Thursday, June 01, 2017

Namibia

Namibia, stark but stunning landscapes, a photographer's dream. It is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. It is a good place to go and be alone with your thoughts, which is perhaps one of the reasons I am so drawn to it, in addition to its indescribable beauty.

My first visit to Namibia was on a road trip in 2008 with a group of five other young women. We drove from Cape Town to Windhoek with many stops along the way. Unfortunately, Namibia often suffers from drought and at the time oil prices were incredibly high so farmers had to abandon crops. We passed by a field of white pumpkins which we were told was going to be plowed over since it wasn't cost-effective to transport them for sale. We couldn't bear the thought of of them all going to waste so we ended up picking one without any clear idea of what to do with it. Several hours and hundreds of miles later, we ended up with a strange version of pumpkin curry which took hours to make since we had to roast the pumpkin. At least we got some good photos out of it...




Many years later when I returned in 2016, far more well-prepared than the first time around, my perspective was definitely altered traveling with Namibians rather than with a group of American students. There were pieces of history and experiences that I probably never would have heard about otherwise. For example, one of the places that we visited, Shark Island was the site of a former concentration camp for Herero and Nama people in the early 1900s. In a bizarre twist that indicates how humanity has a short-term memory and the general neglect of African history in the western world, Shark Island--essentially a death camp for thousands of Namibians in the early 20th century and a precursor to the Holocaust--has been turned into a vacation and camping area frequented by tourists. Sadly, most have no idea of what happened in the place nor is there a clear memorial or museum dedicated to the island's heartbreaking history.

(Source: Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website)

Namibia, as with many African countries, has a complicated history of colonization and and post-colonial conflict and identify formation that is still underway. Towns like Lüderitz for example have distinctive German colonial architecture, but have a surreal feel as if a small German town had been transplanted into a coastal desert area. And it is, undeniably, also a city in an African country peopled by African people. Not far from Lüderitz is the "ghost town" of Kolmanskop, which continues the surreal theme. It's a former diamond mining town that is slowly being reclaimed by the desert with buildings half covered by the sand while the paint and wood picturesquely deteriorate.

Doorways in a house in Kolmanskop
Another stop on our road trip was the Deadvlei (Dead Marsh) in Sossusvlei National Park, which is truly incredible. I couldn't help but think of Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory sans the melting clocks. 


Traveling around Namibia was the perfect way for me to celebrate finishing my PhD and to nourish my soul. I couldn't ask for much more from any place in the world, and I hope to return again soon and explore the northern part of the country.


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