Friday, April 25, 2014

Week 10: Tourism at Its Finest

By Lillian Maassen & Darcey Babikian

Week ten was a week of reunion. It began on Monday, 24 March, when we said goodbye to our rural homestay families and all piled into the bus together once again to begin our travels around northern Namibia. We stopped in Outjo to do some grocery shopping, then proceeded to our campsite at the Okaukuejo Camp where we got settled in and set up our tents with only a few slight misadventures. 

Caption: One of our first lessons of the day: the hard, rocky Namibian soil 
is not conducive to pounding tent stakes into the ground.
Once we were all situated, we met up to reflect on our experiences at the rural homestays. The most-discussed themes were sanitation, access to clean water, and language and cultural differences, although many of us also commented on the heavy dietary emphasis on carbohydrates. Having reflected ourselves out, we set out on our very first game drive! It was fascinating to see animals we’d only ever seen in pictures right outside our windows. The landscape was absolutely crawling with springbok, but we also spotted oryx, kudu, zebra, ostriches, and even some far-off giraffes. 

One of our first wildlife encounters
We had dinner at the restaurant at the Okaukuejo Camp, which served an all-you-can-eat buffet complete with oryx steak, multiple side dishes, and a dessert bar. After so long subsisting mostly on fried dough with our rural homestays, this seemed incredibly decadent and we tucked in with a will; but, upon reflection, we felt a little uncomfortable about it. It seemed such a perfect example of the massive social gap in this country that people in Khorixas are scraping together meals of porridge and mopane worms while, only miles away, mostly European and American tourists are served lavish meals by uniformed Namibian waiters. In general, for white people the campground was a place to come on holiday, while for black people it was a place to work and make a living. Even though apartheid is officially dismantled, it is easy to see that racial segregation is still alive and well in this country. 

The cheetah invites you to come see the “real Africa.”
Tuesday was another day of adventures and game drives. We packed up in the morning and drove to the Halali Camp, where we were to spend our second night of camping. The racial trends at this campground were similar to the ones at the Okaukuejo Camp, further emphasizing the prevalence of racial disparity here. We set up camp and many of us went straight back to the bus for another game drive; our perseverance was rewarded when we saw a cheetah on the side of the road! It was one of those moments you can’t quite believe is real. Thinking back on it later, we were intrigued by our own reactions to seeing the cheetah: we were so blown away by it because we as Americans are culturally conditioned to consider African animals exotic and romantic. Many tourists come to this continent purely for the purpose of seeing these animals, and then are surprised to find that there are cities and infrastructures here alongside the game parks. Game drives only make up a tiny percentage of our time here; they only even exist in certain parts of certain countries. Africa is a massive continent full of varying landscapes and richly diverse cultures, but in the eyes of the rest of the world it is often reduced to the booming game park tourist industry.

The next morning we departed Halali Camp for the area known simply as “the north,” or “The Four O Region.” It was once called “Ovamboland,” and some Namibians still refer to it that way, but it is generally considered politically incorrect to do so. During the apartheid regime, the land was unceremoniously named after the Ovambo people and used in a derogatory sense. The fact that a more accurate and inclusive name has not yet been applied to the area indicates that the influence of apartheid is still strong. When we arrived at our home for the next night, a fancy guest house in Etuna, we felt this contrast even more acutely. It only took a few minutes of renewed access to hot showers, internet, electricity, and American music videos before we were completely re-accustomed to our pre-Khorixas standards of living. The rural homestays already seemed like a different world. 

After settling in, we took a trip to the Nakambale Museum, the preserved house of a 19th century Finnish missionary named Martti Rautanen. He had lived among the Ovambo for most of his adult life and translated the Bible into their language. We found it strange that the way the Ovambo people chose to “preserve their heritage” was through the name of a foreigner. This demonstrated the legacy of colonialism and the continued prevalence of western culture over Namibian culture. We watched two women pound millet in the traditional way, using massive pestles and a hole in the ground. They fed us the resulting dough and showed us how to make reed baskets. It was cool to see, but we felt a little uncomfortable; they seemed to be putting on a show for us rather than interacting in a genuine manner. We could only assume that their experience had taught them that this was what tourists wanted to see.

Traveling around northern Namibia this week gave us some valuable insight into the tourism industry here. There’s a fine line between learning about a culture and invading it; our very presence here shapes the country’s history.

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