data Bisbocci Abroad: Happy Independence Day, Namibia!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Happy Independence Day, Namibia!

           For many of us who were born and raised in the West, the concept of living life under colonialism is difficult to grasp. We have grown up pledging allegiance to the flags of countries that, in some way, represent who we are--regardless of whether we agree with their actions and policies. Yet, for Namibians, the reality of living at the whims of foreign powers are all too real, as many Namibians have only recently gotten a taste of freedom. Any Namibian who is my age or older remembers what it was like to live in a country that could not govern itself--a country that was exploited for its natural resources and forced to follow the draconian Apartheid policies. 
             Namibians know what it is like to live in an occupied country where their fate is at the mercy of foreign powers. They have lived through colonial subjugation--twice--first at the hands of Germany and then later under the grip of their South African neighbors. 
           
            Namibia's first contact with European powers was in 1485 when Portuguese explorer, Diogo Cao, set foot briefly on the country's inhospitable coast. Other explorers followed shortly afterward, but none stayed, as the barren terrain proved difficult to traverse. 
            In the mid-1800s, Namibia was formally colonized by Germany during the Scramble for Africa. While most other European countries saw little reason to acquire this arid scrap of land, Germany was drawn to its deep seas and its abundance of diamonds. The Germans rapidly expanded into Namibia, set up missions around the country and named the territory South West Africa. They took over native land, drove away the locals and replaced them with white workers. When the Herero tribe resisted this takeover, they staged a rebellion that was unsuccessful and resulted in a German backlash that killed roughly 80% of the Herero population. This slaughter of 65,000 people became known as the Herero Genocide. It was the first genocide of the 20th Century and a pre-cursor to another genocide that Germany would perpetrate 40 years later.

             At the end of WWI, the face of colonialism changed in Namibia. South Africa, a former British colony ruled by whites, took over South West Africa under a mandate from the League of Nations. Over the subsequent decades, South Africa tightened its grip on the territory and began to subject it to the laws of Apartheid. The remaining black farms fell into white hands and people living in Windhoek were driven out of the city center and compelled to live in unsanitary conditions in the Katatura Township.
            The collapse of colonialism around Africa in the 1960s,  brought with it a greater international call for a free Namibia. The international community sought to help Namibia achieve independence, but South Africa was reluctant to loosen its grip on the country. In 1966, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) led by former president Sam Nujoma, launched a war for liberation from South African rule. South Africa fought back for fear that the communist-backed SWAPO would be installed as the ruling party of the country. In 1987, three years before Namibian independence, South Africa increased its attacks against SWAPO fighters and tensions between the two sides escalated.
           In 1988, UN Resolution 435 called for the independence of Namibia and conducted negotiations between SWAPO, the United Nations, South Africa and Western countries. In 1989, Namibia saw its first free and fair elections and the end to a 23 year fight for independence. SWAPO won with an overwhelming majority and remains the ruling political party of Namibia to this day. 

          To honor Namibia's birthday, March 21st has been deemed a national holiday. As a result, I have the day off today and, yesterday, our school day was cut short so that the students could come together for a short assembly. Many students wrote speeches about their country's history and the principal gave a long-winded speech in Oshiwambo that I did not understand a word of. Though I only understood bits and pieces of the ceremony due to the frequent lapses into Oshiwambo, I enjoyed listening to the speeches and witnessing the cultural performances.
          The highlight of the assembly was a cultural performance organized by a group of students. They wore the traditional pink-and-red-striped Ovambo dress and put on an entertaining show of music and dancing. 

Learners Singing and Dancing in Traditional Owambo Dress
Traditional Owambo Dance
          Namibia is a young nation. In fact, it is even younger than I am. Yet, despite its youth, Namibia is a mature country--one that knows its priorities and tries its best to provide for the people within its borders. It is a country that emerged from Apartheid with a new breath of hope and a set of priorities that put it on track to be one of the most promising and forward-thinking countries on the continent. It is a country that decided to invest in infrastructure, education, healthcare and environmental protection. 
           Sure, Namibia has a long way to go before it joins the ranks of many of the developed countries around the world. It still has one of the largest income gaps in the world and the majority of the population lives on just a few dollars a day. The education system is still flawed and the country has yet to make significant strides in curbing the rate of new HIV infections.

          Yet, today is not a day to dwell on what has gone wrong or what needs to be improved. Today is a day to celebrate the successes of this fledgling democracy and the remarkable strides it has made since independence to join the ranks of the middle income countries around the world. Today is a day to commemorate those who gave their lives to fight against the injustices of colonialism and Apartheid so that a new generation of Namibians would live free lives. Today is a day to celebrate the diverse ethnic groups from around the country who have come together peacefully to move forward into a new era.

        Today is a day to recognize Namibia's remarkable achievements. So, without further ado, I'd like to wish the country a very happy 23rd birthday!  

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