It's 2005 in Revelstoke BC Canada, and I'm suddenly obsessed with paying tribute to the students I taught at Odibo, in northernmost Namibia, in 1971. It's also high time I wrote some of these stories for my children, Adrian and Gillian, who've heard me telling bits and pieces to anyone who is interested, but probably don't have the whole picture.
The Canada World Youth team has just left Revelstoke. Vibrant young men and women, aged 18 to 26 or so, brimming with aspirations or wondering what they’re going to do in their not-easy lives when they return home. Questing, idealistic youths from Canada and from the land of my soul: energetic knowledge-seekers from Botswana and the New South Africa, who were until yesterday right here in this town at the opposite end of the opposite hemisphere, in this country where so long ago I was transplanted.
I’ve grown really fond of some of them in this their short time here, and relating with some of the Southern Africans remind me of some people I once started to know and love, who were at about the same stages in life way back in ’71. Mind you, back then their choices were narrower and in some ways life seemed simpler: they would be mothers and fathers, and with this Form 3 highschool education that I was helping them get they might become nurses or primary school teachers, or labourers in a mine Down South. Or, as I soon gathered, some of them wished to skip across the border to become “freedom fighters”.
And the world was divided into Badguys (“the Boers” and collaborators) and Goodguys (Americans, the British, SWAPO – the South West African People’s Organization – the ANC, the United Nations, many African states, and quite a few church people). Life was hard and often horrificly cruel, but after Independence everything would be just fine. And Independence seemed just around the corner, what with the pressure the United Nations was applying to get South Africa to let go of this country that was not theirs to govern.
It was in Ovamboland, in St Mary’s Mission station in the village called Odibo that had grown around it, half a mile south of the Angola border. I was their 22 year-old highschool teacher, and – ahem – their principal. Well, that was only because I was the only highschool teacher there at that time. .
I haul out that red Namibia scrapbook of mine that’s been in our house forever, the occasional reference point for a story or two you’ve heard me telling curious friends. I’d put that album together to present my Namibian experience to the folks I’d just found at Calgary’s Arusha Cross Cultural Centre. That was in early 1974, not long after we’d arrived in Calgary, a couple of months before you were born Adrian. Your dad helped by drawing the map on its first page, skilled draftsman that he was.
I call it “my Namibia scrapbook” although at that time “Namibia” was just the name of the future, the name of Freedom, the name they would give South West Africa when they got it back from South Africa. It was still “South West Africa” or S.W.A. by all accounts when I was there, and even still so when I put the album together, but when they were feeling brave and bold my Odibo students would whisper “Namibia!”as an act of faith and sometimes even in the same breath as “SWAPO!” – the South West Africa People’s Organization -- these words in themselves an act of defiance, uttered against the Apartheid regime that was advancing itself ever-faster in their land at the same time as the United Nations’ World Court was declaring it an illegal occupier.
In this time capsule I find whole photo’s of almost-whole people suspended in animation, some twinned with names and feelings in my memory, some whose features and spirits are still with me, some utterly unnamed figures …. like that quiet guy who never really looked you in the eye and whose name maybe I never cared to remember anyway because he felt like a spy -- someone planted amongst us by the S.B. Those people who could get a lot of people hurt, and that without even having to prove any of their allegations. If they took a dislike to you, you could be branded a Terrorist.
Timothy Hidimbashwa, tall robust wholesome young man with a future … an even disposition, easy smile; Olivia … what was her surname … Kamati? Hilka Joseph – “Hillika” I can still hear her pronouncing herself -- who with her friend Josephine had taken time off from nursing in the mission hospital, to come back to school. I remember her visiting me in my bedroom while I was marking books by lamplight, asking if someday I might teach them how to cook food the European way.
The girls often visited me there in my little room, terribly worried that I must be lonely, unable to fathom that I could relish what nowadays we call my “space”.
And here in ultra-casual pose is Martin – or is it Thomas who sat next to him? Speaking of which, was that Thomas Kamati or Thomas Amwaama? Seems to me Amwaama was an older fellow, these two being maybe 22 years old. Martin and Thomas hung together, both always spiffily dressed and well organized and particularly able and dedicated students. My god they were all dedicated: always sucking in and tucking away every word, determined to graduate from Form 3 regardless of the fact that most of the content was from the almost-useless and irrelevant Bantu Education syllabus, when what they really wanted was a broad, Apartheid-free education.
I’d snapped this photo when I spotted him leaning back on his chair with his foot on his desk, an act so uncharacteristic both of him and indeed of any of them, in the classroom that they practically regarded as hallowed ground. I was going to tease him with that photo someday when the time was right: offer it with something like “I’m sure you would like to give your parents this photo of you in school!” Actually he would probably be mortified that such evidence of sloppiness and un-academic behaviour even existed, and so maybe I would then ceremoniously hand him the negative to destroy.
