Germany is having an afterthought about its former colony where Otto von Bismarck ruled for 30 years massacring the indigenous Herero population. German tourists are now coming in droves to Namibia, a huge but sparsely populated nation on Africa’s southwest coast.
Germany took control of the territory in the late 1880s after the British renounced ruling another overseas possession even though Walvis Bay offered an excellent maritime base. The Germans fought it out mercilessly with the Herero until 1907. By then, German settlers had arrived and diamonds had been discovered near Lüderitz. Another tragic struggle was waged by the Nama people who were soon herded into concentration camps, starved and decimated to the point that two-thirds of them died. It was the prologue to bigger crimes against humanity in Germany.
In 1914-15, South African troops invaded South West Africa in the early stages of World War One. The League of Nations gave the territory to Great Britain as a mandate to be exercised by South Africa and Afrikaner settlers were given land with the purpose of keeping the indigenous population in check and pushing the creeping annexation of the territory as South Africa’s Fifth Province. Apartheid was quickly imposed on the hapless black population. After the end of World War II, surprisingly, the economy bloomed, thanks to the growing output of the De Beers diamond mines and the expansion of the cattle commerce and ocean fishing. And yet, a large proportion of black Africans, up to two-thirds, were left in abject poverty.
It was time for the liberation struggle. A series of petitions to the United Nations had cleared the way to the forfeiture of the mandate but the South Africans would not let go of a territory that had turned out to be economically profitable. Starting in 1958, the leadership of the mobilization against the most recent colonists passed from the tribal chiefs to political activists and bush warfare was unleashed by the newly established SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization). In the 1970s, the people joined the struggle and South West Africa became for South Africa the equivalent of Vietnam for the United States. Although the U.N. Security Council passed several resolutions demanding independence, South Africa hung tough and in spite of mounting losses pursued a stalemate. Finally, in 1988 South Africa had to negotiate a withdrawal and the founding of the new state of Namibia in March 1990. The Pretoria government stubbornly resisted ceding sovereignty over Walvis Bay until 1994.
After a decade of independence, Namibia stood apart from other African countries where old tribalism, corruption and post-colonial exploitation produced a score of failed states, among them Zimbabwe, which fell early on under the grasp of a ruthless dictator. One has only to travel from Namibia to Zimbabwe to see the dramatic difference between modern Namibia and other African countries, from Zimbabwe to Egypt where regressive autocracies still rule. In spite of a certain degree of political infighting between parties, Namibian elections were transparent and fair. The current president, Hage Geingob, won easily in November 2014 and SWAPO got the majority in parliament.
Having spent two weeks in Namibia, and then on to Botswana, another rare democratic enclave in Africa, I will attest that the southwest African nation is worth an attentive look for its uniqueness, from the oldest desert in the world to the spectacular coastline known as the Skeleton Coast, owing not to shipwrecks but to the myriad carcasses of whales. One does not have to look hard for remnants of the short and ill-fated German colonization. Swakopmund, a quaint German town in Walvis Bay, had been previously claimed by the Dutch while British, French and American whalers made it their preferred harbor. After the Germans took advantage of the great powers’ plays and occupied the territory in 1884, they held on for 30 years but then it took 50 stormy years to get rid of those pesky South Africans. And yet, everywhere one can see the traces of the German past, forts and castles, cuisine and German efficiency. Most of all, the Germans started to build an infrastructure that today allows tourists to travel the length of the country that lies between the Kalahari desert in the east and the Namib desert in the west.
Looking at the descendants of the Bushmen, one cannot but admire the resiliency of these people, known as San, who are the earliest known people on Earth. The San were hunters and gatherers, a way of life that has disappeared. Now, most Namibians work in the agricultural sector but many still hold onto subsistence farms. Traveling in Namibia is an exhaustive undertaking. The roads in the interior are unpaved but not impassable. While driving, one has to watch for cattle and springboks on the road. Namibia is bigger than Texas. We drove over 1,500 miles, from the astonishing red dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib Naukluft Park in the south to the spectacular Etosha National Park, just below the northern border with Angola. The dunes of Sossusvlei are the highest in the world and regale a mind-boggling vision of changing colors in light and shades. Walking through them, or for the more adventurous scaling them, is a grueling challenge.
Little is left of the flow of traders, missionaries and hunters who tried to tame Namibia’s harsh and unforgiving interior where the Hereros dwelled until the German conquest. Ironically, the Germans never profited from the diamond riches that nature had bestowed upon the desert territory. Even today, one can see the difference between the central and southern parts with wide ranching lands (the South Africans had parceled out 6,000 farms for white settlers) and the poor tribal areas of the north. Redemption, though, was to come to the north by way of a quickly sprawling tourism industry that brought back the Germans with cameras around their necks. In the meanwhile, history had reversed itself when the new President Pohamba pushed for the expropriation of white-owned lands to raise living standards in the new country. And yet, another African miracle happened when President Pohamba honored his pledge to stand aside in 2014. SWAPO will remain in power in Namibia but there is no hint of an enduring authoritarian state.
The bottom line is that Namibia has turned out to be an African miracle with an impressive record of largely peaceful transitions. Its teeming wildlife and magnificent scenery can be enjoyed by virtue of a first-world infrastructure.
I became very fond of the numerous lodges in the north and especially those on the Okavambo River where from a few feet away I could video a large herd of elephants watering in a lush environment. In Etosha National Park, we got to see every kind of animal with the exception, unfortunately, of lions. We watched plenty of animals, from single rhinoceros to heaps of hippos in the open drives and around the waterholes that are most frequented in the dry winter.
We enjoyed staying at the old German fort of Namutomi, its white towers redolent of Foreign Legion legends. Most of the time, we ate steaks of oryx, a large antelope with straight horns, whose meat has no fat or cholesterol. In rugged Damaraland, whose people share the past with the Bushmen and the Nama, we met the original Africans who speak a language with clicking sounds while women still wear adapted Victorian dresses.
At the end of a fascinating trip, the most significant impression that I brought home is this: starting with policies for national reconciliation instituted by the first president, Sam Nujoma, after 25 years of armed struggle, the new Namibians are at peace with their former brutal colonists and the bloody past. Namibia is a country with a population of 2.49 million, a median age of 21.2 years and with a life expectancy of 64 years. Finally, Christians account for over 80 percent of the population and literacy is estimated at 81.9 percent.
Namibia still has a long way to go in terms of eliminating wide inequalities and insufficient sanitation. Its social development deficit is still high and close to 30 percent of Namibians live below the poverty line. But life in the townships, like Katatura where “coloured” and black Namibians were confined, has improved simply because the apartheid section has merged into the center of the capital Windhoek. The country is developing and accommodating the demands of its original 10 ethnic groups.
Katatura meant “a place where we don’t want to stay.”.When we visited it, we found it a thriving section of town, where the tin shacks with no running water are being replaced by permanent dwellings. There are few museums that we could see, save for a stunning Living Museum in Damaraland, the land of the Bushmen, not far from a fabulous natural gallery of indigenous rock paintings and engravings. From the breathtaking spectacle of the Namib desert to the water wonderlands of the north, Namibia is a photographer’s paradise. It is still relatively untamed but once again, Germans, with the help of other sturdy tourists, are changing the picture.