Wood and Glass

Wide eyed, eager eyed
Notes jotted; stomach knotted
I gaze in awe
At the Prime Minister.

Visceral, majestic, larger than life
A palace of wood and glass.
Creatures crafted carved carefully,
A home for the
Parents of Namibia.

Across the table, specs and curls
Carefully weighing
Definitions and revisions,
Indecisions,
It becomes heated as the
Past
And Present
Merge and suddenly-
“I am uncomfortable to be having internal policy discussions in front of the intern”.

My heart stops and I feel
The weight of my presence
“I’m sorry my sister, it’s confidential. You will have to excuse us” the Prime Minister says to me.

(…)

Jacob

I am still lost in the wood carvings that embrace the walls of parliament when a familiar face appears where I am seated. I first saw him past the glass encased doors, in the boardroom as we played musical chairs, rummaged through papers, and anxiously awaited the arrival of the Prime Minister. I remember thinking his eyes were kind.

“My sister! Why are you out here by yourself?” I’ve been warmly addressed countless times by this name of affection here in Namibia. As an only child, my heart fills and bursts upon hearing it.

“Ah, it’s a confidential part of the meeting so I had to step out, but I am happy to be here still!”. As if to say I’m immensely grateful and not complaining.

He looks at me curiously and smiles. He seems content to stay awhile, and I don’t mind the company. I am lost in my thoughts, processing the moments that just passed, running over each detail so it imprints in my mind forever.

“You are a lawyer too, ne?”

“Oh no, no just a student… I do study law though”

“Law ne, wow. So, you are coming from where then?” he asks. I have gotten this question often here, and I’ve come to re-arrange the order in which I respond, following quizzical looks and follow up questions (you are Canadian, yet brown skinned… or, you are Indian yet why do you sound American?). I have even been told that I look Namibian to many. This whimsical curiosity of my ethnicity has also been a process of self-affirmation within me; the history of my ancestors and the ancestors of this country are deeply enmeshed. Much of the continent is populated with Indian diaspora, originally coming as colonial slaves and workers. The lineage exploration has also unearthed a deep curiosity within me about who I am, where I come from, and what it means to be a part of ‘a people’.

“I am Indian. But from Canada. I am interning for the Chairperson but just for the summer”.

He smiles victoriously. “I knew you were Indian! I saw your face and thought as much. And I can tell by your hair! You know, our women, they like your hair, do all sorts of things, because our hair you see, it is so short. But Indian hair… yes.” He pauses for a moment, but adds shortly after:

“Ah but- we are all the same. Made in God’s image.” He motions to his wrist:

“you cut here, you know, we all bleed the same blood”.

I smile. I know this is the beginning of a special conversation.

“What is your name? My name is Bianca.” I extend my hand a bit mechanically but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“Jacob*. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Bianca, I won’t forget your face”. He extends the same hand he cut a moment ago, to shake mine.

“So why Canada? And where is it, is it far like Europe?”

I use my hands to juxtapose us and our infamous neighbor, the United States to show him somewhere in the world where it is.

“It is very far, and very cold. And I don’t know why, Jacob… My parents chose to immigrate. They wanted to seek a better life, better education than back home. So I have spent my life in Canada”.

“Will you go back?”

“I hope to”, I say almost without thinking. Which, I do. But I am unsure of how he meant. To live or to visit? I have felt more of a sense of belonging here than there, and quite frankly I will always remain a visitor in India, never quite transgressing the hybrid Indian and yet ‘Western’ Self I have come to embody.

“Yes I know this. Even our people here are moving, from here to there. There’s too much violence, and conflict in the world. So people must leave and move elsewhere, it’s sad ne”.

I think fondly of my parents, moving across the globe without the slightest idea of the world that awaited them.

“It was hard for my parents… I don’t think they anticipated that Canada would be such a different culture- such a different world entirely- than the one they came from”. I think to my teenage years, the constant clash of cultures at home, and my frustration at having to reconcile two worlds without giving much thought to the way in which my parents were struggling to do the very same.

