Hi everyone! This is Erin, and I want to share with you something I wrote about a person I met during my last week in Namibia. I don’t want to give much else away, but as you will see, I feel so blessed to have met this person and become friends with him. I hope you enjoy the read!
His name is Songo. He is 33 years old. His ‘really’ name is Vetisee Mbunguha, but he doesn’t tell the white people that, because they can’t pronounce it. He was 1 of 12 children in his family born in a Herero village in Namibia.
When he started Grade 1 at 10 years old, he was one of the youngest students in his class. He came to Windhoek when his teacher moved him away from his family and village so that he could get an education uninterrupted from work herding cattle. He graduated high school, but had no money to pursue higher education. Instead, he enlisted as a soldier and continues to this day to be employed by the Namibian Defense Force.
He has one son, Kaa. Kaa is 15 and thanks to his father, who paid his child’s mother’s family in cattle to take him from his village and to the city for school, he is getting an education. Songo and Kaa live together in a tin shack. It has dirt floors. It is the shack that has “Ovahimba” scrawled in paint on it, the one in the middle of Station 8, Otjomuise, one of the poorest informal settlements in Windhoek, Namibia.
Songo is black. He is an athlete. He is my friend.
My name is Erin. I am 22 years old. My full name is Erin Ann Ready, but I only use my middle name when I’m filling out legal documents. I was the first of 3 children in my family born in a town about 100km northeast of Toronto, Canada.
When I started Grade 1 at age 5, I was the youngest in my class by no more than a year. I have a high school education and I am now a student in a professional degree program at the University of Toronto. In 2 more years I will have completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacy. I came to Windhoek to work in an HIV clinic, dispensing antiretrovirals (ARVs) to HIV-positive patients and working on pharmaceutical care projects as part of a 10-week internship to enrich my pharmacy education.
I have no children. I stayed with 5 other Canadian university students in a 2-storey house in the upper middle class region of Windhoek known as Hochland Park, less than 10km from Otjomuise.
I am white. I am an athlete. I am Songo’s ‘best friend he ever had’.
* * *
In the fall of 2011, I heard about an internship opportunity in a far-off land, in a country somewhere in Africa. I am ashamed to admit that at that point I couldn’t even locate Namibia on a map. I was sold by the presentation the previous year’s pharmacy interns gave our class. I, too, wanted an educational challenge in a unique internship setting where I would come out ‘feeling like a pharmacist’. I submitted my application and was thrilled when I received news a month later that I had been selected into the internship program.
I began looking ahead to the upcoming summer. I envisioned myself working in the ARV clinic, evaluating ARV prescriptions for accuracy, dispensing ARVs, developing ways to communicate across language barriers to counsel patients on their medications. I envisioned myself working closely with the healthcare professionals at the clinic, together working on pharmaceutical care projects to advance patient care. Having yet to be taught the therapeutics of HIV in the classroom, I was quite certain that I would learn more from the healthcare team at the Katutura Health Centre ARV Clinic (the internship site in Windhoek, Namibia) than they could ever learn from me. I envisioned myself forming friendships with my colleagues and coworkers, occasionally sharing a meal or drink with them after work or on weekends. I didn’t imagine making a friend like Songo.
To prepare for the Namibia internship, I attended the mandatory orientation sessions and completed the required readings. The academic side of me knew I was in the right place. I was embarking on a journey that had the potential to change my life forever as much as it had the potential to teach me about elements of healthcare I could never hope to learn from a textbook. However, I am not fully defined by my academics. As a varsity athlete, I also very much have an athletic component to who I am. As a young female distance runner attending safety abroad orientation sessions, I was worried about not being able to maintain my fitness – and consequentially my sanity – in the upcoming months.
In our safety abroad sessions, we were encouraged to never travel alone in Windhoek, to always be in the company of at least one other intern. Running outside was a definite no-no. Although this was never specifically addressed in so many words, I can say with some certainty that travelling alone to the informal settlement of Otjomuise, located on the outskirts of Windhoek, to go running with an unmarried 33 year old man was a definite violation of the safety abroad policies we learned about. I can tell you with utmost certainty that it was one of the best decisions of my trip.
It was through the slight bending of these safety abroad policies that began the series of events that led me to Songo. In an effort to immerse myself in local culture, make new Namibian friends, and maintain some of my fitness by running outside, I researched and joined a local running club. I met new friends and went running on a fairly regular basis with them. The lack of diversity of the group didn’t strike me as remarkable. I think as a Canadian, I’m used to accepting things the way they are presented to me, without much thought as to whether they are the same as me, different, or somewhere in between. We Canadians, we are an accepting people.
All of the runners in this club were white. Almost all spoke Afrikaans with English as a second language. Almost all had well-paying jobs and lived in the neighbourhoods of Windhoek that are responsible for skewing the national statistics such that Namibia, with all of its thousands of people living in informal settlements like Songo, is classified by the World Bank as a middle income country – a classification determined by average per capita income and not the country’s wealth distribution. None of them had friends like Songo.
