Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Week 3: Uneven Development: An Introduction to Namibia

By Gena Reynolds and Joshua Kumi-Darko

Our first full week in Windheok, Namibia was very eventful. We were finally able to get into the rhythm of the semester. On Monday we dispersed to various internship placements around Windhoek for the day, working in a variety of places from an orphanage in Katutura to the City of Windhoek’s offices. Tuesday was spent at the Elisenheim Guest Farm for a day of team building activities with the students and staff. Ironically an impromptu river fording, made necessary by a sudden downpour that created a river where there once was a road, was probably the most effective team building moment of the day. 

At the Elisenheim Guest Farm during team building on Tuesday. 
Staff and students that did not ford the river on foot were 
ferried across the river to the vans, after the heavy rainfall
The rest of the week we were able to finally begin most of our classes and start on the work for the semester. Spending more time in Windhoek and learning more about Namibia’s history allowed the country’s uneven development to become visible. 

On Saturday we went to a meeting of the Young Achievers, a youth empowerment group in Namibia that holds weekly meetings to bring in speakers and discuss issues that affect their community. This week’s focus was the recent news item that ranked Namibia as the third richest country in Africa. Opinions among the group were varied. Many members argued the credibility of this ranking, because they do not see the wealth in their own lives. Others agreed that Namibia is wealthy, especially in resources like diamonds and gold. Whether or not the students believed the ranking, it is clear that some people in Namibia are extremely wealthy, and that some parts of the country are very economically developed while others are extremely impoverished.

Part of the explanation for this can be traced to the history of the country, which we had an introduction to during our time in South Africa, and in our first History class on Thursday [1]. Namibia’s colonial history created a system of economic extraction where, like in South Africa, a small white minority controlled most of the wealth and could maintain an extremely imbalanced distribution of resources. This legacy is still evident today, geographically and socially. The township of Katutura, where the black community was moved in the mid-1900s, is still almost completely populated by blacks, and is far more underdeveloped than the previously white suburbs along the south of the city [2]. The name “Katutura” literally means “a place we cannot settle,” and the history of the residents’ removal is part of the reality of uneven development and opportunity in Namibia today.[3]

An informal settlement in the communal extension of Havana,
outside of Katutura. Katatura itself  means "a place we cannot settle."
In some communal extensions such as Havana, you would never imagine that you are in the capitol of the third richest country in Africa. Few of the streets are paved, and the temporary settlements expand out from the older sections, with corrugated metal shacks making the hills look shiny from far away. In a country of 2.2 million people [4], with the second smallest population density after Mongolia, Namibia boasts 2,000 millionaires (in USD) [5]. While Namibia may be joining South Africa and Nigeria in the category of strong African economies, it has not escaped Africa’s colonial economic past, and the uneven distribution of wealth is only the most visible symptom. 

In the United States there is a common perception that hard work and education can lead to upward mobility, and that even people in difficult circumstances have equal access to these resources. In Namibia it seems that the path to success is viewed very differently. At the Young Achievers meeting we got the impression from the students that social networking and not education facilitated success. Even though the speaker at their meeting put emphasis on the importance of her own education and perseverance, the students seemed skeptical that she could have achieved so much success on her own. The extreme poverty that is so geographically close to such affluence in Windhoek supports this belief that connections are necessary to succeed. 

The United States (US) shares a history of white imperialism and segregation with Namibia and South Africa. Similarly, they share an extreme imbalance in wealth distribution along racial lines. Since their independence in 1990, black Africans in Namibia have had to experience similar struggles as African-Americans in the US after the Civil Rights Movement. The Reconstruction Era in the US following the American Civil War gave former slaves the right to own land, and move freely, but the wealth remained in the hands of whites. Namibia faces the same unequal distribution of resources in the post-apartheid era. There is room for Namibia to improve and innovate, but the process will be slow, if the US is any comparison. Hopefully the obstacles presented by the distribution of wealth and poverty will be overcome through progressive policies in the future. 

This blog is the work of our students. To learn more about Center for Global Education programming, visit us at www.centerforglobaleducation.org.


[1] Shivoro, Shivute. History instructor and Director of the Center for Global Education in Namibia, led our first history class on 6 February, 2014.

[2] “History and Old Location of Katutura.” Namibweb.com. Copyright 2014, Accessed 12 February, 2014, http://www.namibweb.com/hiskat.htm. 

[3] Sarah Amushila, the Homestay Coordinator at the Center for Global Education in Namibia, gave a tour of Windhoek, including Katutura, to students on Thursday, 30 January, 2014.
[4] “The World Factbook: Namibia." Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed 30 January, 2014,  https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/wa.html. 

[5] A student at the Young Achievers meeting on Saturday, 8 February. The Young Achievers are a youth empowerment group that meets weekly in Katatura and tries to provide a vision for a better future for young Namibians.

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