Jacob nods slowly, as if he understands without me having to explain. I then realize I had said this aloud as opposed to in my head.

In many ways, Namibia reminds me of home, the values, morals, small things like greetings and terms of respect, the centrality of food and hosting others, the ways in which Elders and parents are revered in society. I had prepared myself to keep my Western ideologies in check, to realize and mute my North American hegemonies as I engaged and contributed both professionally, and personally. I thought this would isolate me, make me feel apart from Namibians and this weight of the Western world would bar me from really connecting with others. Instead, much to my surprise, I have felt an overwhelming sense of warmth, community, and comfort here. Much of me wonders to what extent I can attribute this to the identities I hold, of being this hybrid of both East and Western worlds. What I had resented growing up, was suddenly becoming the way in which I connected to those who have been weaving into my life this summer.

 “Do you think I could go see the mural inside?”

When I had initially excused myself from the meeting, I wandered before I was quite quickly observed from afar. I decided it was better to sit quietly in one place than make my presence more pronounced.

“Oh inside there? Of course yes, come come”. Jacob leads me past mirrored halls and marbled walls, past wooden creatures carefully carved and through glass doors.

It is almost more stunning the second time seeing now. There are colors are flowing, flooding, moving from scene to scene depicting the complex history of the country; from colonizers, boats arriving, diamonds surrendered, hangings- so many scenes of hangings, beheaded bodies, a large pit filled with brown bodies- horrid and solemn. Jacob draws attention to this frame, explaining, colonizers, then Apartheid, brutal murder, massacre.

Then the people were mobilizing, fighting, the blue and white crest appears in many stills, the founding father and past presidents of the country. Pleading, preparing, presenting to the UN. Without asking, Jacob comes to my side, and patiently explains each frame.

“This was brutality. This was inhuman”

He shows the faces with scars, the people struggling for liberation. Scenes in the wild, in the desert I had just visited a few weeks ago. From German colonels to South African soldiers. More pleas to the UN and foreign countries- Cuba, Angola- coming to support, to help, an ongoing quest for liberation. Male politicians gathered, strategizing. Women mobilizing women. More death in the streets as children play, innocent to the turmoil the country faced. Fire and smoke in the compounds. Camouflaged men hiding, seeking, killing. The waters and the animals native to the land- Springbox, Oryx and Kudu run across the mural, as the sands of the desert blends into the Earth that is soaked in the blood of its people.

“They knew” Jacob says, “they knew our land and our seas were rich. So they came, and they took, they took. You see the white man. He makes the Black man fetch him diamonds from the ocean. The Black man does not know what it is worth. But see, he his smiling because he found the diamond and can give to the white man”. I nod solemnly. Grateful that Jacob is sharing these moments with me, but also the heaviness in my heart of him explaining the brutal history of his people.

“Should we walk to the other side?” he says.

We weave around the golden staircase, around the chandelier where small glass petals absorb and reflect colorful, painful histories.

This mural is more solemn, less vibrant colors than the previous. All is set to a background of Earth colored browns and beiges. Depicted are massive boats with crosses, parked on the coast. A white man stands holding a bible and speaks down to a group of Black Namibians, dressed in traditional clothes, sitting listening carefully on the ground. Close by, another white man holds a telescope, as a Black man runs excitedly towards him holding a beaming rock. I walk a bit more. The chapel which is currently steps away from our office is depicted, as a long line of Germans parade down, dressed in carnival wear. The Wind blows streaks of blue, green, white, gray. She watches the scenes, helpless from above.

“This is Swakop?” I point, recognizing Walvis Bay where the coast meets the sand dunes and you have to blink a few times before realizing- this is real. I remember our guide telling us about the complicated history of this powerful port, where Namibia struggled to reclaim it after Independence from South Africa.

“Yes” Jacob smiles proudly “You recognize? You’ve been?”

“I have, our friend lives there. It’s beautiful there by the coast. Peaceful…”

I stand there for a while, trying to understand and imprint on my mind what I see.

