It is five o’clock on a Friday evening in Windhoek. The sun sets in a passionate blaze of yellow, orange and red streaks that burn the western skyline. It looks like there is a giant bonfire on the other sides of the horizon. I do not seem to have merited an invitation. Within twenty minutes the sky’s mood slowly changes from the brightness and warmth of day to the cooler romantic pinks and purples of twilight. The sun sets later and later as winter slowly passes by. But it will be dark soon.
The streets are crowded with commuters heading home from the week’s work. Some walk and some ride bicycles. Most of them are in cars or buses. All the way from the centre of town the streets are packed as the traffic flows outwards to the outlying suburbs. The white collars are headed to the East and South—to Klein Windhoek, Auasblick, Olympia, Eros or Academia—where some of Windhoek’s more affluent neighbourhoods can be found. The rest of the plebs are headed to the North and West—to places like Windhoek-North, Khomasdal, and Dorado Park—the middle class suburbs that roll across the hilly landscape.
The remaining hoi polloi in blue collars have further to go. They are headed to the far North of the city. They are going to “the place we do not want to live”—Windhoek’s own township, Katutura.
The preceding aside, I hope I do not paint the picture of a budding metropolis. Windhoek is anything but. It is, in certain parts, a one-horse town. With a population of about 300 000 inhabitants it is nowhere near the size of Africa’s larger commercial hubs—Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, Lagos in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya, or Cairo in Egypt. It is small and if you look left too long, sometimes, you might miss it.
How do I know this? Windhoek is home and then some. Fifteen years in this place and you will come to know the nuances of Namibia’s cultural, political and economic cynosure.
Since the early morning I have been strolling through town with my small Nikon 3100 holstered in my shoulder bag ready to let loose a round at the first captivating thing I see. I am itching to shoot something but nothing has reared its head so far. My hand occasionally fingers the trigger to make sure the rounds are ready for the deadly and smoking discharge of fast apertures, bokehs, surprised looks, bemusement, quick apologies, and even quicker exits that accompany street photography in Windhoek.
It has been poor hunting though and I am prompted to find new grounds where the game has not picked up my scent. It is why, with the sun setting and everyone on their way home, I am headed to Katutura, a place that is sure to be alive on a Friday night.
Embarrassingly, going to Katutura is a big deal for me. Despite having lived in Windhoek for the majority of my life—I am twenty-four—I have never really had to cross to the other side of town. Growing up in middle-class suburbia and attending a private school on the white-picket-fence side of town can do that to a person. Through no circumstances of my making I did not have friends living in Katutura so there was no real reason to go there.
Prior to this I had driven through the place a couple of times with my parents. But our trips were short-lived and there was never any real interaction with the place. Besides a couple of basketball tournaments on the public courts of the UN Plaza my experience of “Tura”, as Katutura is affectionately known, was limited.
My situation is not peculiar. Even in a place as small as Windhoek it is still possible to live your whole life on the prim and proper side of town without being exposed to the rough and tumble jungle across the train tracks. The most some people will have of townships—in Namibia and elsewhere—is a small chapter in an eighth grade history class.
Today is different. Spurred by curiosity and my newfound passion for backyard tourism I plan to embark on a twenty-four hour escapade through the hood. Willingly assisted by a close friend, Josie, I plan on exploring the township from one sunset to the next.
First, a brief history lesson: when the wheels of racial segregation rolled through Windhoek in 1961, the black people in the Old Location, now Hochland Park, were forcibly uprooted and replanted in Katutura. At the time it was anticipated that the new suburb would keep the black labourers in close proximity to the growing town centre but also tucked nice and far away from the rest of Windhoek.
For a time Katutura was detached. But as more and more migrant workers streamed in from the rural areas to work in the city it grew and slowly started inching towards the rest of Windhoek. The hopes of keeping it hidden began to evaporate as the new suburb eclipsed the rest of the town. Presently Katutura is the largest suburb in Namibia. It is a federation of smaller neighbourhoods and settlements each with their own economic, cultural, social and political code.
Unlike most of the suburbs in Windhoek, perched or hidden in the folds of the landscape, Katutura sprawls like a selfish bed mate. It throws itself in every direction, hogging all the covers, threatening to squash or push out anything that hovers around its periphery. It fills a whole horizon.