Ah, here’s the other partner of the Thomas/ Martin duo, scrunching up his face while exercising on the “tennis court” during P.T. Tennis court? It was a slab of concrete there in the middle of that beachlike-sand terrain. No net, no surrounding fence, but “the tennis court” we called it nevertheless. They all sure loved P.T. – that and singing classes – and the harder they were military-drilled the more they lapped it up. When Roger Key got a permit and came to join me as a teacher he really put them through their paces.
And over there on the right in the same picture is Petrus Naukushu, smiling away as ever … his whole body carried away into exercising what’s supposed to be just his arms …. he almost looks like he’s dancing. Tate Petrus our wrinkling mature “Tate” (father) indeed: I don’t know how many times, since he started school many years ago, he’d returned home to look after the cattle or went to work Down South to bring in money for his family, but here he was, back again, plodding on to be ‘an educated man’ one day. However, he must have sometimes slacked off in class, since I have a fading memory of more than once confronting him teasingly with my hands on my young hips with “TAte …” (like, ‘Father, I don’t want to be rude, I mean I know you’re a whole lot older and yes also taller than 22-year-old-me and so deserving of my respect , but ….’) and him chuckling bashfully in return, “Yes Mlungi”. We kindof had an agreement.
The respect for one’s elders was a big thing. Here’s one of my students Canner Nandi – ‘Meme Canner’ I soon learned to call her in respect for her motherhood and eight years’ seniority over me. ‘Mehmeh’ is how you say it, just like that universal Mama except with e’s. Before long I’d shortened it to just ‘Meme’, almost as if she were our mother. When we had problems we were trying to sort out in group discussions I used to turn to her: “Meme? What do you advise us to do?”
She was married to Festus the shopkeeper, wasn’t she? The same Tate Festus who agreed to take me "shopping" in Oshakati, that day when goodness-me-how-surprised-I-was when half the school piled into the back of his dark green lorry ….. .
Here with straightened hair, typing under the tree between the classrooms and the men’s dormitory, is Julia Paulus: Julia the efficient, serious one, who helped me teach Afrikaans classes. Heck, she could speak it better than I could even though she -- like the rest of them -- loathed the language of The Oppressor, “the Boers”, even more than I did.
Aaah yes I remember that “typing class” group of girls, using carbon paper and always whisking the papers out whenever I approached. I never asked what they were typing, but did eventually acknowledge my inklings by advising them to destroy the telltale carbon paper once they were done.
At lunchtime here’s John Hangula beaming at me -- yes Johnny my spunky and intelligent buddy with a whole life of adventure and promise ahead of you: here you are with characteristic transistor radio (let us not forget the radio) showing off with hat perched jauntily on Angola-style Afro hair …. oh I’d give my eyeteeth for an image of that other you: the stubbornly nameless one who, on that my first day in the classroom, leaning against the doorjam in your carefully-arranged tilted beret, the eyebrow on the uptilted side raised, eyed me with disdain and mistrust, your body-language leading the rest of them to insurrection – you shit-disturber you.
John my man, I salute you. It was so sad to read, years later, when the place had erupted into fullscale war when the South African army descended on Ovamboland, that you were killed in a shootout when surrounded by the South African Armed Forces. But I think that is the way you would have wanted to die, for the independence of your country which took twenty more whole years to achieve,
Here he is again, so sober on the day of my leaving, when the S.A. government expelled me from Ovamboland.
Beside him, tall and dark high-foreheaded Gideon Iileka with deep-thinking and somehow innocent eyes, and whose beautiful face in puzzled hurt is stamped in my heart as no John Muafangeo linocut ever could – Gideon, where are you now?
Ah and here too on that day, in the photo down at the bottom, is dear Veronica whose name I could never get to the bottom of. The students often laughed when I asked about her surname, and said "Kaxuxwena", which is something to do with “chicken”. And did she ever laugh, and often! A whole-body cackle that rocked her plump body.
And here’s Lyno the short guy with always a sad and tortured look in his eyes – was he the one whose uncle was Robben Island prisoner Andimba Toivo ya Toivo? Or was Toivo’s nephew Loth Chappel Haukongo, or no, dammit, perhaps Abraham Kauna whom in revolutionary delight they called “Kaunda”?
( photo's of that sad day are here, about halfway down the page http://halber.typepad.com/namibia_then_swafrica_197/2011/01/odibo-july-oct-and-owambo-workers-strike-dec-1971.html . The rest of that piece provides the broad context of my time in South West Africa, including the eventual expulsion from the country of four of us under The Removal of Undesirables Act)
And here's the young fellow walking towards me in the yellowish shirt, the youngest boy in our school at age 16 – what the heck was his name? Oh NO, how could I forget his name? What an insult to him! A really bright young fellow, another one who could go far. Paulus? Paulus who?
