Published March 23, 2010
What do Iceland and Namibia have in common? Despite one’s first guess—likely of ‘nothing’—the nations share something other than Atlantic coastlines.
With a population barely surpassing 230,000, Windhoek is a rather small national capital. The wealthy few are an equal mixture of whites and blacks, as is the middle class, with the lowest rungs of society being clung to solely by the black populace, much of which lives in the crowded township of Katutura—Otjiherero for “the place where we do not want to live.”
You see, prior to Namibia being declared a protectorate of South Africa, the black demographic lived comfortable lives in neighbourhoods surrounding the city, or anywhere else they preferred. Even today, these are quaint and colourful communities. Homey. But with South African protection came South African apartheid and a mass segregation of black Namibians into cramped, pre-fab brick bungalows ten kilometres outside the city, with toilets and showers in a separate structure outside the main home to provide authorities more opportunity to harass blacks caught outside past curfew.
It’s a tragic history, but I digress.
To drive down the barbed-wire lined streets of modern-day Katutura is to be transported into a World Vision commercial pleading with the viewer to sponsor a child for less than a dollar per day, or some equally trivial sum that would likely have no bearing on the daily budget of a comparatively well-to-do Westerner. Crumbling brick, tangled barbed-wire, scrap metal piled high on the microscopic lawns.
Things only get worse when the paved streets end and the dirt roads that snake through the newer settlements begin. Instead of scrap metal on the lawn, the homes in these settlements—named Havana and Baghdad—are scrap metal, balanced and placed like oversized houses of cards. Tarps are hung where doors or roofs should be. Electrical wires pass overhead, but none of them stop to power these communities. Dozens of residents crowd around the single communal water pump (broken on the day of my visit) and wait their turns for the shared WC’s, each made of more scraps of corrugated metal walling in a hole in the ground.
How is this anything like Iceland? you are likely asking yourself right about now. It’s not the physical shape of things that draw comparisons, it is the mentality. You see, these tens of thousands of people living in various levels of what most would consider extreme poverty don’t necessarily have to live that way. There is money to build them each a modest home, with indoor plumbing and electricity. But the current governmental and financial powers pocket that money and treat themselves and their buddies to new homes, cars, companies, etc.
The voting populace of Katutura and the outlaying slums have the strength in numbers to oust the corrupted, wealthy-friendly party from government and, in doing so, better their own situations. But they don’t. Instead, they ignore political agendas and vote for their friends, or former family friends or somebody who historically hails from their same tribe, misguidedly thinking that ‘they’re my friends and this time they’re promising change.’
But party-lines rarely change and people never change.
And Katuturans continue to live in corrugated metal shacks.
Reykjavík municipal elections are fast approaching. Do I have to spell it out for you?