2 April, 2012
I've been most unwilling to see this turmoil of mine
The thought of sitting with this has me paralyzed
With this prolong exposure to mirror and averted eyes
I've feigned that I've been waiting: such mileage for empathizing
And now I see the madness in me is brought out in the presence of you
And now I know the madness lives on, when you're not in the room
And though I'd love to blame you for all, I'd miss these moments of opportune
You've simply brought this madness to light and I should thank you
Oh thank you, much thanks for this bird's eye view
Oh thank you for your most generous triggers
--Alanis Morisette, Madness
It’s a crisp autumn evening this Monday as I sit here to type. I’m feeling a lot of things at once at present—I’m two-thirds of the way through my time here, and strangely enough, tomorrow’s my birthday. I mean it’s odd; I’ve never had a birthday in the fall time (or for that matter, in the Southern Hemisphere)—for me, the notion of an April birthday always coincides with the season’s changing, things warming up, and days lengthening. Yet this morning I woke up chilled, surprised by the sudden coldness of the night before and realizing I’d need more blankets soon for the upcoming season.
It’s utterly bizarre that I’ve been here for six months. How did that happen? How did time move that fast? (Conversely, I wonder, “how have I not done more research!?” But that’s a neurosis for another day.) Things feel familiar still here in Glenwood, although perhaps less frustratingly than they did back in February. With the dawning of April, the increase in anxiety has also seen nostalgia doing its pre-emptive work; I begin to see that things are truly limited, and that this exciting, ridiculous life I have is temporary. I will not always reside in the granny flat behind Joe Brooks’ house on Laurel Road (he has already taken a tenant for July, which feels very soon), any more than I will always remain a graduate student. At some point, this stage has to end, and I have to actually buckle down and write the damn dissertation I signed up for, a prospect that fills me with both joy and dread.
On some levels, I look towards to my return to the United States with a measure of trepidation. This South Africa trip was one of the chief goals I had envisioned when I applied to programs four and a half years ago. It continued to sustain me during coursework, snowstorms, and institutional racism in Urbana, Illinois. Part of me feels deep-seated unease at the idea of the thing I’ve been waiting so long to have happen come to an end. What next? What will I do? Will I be able to finish? These questions echo quietly in my brain as I walk along the cooler streets of Glenwood, watching the way that light plays at different angles than it did a few short months earlier.
Feeling in need of a change of scenery, I took advantage of some saved money and my immense privilege as a graduate student visitor, and took a week sojourn to Namibia earlier this month. I ‘knew’ only one person in Windhoek, the capital: Nikki, a friend of a friend, a fellow history PhD who was taught by the same Zulu teacher I had when in South Africa in 2009. Armed with this singular acquaintance, I took a chance and booked a plane ticket to Windhoek, not knowing what I was getting into. It was a confusing and fantastic experience.
I maintain Namibia is the country that is most likely to be thought to be made up by Americans. Its independence is relatively recent; it gained its independence on 22 March, 1990 (an anniversary celebrated on my first full day in the capital city) from South Africa, which had illegally been occupying the territory following an international mandate in the 1920s. Namibia was initially colonized by the Germans in the 1890s, until its capture by British and South African forces in 1915. The South African government occupied and ruled Namibia as a de facto fifth province for the next seventy-five years, subjecting the population to its apartheid system while an increasingly violent and acrimonious independence struggle erupted between South Africa and SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organization). Indeed, Namibia is one of the sites of the many proxy battles of the Cold War; South African forces fought Cuban and Angolan revolutionary forces across the Namibian border during the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, Namibia is a bizarre patchwork of histories—the lone example of German settler colonialism, a different shade of Southern African apartheid history, a Cold War battleground, and a newly independent African republic—all at once.
