Tsumeb and Tsinstabis, Northeastern Namibia
Windhoek is a small, modern capital city, with all the conveniences of the developed world, and only some of the inconveniences of the developing world. In order to understand the Namibian reality you need to go outside the capital and into the countryside. The story of two bakeries in Tsumeb and Tsintsabis, told by a German handicap, a witch doctor, a SWAPO flag-waver, two Hei//omn tribeswomen, and an immense Italian woman gave me a better sense of what life is like outside my cushy Windhoek apartment, and the complexities of baking bread in Namibia.
I walked its entire length of Tsumeb, all four blocks, before turning around at a dead end. I retraced my steps and stopped at small restaurant with a fridge stocked with bottles of Tafel beer. The young woman behind the counter asked me if I wanted to drink it in the garden, and I said I did. She led me through the empty restaurant to a South-Central L.A. style, metal, screen door. She unlocked a padlock and led me into a narrow courtyard surrounded on three sides by tall, flaking concrete walls and a metal gate on the front side leading to the street. It was not a garden at all, but at least it was in outside.
I sat down at a long wooden table that lay along the wall of the building and took a long swig of Tafel. The beer was good and cold, and my seat offered me a view of the few people passing by on the street. As I watched the women in colorful, tribal dresses, and the girls in catholic schoolgirl uniforms stare back at me, I became aware of someone else watching me. I slowly spun around and saw two tired, brown eyes examining me through the grate of the metal, screen door, the eyes at waist level.
I don’t like being snuck-up on, and it is even more unnerving when it is a man in a wheelchair doing the sneaking. He did not speak, but looked at me inquisitively as if he was trying to place me from somewhere before, but couldn’t. After an uncomfortable length of time, he spoke.
“Hello. Where are you from zen?”
I told him.
“Ah. American,” as if that answered all the questions in his head.
Then he asked me the question that would lead us to where he wanted to go.
“Vat do you zink of our town ‘Chu-meb’ and our Namibia zen?”
I told him I had only been in town an hour and Namibia not much longer. His tired eyes lit up and his head rolled back in anticipation. He pushed the metal door open with his arm and started rolling towards me. He wore a stained navy blue ‘GAP’ sweatshirt, and tattered green military shorts. He propelled his chair with his left leg, while his withered right leg rested idly on the peddle of the wheelchair. He looked about forty-five years old, but by the deep lines in his face, and unkempt appearance, I imagined a hard forty-five.
I wanted to ask him how he was handicapped, but did not. It was not my turn to talk.
“I must educate you about South-West Africa, or, Namibia as it is called now.”
He introduced himself as Hans, but did not extend his hand when he did so. He spoke slowly, and only out of the right side of his mouth, exposing only the few decaying teeth on that side of his jaw. He spoke slowly and deliberately, his brown eyes searching the sky for the correct words as his hands wrestled each other in his lap. He relished my company, and asked me only rhetorical questions. I felt trapped in my seat, and I would have gotten up and left early on in the conversation if he had he that option as well.
His grandfather was baker from Germany who settled in South Africa in the 20’s. He came by himself to Namibia and bought this bakery in Tsumeb in the 60’s, when Namibia was under control of South Africa. The bakery and the town prospered then because the copper mines outside of town were under the control of a South African company.
When Namibia gained independence from South Africa in the 80’s the SWAPO government came into power and took over the mine. Workers strikes and mismanagement caused the mines to shut down, and the newly elected SWAPO government did not intervene and settle the disputes until it was too late. When the workers returned to work, the mine was flooded and declared useless.
With mine closed, the town and Hans’ bakery began to struggle. There was no money in the Tsumeb, and no workers buying bread. He minimized his baking operation, sold off what he could, and opened the little restaurant. He reverently laid his hand on the table next to my beer and said that it used to be his workstation, and that there were times he worked at it all day long to keep up with demand.
