EENHANA, Namibia — This past March, Namibia celebrated 20 years of independence. It was crazy being in a country so young that I would have been just one year old when Namibia broke from South Africa’s rule and became a new democratic nation under the country’s first president, Sam Nujoma.
In spite of its young age, Namibia has made great strides since independence, and is one of the most prosperous and safest countries in Africa today. My firsthand experience confirmed this.
All Namibians know someone who fought in the war. The fighters, members of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), were known for guerrilla warfare tactics. They would ambush South African soldiers and then retreat into bordering Angola.
When SWAPO members were exiled, many went abroad to study, then came back to Namibia to help shape the new government, now ruled by the majority SWAPO party.
My host mother’s brother went abroad to study architecture in Europe, and now designs shrines commemorating the freedom struggle in Namibia. One of his shrines is here in Eenhana where I taught for two months this summer. The shrine was built in 2007 after a mass grave of SWAPO supporters was found outside the town.
The shrine is made up of two marble slabs where the bodies were buried and a huge statue of a woman fighter. Not used to seeing monuments of women soldiers, I asked a local man about the significance behind it. He explained that women played a vital role in Namibia’s quest for independence. Women risked their lives to house, feed, and care for soldiers, and some even joined the battles themselves.
This fact complements and perhaps partially explains the progress Namibia is making in gender equality. Gender equity is protected by the constitution and gender equity laws also promote women’s rights. The minimum legal age for marriage, for both men and women, is 18.
The Namibian government actively promotes equal treatment of women, and it is very common for women to be the breadwinners in families. My host mother is a teacher and supports her husband, seven kids, and three grandchildren while her spouse resides at their village home in the bush. The mayor of Eenhana is a woman, and the principal at my school is a woman.
Before independence, Namibians were a group of many different tribes separated by language barriers. The language the South African government required Namibians to learn was Afrikaans. When Southwest Africa became Namibia, the official language changed to English, and the country made sweeping efforts to ensure its citizens had a command of the language.
There are still many challenges in the schools, such as the mother tongue policy (which allows grades 1-3 to be taught in the vernacular). But I was impressed at the initiative many Namibians took to master English. My host mom, who has been a teacher in Namibia since 1975, went back to university so she could learn English properly and be able to teach in English.
While the towns below the “red line” (a line that separates domestic from wild cattle) are more developed and very western, towns in the north are working toward development. Many northern towns were formed after independence, and the government sets aside a large amount of money toward improvement in education — more than 20 percent of the national budget — in addition to funds for infrastructure and development in these cities. The government also pays for food programs and housing for some of the bushmen, known as the San people.
What impressed me most about this newly formed nation was the strong sense of national pride, uniting all Namibians, black and white, Damara and Herero, Caprivians and Oshiwambos.
At every morning assembly, the students at Eenhana Senior Secondary School sang the national anthem with pride as they faced the Namibian flag.
Namibians from all parts boast about the safety and friendliness of their country. They ask me if I have seen the beauty of their sand dunes in the south, their popular and massive national park, Etosha, in the north, or their huge waterfall, Ruacana, by the Angola border.
They talk about how many Angolans and Zimbabweans come to Namibia in hopes of a more stable future and secure jobs. They want to know if their national celebrities, white pop singer Stefan Ludik, and Oshiwambo rapper, Gazza, are popular in the U.S. as well.
Though I only lived in the country for two short months, I felt their pride and knew I would take a piece of Namibia back with me to the U.S. — in the form of greeting everyone with a smile, making the best out of bad situations, and giving to others what you cannot afford for yourself.
As they say in Oshiwambo, ”Kala po nawa, Namibia!” (Stay well, Namibia!)