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The Limits of Being Black in Namibia

Couples Activism
by Martha Mukaiwa May 20, 2015

The last time I felt my skin sting under the weight of such ogling eyes, I was walking through Koh Samui burnt three shades of black by the tremendous Thai sun while juggling a sandy bundle of beach towel, Junot Diaz and coconut in my sticky paws.

Most Thai people stare because they think you kind of look like Rihanna.
I know this because a Thai guy has literally followed my sister down the street singing “Under my umbrella, ella ella ey!” before taking in my mop of beach curled blondish extensions and yelling “Shakira!”

I know Shakira’s not black but that’s what the bloke comes up with because, if you’re not Thai and you’re not white, plenty of Thai people think you look like some kind of star and it’s not beyond them to follow you down streets singing pop songs.
It’s batty business but I get it.

I can even pose for the odd picture preceded by the words “your body so bootylicious!” because, for the most part, their stares are harmless, inquisitive and generally prompted by the fact that they just don’t see too many black folks.
Thus the singing South East Asians I can understand.

What I don’t quite get is why my sister and I walk around Swakopmund [Namibia] and feel staring eyes all over us.

What I don’t quite get is why my sister and I walk around Swakopmund [Namibia] and feel staring eyes all over us.
Why boutique shop owners hold our gaze a little longer than what is polite when we enter their stores and why we walk into restaurants like The Lighthouse and the floor manager conveniently forgets to tell us the kitchen reopens at 17h00 after he says the chef is backed up and they aren’t taking any more food orders for lunch.
At first I shrug it off.

The place is clearly up to much but when we return later and we’re served after millennia and the floor manager doesn’t break his stride as he nods noncommittally at my sister’s “sorry, I ordered a piece of cake a while ago but…” as he makes a beeline for the table of white people behind us, I start thinking that, in Namibia’s last great postcolonial German stronghold, our melanin might be a bit of a problem.

I start thinking that, in Namibia’s last great postcolonial German stronghold, our melanin might be a bit of a problem.

We see it when we’re trying to sit down, we see it when we’re trying to get served and we even see it when local black people give us that look that says: “Pffft, this is Swakopmund and you’re black like me so your food is coming slow, surly and sulky.”
Though I’ve been to Swakopmund before, the last time I was there I was in and amongst a bevy of black people for the Namibian Annual Music Awards so I guess I was cushioned by the sheer abundance of blackness.

Now, with just my sister by my side and multicoloured Windhoekers long gone after the Easter weekend, I can feel the stares all the time and I get to noticing that, save one or two black people who never linger, we’re the only people of colour for miles not serving, subservient or sweeping.

The fact that it’s a work day and we’re two wisecracking black woman sitting around drinking lattes mid-morning seems even more perturbing and the reality that we’re running around with a German and two coloured men is the cherry on the chilly top of cold stares in a cold town that doesn’t want us to get any funny ideas about being welcome.

Though it’s as common as brötchen in Windhoek, our polished accents, unaffected air and general idea that we can go, do and say what we like is greeted with such incredulity by Swakopmund’s largely lily white populace looking at us as if to say: “The long weekend is over and you’re still here? Please be so kind as to run along.”

Though we get that look from assorted angles, the locals at the beach are the best. Tugging their strung along dogs away from visiting Windhoekers and looking at the whooping, swimming, laughing black people as if they can’t quite believe their eyes.
It’s an odd sight to see in Africa.

Cradle of mankind and historical home of the black man.
But somehow plenty of Swakopmunders find it entirely acceptable to act like the holidaying black people running up great big bills at their beloved Spar or sacred Tug have journeyed in from some kind of forest moon.

Back to the lamentable Lighthouse Restaurant and the blonde floor manager has turned his smiling face from the white people enjoying their meal behind us to snap at my sister who is grumbling her dissatisfaction to whip around with a “what did you say to me?” with all the diva attitude in the world.

As if my sister is irritating him in a night club rather than a paying customer whose cake has been an eternity coming.
Unsurprisingly, the blonde bloke can’t be bothered. He looks down his nose at us and turns on his heel without as much as a promise to do anything at all.
We leave.

We walk right by him and out the door and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. Our German and coloured male friends stay to pay the bill and when our German friend emerges, needlessly shamefaced, we make our way back to the car and Dani says:
“That’s it! Who do these people think they are? We’re going to drive down these stupid streets playing some frikkin’ Nicki Minaj!”
We don’t have any Nicki but we play Macy Gray like we mean it and we startle some old German folks to the point of purse clutching and laugh when we spy them shaking their heads in the rearview mirror.
It’s been a weird weekend.

Swakopmund’s quiet, steadfast and thinly veiled racism is annoying but we don’t mind. There’s life beyond Africa’s Germany by the sea and we’re living it.
But we’ll be back.
Black, boisterous and by the boatload for the Namibian Annual Music Awards.

So if you’re a racist, an idiot or a simple floor manager with delusions of grandeur, efficiency or decorum, best you get good, ready and far less lame.
This is Africa.
Here be blacks.

This article was first published by The Namibian and is reproduced here with permission.

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