Hans said that SWAPO came to power promising wealth and education to all Namibians, but did not, and could not deliver. He said they crushed the existing industries of Namibia through ignorance, indolence, and corruption. He also claimed that SWAPO made public education not only worse, but also more expensive for the average Namibian. He had particular venom for the former SWAPO leader, and guerrilla leader, Sam Nujoma. It was clear from the empty restaurant and his appearance that Hans was not doing well, but knew whom to blame.
Suddenly the wind changed, and carried with it smoke and an acrid smell. “Dis iz from de smelter,” he said. The only industry Tsumeb has left is the smelting was saved after Independence. Hans explained that many countries do not allow the pollution that smelting produces, and that they ship their raw ore to Tsumeb to be cooked, and shipped back. Without this influx of foreign currency Tsumeb would become like the deserted mining towns that have been swallowed by the deserts in Southern Namibia. As Hans said, “it iz all we have left.”
Just before the bottom of my second bottle of beer, Hans’ wife drove an old Toyota pickup truck into the courtyard and got out. She was short and very round, with long, dyed black hair. She moved quickly for a large woman, and carried armfuls of groceries past Hans and into the kitchen without a word.
Hans reversed his chair into the kitchen and began grilling his wife on the cost of each item he pulled out of a bag. Within seconds they were yelling at each other full force while the young woman who supplied my beer emptied the rest of the truck. When the wife reappeared outside she smiled widely at me and ignored the screams from the kitchen. She wanted to talk to their visitor about soccer, specifically her world champion, Italian national team.
After talking about how attractive Francisco Totti is, she told me that I should get out of Tsumeb because, unlike them, I could. She pulled me into the restaurant and sat me at a table while her chubby fingers rifled though a box of Namibian tourist brochures. She settled on a bush camp called ‘Treesleepers’, located sixty-five kilometers north of Tsumeb near a town called Tsintsabis. She said she had never been, but heard it was nice, and that I had to go. I acquiesced, and said that I would go there the next morning, and I meant it.
Tsintsabis has a population of about one thousand people, predominantly San Bushmen of the Hei//omn (the // is a pronounced with a click) tribe. The Hei//omn, like most indigenous people across the globe forced into a static life, are suffering from poverty, unemployment and alcoholism. However, with the assistance of foreign aid the Hei//omn created Treesleepers bush camp to promote tourism to the region, stimulate the local economy, and give the tribe a chance to protect their culture.
As I pulled into the camp I expected to be see tiny, light-skinned Bushmen wearing only leather loin-clothes, carrying crude bows and arrows waiting for me. I anticipated being greeted by the whole Hei//omn tribe with a volley of elaborate clicking sounds, and curious embraces. Perhaps I would even be welcomed with a traditional tribal dance by bare breasted women with names I could not pronounce. Instead, I got George.
George was eating his lunch of pasta and red sauce when I arrived. He is a young man of twenty-one, and claimed to be half Hei//omn and half Owambo. Given the fact that he was tall, broad, and very dark-skinned, I suspected he was more Owambo than San. SWAPO was originally the party of the Owambo people, and within minutes of our conversation he let me know that he was a dedicated member of his party.
George and I ate lunch together in the shade of a tree at the main reception area Treesleepers. I asked about the obvious construction that was going on, and he said the camp was not completed yet, even though it has been open for three years. I asked him about other guest in the camp and he said that there was only one Dutch family besides me, but that this was the high season. Then he tried to sign me up for a village tour that afternoon and a bush walk with another guide the following morning. I chose the village tour, hoping to see what modern life was like for the Hei//omn.
The village tour came with an instruction sheet. It stated that the village is very poor, and that visitors should respect the families that we visit and bring small articles of appreciation to them. The sheet suggested T-shirts, tea, sweets, bread, cigarettes, and alcohol. As I read the pamphlet, next to the Dutch woman and her two small sons, we decided on giving the families gifts of food; even though we suspected booze would be more welcome.
George drove the Dutch trio and I through the small village of Tsintsabis and then turned away along a small dirt road into open, yellow fields. We approached an enclosure of low mud and grass huts and parked the car. We stayed in the car as George told us that we would meet this first family, and then move on to another family. He told us that we should ask many questions, and that he would translate for us. He said that the family wanted us to visit, and that they would welcome us.
