Namibia: Remembering David Ndjavera

THE most commonly reported effect of the death of illustrious film and theatre actor David 'Stone' Ndjavera is a dizzying denial. It cannot be.

There must be some mistake. He is merely waiting in the wings.

It's a story that's easy to tell ourselves with theatres currently shuttered against the spread of Covid-19.

Cut off from the stages Ndjavera commanded in a parade of scene-stealing characters for over 30 years, we are not yet faced with his glaring absence, the silence where his infectious laughter and operatic bursts of song used to be, nor the empty audience seats in which Ndjavera would consistently show up for the arts.

Applauding, encouraging, alert.

Comforted by an extensive, chameleon-like filmography spanning the decades between the 90s era comedy of 'One Fine Day', and the drought-stricken drama of 'Hairareb' (2019), we can watch Ndjavera grow from talented young actor to indelible industry giant and pretend he is still with us.

The bitter truth, however, is that Ndjavera, born at Gobabis on 21 August 1969, passed away in the early hours of 14 July - a month shy of his 52nd birthday, and a few days after his wife, Helena, who worked as a nurse on the pandemic frontline, also passed on.

The end was unobtrusive.

A conversation that trailed off in Lucky Pieters' car as he rushed his dear friend to the Katutura Intermediate Hospital in an attempt to stem the scourge of Covid-19 that robbed us of Ndjavera's talent, teaching and light.

"Please call Cherlien and ask them to postpone my shoot."

And then he was gone.

A tangle of loose ends, including his doctorate, a film role in Perivi Katjavivi's upcoming feature, a Namibian theatre seminar alongside Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja, a 'Blue Bench' variation with Aldo Behrens, and the highly anticipated 'Hereroland' mimicking the knot in a nation's stomach as the news of Ndjavera's passing spread quickly.

"He was still thinking about work while he was struggling, that's how committed he was," recalls Pieters in a live-stream of Ndjavera's memorial service at the National Theatre of Namibia.

It's a trait that is repeated again and again as countless family members, friends, colleagues and peers pay their respect to the multiple award-winning actors and director whose inspiring life and work in over 70 plays impacted so many at every level of the arts and entertainment industry.

Ndjavera was a sought-after film and theatremaker, yes, but he was also a teacher, an academic and a mentor to generations of artists, actors and creatives.

At the time of his passing, Ndjavera was a lecturer and the head of the drama department at the College of the Arts (Cota). He taught drama and life skills at the International University of Management and had earned both his honours and master's degrees in performing arts from the University of Namibia.

"The students are heartbroken," says Cota rector Angelika Schroeder, who met Ndjavera during a dance production in 1988. "We had so many plans. He made a substantial contribution to the College of the Arts' curriculum development. He always aspired to make the theatre a better place to learn and work."

Before Ndjavera's formal work as a lecturer, veteran artist and friend Papa Shikongeni recalls the art extension programme that saw him and Ndjavera travelling everywhere from Rundu to Keetmanshoop, showcasing theatre and visual art at local schools in the early 90s.

Ndjavera's travels did not end there. Through his legendary work as an actor, director and producer, he travelled around the world to South Africa, Botswana, Canada, Britain and Belgium, and most recently to Germany where he co-directed 'Hereroland' at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre.

"I can still hear him singing out loud in his broken German that only he understood," says 'Hereroland' costume designer and friend Cynthia Schimming.

Ever animated and curious, Ndjavera tended to immerse himself in new places, greeted 2020 dancing the Viennese Waltz on New Year's Day, and particularly enjoyed Hamburg's eisbein with potatoes. He did not like the sauerkraut.

"Going to the theatre with David was like sitting in drama class," recalls Schimming.

"He was directing someone else's play from the front row. In between you would see a movement of arms or hands. And, sometimes, when he had read the book on which the play was based, you would hear him quoting lines in English, although we were watching a German play."

PLAYWRIghT

Ndjavera was certainly a character and perhaps prophetically 'The Chameleon' was the title of the first play he ever wrote.

The saxophonist, music lover and enthusiastic dancer would go on to write scores more, a selection of which were published in a collection titled 'Plays for Stage and Schools' in 2014. The book was published under the auspices of Township Productions where he worked tirelessly with his dear friend and fellow in the arts, theatremaker and poet Keamogetsi Joseph Molapong.