Katutura is big. While the rest of Windhoek might be a one-horse town Katutura is not. You can soak up most—no, I lie, all—of the city centre in ten minutes. But you will need to saddle up a couple of horses and bring some wagons to explore all of Katutura. As Josie and I drive towards it from Windhoek-West—where I live—we catch the last of the sunrays. By the time we arrive at the Single Quarters intersection night has tripped over the sun’s coattails and fallen. The dusty, crowded streets pick up the tempo as the night shift prepares to dance to its own unique beat.
Every city or suburb in the world has a global tagline; a universally accepted description that everyone instantly recognises. The SI for New York is Gotham, London is underachieving football clubs and Paris is that pointy thing in the middle. Lagos is a badly punctuated email from someone who needs your help to transfer money to an account. Windhoek is, unashamedly and frankly, boring.
Katutura—if I have it my way—is Ankh Morpork, Terry Pratchett’s dark, dangerous, topsy-turvy and wry city from the Discworld series. Perhaps I am being too ambitious with that description. Maybe not all of Ankh Morpork but a certain part of it: the Shades. It has places so dark even the shadows do not walk there alone. The police officers who patrol the main thoroughfares look like the Watch; they are dressed like policemen, they talk like policemen and they look out for trouble in a manner that betrays their reluctance to do so. If you look hard enough I am sure you will find Sam Vimes stalking the crowded markets and dimly-lit streets.
Despite the hour and the chill wind there are still children playing kasi soccer late into the evening. Curfews, it seems, are a mystery here. They are like good fashion at a hippie party; if you have it good for you. If you do not that is also fine since no one else does either. No one screams at the children to run on home and I do not see any spankings on the horizon. It all seems normal. It seems accepted.
At eight o’clock Katutura is firmly in the swing of things. The shebeens are a cacophony of music with each drinking hole fighting for aural supremacy, police sirens sound somewhere off in the distance, and the loud conversations of people who patron the small bars dotting the social landscape add to the din of the place.
Even before entering the suburb Katutura generates an inescapable feeling: it is black. There is no other diplomatic way to put it. Even if there was it would come several colours and shades of history short of encapsulating the ambience of the place. It is black. Up and down the narrow streets, across the weed-choked parks, through the markets, and in all of the shops, all you can see is black. And all you can hear is black.
It is not a negative black. Just a neutral kind of black in my opinion; it can go either way depending on the stereotypes you bring to it. If you are into biased and badly narrated Ross Kemp or Louis Theroux documentaries then this place has the kind of dangerous black that should be avoided at all times. If, on the other hand, you keep an open mind it is just another place with people from a different class bracket. It is different but not bad.
Katutura is unashamedly black. It has been black for so long it does not know any other way to be. There are, of course, other places in Windhoek you will find black: Hochland Park, Olympia and little pockets in Ludwigsdorf. But that shade of black drinks tea with its little finger out. The black in Katutura hands you a one-litre jug of tombo, a homebrewed beer made from anything that can be fermented, and tells you to make do. It is cool and I like it. The black. Not the tombo. That’s shit.
As the night wears on we drive around from place to place. Josie knows Katutura inside out. He has lived here his entire life. He expertly navigates the car through one-way streets that could become two-lane highways at any given moment. That is another thing you will notice about Katutura: the rules of the road are subjective. If you think you should drive on the other side of the road no one will stop you. You might bump another car but that seems to be part of the deal here.
An excursion into Katutura on a Friday night would not be complete without a visit to Evelyn Street, Katutura’s own version of Long Street. Josie angles us towards the winding road of a million and one bars.
This street in particular is a sociology or anthropology thesis waiting to happen. The only other place with more BMWs and Audis is Top Gear. The expensive and surgically clean cars are lined up outside the squalor of the shebeens. Wherever you look your eyes are accosted by Audi A3s and A4s. These in turn vie for attention with souped-up BMWs. A black Mercedes Benz, fresh of the pages of the latest Car magazine parks on a muddy pavement. Further afield, a Bentley. These are people who have corporate jobs in the city during the day. But when the sun sets they are inevitably drawn, moth-like, to the flames of the shebeens.
These people could be out partying in swankier places in town. But why go that far to get a Windhoek Lager? They are cheaper here. And you can get a whole crate of them at midnight.
Let that sink in for a minute: a whole crate of Windhoek Lager quarts at midnight. I am sure there is some kind of liquor by-law that prohibits the selling of liquor past a certain hour. But this by-law, if it exists, is like the curfews I mentioned earlier. It is more of a guideline. If you follow it then you get a handful of brownie points. If you do not then shut up and name your price. You are holding up the line.
