Monday, April 25, 2016

Week Eight: The Many Shifting Layers of Identity

by: Amanda Siskind, Katie Bosse & Monique Lillis

Ashly, a female identifying person,
and Patrick, a male identifying person,
showing how gender is often identified by
a person’s clothing and physical appearance.
In our classes this week, as well as throughout our time in Windhoek, we’ve been talking a lot about identity. At the start of her presentation, Immaculate Mogotsi took Taylor and Monique to the front of the room and asked, “What do you see?” The class identified them as male and female based on hairstyle and clothing. This exercise was intended to help students understand the difference between gender and sex. As we discussed that day, sex is the biological organs that leave a person with male or female organs or genitals; or a combination of the two. A person is born with their sex, however gender is part of a person’s identity and the identity they typically ascribe to is defined by their culture. For example, Monique identifies as female and she could be identified as such by the dress she wore, and her long hair. However, gender roles are not fixed, they are different in every society; therefore, there is not one identity for females in Namibia because there are many different tribes that ascribe different roles to a woman. For example, we learned from Sara, one of the staff members, that in the Himba tribe the women are in charge of taking care of the livestock while in the Owambo tribe it is a duty ascribed to men. This is just one example of how the identity of women and men and the gender roles that are given to these categories are culture-based and different around the world. 

Identity is not only defined by the cultures into which we are born, but also by the cultures in which we immerse ourselves. For example, in a country entrenched with racist and classist social boundaries, as well as visible physical contrasts, we as Americans have a unique ability to exist in both spaces as third party persons without the label of direct oppressor or oppressed. As we are learning, Namibia’s history has been one of colonialism and genocide of native Namibians by both the Germans and the South African apartheid regime. Yet, because all CGEE students occupy neither of those titles, many of us have felt we are free to navigate through spaces that usually have their set identities and occupants with very little room for integration. 

Our house in Windhoek West
We have both reflected and analyzed our own individual and collective identities as they exist here in Namibia, and how our shifting identities change as we move from one space to another. As a geography and urban development and social change major, I (Katie) could not help but notice how apartheid spaces continue to exist and how that has influenced communities socially. Positioned in Windhoek West, our community house rests in a neighborhood that situates us in an equal distance to stark opposites, Katutura and Klein Windhoek. Because of this unique setting, the CGEE students participate in both areas for different reasons.  

The Katutura Township is a product of the South African apartheid state, where a mix of Namibians from various tribes coexisting in what was known as the “old location” were forcibly removed to live in neighborhoods based on language groups. By doing such acts of othering, Namibian identities changed from one collective existence into identities defined by language group history. This, as we have observed this semester, was a powerful tactic in separating the masses, as now there are language group conflicts and language group inequalities. Nevertheless, despite their personal language groups, the people in Katutura are all united in a collective identity of being black, which is why the apartheid state put them in these townships in the first place. 

More than just a tool for separating tribes, the township was also designed so that white people never needed to enter and the black people only had to leave for work. These rules might not exist anymore, however I see white and black Namibians continuing to follow these reverberated historical norms. There are small houses, informal settlements, outdoor markets, people selling anything they can on the side of the road, shebeens (local bars), and a ton of people walking outside among unkempt trash and blaring house music. Yet it is very rare to see a white person walking in this area.

The white colonizers who did not want to intermingle with black Namibians historically occupied Klein Windhoek and other white-only suburbs during Apartheid. Still today, Klein Windhoek is set aside so that one can only reach it intentionally, not by merely passing through the city. The majority of residents of this area are still white Germans and Afrikaners, because the high housing prices and lack of public transportation prevents the migration of black Namibians from moving into the area from other neighborhoods around Windhoek. Here, one will find farmers markets, expensive restaurants, private schools, newly erected malls, and more-recent development. There are clean streets and very rarely will you see a street taxi roaming around looking for clients.

Katie, Sydney, Molly, and Siri out to dinner at Andy’s,
one of our favorite restaurants in Klein Windhoek.
As three white American women, it is important to critically examine what our identity means in each space we occupy here and to further acknowledge how we are able to exist in both of these areas as somewhat of a third party actor. On a larger scale, what does it mean for a group of comparatively privileged Americans to come to this unique space and ask for the people in Katutura to educate us on their oppression here and the history of their struggle? What does it mean, further, when at the end of the day we go to Klein Windhoek to eat at a nice restaurant or spend our Saturday mornings at a farmers market buying fine cheeses, fresh bread, and local crafts? As a group of American study abroad students we must continuously reflect on our individual and community identity here in Windhoek West and the implications it might have on the people here.  

Even as we’ve been learning about the identities of people in Windhoek and our personal identities, we’ve also been creating a new group identity. We are no longer those strangers from the first nights in Johannesburg. We know each other’s personalities, we’ve learned about important moments in everyone’s pasts, and we’ve built a collective history together here. We’ve settled into a comfortable group identity that allows us to encourage and support each other. We’ve had many discussions in our living room or over dinner about what we’ve learned, what has made us uncomfortable or challenged our views, and what role our identities and privileges have had in the way that our experiences have played out. These discussions can be tough to have, especially when we are already often out of our comfort zones living in a new city and a new country far away from our friends and family. But thankfully we are all in this together, and that has let us feel more supported as we continue to dive deeper and learn more about these issues of identity. 

One of the main things we’ve learned about identity is that it’s complex, layered, and varied depending on where you’re from and your life experiences. We’ve all had unique experiences here in Windhoek, but we’ve also all been studying and living here together, and that is a part of our identities that we will keep beyond this program.

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