My new friends at the running club are really nice people. They would often drive well out of their way to pick me up for practices, they gladly translated Afrikaans for me, and they spoke English when I was around to include me in their conversations. They invited me to their homes to share with me South African rooibos tea and rusks, home cooked meals, and family time.
Bearing this in mind, it may then seem strange when I write that my first experiences with racism in Namibia were among some of these people. I remember some of my fellow Canadian interns and I expressing enthusiastically our excitement over the upcoming Namibia vs. Kenya FIFA World Cup Qualifier soccer match that we would be attending. The running club did not match our enthusiasm with which we reported our weekend plans. Strange, I thought. Most athletes I know show, if not enthusiasm, respect and appreciation for other sports. The remarks we received were not what we expected to hear. They were remarks of a nation shaped by its history of Apartheid, still grossly divided into rich and poor, rugby and soccer, white and black. “You must be very careful. I would never allow my [white] daughter and her [white] friends to go to a soccer game. Soccer is a sport for the blacks. Rugby is the sport for white people,” we were warned.
Of course, my experiences with racism were just that. Little more than fleeting comments about other people, my experiences with racism never affected me like they affect Songo. I am white. Songo is black. When Songo told me with delight and amazement one day that chatting with me marked the first time in his life that he had ever chatted with a white person, I thought he was crazy and called him out on it. “It is the true. Ah! Erin, if you could know how I’m feeling to chat with a white person… The Namibian people do not like black people. If you could be my friend I will be a happy man ever,” Songo explained to me.
I let these words soak in before asking more questions on the topic. There was so much to reflect upon in these few words alone. That Songo had just defined Namibian people as being only the mere 6% of people in the country who are white left him in a rather grey area. If he does not identify himself as a man of the nation within which he was born and has lived his entire life, how does he identify himself? Songo is not only marginalized based on the colour of his skin. As a member of the Herero tribe, his ancestors were among the few survivors of the horrific Herero Genocide in the early 1900s, where German colonists nearly annihilated the entire Herero population in a massacre that can be likened to the Holocaust. He is therefore a member of a minority population in Namibia, one that finds itself still in a continuing struggle against the government for their rights. As a Herero man, where does Songo see himself fitting into society?
I thought about why Songo was so eager to gain a friend in me. The fact that in Namibia, there is a definite association between people of European descent and privileged lifestyles did not escape me. My fellow female Canadian interns and I remarked on this a lot. There were dozens of times during our stay in Namibia where we had been asked by our internship colleagues, taxi drivers, and strangers in the street if we had boyfriends. The answer never mattered. If we said yes, we needed boyfriends in Namibia; if we said no, we needed Namibian boyfriends more than ever. “Make me your Namibian boyfriend,” they would say. Perhaps, if we REALLY didn’t seem keen on the idea, they would instruct us to “find them a white girl.” Naturally, we questioned anyone who said these things to us. Nine times out of ten, we got an exacerbated “I just…. WANT!” as an explanation.
A female coworker of mine got a little more specific: “White men are just better. A white man will tell you he loves you, and mean what he says. The only time a black man will tell a woman he loves her is in bed (sex).” This coworker had never had a white boyfriend; she had only ever suffered heartbreak at the hands of her child’s black father. Yes, her romantic experiences have left her jaded and perhaps skeptical of the existence of everlasting love, but I think her cultural experiences have also left her believing that the prejudiced manner in which Namibian society places white men ahead of black men somehow reflects a superiority of a white man’s ability to love and be a good person. Unbelievable.
With Songo, things were different. Never once was our relationship the slightest bit flirtatious. Never once did Songo expect or ask anything from me, despite the fact that to many people with Songo’s background living in Songo’s community, I am the quintessence of wealth: I am white. It is not as though circumstances in which these matters could have arisen never came up, either. Songo and I talked of love, of marriage, of fidelity and of adultery. Neither of us used these topics as lures to lead the conversation into flirtatious or promiscuous territory. We merely discussed these topics just as we discussed what our favourite pre-race meals were: we were interested in getting to know each other as friends and getting to know each other’s cultures.
Songo and I also exchanged gifts. Songo started it, but I could tell he expected nothing from me in return. When I was openly admiring Songo’s Namibian Defense Force tracksuit, he smiled, took off his racing arm warmers, neatly folded them, and gave them to me. I would have felt terribly guilty had I not given him anything in return. I really loved my brand new South Africa racing arm warmers I had just bought myself. I was pretty sure I could find myself another pair for myself before I went back to Canada. I asked Songo if he wanted them, and he said yes, but only if I wanted to give them. I never did find another pair, but I’m really happy I gave them to Songo. I have a picture of him and I after a run one day with him wearing them. He says that whenever he races in them he will think of me. I suppose it’s a little ironic that one of the tokens with which Songo will commemorate the first friendship he had with a white person is emblazoned with the flag of a country where racial segregation inflicted by national legislation existed for over four and a half of the past seven decades and was officially abolished less than twenty years ago. On the other hand, maybe it’s a sign that the future is behind us, or at least that we’re moving away from the past.
