Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Week Nine: Northern Seminar Stretches Classwork into Travel

Winnie Godi and Matt Higgins

Although week nine was a week of exhausting goodbyes and sad departures for our rural homestay families, the rest of the week consisted of blissful activities and influential Q & A sessions. From Uukwaluudi Museum to the busy town of Helao Nafidi, the students learned a great deal about the Namibian north and its role in the development of the independent Namibia. Personally, I found an interest in Uukwaluudi Museum and Helao Nafidi because of the gender and cultural aspects discussed, unleashing the inner feminist within me, positively and negatively.

On Monday March 9th, we arrived at the Uukwaluudi Traditional Royal Homestead at Tsandi in the Omusati region. Immediately we were greeted by two lovely women from the Owambo ethnic group (the largest ethnic group in Namibia), one of whom was our tour guide.  Straightaway she mentioned that the Uukwaluudi King lived there prior to the Modern Royal Homestead, which was established in 1978. King Taapopi is the king of the Uukwaluudi tribe, one of the seven Owambo tribes.
Eventually, the group lingered into the Royal Homestead Museum which consisted of many plants, stick and straw huts, and stick fences that created boundaries for the different rooms.
Students entering through Traditional Entrance, Uukwaluudi Traditional Royal Homestead

Approximately halfway through the tour, under the “King’s tree,” one of the students asked how King Taapopi’s successor was chosen. Our lovely tour guide stated that the King’s successor was chosen not from the patrilineal line, but through the matrilineal line; the first born son cannot become King. In most monarchies, one always hears about how the first born son MUST be the King’s successor. Certainly, this became of interest to me. In order to understand the confusion, one must understand that this is also a patriarchal society. This specific aspect somewhat contradicts “typical patriarchal societies,” but it is a feature I appreciate. I appreciate this because it indirectly recognizes the importance of women in this culture, although it is patriarchal. Without the Queen, choosing a successor may be more difficult, which sheds light on the significant role women play in the royal home. Additionally it was mentioned to us that the King and Queen do not sleep together, and have a completely separate room for intercourse, in which they depart ways afterwards. Provided that I live in a culture where it is perfectly okay for a man and his wife to lay together undisturbed this was very much thought-provoking, but respectable and undisputed by the served community. Thought-provoking because I have never heard of anything similar to this before; this comment also intrigued me because the Queen is not expected to stay with the King, demonstrating the agency she may possess in this relationship
Stick/Straw Structures, Uukwaluudi Traditional Royal Homestead 

The following morning we packed our things, jumped into the van, and headed to the town of Helao Nafidi! We met the Headmaster of Ponhofi Secondary School, Joshua Shinadima, commendable and well-educated. He took us on a hybrid tour (walking and driving) throughout the town. A key area I recall being told about is Oshipatapata, which apparently, lives up to its name; a town where shanty towns were established and built by prostitutes according to Shinadima. Oshipatapata is also very near the Angolan border. Shortly after I asked him, about sex trafficking and how those issues are being addressed. His answer was quite vague; mainly because research still needs to be conducted, although he did mention the high prevalence. But my analysis here is I personally feel that people are quick to assume that women engaged in sex work are always prostitutes. There are a countless number of instances where a girl is being trafficked, or involved in transactional sex work. A prostitute, by definition is a woman who engages in sexual intercourse for money, and either way, many times she is being forced into sex work by uncontrollable circumstances such as unemployment. Of course, I do not believe these are the assumptions made by Namibians, which would be wrong to say on a generally holistic level, but I do believe that factors such as unemployment, lack of resources, etc. should be taken into account when commenting on topics such as prostitution and sex trafficking; not only does it affect an individual person, but stems out and affects the community as well, through consequences of high pregnancy rates, maternal mortality, as well as HIV/AIDs, which all are a continuing struggle across the globe.

Correspondingly, the above mentioned sites involved a large amount of academic discourses; no adjective can begin to describe the experiences encountered. Following those couple of days, we were able to relax and enjoy quite a bit of game-watching, resulting in a stimulating two days.

Following our rural homestays, CGE transitioned into spring break with two days game-watching in Etosha National Park, a trip that inspired conversation ranging from human-environment interaction to observational ethics and violent settler histories. Established during German colonial occupation in the first decade of the 20th century, Etosha occupies a sizeable plot of woodland, grassland, salt pan and scrub in northern Namibia’s central plains. Formerly a site of intensive German occupation, imperial fortifications are used as nameless landmarks, vantage points for viewing landscapes and centerpoints for clustered campsites. Visitors (many of whom pay dearly for their experience) can forego camping for luxury “glamping” cottages, where they may be rewarded sleeping under thatched roofs beside animal sculptures in decorative wire. As a special reward following long days of sightseeing, visitors may choose to visit a buffet (complete with tastings of game earlier sighted), entertained by a local children’s choir and well-appointed bar.
Salt Pan, Etosha National Park
For the contemporary visitor, Etosha is all about the animal, a “sanctuary” for rare and valuable big game. Entirely fenced and accessible only after settling entrance fees, the park is still organized to portray an incredible vastness. We saw lions, rhinos, elephants, zebra, giraffes—the excitement of our sightings amplified by the anticipation of the search. Even the accommodations were located alongside carefully enclosed artificial watering holes, so that dangerous beasts may be safely watched within walking distance of amenities. Etosha National Park is one of Namibia’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting visitors in all seasons from around the world for its balance of the exotic and the familiar. It is both carefully designed and practically impenetrable; visitors must always stay in a vehicle unless at a designated rest area. The impassable terrain is crisscrossed by long, flat dirt roads connecting watering holes. When we visited it was only sparsely populated with vehicles, mostly congregated around particularly thrilling collections of animals, visitors camouflaged, standing in specially designed jeeps with raised canopies above open roofs. There is a protocol of silence despite most animals’ relative ease with human contact, the human possibly a vestige of earlier game-watching eras.
Zebra, Giraffes at Watering Hole
What I was raised calling the safari is here the game drive, a name that does not disguise the pastime’s roots in colonial bloodsport. One student recalled the origins of the famed “Big 5” (rhino, elephant, leopard, buffalo and lion) of game-watching legend, animals so chosen because of their reputation for difficulty in chase. The Big 5 still seem to represent the most awe-inspiring sightings among many visitors, and serve to attract profit. No longer found even in many game parks, they represented the peak value of our game drive. Their undisturbed appearance hints at the impossibility of our mutual coexistence, our encroachment justified through particularistic “protection”. We value their beauty, their unfamiliarity, their place in legend, but only when accessible in exhibitionary isolation.

As we directed our vision towards the game, we took a short break from our academic discussions. The experience, however, provoked as much consideration as any curricular trip we’ve taken—and new questions were opened for some of us. How is Namibia, its landscape and people, packaged for consumption? Who drives this depiction—who consumes it? And how does the “study abroad experience” reproduce or rearrange this?

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