Hi everyone! This is Erin, and I’m sharing with you my final reflection of my Namibia internship experience, which was written and submitted to our program coordinator, Aaron Yarmoshuk. It took me awhile to write, as I tried my best to convey my emotions as accurately and as fully as possible, but I’m happy with what I came up with – I think I met the goal I set out to achieve.
I went to Namibia this summer. I came home with a flag. I’m not really one for souvenirs: I hate tacky touristy trinkets and I figured I would be happy if I returned home to Canada without a tangible token from my travels, but I didn’t test this hypothesis. Instead, I paid N$2.00 and bought myself a little 10x15inch Namibian flag.
I saw a lot in Namibia this summer. So did my flag. The flimsy bit of fabric accompanied me to work, to social events, to running races. At work one day, some of my colleagues huddled around my flag and I, taking turns signing it. I hadn’t given it much thought before my colleagues began talking about it, but the flag tells a story, or at least, its symbols and colours represent a nation’s story. I got a rough tutorial on the flag’s symbolism right then and there, but as none of these colleagues were Namibian-born, most of the information I received that day was delivered to me with a degree of uncertainty. Regardless, I was fascinated and made a mental note to research the flag’s meaning at a later time.
Every time I look at my flag, a smile creeps across my face as wonderful memories of the people I met and the places I travelled to pop one by one into the forefront of my mind. However, it wasn’t until I got home to Canada, unpacked my things, and unfolded my flag that I recalled my vow to myself. As I researched the history and meaning behind the flag while sitting in my Toronto apartment, these sometimes-disjointed memories of people met and places travelled to were suddenly linked together in a beautiful montage of my Namibian internship experience.
As I began to uncover the significance of the colours and symbols emblazoned upon the Namibian flag in front of me, I realized that my signed flag represents so much more than the friendships I made and the memories I have of the experiences associated with them. It represents the events that shape Namibia’s history, independence, and current culture I experienced. It represents the country’s incredibly unique and raw beauty that so often left me awestruck. It represents the different people of different races and tribes that call Namibia home. It represents the connection that ties together all of these things into a national identity.
The 12-rayed sunburst unsurprisingly represents the blazing sun that warms the desert and shines upon all Namibians. That Namibian sun sure was faithful. There was not a day that went by where clouds shielded the sun from us, something that was never appreciated as much as it was in the middle of the Namib desert at Sesriem, following a particularly bone-chilling winter night camped out under the stars of the southern hemisphere. When I think of the Namibian sun, I think of climbing Dune 45 as the sun slowly rose and cast its golden radiance over the Namib-Naukluft National Park. It was an extraordinary sight – one that belongs in a National Geographic magazine but instead lives on in my memories.
The yellow symbolizes power and existence, life and energy. Everyone who signed my flag contributes their unique existence to Namibian society; they are all so full of life. But so too are the thousands of patients I met while working at the Katutura Health Centre’s HIV clinic. Most appearing quite healthy thanks to advances in HIV care and antiretroviral treatment, they are determined to have more power over the virus than it has over them – they refuse to let HIV take away their energy and zeal for life.
I learned that the blue of the flag represents the nation’s invaluable water resources, the Namibian sky, and the Atlantic Ocean. Among my interval sessions and informal Afrikaans lessons with a running friend, I learned a lot about the coveted water supply in this desert country, as this friend is also a hydrologist working for the Namibian government. With him and another friend, I ran to the top of the highest mountain in the Windhoek area and took in an exquisite view of the late afternoon city landscape, the only thing above us being the Namibian sky. I was there where the Namibian sky meets the Atlantic Ocean, too. I saw it in the distant horizon while running along the Swakopmund shoreline, surrounded by some of my fellow University of Toronto interns and friends who shared this incredible journey with me.
