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Published: February 9th 2009
Oma & Me
Me with "Oma", a Damara elder, in Mondesa (DRC)
Some of the best preserved examples of German colonial architecture in the world are a striking feature of Swakopmund. This desert oasis clings to the western edge of southern Africa as the last bastion of German heritage. Along a spotless, peaceful beach dotted with palms and quaint villas, I meander through well watered green parks toward the centre of town. Picturesque Woermannhaus is a landmark on Swakopmund’s skyline. Built in 1896 the tower served as a water tower and navigation point for the ships of the Woermann Line. A short climb up the stairs is worth it. Panoramic views sweep from the jetty jutting out into the Atlantic, past the town and into the desert. I notice a large suburb nestled between the main part of town near the beach and the desert. With a population of approximately 30,000 it wasn’t a large town, so I couldn’t help but wonder why the city has expanded towards the desert rather than southwards or northwards along the coast.
After enjoying the vista, I head toward the main shopping precinct. Charming shops line the immaculate paved streets and through an irresistible shop window I admire souvenirs. A barred gate prevents me from entering.
View of Atlantic Ocean
View of Atlantic Ocean from Woermannhaus
I unsuccessfully try to open the locked latch and peer through the window to see if it is closed. Inside, a stout woman of obvious Aryan descent bellows in her brash accent ‘come in’ while pressing a button at the counter. Bewilderingly, the next shop is also barred, and here I notice a sign over the entrance proudly stating "entry reserved." A quick mental calculation to divide South Africa with Namibia equals the last defenders of apartheid. Feeling indignant at my royal treatment, but more so by my naivety, I promptly leave the shop as the thin veneer of deceit crumbled to reveal Swakopmund’s dirtiness. Back at the motel, I waste no time in finding out about the local township and find there is a tour to Mondesa the next day. I promptly book it.
A stray dog lingers in our dusty wake as we cross the railway toward the desert fringe township. The minibus arrives amidst a commotion of laughing children dressed in brightly coloured rags playing in the street. A crowd of children pose with silly antics as I take a photo. They gather round me as I display the pictures back to them on my digital
View of Swakopmund
View of Swakopmund from Woermannhaus
camera. Two vibrant six year old girls grab my hand and excitedly yell ‘swing’ as they position themselves alternately in between the grip of another tourist. We indulge them as they delight in this simple pleasure. With no parents in sight, the youngsters remain under the watchful eye of neighbours relaxing on porches as upbeat, pulsating rhythms emanate from their portable radios. Further down the potholed road is an area officially named DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community). Far from the established small bland grey two bedroom homes of Mondesa, this area is a squatter camp. Impoverished rural migrants live here until they can afford a home in Mondesa. The residents make their homes with whatever they can find and it is here I visit a unique home. A brightly coloured exterior suggests eccentric owners. However, the occupants reveal a regular family headed by Ernst and Elsie. Ernst makes his living by and painting T-shirts for tourists and of course, by inviting tourists to his home for tea. Unbelievably, their house is made entirely of recycled objects from the nearby rubbish dump.
‘Please look through our house’, Ernst offers. Brightly painted hessian obscures tin walls, hanging to the dirt floor disguised
Woermannhaus in Central Swakopmund
by an emaciated layer of linoleum. Piled with stuffed toys, a rickety bunk bed in the kid’s room hint of happiness and harmony. Despite the rudimentary conditions, the house is indeed a home and a spotless one at that. I duck as I narrowly miss a Hartebeest’s head. Otherwise impossible if it wasn’t for its stuffed status, I scan its features at close proximately and find it difficult to understand why anyone would throw something like this away. Once in the lounge room I reel at the sight of a coffee table fashioned from an elephant’s foot. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t Ernst and Elsie’s fault that this unfortunate elephant had to be mutilated for the sake of a coffee table. Hopefully it was a pachyderm that had to be culled and not a poached one. At least the elephant’s demise wasn’t completely in vain, as they had rescued it from the tip. Despite my repugnancy I still manage to complement Ernst on their wonderful home. ‘Thankyou’, Ernst replies as he proudly accepts my accolade. Elsie emerges from the kitchen carrying a tray with her best tea set. Being mindful of the water being hand carted from
Ernst & Elsie's House #1
Inside Ernst & Elsie's House in Mondesa (DRC)
the community pump, I humbly sip the mint tea, fully appreciative of the hospitality as it neared time to leave. Standing on the porch, made out of upturned beer bottles embedded in concrete, the family heartily waves good bye as if I were a visiting relative. Sitting back on the bus, I notice their sloped roof. An old billboard, held in place by old car tyres, advertised plush apartments.
