Zimbabweans of a certain generation are described as “whenwes” as are many South Africans who find themselves in the Antipodes. I suppose it’s true most people who are subject to a diaspora (for whatever reason) feel homesick but few describe that depth of longing for home as well as Namibians.
It’s one instance where the English language is inadequate: “nostalgia” and “homesickness” don’t come close to the German concept of Heimweh – from which the Afrikaans heimweë – grieving for one’s homeland. You don’t have to be a German-speaking Namibian to know what Heimweh means. It’s a word and concept that transcends linguistic culture. In my case, home is neither where I was born (Scotland) nor where I live (Stellenbosch) despite the fact that I’ve resided in the Western Cape for more than 30 years.
Home for me will always be the Eastern Cape but I fully comprehend Namibians saying their country doesn’t just get under your skin, it infects your blood. I spent just under a decade in what the Bushmen call “the land God made in anger” and I confess to a strong sense of returning home when crossing the Gariep at Vioolsdrif or coming in to land at Windhoek or Walvis Bay.
Hell, I even get grumpy when, travelling up the N7, I see road-signs proclaiming it to be the Cape-Namibia Route… when I know I’m not going all the way. The West Coast and Northern Cape are wonderfully rugged but they’re not the real thing. Few people fall in love with Namibia at first sight because it’s hot, dry, barren and sparsely populated (fewer than three people per square kilometre). Nearly a fifth of the population lives in the capital, Windhoek, and the city has developed an unsightly sprawl in the past few years. Namibians, however, have a saying: once you’ve worn out your first pair of velskoene, you’ll never leave.
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They’re a very sociable and welcoming bunch are Namibians. Even the periodic fistfights in bars are their unique way of saying they care. (It’s also said that marital infidelity is the national sport.) One of my first visits to Namibia – I find the name much more appealing than the staid geographically civilian saw me travelling from Windhoek to the coastal town of Swakopmund with my friend and colleague Mike Robertson.
It was his first visit to the country. We stopped at a bakery in Karibib, a real one goat town, to buy a brötchen (filled roll) to find the staff spoke only Jim Freeman their native Damara and German. Bit of an eye-opener for us liberal reporters who thought English or Afrikaans would be their second language!
Years later, as editor of Wind-hoek’s daily English-language newspaper, I’d make a point of popping into the Usakos Hotel, 30km from Karibib, if I was driving to Swakopmund on a Friday evening. There I’d have a few beers with my counterpart from Die Republikein, the renowned Dr Jan Spies, who farmed in the area. We’d have a quick off-the-re-cord discussion of the week’s stories and off I’d go.
Some traditions are hard to shake in Namibia; neither the Afrikaans or German-speaking residents have much love for us souties. I was on a media trip to Swakopmund in 2015 and, after the rest of our party retired early to bed, I cajoled one of my colleagues to join me in a sortie to the legendary Kücki’s Pub.It was quite late and a “school night” so the place wasn’t particularly busy.
As we talked, I could see that a group of guys at the other end of the bar was eyeballing us. They began making snide com-ments in German about ausländer(foreigners).
After a while, I got up, walked over and gave them a profane tell-ing off in fluent Südwes Deutsch, the local patois that is predominantly German but incorporates Afrikaans, Wambo, Herero and just about every other indigenous language. We staggered back to our hotel, pished as rats, several hours later without having to pay for a drink.
That’s my kind of country!
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