Namibias Central Region
Experience Everyday Namibia in Windhoek
The walls and roof are made from planks and corrugated iron sheets, the floors are bare cement. There are no windows in this small room. There are a few metal chairs with red plastic seating, two benches without a backrest and two boxes covered with a white table cloth.
Colourful posters adorn one of the walls. They show well-dressed, cheerful young people toasting one another with a glass of beer - Tafel Lager. Two fridges with Coke, Fanta and other soft drinks spread their dim light. A shelf behind the burglar-proof counter holds wine, an assortment of spirits and cigarettes.
Taking payment with the order, a young woman hands us two bottles of Tafel Lager through a small opening in the trellis. Two women are eyeing us with as much curiosity as we are eyeing them. After a brief introduction we learn that they are a teacher and a nurse who have come for a chat. This is a shebeen, a truly African bar, and one of the highlights of our tour through Katutura, the African part of Windhoek.
Few tourists plan to spend more time in the capital than the unavoidable stop-over at the start and end of their roundtrip. On the one hand this is understandable, as everybody’s time is limited and Namibia’s great natural wonders are beckoning mightily. On the other hand the country’s charm does not consist of nature alone but also of its inhabitants, combining a multitude of different peoples and cultures. Ever so often tourists unhappily realise at the end of their visit that they have had little opportunity to get in touch with ordinary people and experience everyday life in Africa beyond the hula skirt cliché. Windhoek offers this opportunity and is worth more than a night’s stay. All those who claim that it is a totally European city have been misled by the looks of the city centre.
Everyday life in Africa
The suburb of Katutura is far removed from the colonial architecture, the glass fronts of the high-rise buildings and the shopping malls of downtown Windhoek. Correctly translated from Otjiherero the name Katutura means ‘We will never settle (here)’.
The fascinating history of the suburb and its inhabitants is relayed on guided city and township tours. Trained local tour guides take visitors around their home area in a totally relaxed atmosphere. They are shown the tiny houses in a residential quarter called Babylon, cleverly patched together with any kind of building material; the Penduka project (‘Wake up’) at Goreangab Dam where women embellish high-quality textiles with African themes and run a café; the Soweto Market with its many stalls selling snacks like dried spinach and Mopane caterpillars, Vetkoek (cakes fried in fat) and bits of freshly roasted meat; the hairdresser’s shop at the side of the market, where elaborately plaited hairdos are created during hours of painstaking work; and the tailor shops for the magnificent traditional dresses. The tour is wrapped up with a visit to one of the many shebeens with colourful names like Manhattan, Love Bar or African Dream.
There is hardly a more intensive way to get acquainted with foreign cultures than via the taste buds. Those who cannot bring themselves to try Mopane caterpillars at the market, get another chance to sample traditional delicacies in the evening. A special Katutura-by-Night tour, to be booked in advance, includes dinner at the Otjikaendu Restaurant. Otjikaendu is Otjiherero for ‘well-endowed woman’. The well-endowed owner, Milba Tjahere, serves Smilies – stuffed and roasted heads of sheep and goat – which are known all over town. Alternatively, you can opt for a simply delicious chicken curry or a totally ordinary steak. The restaurant is very popular with the locals too.
Galleries, Theatre and Museums
The history of Namibia’s many people and present-day life are reflected in the nation’s art. A permanent exhibit and changing exhibitions in the National Gallery or the Omba Gallery give a general idea of the work of Namibian artists. The history of the country and its people come across vividly in the Alte Feste, the National Museum and the Owela Museum.
Railway enthusiasts will be drawn to the TransNamib Museum at the railway station, whereas Namibia’s exciting geology and its mineral riches are on show at the Museum run by the Directorate Geological Survey of Namibia.
Concerts, musicals and ballet performances produced in Windhoek, as well as neighbouring countries (mostly South Africa) are staged at the National Theatre - mostly towards the weekend, although not every week. Much more intimate, is the atmosphere of the Warehouse cabaret theatre in the Old Brewery. The Warehouse offers local and international theatre and cabaret productions, as well as concerts. When a music group performs it usually does not take long before the whole, cheerfully mixed audience is on its feet.
Other cultural offerings are arranged by the Franco-Namibian Culture Centre and the Goethe Zentrum / Namibisch-Deutsche Stiftung (Goethe Centre / Namibian-German Foundation).
Strolling through Yesterday and Today
It was probably about 160 years ago that the first Oorlam Nama, led by Kaptein Jonker Afrikaner, settled at !Ae-gams - the site in today’s suburb of Klein Windhoek where water bubbled from the ground at a temperature of more than 70 degrees Celsius. They simply called the place ‘hot springs’. Not far from there German Schutztruppe Commander Curt von Francois built the Alte Feste fort in 1890. Since then Windhoek has been the seat of varying administrative bodies governing the area of today’s Namibia.