Namibia, to be blunt, is an insane and fascinating place. Windhoek is relatively small for a city, yet self-important as the national capital despite the very low population density of the country and its high percentage of desert. When thinking of Windhoek, it might be best to picture a city the size and geographic layout of Albuquerque but with the sovereign trappings and pretensions of a national capital (and with the kitschy Spanish colonial markers replaced with German ones). I met Nikki and quickly befriended a strange coterie of ‘cosmopolitan’ sojourners in Windhoek, meeting gay German intellectuals, Japanese honeymooners, American political scientists, Namibian university students and Canadian NGO workers. I spent the first two days both wandering around Windhoek, taking in the Tintenpalast (“Ink-Palace”, home of the current Parliament and central administration center for nearly a century), the Alte Fest (an imposing German fortress), Post Street Mall (best known for having in its center a collection of meteors discovered in 1911---I know, right?), and other places, while walking up Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street. On Wednesday, I celebrated Independence Day in Katutura, the township built by South Africa’s apartheid regime to segregate the black majority population; today 60% of Windhoek’s populace lives within the former township’s borders. Nikki and I as well as another new friend, Mark (a Stanford researcher and an overall winner) ate at an outdoor market in Katutura; of note in these outdoor markets are the somewhat makeshift abattoirs that feature the decapitated and vivisected cow bodies at the entrance, and row after row of rills set up where men are quickly grilling beef for a crowd for very little money. Despite the nearby smell of blood and the butchery, the beef was delicious. The evening was spent overlooking a local dam and meeting other friends at many of the local shebeens (relatively informal drinking establishments) while sheets of rain poured down outside.
On Friday morning, I boarded a bus very early and headed out to Swakopmund, the legendary German village by the sea. Swakopmund is an insane, surreal place, and one that I despair of ever describing even one-tenth as accurately as it deserves. Founded by the Germans in an abortive attempt to build a deep water harbor during their twenty-five year rule, the town is surrounded on three sides by arid Namibian desert, and on one side by the cold waves of the South Atlantic. Swakop is self-consciously German; in that way it resembles the Southern Californian Danish kitsch village of Solvang (founded around the same time), although Solvang comes without the same brutal and puzzling claims to colonial power and heritage. Imagine a tiny German village, selling frosty locally brewed beer, fresh-made schnitzel, and quaint wooden homes on streets like Bismarckstrasse WHILE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NAMIBIAN DESERT and inhabited by Germans as well as black Africans, Coloureds, and white Namibians. Now imagine being a mixed-race American historian of race and colonialism. Do you feel the aneurysm building behind my eyes as I walked the streets of Swakop? You should.
I got off the bus in Swakop disoriented, and soon blundered into a German student named Conny. Thin and wiry, with long blond dreadlocks and piercing blue eyes, Conny was on a two year program of service in Namibia working with local African communities (I’m trying not to think of the Peace Corps here). He radiated a painful earnestness and sincerity that muted even my most staunch of cynical attitudes. I asked if he knew where my backpackers was located, and he nodded, chatting with me on our short walk.
“How do you like Namibia?” I asked, cautiously.
“It’s so very…German,” he said, frowning.
I laughed. “So that’s got to be reassuring, right?”
He nodded fiercely, eyes tearing a bit. “This whole place is so weird. And these Germans,” he said, emphasizing the difference and the sameness at once. “These Germans come up to me and say, ‘we have built everything here. Without us, these monkeys would still be in sand and tribes and naked.’”
He looked at me, crystal blue eyes wide with confusion, disgust, sadness. “They think…they think I am like them. But I am no one like them.”
At that moment, we reached the hostel. Conny grabbed my hand, shook it, wished me well, and turned to go.
I looked down and noticed that he was wearing a shirt emblazoned in Cyrillic letters. Dimly, I remembered the image being something from an anti-Fascist poster in the Soviet Union during its occupation during the Second World War. As he turned to walk away, I noticed the back of his shirt was emblazoned with a giant Swastika—with a giant line through it.
We all have histories.
We are often still living through and with our own pasts, I reflected, as I walked the streets of Swakopmund that afternoon. I turned down a side street and ended up near the Swakopmund lighthouse, standing in front of a simple white obelisk. In front of the obelisk were two simple sets of numbers: 1914-1918. 1939-1945. Two German style insignia from the turn of the century flanked the monument. My eyebrows furrowed as I tried to understand what was in front of me.
“It’s a monument to all the Germans who died in World War One and World War Two,” said a voice behind me. I turned around to see a stranger in a loud t-shirt with a thick Eastern European accent smiling at me. “I’m Alexander. That statue? It’s for the dead Germans. Including the Nazis. Someone keeps leaving fresh flowers. This place is weird.” I nodded, disoriented by what I was seeing, before my new friend Alexander grabbed my arm and led/talked me to the other nearby statue, of two German men in military gear, standing on a rock. It was a tribute to all of the German soldiers that died in the ‘violence of 1904-1906’ against the Herero and Damara peoples, the indigenous peoples of the region. For the record, that ‘violence’ resulted in the systematic massacre of nearly 80% of the Herero population, an event that some historians have said served as a psychic and logistical ‘dry run’ for the Holocaust. There are no statues to the Herero or Damara in Swakop. I walked away uneasily from Alexander and the twin statues, trying to catch my breath and figure out this place.