Cheap alcohol and Katutura: a match made in brewery heaven. The place accounts for forty percent of Namibia’s alcohol consumption. Large wholesalers and smaller shebeens are the rally point for anyone’s liquor needs. The Uukwamatsi Bottle Store’s revenue, over a payday weekend, could buy out Greece’s economy without breaking a sweat. Alcohol, of any kind, is easily accessible. You do not have to go far to find it and, most importantly, you do not have to rush to the liquor store before closing time. At any time of the day and on any day of the week you can slake your thirst with a Tafel or Windhoek Lager. This inherent feature of Katutura explains why places like Evelyn Street have such loyal patronage.
The only thing that outnumbers the expensive cars on the street is the number of shebeens themselves. And the names of these shebeens—oh, the names! There is Bluu Bar and Tsunami Bar. Across the street there is Sunshine Delight Bar and my personal favourite Jealous Down Bar. There is Unity Bar next to All Nations Bar. The names are legion. Every establishment has a unique personality despite their common denominator: cheap alcohol.
The pull of the shebeens seems to be their simplicity. You do not have to be a bigwig to get in; there is no dress code and no cover charge. Once you are inside you can drink as much as you want. Each shebeen plays a different kind of music so you can choose the one that tickles your ears the most. In some of the shebeens there is no DJ; just a coin-operated jukebox that allows anyone to choose any song they want to hear for one Namibian dollar (R1). It is simple entertainment but it is effective; there are fancier clubs in Windhoek that cannot command the kind of loyalty that the shebeens have.
Not only offering cheap liquor the shebeens provide hotspots for hotdog and boeri roll vendors who have swarms of hungry partygoers eager to fill the tank with something other than alcohol.
We visit a couple of the shebeens to see what they are like. They are all small but tightly packed. Interior decoration is non-existent. Some have pool tables and slot machines if they have space available but most dedicate their time and energy into plying customers with beer. The bar is the start and end of all things. Since neither of us drink we order Fanta shots—we call them this because teetotallers also need to be cool—and soak up the sweaty, noisy air of the various establishments.
Evelyn Street is an assault on the senses and sensitivities. Ignoring the patronage and the flowing traffic on the streets does little to dislodge the strangeness of a raucous bar situated next to a quiet residential house where a family could be trying to settle down for the night. Space is scarce in Katutura and the need to make some kind of income is so strong that people have no choice but to start their commercial ventures in their own houses or run them next to homes. This need to make some kind of income also gives rise to strange amalgamations of commercial enterprises. To date the barber shop offering cash loans is the most bizarre business outfit I have seen. In this place it is the norm.
A place like Evelyn Street, in a perfect world, would be located in a part of town that is specifically tailored to its needs. But this is Katutura and it is far from perfect. Things here are driven by need. And need dictates that people try to make ends meet in any way that they can. There is no difference between the residential or commercial; space doubles up as both.
By the time midnight rolls around I am knackered and ready for bed. My eyelids French kiss each other for long intervals at a time and we decide to call it a night. We leave the pulsating street—the music is still thumping—and head home. The transition from Katutura to Windhoek-West, from painfully loud to awkwardly quiet, is comforting but disappointing at the same time. Katutura is alive in a way that the rest of Windhoek is not. It has its own way of entertaining itself and its own character. I cannot say the same about my neighbourhood. It is bland even at the best of times.
Crawling into my cold bed, at one in the morning, after such a stimulating evening, is a bit of a let-down. But when my alarm rings at nine o’clock the next morning I am out of bed and ready to continue my Katutura education.
Like the previous day we drive from Windhoek-West and through Khomasdal until we reach Katutura. Parking at Single Quarters, a collection of approximately ten one-roomed shops stitched together to form a mini-commercial hub, we leave the car and go for a bit of a walk. It is ten o’clock and Katutura is already running at full speed. Nearby some chickens are killed and plucked; they will be sold fresh or cooked depending on the need. A car wash across the road already has three cars waiting to be cleaned and even now some of the shebeens have opened their doors for the Saturday drinkers. Without so much as a slip-up or a how-do-you-do Katutura’s hubbub picks up where I left it the previous night.
