One of the first pieces of advice I was given prior to leaving for Namibia was to try to ready myself for the vast cultural differences that would confront me the moment I stepped off my plane in Windhoek. “For one, African airports are different,” I was told. “When you step into the terminal a rush of people comes toward you, trying to get your money, offering you things you don’t need. Over there you are going to stick out and be an easy target.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I actually arrived at Windhoek International Airport on May 16. As the plane made its descent toward the ground, I had already noticed one startling thing about Namibia, of which I would be reminded time and time again over the next four weeks. The emptiness. The vast emptiness of the country. Miles and miles of open savannah and desert. Namibia is, first and foremost, a desolate country. Its population density is lower than Canada, lower than Australia, lower even than neighboring Botswana, which is dominated by the arid Kalahari desert.
The airport, like the rest of the country, was surrounded by nothing. No neighborhoods, no factories, no homes, no people. Just open space, everywhere you looked. Thus, it came as little surprise when I entered the small terminal that there was no one there trying to offer me anything. As my eyes scanned the reception area, all I saw was one guy sitting by himself in the corner of the airport cafe, drinking a beer. It was 7:30 in the morning.
“You need a ride into town?” he belched, as he observed me struggling with my four bags. I explained that the hostel where I was staying had arranged to have a driver pick me up, though he hadn’t arrived yet. “Well, if he doesn't show up, I’ll take you,” the man offered. I wandered over to the bar, where a woman wearing a Chicago White Sox baseball cap was serving drinks. Welcome to Namibia?
The promotional brochures for this Southern African country emphasize that Namibia is a “Land of Contrasts,” and there’s no better evidence for this claim than Windhoek itself. Founded by German colonialists in 1890, the city still bears the scars of apartheid, a legacy of South African colonial rule lasted from 1915 until Namibia achieved its independence in 1990. The city center resembles a fairly modern European town, complete with movie theaters, shopping malls, and statues glorifying the conquests of white settlers more than a century ago. Blacks and whites scurry along the streets in business suits, and cell phones are ubiquitous.
But segregation still runs deep here. Windhoek’s richest citizens, almost all of them white, live in affluent neighborhoods with gated homes, high-priced alarm systems and attack dogs. The city’s black population, meanwhile, overwhelmingly lives in Katutura, the old apartheid township situated on a rocky incline overlooking the heart of the city. The homes of Katutura are little more than shacks made of corrugated aluminum; in most cases, they lack electricity and indoor plumbing. It was here that I spent my fourth, and most memorable, night in Namibia.
“You have not really seen Windhoek until you have been in Katutura,” said the Rastafari man who offered to show me around the part of the city that most guides advise travelers to avoid. It was precisely this advice that made me anxious to visit Katutura, to see with my own eyes the way of life so carefully concealed from the American and European tourists whose only experiences of Namibia are four-star hotels, swanky restaurants, and expensive safari excursions.
So at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday, I hopped into the back of a pickup truck and watched the scenery float by as we made our way towards the township. Tellingly, nicely paved streets gave way to dirt roads as soon as we passed into Katutura. For a country with as much open space as Namibia, it seems criminal that so many people live in crowded slum conditions, bu