I eventually made my way down several side streets and found a coffee roastery and café. Inside were clean small benches, a giant roaster, an impressive sea view from the windows, and a friendly blue eyed man behind the counter. He asked me what I did, and I told him.
“Well if you’re studying Southern African history, you have to study Namibia as well,” he said, with a half-smile.
I nodded ruefully. “I would, but I’m focusing on the mid to late 1800s. I end in 1897, and Namibia’s just starting up around 1890, 1895.”
“Well, if you’re counting since recorded history,” he said, the half-smile stretching into a gentle smirk or reproof.
I nodded, chagrined. “A needed criticism, man.” Thanks for calling me out.”
So much of Namibia passed in a fantastic blur—I toured impressive sand dunes, walked around a gigantic German castle built pointlessly and futilely in the empty scrub of central Namibia (and now a museum), was aided by a kindly German farmer when I ran out of petrol (and teased kindly by one of his assistants, a Herero woman named Elizabeth who couldn’t believe that I was a ‘white person that spoke Zulu’ until I shook my afro free of its hat and she believed I was ‘mixed’); each place offered another competing view of the colonialism I studied in nearby South Africa, and forced me to confront the familiarities and issues of my work that I often don’t want to think about.
There is something seductively generative about colonialism—‘Look we made this! It has been built from nothing, forged into reality from a wilderness!’
But part of my training is to see through that—to judge the façade and to see that on some levels the perfume of 'civilization’ covers the filth of violence and pain, like flowers on a dung heap, or cologne on a corpse.
Yet I am part and parcel of such project. The cannon and stonemason have made this world one that meets my expectations, that creates a world possessing those contours in which I find comfort—my ease and habitation are intertwined with violence and dispossession that I inherit and critique and reject and embrace, like a Mobius strip.
“Nothing is neutral, and no one is clean,” I once declared naively and decisively in a discussion in Illinois. I still believe that, but I am more aware of my own complicity in it, of my own academic navel-gazing, ego-centric celebration. But what do I do with it all? Where do I go after turning the critical gaze from the colony to my own heart of (semi)darkness? Where are the limits and the overall things to be gained?
I thought about this quite a bit as I entered the taxi to take me from Windhoek to the airport, and eventually back ‘home’ to Durban. My driver was a man about five to ten years older than me, with my exact same skin tone, deep green eyes, and close cropped light brown hair. His name was Gunther, and he was of the ethnic group known as the Rehoboth Basters, mixed peoples from the Northern Cape that were mixed with Germans, Afrikaners, and native Khoisan and Tswana speaking peoples. We spent the forty-five minutes talking about race and hope and history and dreams. He told me about SWAPO and the independence struggle and the continued histories of quiet racism and inequality. We talked about Trayvon Martin, and American racial politics. He asked if I saw myself as Coloured, and laughed when I said I saw myself as ‘mixed’ or ‘multiracial’—or black if it was most amenable at the moment. We pulled up to the airport, and he locked his eyes onto mine.
“We all have histories, T.J.,” he said, smiling. “We think we live past them, or away from them, but we carry them within us, and around us. We are parts of them, and we are nothing like them. We are here and yet not. But then again, you know all this, historian. Go catch your flight.”
We shook hands, and I pulled flyaway strands of afro hair out of my eyes, thinking back of my own ‘blackness’ for Elizabeth, of my time in this country, and all that I don’t understand still.
* * *
I turn twenty-eight tomorrow, the same age my father was the year I was born. I find I know so little about this continent, these peoples, and the history I purport to study. I don’t get so much about my own parents, and I marvel at the idea that two scared, flawed people in their late twenties had the audacity to raise and love a terrifyingly precocious kid. But maybe that’s where I start today; not using cynicism to smash through facades, not using theory to critique my own positionality or the viewpoints of others. Instead, how about I start twenty-eight with a quiet wonder—a weird soft moment of gratitude to be alive, a time to embrace my lack of intellectual control and to take comfort in my inability to make sense of all of this?
Oh thank you, for this bird’s eye view. Oh thank you for these most generous triggers.
Happy birthday. Happy Spring. Happy Autumn. Happy Easter. Thanks, as always, for reading, and for putting up with me.