Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Early Musings about Namibia

First impressions on a few issues to which I will undoubtedly return once I have thought about them a bit more:

“Bureaucracy”:  Let’s just say we did not get the warmest welcome to the country.  I won’t bore you with the story of our visas/permits, but the end result is that we should have been all set to enter Namibia.  Apparently we were not.  The reason why we were not is essentially because the rules are so vague that it is anyone’s guess what is sufficient for the border guards on a given day.  The vagueness provides rich soil for bribery, nepotism and other wonderful things to flourish.  We were in the end ok, but to a large extent thanks to our boss being able to pull some strings.  As great as that was for us, it is obviously not how it should be.  Immigration and home affairs is the hotbed of corruption in many countries, even though much of it could be reduced, with fairly simple methods.  When we entered Egypt a few years ago, there were big signs at the border, in English, telling all entrants what was required for a visa and how much it would cost.  Rules such as this need to be clear, they need to specify what is required, on what basis can an application be denied, how much will it all cost and what is the timeframe within which the decision will be taken.  This all then needs to be publicly and visibly explained wherever necessary, with a number to call if a person has any complaints.  But there may have been a silver lining as our adventures were the last straw for her: our boss is now preparing a memo on necessary reforms to the Minister of Home Affairs.  Watch this space for future developments -- hopefully positive ones.

“Demography”: We naively thought that since the whole country had gone through oppression and the independence struggle, it would not be suffering from the problematic aspects of race relations that its former colonial master and neighbour South Africa is still experiencing.  We were wrong.  I am fascinated by how totally segregated the society is.  There is black / coloured Namibia, then there is Afrikaner Namibia, and at the top of the hierarchy (at least in their own opinion) is German Namibia.  Whites own everything and outside of the context of work, where they must interact with their black employees, the races do not mix.  It has so far been weird, sad and fascinating in equal measures.  On Saturday we were at the Windhoek Country Club for a wine tasting event.  It will surprise nobody that there were no more than a handful of black people among the several hundred guests.  To balance things out, on Sunday we went to an Africa Day exhibition football game between Sundowns (from South Africa) and the local African Stars.  In the stadium of several thousand spectators we spotted three other white faces.  When another traveller we met asked a local white teenager whether he had any black friends, apparently the response was that he didn’t, but this was “not because they were black, but because they had not gone to similar schools or had a similar life, so they just had nothing in common”.  As I said, weird, sad and fascinating.

“Muggings”:  When it comes to safety, we’ve heard some pretty wild stories.  We’ve been told time and again that we are prime targets as not only whites, but as foreigners.  We’ve been advised that carrying bags is stupid, walking is stupid, taking local taxis is stupid … basically everything apart from staying indoors and clutching our money to our chests is stupid.  By contrast, we’ve also been told by a foreigner who has lived here for close to 30 years that she has been mugged once and that was in New York.  Apparently there are many possible reactions.  We’ve met an American couple who rented a house in the leafy suburb, bought a car and basically lived their life here as much as possible as if they were still in the United States, avoiding all contact with the “local” environment to the extent they could.  We’ve also met a backpacker who clearly relished the story of how he was robbed at machetepoint and how he was now on his way to the border region with Angola, because that was the true wild west where it was all happening.  As for us, we’ve decided that we can’t waste our time here being scared.  We walk, we take taxis (there is no other public transport) and we attend “local” places and events.  We already had a taste of the more creative side of business at the football match, where there just happened to be an “altercation” at the narrow exit gate when we were leaving, and during all the jostling the people on both sides of F “accidentally” placed their hands in F’s pockets, as opposed to their own.  We cannot guarantee that we will not be mugged, the best we can aim for is that we will not be carrying anything that we will have trouble parting with if that happens.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Rant about Cynicism and Privilege

I think many of us aging hippies are fighting a constant battle between the idealism of our youth and the cynicism of experience that is slowly suffocating the idealism.  Thrown into the mix is also a generous dose of LIFE – that insidious thing: the work, the chores, the family, the friends, the hobbies …  It all seems to mean that even when we still have plans to save the world and give cynicism the finger, we wake up to notice that weeks, months, years have passed since we made that decision and we have in fact achieved nothing, because we have just been too busy getting on with our lives.

How to prevent idealism from dying?  There is no question that it is worth keeping it from dying, because a cynical world with no idealism is a bleak place in which I, for one, do not wish to live.