The red band that runs diagonally across the Namibian flag signifies the resource most imperative to Namibian culture: its people. In particular, the red stands for their heroism and determination to construct an equal tomorrow. Red is a strong, unrelenting colour, and strength and unrelenting determination will be necessary if an equal future is ever to exist. Heroism, strength, and unrelenting determination. These words describe no one else better than they do my friend Songo. Songo is a 33-year-old Herero man who I met at a running race in Windhoek one weekend. A 2:26 marathoner and elite athlete, Songo destroyed the field that day. A hero he was at the race, and a hero he is in the Otjomuise community, an informal settlement of corrugated iron shacks with dirt floors and not much running water. Day in and day out he works by day as a soldier in the Namibian Defense Force to feed his child, trains by morning and night to win running races to supplement his measly soldier’s income. He promotes education – he paid his son’s mother’s family in cattle to bring his son to live with him in the city and go to school. Despite having experienced a lifetime of racial prejudice and inequality, he is not afraid to speak to white people – that’s how he met me. He is not afraid to stand up for what he believes in – a nation where all Namibians have equal opportunity.
In the history books of this region, I see the word ‘white’ as being tainted, stained with the association to a people who flocked to and treated so unfairly those who had inhabited southwestern Africa for generations and generations. In the context of the flag, however, white embodies the peace and unity that Namibia boasts. Peace and unity. These two words take me back to mid-July, as I sat quietly beside the Okaukuejo waterhole in Etosha National Park, taking in the tranquil harmony of dozens of vastly different species standing together, drinking and bathing and sharing what is during the dry season one of the park’s few water sources. It struck me that this scene was not unlike the people of Namibia. While different sub-groups of Namibians survive off of differing amounts of income, struggle from different hardships, and don’t always see eye to eye, Namibia is overall a peaceful country, united in independence.
Finally, the green in the lower right triangle of the flag symbolizes vegetation and agricultural resources. This automatically made me think of Namibia’s north, where herds of stubborn cattle, goats, and the odd chicken pose constant obstacles for traffic. This led me to think fondly of some of my Ovambo friends in Windhoek who would frequently travel back to the north to work on the farm in the village they grew up on. From there, I began thinking of the fun I had with them and the memories we created, of cheering on Namibia as they outscored Kenya in the FIFA World Cup Qualifier soccer game, of celebrating the win over Windhoek Lager and braaied goat, of sharing a traditional Ovambo meal at their family’s home, of them happily signing my flag.
I was uncomfortable with the huge discrepancy between the division of resources among the white Afrikaners and the people identifying with the Ovambo, Herero, Damara, or other indigenous tribes. The racial segregation and obvious racism still existing in southwestern Africa did not go unnoticed by me. I met and made friends with people of all different walks of life. Some signed my flag and wrote messages in English, others in Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero. For various historical, political, and societal reasons, the people who signed my flag do not share one nation equally. They belong in different places of society’s hierarchy, based on unwritten and unspoken rules concerning history and race. However, they are segregated neither on my flag nor in my mind based on whether they are white or black, rich or poor. They are not segregated at all. They are as one and they share one place in my heart. They share it equally – I love that.
I came home from Namibia just a little bit different. So did my flag. Like my flag, I feel as though I have been added to. The signatures and scrawled messages on my flag represent the people I’ve met and the memories I’ve made that have etched themselves into this chapter of my life. I want to stay away from the clichés that say my African experience ‘forever changed my life’ or ‘made me a better person’, because neither of those phrases is necessarily true. However, I will not shy away from saying that my experience in southwestern Africa was one of the best experiences of my life.
I come away from this experience with a better understanding of myself – oddly enough, I found the exploration of my new environment gave way to a thorough introspective exploration, too. I am now more aware than I ever was before of my positive attributes as well as those I struggle with. I come away from this experience a more confident person, having risen to meet the challenges at my workplace and the demands of life in a foreign culture. I come away from this experience a wealthier person – wealthier in both friendships and in knowledge, having gone through some extraordinary life experiences and learned valuable lessons along the way. In spite of myself, I come away from this experience with a souvenir: a flag to remember it all.