4 January 2013

Namibia: In Search of the Real African City


THE good professor, Joe Diescho, once noted that Chinese are clear about who they are. Are we?

That's the first thought that came to mind when citizen journo Hobie Clark (an ardent Facebook user) queried on his Facebook wall: "apparently Namibian 'culture' is various dances by different language-groups (aka tribes). What about literature, music, food, traditions...?"

I also thought back to the late 90s about what is now called as the Katutura Shoprite Complex. There I was part of a small throng of people in a room where the Namibia Red Cross Society pitched the idea of reviving that part of Katutura into a modern-day shopping center. The impressive plan dazzled all present. Back then the idea of revitalising the Katutura economy made complete sense. The shopping complex meant bringing business and jobs to the people of Katutura who largely depended on Windhoek city centre for their economic activities, sometimes walking long distances to buy groceries and other household necessities there.

The old complex used to be the center for Namibia's pre-independence urban resistance and civic advocacy. Various social movements (such as the Namibian National Students' Organisation) were housed there. After independence, the Legal Assistance Centre advice office, Katutura Community Radio, YWCA, and the Red Cross were some of the non-governmental organisations who found their habitat there.

Has the redevelopment of this area into the modern Katutura Shoprite Complex resulted in a type of economic boom for the people of Katutura and Namibia in general? The past years when I am in Windhoek (from my base in Nuyoma Freedom Square), I've been a regular visitor to the Katutura Shoprite complex. Visible is a dull, intimidating, unfriendly and uninviting shopping centre buzzing with people; taxis competing for parking space and customers; and traffic police chasing after taxi drivers. Gone is that old familiarity - the history, the resilience, resistance, the citizen or people's art, and the social activism that place used to represent.

Not surprising here, but personally I find Namibia's plain architectural structures, just like many other cities/towns across the continent, lacking in bringing out the African character - the real Africa - the continent's history, culture, and everyday life. The term 'real Africa' evokes raw emotions, especially when used by Westerners. We assume that it is coming from their racist sub-conscious of viewing Africans as backward.

But they have a point because I too don't see how our cities/towns integrate, engage, and speak to own culture... the types that Hobie Clark is probably referring to. They say that cities and towns are not just buildings and structures but they tell stories of who we are as people. Therefore, they are us and we are them. Thabo Mbeki, the former South African President, calls this the African Renaissance in education, economy, politics, technology, arts and everything we do as Africans.

In Namibia, however, the reality is that two elements define our cities/towns' character, namely the colonial and the national liberation legacy. The former gives our cities/towns a Eurocentric cultural flavor. And the latter provides a nationalistic and patriotic side. The bond that ties the two is that both have given us macho cities/towns as you probably can see from the street names, grandiose national monuments and other plazas.

Consequently, the Namibian/African cultural tapestry does not feature in most of our city planners and architects' equation of city/town planning, development and beautification. Just so we are clear here: I am not talking about cultural militancy/cultural superiority which tend to deny the existence of other cultures. But what I am talking about is the beauty of cultural humility in terms of richness, creativity and vibrancy.

The modern makeover of the Katutura complex is a microcosm of what has come to most of our cities and towns in the whole country where hundreds of dollars are being invested to modernise Namibia's towns, including developing new ones. Some call it a sign of development... the kind of economic and political advantages Namibia needs now. And others call it Vision 2030. A point, from where I am, always driven home by my friends' warning that I won't recognise my home town Rundu or Runtu (we are talking about the same town here) because it has developed so much. It is true; I don't recognise it (the same goes for other towns) because it has become foreign to me, detached from the people, the culture and everything. Nor do I see development or Vision 2030.

Equally, I don't recognise the Namibian culture in the parliament and Heroes' Acre. Nor do I see cultural creativity/energies manifesting itself at our national universities, music industry, art and sport. Instead, I see cities/towns and people at the periphery and mercy of modernity-modernity at war with the people and culture. I see young people roaming aimlessly in the streets, with some living a false life of instant gratification. And I also see consumerism.

Absent: the sense of African "we-ness," community resilience, and the spirit of self-help. It is in this context that I can't help but wonder about the fate of the Namibian and African cultural character. And I also can't help but wonder why, in contrast, the Chinese are so successful economically and culturally? Is there a link?

Ndumba J Kamwanyah is a public policy consultant and an Africa blogger for the Foreign Policy Association.

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