As I turn another page two loose sheets fall out: the very sheets that I’d handed out on that first day with Please Write Your Names in the Order of WhereYou are Sitting, So That I can Learn your Names. Oh yeah? Who would have thought a simple request like that could go over like such a lead balloon, culminating in them interrogating me about why I was there and was I a Boer? But in the end they did so, thank heavens, and now today I think doubly thank heavens so here I have them in my hands as I try to match names to photo’s.
The first seating plan I pick up is on yellowing newsprint headed “Form 1”, their full Christian and surnames in rows except for this name that I have to turn sideways to read, vertically scripted as it was by one of them: “Oulipo Ngahelipi?” it says, with question mark, seemingly a lesson in pronunciation judging by my printing above it: “leep(i)”. Wonder who that was? And where did he sit? I don’t remember him.
Or was it jotted down on this paper on my desk during a conversation about some or other Oulipo significant person or phrase I was trying to get my tongue around? Or a Kwanyaama language lesson on the fly? It’s the sort of thing John Hangula would help bring me up to speed on. I can picture the scene: “Who? What? Will you say it again please? Tell you what, write it down here so I can see it. O.K. now say it again. Aaah, yes, like Ngaleepi but with only the ghost of the ‘i’….”
I read on, a strange feeling dawning that these names were written down by these living breathing beings, their personalities right here on this paper. I hold their lives in my hands.
St Mary’s Highschool, Odibo -- 1971
Justina Hikumwa (/Paulus?)
Furancin Nandi (Francina Nandi)
Josephine ..tenya (Hamutenya?)
Venicia Nghumbwa (name crossed out, replaced by Penny)
John M. Hangulah
Martha Hamolo (Hamola?)
Abraham Kauna (“Kaunda”)
As I rotate the paper it starts to tear. Sections have already dropped off its brittle edges. These names, here in my hands in their own, living handwriting, are precarious as were their lives, as is my memory of them, as is the world’s knowing of them.
A twinge of grief grabs at me as Penny’s name comes up in the page: So close, Penny: we came soooo close to seeing each other again for a last goodbye. There on Vancouver Island when I was hungering for the touch of you, and to surprise and embrace you perhaps with shrieks of recognition. You were on a speaking tour with members of SWAPO’s Women’s Committee, to tell the world about life in your refugee camps in Angola. And I was also thirsting for any memory you might bring me, of that time of inspiration and direction that we had shared. Outside the closed Malaspina College door with its “Meeting Cancelled” sign, when I demanded to know why, they shrugged: a tropical disease….. maybe Malaria. And then I discovered that you had died.
And there’s John’s writing of his name, narrowly missed by the tear at the bottom of the page. John ‘M’ Hangulah, I see you went the length of pointing out. To differentiate you from some other ordinary John, or what?
Here’s the second class’s seating plan, on a smaller scrap of now-blotchy but stronger white paper, “FORM 2” in its middle, some names written out in full, some their surnames added by me, some Christian names only, dammit. And in a space on the bottom left, in brown crayon that I must have picked up in a hurry to capture a little Kwanyama lesson from one of you:
“GIVE ME some …. PENGE ee …..”
Lyno (Linus Martin?)
and, in my handwriting below these rows:
Olivia Haipinge Eng.
Thomas Kamati Biol.
Over the years I’ve glanced at this book and told a few stories from it every now and then, and names have jumped out at me from these sheets. But now I start going through them slowly, savouring them out loud while thumbing back and forth to the photo’s, wanting to match more names with faces.
Even with this memory aid, some names I don’t remember at all, and feel somehow guilty about that: Leaving those people behind was bad enough, like forsaking souls who had been entrusted to me and who trusted me. But forgetting them seems worse. Well, probably after 20 or so years of war and then returning home and having families, those who’ve survived have probably forgotten me too. But what if they remember me and my name while I’ve forgotten theirs? And what about those who have died? Someone has to remember them and honour them, else they are just dust.
Hell Antsy, here in Revelstoke you forget people’s names and that’s no problem really, so what’s the big deal?
(….. grief rising ……. feel I should light candles to all of them or something …)
I picture it as a bubble that’s fading into that lacey ghostlike phase before ‘poof!’ it’s gone. Now I want to blow those people in glass, everlasting.
need to piece it together again, fill in the spaces
feel an urgency to share by writing out ‘the whole story’, as if it’s all wasted if I don’t now breathe life into what’s between that scrapbook’s lines. Not only their lives wasted but also mine, if I don’t DO something with it?
want to, need to, share them, and that me, with someone.
(want to need to pass this on to my children – this is more of who your Ma is, and, indirectly, about who you are…….. )
I turn my apartment upside down to find my “journals” from those years: those original scrapbooks from which this public red one drew, filled with mishmashes of letters from others, my own musings, souvenirs. Ah! Here’s one! A pale blue old binder labelled “June – Dec ‘71”. Followed by a black one: “1972 (Marriage etc.) – 1978/80”.
Written in Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada. 2005