Then there is also the issue of privilege.  We all know we have it, but we often forget just how much of it we have.  We become blinded to the wealth, the opportunities, the love that surrounds us.  We forget how lucky we are and we begin to take everything for granted.  We think we are entitled to it, which is not only a sign of being ignoramuses, but also diminishes greatly the enjoyment we get from our good fortune.

We all have our ways of dealing with such profound issues of life.  I try to dabble in this in my everyday life by supporting organisations that do the valuable work of saving the world while I’m busy just doing work.  I also do it by keeping myself informed of the world, and engaging in discussions about it, whether over brunch with F or by ranting at my friends on the internet.

However, I find that none of this is enough for me.  I find myself losing perspective.  We can’t change anything anyway, so why try?  It is so easy just to give in to the cynicism, because it has the effect of justifying the privilege.

I need something more radical.  I need to ditch it all, to remind myself concretely about how the other half (more than half – vast majority, in fact) really lives and humbly offer the skills that I have to try to improve their lot, even if just by a little bit.  This is about wanting to save the world, but more honestly, it is much more about wanting to save myself.  From my cynicism and my privilege.

For the next three months my posts will come from Windhoek, Namibia, where F and I are currently giving a hand to the Gender Research and Advocacy Project of the Legal Assistance Centre.  Check out their awesome work at:

Monday, 5 May 2014

Rant about the Truth -- as told by White People

A few months ago I was passing by the Peace Palace, the UN complex here in Geneva.  It is the site of many demonstrations, and on this particular day a group of Tamils was displaying posters with shocking pictures of cruelty, accompanied by slogans of what was happening in them.  According to the descriptions, the picture was in each case that of a Tamil, sometimes a child or a civilian woman, tortured/raped/killed (or all three) at the hands of the Sinhalese.

The allegations in the posters were shocking, outrageous. 

I marched to the info stand and told the gentlemen manning it that I knew what the Tamils had been through during the last months of the civil war in Sri Lanka, and that what had occurred probably amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.  I told them that I supported their cause and that they were right to protest in front of the UN, as it was about time the international community did something about the atrocities.

The reason I did this was that I had seen all the images on their posters before.  I had seen them, and the slogans, put into context.  I knew who the kid was (Balachandran, the son of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder of the Tamil Tigers), I knew who the woman was (Isaipriya, a Tamil news anchor).  I knew all this because not long earlier I had seen a documentary called “No Fire Zone”, which had made me hate humanity and have nightmares.  If anyone is interested in seeing what people are capable of during civil war, watch this documentary, it is really good.  Even if it will make you feel anything but good.

I don’t know if the Tamils holding the protest outside the UN cared about my expression of solidarity.  But I’m guessing that not all that many passersby gave such unqualified endorsements of their cause.  This is because not many people had seen the documentary.  This fact gave me pause, because if it had not been for the documentary, I would have been quite suspect of the protesters’ claims, outrageous as they were.

Would I not have believed the protesters so easily if I had not seen the documentary, because I, along with many others, have become jaded by fake and manipulated images of atrocities in Syria and elsewhere?  If this is the answer, then it is a healthy one.  In the days where everyone can easily falsify pictures, one should be slightly wary of photographic evidence, especially when emanating from interested parties.  (Even if countries such as Iran or North Korea haven’t quite completed the advanced course on photoshop yet ...) 

Or was it because “No Fire Zone” had been made by – let’s be blunt about it – a bunch of Whities?  Do I trust Whities to tell the truth more than I trust the Tamils actually on the ground, suffering through it all?  A worrying thought, but one that I have not been able to entirely shake.  It is a frustrating example of internalised racism.  Frustrating because (if it is true) I can’t rid myself of it and frustrating because it is so profound.  Somebody please pass the brain bleach, I don’t want to be like this!

On the more important, and less self-important, issue of what happened to the Tamil people and will there be consequences for this, there are some good news.  The UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on 27 March 2014 to open an enquiry into war crimes in the final stages of the civil war in 2009.  I don’t know if this was because of the Tamil protests or the documentary.  “Who cares?” one could say, the main thing is that something is happening.  Or then again, if the world in general is suffering from collective internalised racism, then that would indeed be a problem.  So let us assume that the UN is not (only) finally reacting because a bunch of white people said so.