Out of the car George then led us through a barbed wire fence and into the compound of five huts. Children ran into one of the huts screaming as we approached. George asked us to wait outside the hut while he ducked inside to coax them out. Four children came outside followed by two women, each holding multiple infants. Everyone wore soiled western clothes, and dirty faces. One little girl of two wore a set of blue curlers in her hair. They sat on the ground across from us, the children staying close to their mothers, and all played with the sand at their feet. No one spoke. I held a bag of food between my legs and felt very stupid, like an old fool waiting to feed ducks in a park.
Luckily, the Dutch woman took possession of the conversation, and asked her fellow women about their lives, and the lives of their children. The women were both in their twenties, but did not know their exact ages, and both had four children. The women said that they did not work, and that the children did not and would not go to school because they themselves did not like the little schooling they had. They neither farmed and nor made trinkets to sell to tourists. Instead their parents supported them from their government pensions, and only busied themselves with doing laundry (dubious) and cooking for their children.
Within mere minutes they were annoyed by the questions about schooling and the future of their children and were done talking to us. George tried to coax them to speak with rounds of clicking questions, but they were clearly finished with the visit. I wanted to leave, and stood up and handed one of the women my bag of food. The whole encounter was disheartening and disturbing. I was worried for the future of the children, and angry at the ignorance of the mothers. I did not want to visit another family, but George said that the next family was that of the local witch doctor. I had to see that.
The next family lived less than a mile away, down a similar dirt path protected by a low, wire fence. When we approached the compound, the family did not disappear into a hut, but stayed outside and watched us approach. There were three generations of one family, and a father and son from a nearby village sitting around a similar collection of mud and thatch huts. The grandfather, the local witch doctor sat in the sun, while the grandmother, her daughter, and her four children sat under the roof of an open hut, around a wood fire.
The patriarch was very welcoming, waving to us all individually. The matriarch squatted against the pole quietly, but her eyes were also welcoming and warm. The children immediately started playing with the Dutch children, and were confident around them. The Dutch woman asked the same questions and found that the children all went to school, and a little girl of eleven spoke English to us. The women and the children were proud of themselves and proud of their lives. The scene was the same, but the encounter was much different from the last.
I asked the grandfather about being a witchdoctor and he said that it was a good profession, but that those days were over for him, and he was glad to not be bothered by the constant stream of sick people. I asked about how he supported himself now, and he said that he was given a house by the government, but rents it out to local laborers working the new road into town. He also said that he was saving the pension he earned from the government to send his grandchildren to school so they could succeed in the future.
I took pictures of one boy and showed him the images on the LCD screen. He laughed loudly and pulled the camera out of my hand to show the other children. They all lined up for photos, and squealed with delight when they saw their faces on the screen. Then we played soccer with all the children, Hei//omn versus the first world, using a wad of plastic bags rolled together as a crude, tiny ball. Hei//omn won.
As sun set in the distance, and more children emerged from the bush carrying piles of firewood on their heads, it was time to leave the family to their evening routine. We got back in the car, and kept waving back to the family as they kept waving goodbye to us. On the way out of town we passed a two-story white washed building with tall, broken windows and a broken door. It was the only to two-story building in the village of single room cinder block shacks and mud huts, and stood out like a white elephant in a desert. I asked George about it.
The building was a gift from a German development aid foundation called ‘Brot Gegen Not, or ‘Bread Not Misery’. It was designed as a bakery and meant to offer vocational training to the villagers in Tsintsabis who needed a way to support themselves and their village beyond their hunter gathering roots. The bakery operated under the direction of the foundation for the first year before being turned over to Namibian government, and village. George told me that the bakery was prosperous under foreign management but failed due to mismanagement when it was turned over to Namibian control.
George also told me that he expected the bakery to be up and running again, this time with better, local management next year. The foundations website, however, says that they will move the baking operation to Tsumeb to ensure its future success. I wonder what Hans and his wife thinks of this international bakery interfering with their struggling bakery. And I wonder what will happen in the future of both bakeries.