The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

An uphill battle, combating discrimination in Gobabeb

Nathan and David are working as Grinnell Corps volunteers at Gobabeb Training and Research Centre. The station is located in the Namib-Naukluft National Park—part of a network of protected and semi-protected landscapes along the hyper-arid southern Atlantic coastline. As one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world, the Namib is a hot spot of endemic biodiversity. The station’s activities attempt to understand that unique ecology while also working to increase the capacity of the country in dealing with its growing environmental footprint.

The moment was too easy to imagine. From up here on the peak of Swartbankberg, it would not have been difficult for the soldier to take aim at Beth. The unsuspecting “kaffir” woman had been riding her bike from Rooibank, the small village where her family lived, to Gobabeb, 60 km away. As always, her route took her between base of the mountain and a curvilinear oasis of vegetation to the south. The narrow band of green trees snaking through this surreally barren landscape marked then, as it does today, the course of the Kuiseb River and the home of the Topnaar people.

The shooter had been a soldier in the South African Defense Force. Years ago, the army used the Namib to prepare young troops to fight against the independence struggle happening in “the bush,” hundreds of kilometers to the north. Such training would have been a hardening experience for any young white South African conscript—drills, military exercises, target practice. Exposed to the harsh sun, Anna’s magnified image would have shimmered on the far side of cross hairs …

Luckily for Beth, the bullet barely missed.

Over 30 years later, we two Grinnell Corps Fellows have landed in a very different Namibia. Along with independence in 1990, the South African set of racist laws and white minority rule (“apartheid”) was abolished. A strong and vibrant Namibian democracy is practiced, at least as well as could be expected given the realities of life in this nation—22 percent of adults are HIV positive, the unemployment rate hovers around 50 percent, and, according to the recent estimates, the country faces the highest levels of income inequality in the world.

Now a much older woman, Ouma Beth is a highly respected matriarch of the Topnaar people. She also works as a cleaning woman for Gobabeb. Like the mirages that often gleam on far horizons here, such paradoxes are not rare. While the Topnaar Traditional Authority is now recognized by the national government, water pumps have been left broken for years, black box political maneuvering seems to have foiled plans for a monthly bus service, and cell phone reception—a way of life in most of Africa—has yet to arrive to the Kuiseb.

More subtly perhaps, but especially at Gobabeb, the shadow of apartheid looms. Of course overt racism is no longer a sanctioned way of life, but we have found negotiating our new life here fraught with very real tensions along ethnic and racial lines.

Like all good Grinnellians, we probably over-analyze theoretical constructs and apply them to totally unrelated experiences too often. Sadly though, one doesn’t have to theorize very hard to find the legacy of racial discrimination woven through our lives here. Take for example the physical layout of the station where we live and work. Most of the buildings were constructed in the 60s and 70s, right during the heart of apartheid. Is it then a coincidence that the three beautifully designed and spacious homes where the station director and upper management live are located as far as physically possible, over a kilometer away, from the small cluster of homes where most of the Topnaar cleaning and maintenance staff live? It’s hard to imagine a better explanation.

Barriers of a subtler kind exist between our black African colleagues and us as well. Take teatime as an illustration. What could be better than having the station unite twice a day around one of nature’s most treasured stimulants? However, rather than joining the disparate groups here, teatime only seems to perpetuate our differences. While friendly Afrikaans greetings and broken English is exchanged with the Topnaar staff as we all fill our mugs with tea or coffee, they inevitably leave, sitting or kneeling in the sun outside, while we remain behind, uninvited, in the cool of the lounge with an overabundance of comfortable chairs.

Maybe our foreign ways put them off—we are in a long line of strange Grinnellians that have passed through these premises. Or maybe it’s not us at all. Could it be our Ovambo or South African colleagues make them uncomfortable, despite the frequent gestures of friendship that all of us have tried to make? Perhaps they still the carry psychological baggage from being forbidden to sit with whites? Or, maybe they just like sitting outside. It’s not the kind of thing that’s talked about, and yet it is also not easily ignored.

Given the overpowering burden of race relations in southern Africa, it would be illogical to overlook race in our day-to-day lives, but we also can’t ignore the one million and one confounding factors. Economically, educationally and culturally our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Do our experiences demonstrate racism, prejudice and inequality at work, or is something entirely different to blame—a quirk of personality, a lack of common interests or cultural understanding, an inability to speak each other’s languages well, or an indifferent attitude toward a perpetually shifting sea of people who come and go?

And what’s the point, anyways? None of this should really matter, right? Yes, racism and classism and everything-else-ism need to be consciously and deliberately combated by the oppressor him- or her- or zirself. Of course there are things that need to change to end unnecessary suffering in this world. But that’s too big for any one of us. The best we can do, here and now, is to just make the effort to connect and to treasure the moments when, in the face of all these barriers, we’re able to look into another’s life and recognize the unifying traits of humanity we all possess.

One of the more exciting things we’ve been able to do this year is introduce Facebook to the Topnaars. Yes, Facebook is a corporate soul-sucking scheme that will probably one day grow too large and destroy us all. But, imagine how empowering it must feel for a woman that has spent much of her life dusting computers for scientists and students, to finally learn how to use one herself. And what would a proper computer class be without teaching people how to Facebook?

While teaching Monica a few weeks ago, Nathan noticed she was about to friend her daughter, who like many young Topnaars, had moved to the closest city. He jokingly said, “Monica, you can add her as a friend, but you should know that children often have things on their walls that parents don’t want to see … ” She nodded knowingly and then we all laughed and laughed, acknowledging the universal tension between children and their (over-)protective parents everywhere.

Living in a place where such glaring inequality exists isn’t always easy, but the biggest danger we face is sinking into the same old patterns that perpetuate our differences. When we get the opportunity to reach across that not-so-vast divide that separates us, we may not be able to right the wrongs of the past, but we are able to at least begin to help build a brighter future. Maybe, through small, and seemingly random, acts of kindness, we really can create a better and more compassionate world. We might as well try.

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