A visit to Namibia, the second last colonial bastion of Africa can be both exciting and frustrating, even nerve wrecking. Exciting by the degree of welcome from the ordinary people in recognition of the role Zimbabwe played in the liberation of that country. But this warmth can easily and immediately be turned into frustration by the open incidents of racism displayed by the remnants of the Afrikaner hardcore who despises anyone with a black skin.
The new SWAPO government has also firmly established the bureaucracy that has become the scourge of most African countries, including Zimbabwe. And that was apparent only four months after independence when I paid the newest African nation a visit.
In Windhoek, the capital, I had what tourists call a nice time. I was taken around for lunches, on shopping sprees, to research centres, work places and government establishments. This was all done by friendly ordinary citizens.
In contrast, a group of Afrikaner thugs on three or four occasions picked up quarrels with me, just because of my skin colour, over entry rights into poshier pubs which were patronised by few blacks.
At the other end a SWAPO receptionist barred me from seeking an interview with the secretary to the secretary of Home Affairs simply because, she said, they were too busy.
At the President’s office, I was told, “If you want to see the President you write a letter first, and we will process it.”
“How long will I have to wait?” I asked.
“I don’t know, six months maybe,” said the receptionist who seemed to be pre-occupied with something else and not our conversation.
Being one of those who could not afford the air fare and out of a desire to visit a liberated country whose people I have extensive professional, social even cultural contacts with, I did not hesitate to hike all the way from Victoria Falls to Windhoek, a distance of roughly 1 700km.
I was not even worried about how long it would take because I knew there would be a lot of tourists trekking to Windhoek.
Both journeys to and from Windhoek, using the same route, took me two days each way.
Before setting off on the journey I instilled into myself a defence mechanism that would help me pass easily at the border posts. I simply had to act like a brick wall because that was the language customs and immigration officials seemed to understand better.
To get to Ngoma border post in Namibia, I had to pass through Zimbabwe and Botswana border posts.
Zimbabwean officers were relaxed but very alert, and one remarked about the sudden upsurge in the number of Zimbabwean professionals flooding into Namibia since May. No hassles. Zimbabwean civil servants normally prefer to keep their distance from Journalists for fear of being written about as if this is the pre-occupation of journalists.
At Botswana’s Kasani border post, things were quite different. On seeing my passport they asked suspiciously what my business in Namibia was.
One crudely said something about new routes for Zimbabwean smugglers. But when they realised my profession, one said: “Surely a journalist should know about visa requirements, next please.”
I hit back: “Surely an officer in your profession should know better about visa requirements for citizens of the frontline states wishing to visit Namibia.”
The officers still appeared not convinced that a journalist should be hitch-hiking instead of travelling by air as most journalists are known to.
They searched my bag thoroughly but found nothing exciting except notebooks and pens. They had no choice but to eventually let me in. On my way back, they also searched me thoroughly hoping to find something I had smuggled. When they realised I had nothing except several stories they were disappointed.
I passed Botswana’s rough test at about 11a.m but I only got a lift to the Namibian border at 4.30p.m thanks to a veterinary officer I had befriended. Ten minutes before the closure of the Namibian post I presented my documents to the officer.
“From Zimbabwe, journalistee Heh,” the officer struggled to speak English. I was later to discover during my two week stay in Namibia that communication in the country can be a real headache to a visitor who speaks neither Afrikaans nor any of the several local languages spoken at the rate of up to 50 words without a pause.
By the time the border formalities were completed there was no transport to Windhoek which was still some 1 600km away.
I had no blankets. I knew no one. I prayed that one of the bottle stores at the border post would not close for the night.
As I sipped my first taste of the Windhoek Special on the verandah, untying my smelly farmer shoes, a curios armed vigilante asked me my business and address and we immediately ran into communication problems. I was tossed around the compound until we found one with a sampling of English who explained to the security chaps that I was simply a tourist and I had failed to secure transport to Windhoek.
After some discussions, they agreed, without consulting me, that I should put up at the English speaking man’s place. Then we went back to the bottle store for more beer.
“Don’t worry about that security incident. We are newly independent and we are worried about spies. Zimbabweans are our comrades,” my new found colleague told me just before we went to bed. I was now so drunk that I was beyond caring.
The following morning we exchanged addresses with my colleague and by 10 a.m he had found me a lift to Katima Mlilo. The first people I met at Katima Mlilo were two young hitch-hikers from Uganda and one from Zambia. They had come to look for jobs. They were barely 25 and looked tired, rugged, hungry and broke.
They had to make do with a loaf of bread and soft drinks. I later learnt that the Ugandans were engineers who had just graduated and the Zambian was a scientist of some sorts.
As we were all going to Windhoek we soon got to know each other. The three spoke bitterly about economic ills of their countries and kept echoing that they hoped Namibia would not follow suit.
One and a half days later the dazzling structure of Windhoek skyscrapers sitting in a dish-like valley of rolling mountains greeted us. Government flags as well as those of SWAPO and opposition parties flew carefree on rooftops of offices, government buildings and even homes.
This was a clear indication that Namibians were proud of their independence and had forgotten about the 23 year-old brutal war. Thousands donned their various party colours all over the town, mingling with tourists and indifferent Afrikaners whose investment is their only reason for “enduring” a black government.
Though I had gone to Namibia on a working holiday several people who understand that immense opportunities open in newly independent countries had asked me to put out some feelers. These included teachers, journalists, accountants, field workers and one or two executives.
Although Namibia is reported to have a 33 percent unemployment rate there were a lot of vacancies particularly in the civil service but there were not enough qualified people to fill the vacancies. The switch to English had also slowed down the process of transformation as 90 percent of Namibian schools, commerce, industry and the civil service use Afrikaans and most of the 50 000 SWAPO fighters and refugees resist any association with Afrikaans as an oppressive language even during the transitional period.
Colonially inclined employers also refuse to have anything to do with English speakers.
At the department of Labour and Employment, an officer explained the government dilemma.
“The majority of our people were in the bush or in schools and are without professional qualifications hence the vacancies remain unfilled. But we cannot take any other nationals without giving preference to our own people. It is a recipe for social chaos. Retraining and integration will take up to five years and in the meantime the government has given the green light only to recruit critical top management posts, nothing middle level like teachers, nurses or journalists.”
The process, according to the officer was long. An employer interested in recruiting an expatriate had to apply to the government and prove that there was no Namibian qualified to do that job by advertising. Namibia is already over subscribed by foreigners seeking greener pastures.
Zimbabweans I came across included a former secretary, a nurse, three teachers and one social worker all trudging the streets of Windhoek from office to office. One was even so ashamed of going back home that she vowed she would take any job even as a shopfloor worker or till operator.
But things are not only tough for foreigners but for Namibians as well especially those who were in exile. A friend who I stayed with told me that racism was still rampant.
I witnessed it one day when she took me to one of the media houses.
“Do you speak English?” she was asked.
“From which school?”
“I am sorry. We are looking for someone with a Namibian orientation. Dankee.”