I thought some more about why Songo was so eager to gain a friend in me. I asked him to tell me about his experiences with white people, since I knew that even if he had never before chatted with white people, he had certainly had encounters with them before. He told me about his and his black teammates’ experiences at local races. Everything he told me, I realized, I had witnessed at the race where I first met him. Whites and blacks meet each other at local races, but they do not socialize with each other. During the results and the awards and the post-race festivities, the white people do not sit with the black people. This, I’ll tell you, is despite the fact that most of the races are won (often by a large margin) by black runners. The treatment of the winners is a stark contrast to how winners are treated in races (of varying degrees of competitiveness) that I’m used to running in Canada. Following the race, runners of all ages congratulate each other on races well run, especially eager to congratulate the top runners. There are jokes about what performance-enhancing breakfast cereals they are eating and victorious photographs taken to remember the solid efforts put in. All runners, but especially the day’s top runners, feel and are treated like celebrities for the hour or two following the race.
Sure, this is done at the races in Namibia, but it is only done among the white runners. They go around, congratulating each other on the morning’s accomplishments, celebrating in a post-race endorphin high. But they ignore the black runners standing together by themselves. It is as if they aren’t there. After all, they are black.
I met Songo when he called me over to where he and his teammates were sitting following the OTB Sport AquaSplash X-Country Trail Run at Heja Lodge. He recognized me from my participation in a local half marathon the day before. “You are the white woman who ran yesterday. [Disclaimer: I was one of many white women who had run the race yesterday, but what he said was true, and so I nodded in agreement.] Ahhh! You ran very nice. I have never seen a white lady run like you.”
Before Songo’s compliment gets interpreted without much context, I’ll tell you this is likely true. Given Namibia’s small population and lack of structured athletics programs beyond recreational running clubs, I am not too surprised. Still, I think I might keep Songo’s compliment written down in my training log to pick me up on days I’m not feeling very good about myself or how my running is going. I thanked him and began the pleasantries by asking him how his race went. It wasn’t long before I was sitting down with Songo and his friends, talking about work, school, home, and of course, running. It wasn’t long after that before I felt a hand grasp firmly around my upper arm, yanking me to my feet. That hand was white. It belonged to Johan*, a man in his 50s and member of the running club I had joined. “Come on, come on; let’s go over here. Let’s go over here for a photo,” Johan said, leading me away from Songo. I could still feel the impression his hand had left on my arm.
In defiance, I went back to sit with Songo following the photo decoy. I saw in Johan’s eyes disapproval, but this time he at least didn’t stop me. A few days later, I asked Songo if he remembered the white man I was with at the race. “Yes, the one who pulled you away. You see? The Namibian people do not like black people.”
I wanted to know if the episode with Johan was something like occurrences that Songo had had with white people before – whether things like what I had been a part of happened regularly. The responses I received from Songo are words I won’t ever forget. “Sometimes they [the white people] call us kafel means slave… Sometimes they call us baboon, which is paining.”
Apartheid hasn’t been apart of legislation since Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990. That’s what the history books say. It’s a fact that suggests a humble society ashamed of its past but moving towards fairer futures has been established. It’s a fact that doesn’t reflect reality. The political system of Apartheid may no longer govern the land, but in my eyes, the segregating effect of Apartheid on society is still very much a reality. It is as real as the barbed wire fences surrounding the million-dollar homes of Namibia’s white Afrikaners, as real as the scrap metal roofs covering the dirt floors of Otjomuise’s dirt poor. It is as real as the white man who drives his shiny new car to the private healthcare clinic in his Windhoek neighbourhood, as real as the black man who travels for many hours by donkey to get HIV treatment at his nearest outreach clinic in remote Namibia. It is as real as the crowd of white faces cheering on their rugby fans at Olympia’s Independence Stadium, as real as the sea of black faces cheering on their soccer fans at Katutura’s Sam Nujoma Stadium. Apartheid may officially be over, but racial segregation in Namibia still very much exists.
My experience in Namibia this summer taught me so much. I learned about so much more than what I could ever learn from a pharmacy textbook. From Songo especially, I learned about humanity. I learned there is nothing more valuable in life than friendship, than family. I learned that when you fall down, you get up and try again. You try again with humility in your heart, dignity in your chest, and a smile on your face. I believe I made a difference, too. I may not have changed society, but I may have changed Songo’s perception of it, even just a little. He introduced me to the world seen through his eyes, and I did my best to show him the world seen through mine. Neither of us sees black or white; we see both, together.
*Name has been changed.