race relations by any means. Nor do I proclaim to know (or understand) all the nuances and details associated with racism and Namibian society. With this post I just hope to give a small snapshot of what vestiges of Apartheid look like on a day to day basis.


My colleague lives in the house right across from me, and I have become very good friends with her daughter, Naomi. A few months ago, in an effort to demonstrate her English skills to me, Naomi wrote me a letter. In the last paragraph she wrote, “I never thought I would be able to talk to a white person the way I am able to talk to you.” Even if I achieve nothing else but that for the rest of the year, I think I will consider my time here well worth it.


-Elizabeth Skurdahl , WorldTeach Namibia 2014


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