Love in Namibia
23 October 2004
Iím going to write about love, a word that is
overused, but not used enough; a word that is difficult to define and yet
we assume people know what we mean when we say it.
For the sake of this essay, let me define love as a profound caring
and affection for someone that is not based on selfish motives (such as
desire for status or wealth). Let
me also qualify this e-mail by saying that what follows is mostly
generalizations, based on my limited point of view.
Nevertheless, I think these observations lend some interesting
insight into the social structure of the Owambos.
Love is manifested here more in the relationships
between same-sex friends than between opposite-sex couples. They jump into boyfriend/girlfriend relationships with the
same ease that we will tell our life story and personal problems to
someone we just met on the airplane.
From my perspective, these opposite-sex couples seem to be highly
dysfunctional in terms of a real loving relationship.
There is a lot of sycophancy and flattery, a lot of deceit and
mistrust, and evidently a lot of sex, without a real understanding or
caring for each other. Boyfriends
and girlfriends are more like accessories or hobbies than potential
By contrast, same-sex friendships build slowly and
hesitantly. It takes a long
time to develop trust and only then will they divulge secrets or any
personal details, for that matter. However, once established, friendships here seem to be weightier
and carry more responsibilities. People
who are friends will really take care of each other, and rely on each
other for emotional support and guidance.
Interestingly, you will find girls writing,
essentially, ďlove lettersĒ to each other and when I gave an
assignment to write a poem about a friend, 18-year old boys willingly
stood up and red poems they wrote to their best male-friend.
Perhaps because homosexuality isnít an issue here, they have no
fear of being labeled queer and therefore can express their friendship
feelings more openly.
Therefore, this friendship love will also extend to
physical contact. Boys and
girls alike can be found strolling the campus holding hands with their
friends. On cold days,
friends will press
against each other for extra warmth.
Not enough chairs? No
problem, you can sit on me.
Another factor contributing to the importance of
friendship could be that relationships with parents are also much
different. Children donít
confide in their parents and parents rarely counsel children beyond the
basic rules of obedience, etiquette and by the way donít get pregnant
until youíre married. Consequently,
Iíve noticed much more reliance on peers for guidance and support.
This is furthered by the hostel environment at schools, where
children from grades 8-12 leave their homes for the majority of the year
and are raised by their teachers and classmates during these formative
years. Teachers provide
little direction beyond the red pen and obedience to rules, therefore the
burden of raising productive, compassionate citizens falls back on their
My evidence for these observations lies mostly in
what Iíve gleaned from various writing assignments in English class,
particularly the prompt, ďWho is the most intelligent person you
know?Ē I thought most would
write about elders, parents or teachers, but no, nearly everyone wrote
about a friend. And they
didnít refer to marks in school or ability to help with homework.
Instead, they considered intelligence as the ability to solve
problems and give good advice. Whenever
they had a problem or were confused about what to do, they would consult
their intelligent friend.
This is why I think that true love exists more
between friends here, but not so often between couples. Opposite-sex relationships are secretive but they will
proudly proclaim who their friends are.
I remember one night I was walking back from the computer lab and
Reinhold greeted me. I
returned the greeting then said, ďAnd who is with you, Reinhold?
I canít see in this darkness.Ē
He replied proudly, ďIt is Simon, my very best friend.Ē
One assignment was for them to write a diary entry as if it was
their last day of school at Ekulo. I
expected them to write about how happy they were to finally be done with
school. But no.
Boys and girls alike wrote about how much they would miss their
friends and how they didnít know if they would ever be able to find
someone like them again.
THE GLASS WINDOW
I brought a National Geographic magazine along
with me for the taxi ride into town on Friday.
I had been reading it for a while when I glanced up.
Out the window I saw traditional homesteads, assorted livestock,
colorfully dressed women, small barefoot children holding sticks, and I
had to laugh at myself. I
stopped reading the magazine. It
was like sitting in the snow and eating ice cream.
On the way home, I watched Namibia slip past me
in the growing dusk. I have
been here nearly two years and I still canít comprehend the vastness of
this country. Iíve
traversed the 80km between Ekulo and Ondangwa nearly every weekend since
Iíve been here, yet it continues to fascinate me.
I still wonder how everything works, how the people survive, where
it all comes from and where it is going.
I feel like my two years here have been like this: Iím watching
Namibia through a taxi window. I
can see whatís out there, but the glass keeps me from really touching
it. I see the people who come
out to the road, I observe the people who get in and out of the taxi,
Iím squished together with them for countless hours, but I donít
really know where they are coming from and where they are going.