The traces and the influence of German colonial times and later on South African mandatory rule are in evidence everywhere in the capital: here the equestrian monument, the Tintenpalast and the railway station, there the town hall and municipal offices built in the sixties, the post office and the bombproof complex of the national broadcasting company. Among the latest additions are the imposing Supreme Court and statues of leaders of the liberation struggle against decades of oppression by South Africa’s apartheid regime. Today’s people pursue their daily tasks between all these relics of the past without taking much note of them. In Namibia’s capital, yesteryear merges with yesterday and today, and Africa mixes with Europe in a way which is full of contrasts, not always without tension, but always stimulating.
In downtown Windhoek it is often the many examples of German colonial architecture under the dazzling blue African sky, which are selected as subjects for photos: the equestrian monument commemorating the casualties of the 1904 uprising; behind it the Alte Feste fort, lined by palm trees; Christuskirche (Christ’s Church) in front of the well-kept gardens of Tintenpalast (Ink Palace), the House of Parliament; and the neatly preserved railway station northwest of the city centre. African trends are provided by the statues of the leaders of the liberation movement - Hosea Kutako, Hendrik Witbooi and Theophelus Hamutumbangela - at the flight of stairs leading up to Tintenpalast, and by the many people who spend their lunch hour relaxing on the lawns of Zoo Park. The Botanical Gardens on the slope behind Alte Feste are much quieter. Under expert guidance visitors are given a good idea of the country’s manifold flora.
In the pedestrian area of Post Mall Street you come across a fountain, without water, which features pieces from the famous meteorite shower of Gibeon. Should you be looking for souvenirs - this is where you find them: the well-stocked street market around the fountain is a treasure trove of wood carvings, baskets and plenty more. Scores of shops in the city specialise in high-quality jewellery, gemstones, minerals, leather goods or carpets made from Karakul wool, to name but a few. There are several bookshops where to look for publications about Namibia. And if you want to listen in on a bit of gossip you can stop for a coffee-break at the legendary Wecke & Voigts coffee bar.
Discovering the Vicinity
There is African bush savannah right on Windhoek’s doorstep. Daan Viljoen Game Reserve, west of the capital in the Khomas Hochland Mountains, offers several hiking trails through its hilly, park-like scenery.
They can be used without the slightest worry, as there are no wild animals which could pose a threat to hikers. With a little luck you will encounter Kudu, Blue Wildebeest, Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra, Eland, Gemsbok, Red Hartebeest or even Giraffe. Or do as the Windhoekers do and have a picnic at the scenic little dam.
About 120 km to the west, one of Namibia’s most striking mountains rises from the Khomas Hochland: Gamsberg. It is after all, the third highest in the country, with a plateau at the top. The extremely steep ascent by 4x4 is an unforgettable experience in itself. The view from the top is spectacular – to the west, where the Namib spreads out beyond, as much as to the east across the Khomas Hochland right up to the Auas Mountains near Windhoek.
The thermal baths at Gross Barmen, about 80 km north of Windhoek and 10 km south-west of Okahandja, are fed by a hot spring. The water is said to relieve rheumatism. The spacious, handsome spa consists of an indoor and an outdoor pool. A trip to Gross Barmen can be combined with a visit to the little town of Okahandja. Apart from historic sites such as the graves of the famous Maharero leaders, there are two large markets selling wood carvings, as well as an ostrich farm.
Those looking for adventure will not want to miss Arnhem Cave, 120 km south-east of Windhoek. On a tour of up to three hours part of the cave system is explored. It is 4.5 km long in total. As the cave is very dry there are no stalactites or stalagmites, but various types of bats inhabit the place.
Since August 2002 a memorial site, visible from a distance, towers above the southern approaches to Windhoek. Hero’s Acre commemorates the history of Namibia’s liberation struggle and its dead heroes. Visitors to the site receive a small but very informative brochure with details about some of the country’s important heroes.
A great idea for an evening with a difference is a visit to the privately-run observatory south of Windhoek. No doubt you will remember details about the magnificent Namibian night sky for a long time to come. Do note, that you have to make an appointment in advance.
South of Windhoek, in and around Rehoboth, you can spend some hours bathing to your heart’s content. Reho-Spa is a thermal bath similar to the one in Gross Barmen, fed by a hot spring. Situated right in the centre of Rehoboth, it is much more frequented, however. Oanob Dam was built a few kilometres out of Rehoboth to supply drinking water. The surrounding area has since been proclaimed a conservation area. The dam is available for various aquatic sports. For those interested in ethnology there is Rehoboth Museum. It is small, but the exhibit about Namibia’s peoples is well worth a visit.