Back at Mondesa, inside one of the grey brick homes I have the opportunity to meet an elder who is from the Damara tribe. Her name is Lena Moses but I am encouraged to call her ‘Oma’, the German word for grandma or elder. As with most older women from her tribe she still dresses in the voluminous Victorian-style dress. The unusual tradition stems from the influence of the early missionary wives from the early nineteenth century. The distinctive headdress with its two points symbolizes cattle horns. Despite the fact that she can speak three different languages, English is not one of them so the tour guide acts as my interpreter. I ask her all kinds of questions about the Damara culture and finally end my visit by asking her
Elsie in Mondesa (DRC)
to give a brief historical account of her life. Her precocious grand children jump all over her as she explains ‘I was brought up in Swakopmund and had a very happy childhood with my mum, dad and siblings. In the 1940s all that changed when we were forced to live here. My father was a white man of German descent. As the new government enforced Apartheid and he happened to be married to a black woman, he was forced to live in Germany. I was about ten years old and I never saw my father again’, she said stoically and then reprimanded one of the children for being too rough. The saga is poignant but common and I try to imagine how hard her mother’s life would have been in raising the kids on her own after having her husband ripped away suddenly. It raises more questions in my mind, such as were they able to keep in touch after he left, but sadly it is time to leave.
Back in Mondesa, I'm introduced to a local medicine man, Stanley Witbooi who is of the Nama tribe and is an expert in herbal remedies. Stanley explains ‘this knowledge has
Ernst & Elsie's House #2
Outside Ernst & Elsie's House in Mondesa (DRC)
been told to me by my grandfather and it is only handed to those children who display the gift for healing’. Some of the more strange items include the rare wild dog dung which once the aroma is smelt after burning it, is reputed to make headaches disappear. Learning about the different cultures is thirsty work so naturally the next stop is the ‘Back of the Moon’ shebeen (African bar). I’m not normally a beer drinker, but as the old cliché goes, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’, besides the inclement heat is a good excuse to sample the local brew Tafel while playing some pool with the locals.
As the tour draws to an end, I am ravishing hungry and am both surprised and excited at the prospect of enjoying traditional local cuisine at Lumbumbashi Restaurant which is located in a customary Ovambo thatched hut. The food is served on woven baskets and wooden plates and I can’t help but notice the strange looking items in one of the bowls so I enquire ‘what is that’? The short version is they are big juicy grubs. I manage to stomach about one tiny mouthful. It isn’t so
Teenager in Mondesa
much the taste of it that is nauseating, just the thought of it is. I try to wash it down with what is described to me as sorghum beer. However, I wonder if it is in fact donkey’s urine I am drinking. Certainly different to the Tafel taste. The absence of any pot plants makes me just spit it back into the wooden cup. No longer curious over the disgusting gastronomic fare, I stick to the bread.
Children begin to gather outside the hut and start to sing in a wonderful melodic harmonious unison. I am beckoned outside and the children gather in a semi circle around one child who is dancing as if her life depended on it. Different children come out in succession and vigorously perform the Ovambo Dance. The performers are encouraged by the succinct clapping crowd as they hop and jump in the dust with gyrating buts. It is proof that only Africans can execute this primeval prance with absolute dexterity. The day makes its finale as I look behind through the back window of the bus. The sun set over the many workers cycling back from the dirty side toward Mondesa.
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