I motion to leave, and soon we are back to where I first found myself. We look outside onto the city, through finely meshed windows. Each time suited officials walk by, he introduces me warmly as his friend, who also happens to be the Intern from Canada.

“Does your tribe have customs too?”

I’m a bit thrown off, but in the most heart warmed way once again. “What do you mean?” I ask bashfully-

“you know, your tribe, your family” he says, “do you have customs, like what you can and can’t do?”

“Oh.. Yes, yes of course. There are many rules, and things women should do, and should not. I grew up Catholic, so yes, there were many rules there” I say a bit sarcastically.

“You know I once met a man who was Indian. But he was so dark, he was Black. I thought he was from Central Africa! You know- DRC or something. But he was Indian!”

“Yes we have all shades and colors there…” I say. I think to the violence, discrimination and self-hatred that occur in the country based on the darkness of one’s skin color, and the way in which fairness is revered.

“Ah but, we are all children playing with the color of our skin.”

It takes me a moment to return to him, but his words resound and resonate… this idea of children, curiosity, and how we grow somehow to understand the complexity and nuances of race. He again motions with his hands: “and what is fair, really? But you know” he adds “here, we say Black for everyone who isn’t white. Brown, Colored, Black- it is all Black here”. I remember reading this when looking up South African history, and how “Black” in economic empowerment legislation was legally defined as encompassing Indians. To hear him say this though takes me by surprise.

“Right…” I veer off to say “it’s interesting because I’ve come to notice Indian and Namibian culture is very similar”.

“Really?” He asks excitedly.

“Completely- the spirit of sharing everything, community, warm interactions, respect, greetings, the way we treat our Elders. It has been… incredible. After all, we are all brothers and sisters”

“Yes, yes this I know”.

We stand in silence for a while, as we watch over the city. Exclusively green license plates come in and out of the gates.

The chief legislator comes out to offer me Rooibos tea in white chinaware. I thank her for thinking of me, and I realize I don’t know how much time has passed. I have just been enraptured listening to Jacob.

“Can I give you some” I realize it’s a bit silly to offer tea like this from one cup, I did so without thinking but I suppose wanting somehow to remove any artificial societal barriers.

“No my sister, thank you. One day you never know, you will return and we will share a plate”

“Yes we must- kapana!”

“Oh you know what this is? You have been”

The smoke and smells of the fresh meat market fills my memory.

“Yes couple of times now. I have to go back soon. We don’t have this in Canada you know?”

“Ne?”

“No! Not fresh meat like this. It is filled with chemicals and hormones back home. It is not the same.”

“Ah yes, and they put the animals in metal cages and feed them through the bars. There is so much cancer. I heard, I heard. And you cannot eat the bones”

“So much cancer and disease yes… and no, definitely should not eat the bones”

“Even the water here, it goes from the toilet and you recycle the same water to drink, it is no good”

I want to add that South Africa imports much in the country, but I hold my tongue as I rather listen to Jacob than the sound of my voice regurgitating information. But he’s looking off into the distance, so for some reason I mumble to myself:

“It’s all for the money-”

“Yes… all for the money” he echoes.

 

The German church bells ring, bringing my attention back to here and now.

 

“Bianca.” He says slowly, as if to remember better. “I cannot forget. One day we will meet again, I have a feeling. You never know the future, my sister”.

I smile, sadly almost, at the uncertainty of the future, and the warmth of the friend I just made, not knowing where his path will take him.

 

“Bianca. I will not forget you.

I hope and pray that you will be well far, far that side.

One day you’ll come back, you never know”.

 

 

*While I have his consent for the sharing of this piece, I have used a pseudonym for my friend.

 

Where the sand dunes meet the ocean, Walvis Bay

Taken at the Independence Museum of Namibia

With the Honorable Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila 

You can see the Office of the Prime Minister (second to right) and Parliament to the left.

Following this afternoon, I reflected a lot on the power of storytelling and personal narratives. I had the privilege of writing a piece on Post Colonial India, Namibia and Gender Based Violence, for “The Namibian” newspaper, which reflects on how the personal is political.

 

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