Photo by the author
When I first moved to Namibia I was a twenty-six-year-old in escape mode.
I was just on the heels of an eye-opening introduction into the world of corporate America. Moving to Africa as an African American was not just an opportunity for me to live abroad. It was a chance to escape the cubicles of white privilege that had soured my taste for working in America. By my mid-twenties, I had faced nepotism, favoritism, micro-aggressions and racism in the workplace. I wanted no more of it.
And so I moved to Namibia to teach English expecting to leave that world behind. I thought that living in Africa, swamped in blackness, would mean the end of the harsh realities I had faced in the U.S as a Black woman of color. My days of dealing with white privilege had come to an end, or so I thought.
It turned out that I had chosen one of the ‘whitest’ places in Africa to move to. Namibia was an African nation just two decades out of the throngs of apartheid. A white minority, the descendants of German colonialists, remained in Namibia. The group still held much of the country’s economic power. There was also a very racist undertone in their legacy. The residual effects of Namibia’s complicated history meant I would find no black paradise. It was challenging for me to look this reality in the eye — but it was impossible to ignore.
I once visited Namibia’s coastal town of Swakopmund. It is a very white town enveloped by world famous sand dunes. Swakopmund’s architecture is known for its very Germanesque imagery. Lavish beach homes line the city’s waterfronts. Yet, not far away lies an invisible line. It’s a demarcation that quarters off a sea of tin shacks — a black township.
Hailed as a premiere tourism destination on Namibia, I struggled to see what the appeal of what this heavily segregated Namibian community was. When you looked past it’s stunning topography, the stark racial divide could be seen everywhere.
Just about all Swakopmund’s service workers were black and their management was white. One evening I dined at a restaurant with a black Peace Corps volunteer. As we walked in we were blatantly stared at by the white patrons. Our blackness was clearly not welcomed. This was a reoccurring theme throughout the various excursions my friend and I embarked upon in the town. I vowed to never return to Swakopmund unless absolutely necessary. How could I support such a blatantly racist environment, and on the African continent at that?
This quiet undercurrent of racism is not unique to Swakopmund. Around Namibia, there is hardly ever a time where a black person isn’t subjected to blatant racial profiling while shopping. Black shoppers being followed around by black security guards is a bizarre norm.
During my first years of living in Namibia, I found this practice to be extremely offensive and irritating. It was glaringly obvious that white shoppers were allowed to enjoy their shopping experiences independent of this constant hovering and in peace.
I finally stopped lashing out at security guards who followed me around in stores when I realized they were only doing their job. They were essentially being paid to follow those of us with brown complexions around the establishment to prevent theft. If the security guards didn’t comply they were at risk of losing their very low paying jobs — their livelihood.
On the opposite end, I noticed that while entering shops with white cashiers I was often greeted or followed around with a coldness that suggested I couldn’t possibly afford anything on their shelves. More often than not, white Namibian shopkeepers emitted an aura that suggested my tastes couldn’t possibly be for whatever they were selling.
My most disheartening experiences dealing with race in Namibia involve service from black Namibians themselves. There are days when I’m seated in a restaurant and I wait and wait for my order to be taken. White travelers or customers enter and receive bright welcoming smiles and speedy attention.
I begin the painful process of wondering if having another skin color would make the difference. It’s a peculiar headspace to have to accept that “your own” have deemed you as less than. Then I chat with other black travelers and they complain of the same issues in East and West Africa. I realize my feelings weren’t so off base.
I recently watched a video from 1990 where a young Barack Obama was visiting Kenya. He revealed his disappointment in seeing blacks having problems with being served timely in restaurants and having to deal with rude waiters. He noted how white travelers were given an easier time going through customs at the airport. It seems that this disease of white privilege in Africa is nothing new as it has continued to thrive.
Oddly enough I have come to accept Namibia and her racial imperfections. When I first arrived here in 2010 I would fiercely reject whatever bigotry and discrimination I encountered. I criticized how seemingly passive Namibians were in the face of prejudice. Six years later I find myself more and more in a state of observation. I have developed a cool indifference of my own.
I manage my life here in a way that minimizes my interaction with potential racists of Namibia. I expect and accept differing levels of service from black Namibians. Given her youth, I’ve realized that Namibia deserves a grace period. Her jagged navigation through race and ethnicity are appropriate. Four hundred years post-slavery, even African Americans are still fighting though the complexities of race in America.