"What made David a great teacher is that he knew the power of planting seeds and instilling courage, skills and confidence in younger people. His work and personality created a constructive bridge between the older and younger generation of Namibian theatremakers," says the National Theatre of Namibia's artistic director, Nelago Shilongoh, who met Ndjavera as a teen when he mentored Artbeat, the NTN's after-school performing arts programme.

"He came from the generation of theatremakers who showed up and did the things. Whether it was on theatre stages, in classrooms, town halls or on the streets. We would like his legacy of vibrancy and doing to continue," she says.

"We hope to ensure an annual high school drama competition in his name."

Perhaps Ndjavera's most prominent young protégé, award-winning actor Adriano Visagie remembers Ndjavera as a friend of the family when he was a child.

"Fast forward to 2009, I was doing my English literature exam based on 'Master Harold and the Boys', and I saw Uncle David, Stanley van Wyk and Morne Botha perform the acclaimed play and, at that moment, I knew this is what I wanted to do," says Visagie, who has since worked with his mentor and father figure in 'A Report for an Academy', 'Dialogue Between a Priest and Dying Man', 'Brooding with Beckett', 'District Six' and 'Three Women and You'.

"Through the plays 'A Report for An Academy' and 'Dialogue Between a Priest and Dying Man', Uncle David shared his personal story of recovery, overcoming alcohol abuse, and most importantly, that we deserve second chances," says Visagie.

"He had a zeal for inclusivity, an energy that didn't command. He was a selfless arts maker. He always made you feel that everyone can get a piece of the pie, and that no matter where you come from, you belong and your art and work matters."

LEGACY

In film, Ndjavera's legacy is just as profound.

Celebrated for his turns in film and television, including 'Village Square', 'Taste of Rain', '1oo Bucks', 'Dead River', 'Everything Happens for A Reason', 'Katutura', 'Salute', 'Encore', and 'Hairareb', Ndjavera will be missed as an actor who could leap from stage to screen, delivering comedy and gravitas in equal measure.

"There was something subtle yet playful in all of his performances. David was just on point, whatever role you put in front of him," says 'Katutura' director Florian Schott, who can't remember how they met.

"For me, it feels like he was always there, just like the Namib. Every time we worked together in rehearsals and then on set he would do these small things in his roles that you couldn't plan for - small, playful moments, gestures. It was always true, but always new and unexpected," he says.

"Only in this loss, I feel how sure I was that David would always be around, always ready to take on another role."

Though there will be no other roles, the extent of Ndjavera's official nominations, accolades and accomplishments is a laundry list of acclaim. Ndjavera was awarded Namibian Theatre and Film Awards for his performances in 'My Children! My Africa!' (2010), 'District Six' (2017) and 'Hairareb' (2019), and directing NTFAs for 'Of Mice and Men' (2012) and 'Nothing But the Truth' (2017).

Unofficial appreciations that recur and which infuse Ndjavera's prolific career are 'Namibia's John Kani', funny, jovial, humble, visionary, respectful, never angry, always prepared, generous and kind.

Discovered by renowned theatremaker and friend Freddie Philander recruiting learners for a holistic educational group at Jan Jonker Afrikaner High School in 1982, Ndjavera was an enthusiastic, go-getting standout from the start.

"At the last class I visited, I heard this voice of this young boy shouting from the back row: Sir! Sir! What about me?" says Philander, recalling his first encounter with Ndjavera via a note read by Felicity Celento at his memorial.

"I looked at him and said: 'Ag, come! You are welcome to join us, if you can act.' Ha! And what an actor he turned out to be."

Years later, in 1986, Ndjavera made his theatrical debut as an extra in Philander's play 'King of the Dump' and the rest, to mine the cliché, is Namibian history.

Some of it is well known.

Some of it is held close by Ndjavera's loving family, who remembers him as a cherished father, husband and towering rock who would lead the extended family through its trials and triumphs.

In the stories we tell about when Ndjavera was alive and well, we'll remember him thus, and as his friend Ruby Joseph does as the actor digitally attends his memorial.

"We hung onto his every word," she says bravely, yet as baffled as the rest of us.

"We laughed and stamped our feet for him. We were enchanted with his passion, because he held nothing back. He gave us all he had been given. We were his and he was ours."

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