Namibia: Same continent, different world

By Lara Pawson for BBC News
Monday, November 15, 1999
Published at 11:56 GMT

Angola correspondent Lara Pawson takes a trip to Namibia – and finds the country feels like a different world from its chaotic, crippled northern neighbour.

The two-hour flight from Luanda to the Namibian capital, Windhoek, felt more like a journey through the looking-glass. I left Angola sweating, if not quite salivating, inside the dirty two-storey building that is Luanda’s International Airport.

The woman claiming to serve drinks insisted one can of Coke cost $5. However she had no change for a twenty dollar note. So I sat, increasingly thirsty, in the dusty departure lounge cursing the fact there were no fans to ease the heat.

Unusually, the plane arrived on time. The flight was pleasant, even relaxing. By midday, I was in Windhoek. Smiling stewards waved me off the Air Namibia 747. Minutes later, my fellow passengers and I were whisked to the passport desk.

“Lovely, go straight through,” said a lady as she stamped my passport with a visa. “Miraculous,” I muttered to myself.

Walking into the arrivals lounge, I was struck by how bright and clean everything appeared. And there were hardly any people. Nobody ran up to me begging to take my bags, no motorist dangled keys in my face yelling, “Taxi! Taxi!”. In fact the only person who came close was my friend from London who had arrived a few hours earlier.

Village capital

We spent the first night in Windhoek – a curious capital city. It’s so small. One of the main streets boasts automatic cash machines, shops full of American-style sports shoes, and traffic lights that work. I didn’t see any street vendors, hawkers, street children, not even any rubbish. Windhoek reminded me of a sleepy European village, not an African capital.

Windhoek

The following morning, out on the open road, the contrasts with Angola became even more stark. Miles and miles of smooth, straight tarmac proved soporific. Land, space, Africa seemed to stretch for ever. It felt incredible.

For 10 months, I have been in a country where 60 km out of the capital, you risk being ambushed and killed; where roads are peppered with pot holes that resemble craters; and where the fear of land-mines is pervasive. Far from falling asleep while driving, your heart pumps fast and your eyes stretch wide: you are continually on the look-out.

Wildlife alive

We went to Namibia’s famous Etosha National Park. There, childhood memories of the stereotypical Africa – a continent full of wild animals – were awakened. My friend and I lost count of the number of zebra, kudu, oryx, giraffe and elephant we saw. A baby rhino, a black eagle and a snoozing lioness by the side of the road were thrilling.

Yet I couldn’t help mulling over the fact that Etosha is only 180km south of the Angolan border. In Angola, you’re lucky to spot a monkey let alone a large four-legged beast. The vast majority of wild animals have either been eaten or, like many of the people, have fled to neighbouring countries.

Even so, Namibia’s population is about an eighth the size of Angola’s. Every town we visited seemed half empty.

Sleepy cafes, with shelves full of sugared cakes, were run by chatty, fat, white ladies with pale blue rinses. We were served efficiently by equally over-weight African ladies who smiled silently: the relics of an apartheid society seem deep-rooted.

Colonial legacy

And everything is so well organised. It’s no surprise to learn that Namibia was under German rule for over 30 years until 1915, when the South Africans came in.

Perhaps it is the contrast between Namibia’s and Angola’s colonial history that has left its mark. The Portuguese landed in Angola over 500 years ago. Visitors to Luanda often remark on the city’s overtly Latin character and draw comparisons with Brazil. In Angola, parties start at midnight and end at dawn. War or no war, Angolans have to dance.

As peaceful as Namibia is, it’s not a place I could live in. It’s hard to imagine today that this tranquil nation once witnessed a guerrilla struggle between the Swapo rebels group and the South African authorities.

Just like the car sticker I bought in the empty town of Outjo, 300km north of Windhoek, Namibia is where you go to “wind down”. Under the question ‘Stressed out?’ a Zebra stands, peering round at its bottom, watching all of its stripes unravel down its back legs.

BBC News original version.

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