Current Occupation: Advertising Copywriter – Namibia
Former Occupation: Advertising Copywriter – Zimbabwe
Contact Information: Cell: 00264 81 3357528, Address: Box 4119, Windhoek, Namibia
What could I possibly have in common with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Wesley Snipes and Charlize Theron? The simple answer is they have all, at one time or another, been my next-door neighbours. Because although I couldn’t tell Hollywood from a bar of soap, these superstars and more keep coming to work in the grand reality show that is Namibia.
Shaun, my closest friend in Namibia, supposedly works as a shop manager – but I doubt that any self-respecting shoplifter could ever be caught by Shaun even if they wanted to be. You see, Shaun suffers from the same laid-back, happy-go-lucky virus that seems to be Namibian workers’ equivalent of swine flu. It’s not laziness, it’s laissez-faire. I first noticed this when, shortly after my arrival, I was passing the State House. In my home country the overzealous Presidential guards treated every passer-by as though he might or might not be Osama bin-Laden. But on this occasion I was shocked to see two girls chase each other across the road, right between the guards and straight through the gates of the nation’s maximum security fortress. It was an adorable sight and strangely enough, actually made me feel safer. Now that’s one job I’m sure I could do well: being a bodyguard. After all, haven’t we all had a boss who uses us as a bulletproof vest and scapegoat whenever things go wrong, before claiming the Purple Heart when things go right?
I’m in the advertising profession, but even I have to admire the advertising prowess of the street vendors and parking lot attendants – alternately persistent, charming, cunning and downright Mafiosi-like. When you walk around the “kasi” or ghettos of Katutura, the “tsotsis” or criminals openly advertise themselves, offering to bring you stolen cellphones, iPods or other gizmos for the price of a few beers. One even boasted he could get me stolen blankets that were “still warm”.
I have clients and colleagues who, though they can afford the most shameless mansions on Luxury Hill or Hochlandrand, still prefer the townships, the heartbeat of the city. For instance Evelyn Street is famous (or infamous) for its endless liquor stores (‘shebeens’). The patrons love ‘kapana’ (roasted beef, buck or even donkey) and would marry it if they could. The vibe is infectious – as are the social diseases spread by those working the ‘night shift’: the sex salesmen and sales ladies. They must be really good because they get repeat customers, who share the same Vision, Mission and Corporate Values. Hey, it’s not the world’s oldest profession for nothing.
Not that there aren’t world-class hotspots to unwind in after a hard day’s work. Luigi and the Fish is run by a dispossessed white ex-farmer from Zimbabwe, while Joe’s Beerhouse is officially the best in Africa – painfully located practically opposite my advertising agency, where I can smell the ‘braai’ (barbeque) of kudu, wildebeest and gourmet cuisine starring crocodile, elephant and ostrich. Thanks to the German influence, Namibian brews easily hold their own abroad.
I wish the Germans’ trademark engineering efficiency at work was their only enduring legacy here. Sadly, the Germans’ genocide of 80% of the Herero people is in silent evidence. Next door to Windhoek High School is a verdantly green space that hides the fact that it used to be a concentration camp. But Namibians see a new type of foreigner to be wary of: the Chinese. The fact that unemployed Namibians have to grovel for Chinese-run construction projects for peanuts only fills them with more resentment, far from gratitude. On a lighter note, Chinatown is a massive hit, with embarrassingly affordable goodies – usually embarrassingly blatant rip-offs of designer labels.
Last year I befriended a stunning Chinese shopkeeper, Katrina, and asked her about what challenges she faces in her job. She really loves her job. But she explained that even among the Chinese there are divisions between the wealthy Hong Kong entrepreneurs (like herself) and the manual labourers / ex-convict builder. So mistrust isn’t a Chinese problem, she insists; it’s a human problem.
I asked a lecturer friend from the highly rated University of Namibia upon her return from six years of postgraduate studies in Europe, what she had missed most about her job here. “Nothing,” she replied. But by “nothing” she meant “nothingness”; poking your head out a window and seeing, not a maximum security prison of skyscrapers/glass/steel, but sheer empty space, liberating you as far as you dare to see. In a country with the world’s lowest population density after Mongolia, Namibia’s space breeds inner space. Come to think of it, you can also experience outer space from Windhoek, through the displayed meteorites that were part of a shower painstakingly carried by donkey by a scholarly missionary.
It’s hard to divorce yourself from Namibia’s blissful marriage between past and present. As I type, I’m on lunch break in Zoopark, where mammoth skeletons were unearthed. But beside me are two Himba women, a tribe that still lives as they did when those mammoths were still alive; there’s something timeless about their naked breasts, red clay ‘cosmetics’, or how their naked feet withstand the 40-degree heat that almost melts the tarmac beneath. Even the sun has contracted the hangover of Namibia’s bizarre contradictions. When I arrived, I replaced three watches because they kept saying ‘8pm’ when I could plainly see the sun overhead. Later I realised my watches were correct; it’s my expectations that needed to be replaced. Adjusting to this daylight/daytime disparity can wreak havoc with an employee’s biological clock. You get to work late and ask your boss with an apologetic smile, “Am I late?” “No, you’re fired,” will be the answer. But bosses have a point about tardiness: imagine if your house was burning and you just happened to call a tardy band of firemen…?
