Andy, Lizzy and Sam
Going into week five, we anticipated a normal week of internships, volunteering, and classes. The first few days matched our expectations, but we were shocked on Wednesday when Romanus presented us with the opportunity to delay class and attend the Southern African Genome Sequencing Project Symposium. Initially, we were excited by the prospect of getting out of class. Romanus quickly dashed those hopes by telling us that our class activities would be rescheduled for another day. He brought down the mood even more by announcing an early departure time and the requirement of formal dress. However, these petty complaints went out the window when we found out that Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be in attendance.
Not fully knowing what to expect, we left the Center at eight the next morning eager to even see such an important, influential, accomplished international leader. When we arrived at the Safari Hotel, we were very surprised to find that the conference was much smaller and more intimate than we had expected. There were probably not more than a couple hundred people in attendance, possibly due to the lack of a particularly developed scientific community in Namibia.
When the symposium began, we were all star-struck by the entrance of Prime Minister Nahas Angula and the Archbishop. After the national anthem and the African Union anthem, the Archbishop opened the ceremony with a prayer. Our reactions to this prayer were mulit-faceted. First, we were honored to even be in the presence of the Archbishop as he continued to fulfill his vocation as a religious leader. We had never imagined we might see him, let alone hear his moving words. On the other hand, that a scientific conference began with a prayer caught us off guard since, in the West, there is often such a perceived gap between religion and science.
When the researchers took the podium, they stressed time and time again that their research had confirmed the theory that Africa is indeed the cradle of humanity. They found that there is as much genetic diversity between individuals from Southern and Western Africa as there is between a European and a West African. The conference was at once a celebration of the diversity of human life, and a reminder of our commonalities. This served to reinforce one of Urbanus’ favorite sayings: “There is one race: the human race.”
The Archbishop gave a wonderful speech full of insight and humor. He is a remarkable example of humility, as a man who has accomplished so much and been honored countless times, yet still does not take himself too seriously. He spent much of his speech cracking jokes, even while discussing such grave matters as systematic racism and political violence. He spoke about both distant and recent atrocities, stating that the so-called “superior” European was responsible for slavery, the Holocaust, and Apartheid. However, he also mentioned genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, in which Africans perpetuated inhumane violence upon each other. As Westerners, the majority of whom are of European descent, we felt a certain implied guilt. While many of us have no direct connections to any of these atrocities, the legacy of the injustice is felt globally. Furthermore, having learned of the United States actions, or inactions during all of these atrocities, we felt even more responsible.
His speech was as much an overview of his participation in the program as it was a call to action. For instance, he said, “Wake up! We can get rid of poverty.” His hope in spite of all he has witnessed, and his continued struggle for humanity inspired us to realize that, if we all treated each other as brothers and sisters as he instructed, we could all live better lives.
After the break, one of the researchers was interrupted before his presentation by a professor from the University of Namibia. He objected to the previous presenter’s characterization of the San people as “short, brown-skinned, and speaking a click language”. He also objected to the way that the San who were featured in a cultural representation were dressed, saying that they were being exploited for their image. He believed that the San representatives had been asked to dress in traditional dress. Finally, he objected his inference of the implication that the San were still completely separate from developed society. The researcher stated clearly that the project was meant to show commonalities rather than differences. Furthermore, he said that the San representatives were told that they could wear whatever they chose, which was confirmed by the fact that other San representatives were dressed in modern dress clothes.
This objector’s passion was representative of not only ethnic division in Southern Africa, but also the division between modern and traditional cultures. The researchers were quick to point out that many San do live in modern culture, but that they were very interested in those who still live a traditional lifestyle. While we were at the symposium, another member of our group was in Tsumkwe working on a development project to provide electricity to a group of San people. These parallel events highlight that there is development occurring throughout the region, be it in rural or urban areas, among San, Herero, Ovamba and others. Challenges are constant with these projects, as outsiders work to reconcile their beliefs about what infrastructure is necessary with the concerns of the community that they are trying to help. These massive obstacles often seem insurmountable as we consider the development of Namibia to Western standards.