Love in Namibia
I’m 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 life-partners.
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, “love letters” 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 isn’t 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 don’t confide in their parents and parents rarely counsel children beyond the basic rules of obedience, etiquette and by the way don’t get pregnant until you’re married. Consequently, I’ve 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 own shoulders.
My evidence for these observations lies mostly in what I’ve gleaned from various writing assignments in English class, particularly the prompt, “Who is the most intelligent person you know?” I thought most would write about elders, parents or teachers, but no, nearly everyone wrote about a friend. And they didn’t 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, “And who is with you, Reinhold? I can’t see in this darkness.” He replied proudly, “It is Simon, my very best friend.” 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 didn’t know if they would ever be able to find someone like them again.
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 can’t comprehend the vastness of this country. I’ve traversed the 80km between Ekulo and Ondangwa nearly every weekend since I’ve 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: I’m watching Namibia through a taxi window. I can see what’s 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, I’m squished together with them for countless hours, but I don’t really know where they are coming from and where they are going.