I wait for my glass of wine at a hotel. It’s funny how most workers see their bosses as slave drivers, but for once I put myself in the boss’s shoes: if I were Manager of this hotel, I would crack my whip more, because the staff clearly couldn’t be bothered. In the time it takes the waitress, I could easily have grown my own grapes. Maybe they have given up on tips. But my clients don’t mind; they are ahead of their time, globally. One is a helicopter carrier who services the Russian oil exploration rigs off the Western coast. Another works for a global uranium leader. All this testifies that Namibia is the next frontier in oil, gas and alternative fuels like solar – easy pickings in a country with 360 days of sunshine annually.
A friend who works as a safari operator had once recommended hiking, so over the Workers Day holiday, I hiked solo along the century-old Trans-Kalahari railway. I felt at one with all the workers of the world who were resting from their sweat-soaked labor today. Even my earphones were blasting the song ‘Work’ by one of the hardest working singers of all, Kelly Rowland. Suddenly the sun seemingly retreated mournfully behind the clouds, for I became aware of another generation of workers who had passed here before me a century ago. During construction of the railroad by slave labor, a labourer died every ten metres. But the German administrator impressed his superiors so much with his slave-driving that he was promoted to eventually become Hitler’s darling: yes, Goering himself.
In-between Close Encounters of the Harrowing Kind with baboons, I discovered an intriguing time machine in form of discarded Coca Cola containers from the 1930s, and other litter I’d never encounter in Windhoek, officially Africa’s Cleanest City. It occurred to me that these cans were discarded by the exact same people now resting in the Jewish Cemetery, predominantly victims of 1920s Spanish Flu. At two million, Namibia’s still a small community; an inside joke claims we’re the only country where you could get married three times and still have the same in-laws. Nowadays the dynamic has shifted; Germans are far outnumbered in population and influence by white Afrikaans speakers – a language spoken by far more people than English here. It also explains the Coloured ‘Baster’ community. ‘Baster’ literally means “bastard” but don’t be afraid to say it aloud; nowhere else has that swearword been worn with greater pride than by these mixed-blood people, who actually have their own “Republic” at Rehoboth just outside Windhoek; though the national government now has jurisdiction over them.
But in other ways, progress is bringing unexpected side-effects. The month I arrived, newspapers from the tabloid Informante to the online newspaper The Namibian all announced that cops were working overtime because Namibia was under siege from the country’s first ever serial killer: the B1 Butcher (named after the B1 highway where he dumped his dismembered victims). Simultaneously, that month barely a week passed without another bank robbery. This was crime on an unknown level, and I realised that prosperity comes at a price.
Every worker wants to earn more, hence the tsunami of immigrant labor crossing borders everywhere. This brings potentially life-threatening ‘occupational hazards’. When xenophobia reared its ignorant head in South Africa, for the first time I contemplated fleeing Namibia. After all, Namibia was previously a South African province and still shares a common currency, culture and language. But when the backlash didn’t materialise, I realised Namibians are just as unsure of foreigners as we are of locals. They don’t know what to make of the Angolans who cross the border just to shop and gamble here (since their American dollars have ten times the buying power). They’re unsure about American tycoons who flee prosecution in the U.S to enjoy their millions here. Ironically, at some subconscious level the locals identify less with their rich countrymen than with unfortunate foreigners like the Zimbabwean refugees who sell airtime and rugby flags at the corner, yet actually have university degrees. One Herero friend jokingly remarked, “The only thing I hate more than racism and tribalism, is Damara people.” The fact that Namibians can laugh at their own shortcomings, is the biggest proof of their social maturity. I’ve learnt that an expatriate’s best sources of information are indirect expatriates: people like Luigi, who probably considers herself a refugee, or Katrina, who considers herself a visiting merchant, or people like me: who considered himself a tourist until a ‘4-day visit’ became a four-year odyssey.
Be it the gold-fabled shipwrecks of 15th Century Portuguese explorers at Skeleton Coast, or the German castles in Windhoek, or the Hollywood-esque cosmetic surgeries at Swakopmund, or the coastal hospital where Brad and Angelina’s daughter was born, or the desert-to-sea wilderness where many Hollywood productions are shot – working here traps you overtime in a theatre of staggering contradictions. It’s no accident that its affectionate nickname is “Land of the Brave”. All your working experiences, good bad and ugly, add a layer of toughness to your character, whether you put it on your resume or not. We as workers all have the bulletproof vests from each of our jobs. The question is, do you remember to WEAR it when corporate fire is hitting the fan above your cubicle trench…?