With the sun out Katutura looks quite different. It loses a bit of its dusky charm as the glaring poverty of some areas and the plush wealth of others comes to the fore.
The general theme in Katutura is neglect. But it is not voluntary. It is there because most people do not have the means to put up fences or lay some lawns. They do not have the money for doorsteps made of Italian marble. They work with what they have. And what they have differs from place to place; a metal sheet over here, some bricks and mortar over there, or wooden planks if they can be found somewhere. The default setting in this area is survival; everything else is a luxury.
Katutura is a place from another time compared to the rest of the capital city. For all of its newness most of Windhoek reeks of imitation and the second-handedness of style that can only be found in musty cupboards. Even the lights here feel borrowed and overused. Most of the buildings still have a bit of yesterday on them, they have been half-washed and hung up to dry with the faint hope that no one will notice. You notice though. There is nothing to do in Windhoek but notice.
If you stray into the more affluent suburbs there are houses that were definitely designed by people with insecurities in the general crotch area. The word “ostentatious” slips onto your tongue like a five o’clock gin and tonic. You do not know how it got there, but now it is there and it feels right so you might as well use it while you have it. Ostentatious. Some houses are so big they have their own gravitational fields. In parts of Ludwigsdorf, in eastern Windhoek, the houses can distort time. I am pretty sure I approached one corner of a house when I was twenty-three and passed it at twenty-four.
On the northern side of town everything is different.
Tiny houses are lined up so close to each other a fart could not slink its way between them. Shacks jostle for space on every patch of sand. It is also possible to find monster cribs that threaten to swallow whole blocks by themselves. There are new mansions next to crumbling bungalows. The mixture of poor and rich is eclectic. Everything is squashed together. Everyone is looking for a place to belong; a place, no matter how small, to call their own. The battle for space is so fierce nothing is wasted.
Every corner has a tuck shop. Every tuck shop might have a barber shop or a hair salon attached to it. That barber shop could—and most often—has a shebeen somewhere in the background. That shebeen might be connected to a tyre shop. Or a cell phone shop. Or an airtime distributor. One thing is connected to another—each small business is attached to the next by a fragile economic umbilical cord. Everyone relies and depends on everyone else. Everyone is trying to—and desperately—making a living. This is Katutura. It is the place we do not want to live but must survive in. Everyone is hustling. Everyone is trying to make the rent.
Having left home without breakfast I am hungry by eleven o’clock. It is time to eat. If I was at home I would have some cereal or whatever else I felt like conjuring up in the kitchen. But I am in the Tura and I must do as the Romans would if they came here. So Josie and I drive around to the nearest meat market to have some breakfast á la Tura.
Unless you leave the neat and orderly streets of Suburbia the meat markets in Katutura are another experience you will not have in your ordinary life. They open early in the morning and close well after sunset. The butchers, with their pangas and axes, cut fresh beef carcasses daily. Portions of these are sold to customers while the remainder is sold to the smoky, red-eyed street chefs that prepare a local addiction: kapana.
In a not-so-glamorous nutshell, kapana is small chopped portions of meat, roasted and served on the braai and spiced according to your individual taste from a plate of salt or cayenne pepper. No plates. No serviettes. Fuck forks and fuck all the manners you were taught in finishing school. You order, they serve, and you pick up, dip and eat. Street meat at these roadside restaurants takes on a new meaning.
It is a unique experience. Each market will have about ten braai stands lined up next to each other. Each braaier—when you find a better word, let me know—cuts his meat portions into slivers that he braais in a certain way ranging from rare to well done. As you pass by he calls you over, cuts a sliver, passes it to you, and asks you to taste it. If you like it you order some more; if you do not you move on to the next one. No offence caused. No insult taken. There is bound to be someone who likes what he is offering.
The really entrepreneurial aspect of the kapana stands is the portions of meat a person can order. You can buy N$20 worth of meat which is quite a bit considering that N$10 gets you a potent dose of kapana. If you really want to sample as many kinds of kapana as possible smaller portions of N$5 can be ordered. These allow you to sample a little bit of everything. But the real genius of the whole venture kicks in when you find out you can buy N$1 slivers of meat. At some point I was told I could even have a 50-cent sliver if I really wanted. Talk about eating within a budget.
I am, unashamedly, a meat eater. I have dreams of chaining vegetarians to a pole, starving them for a week, and tossing them chucks of pork fat. I love meat. And I know good meat when I taste it. I can swear on the name of my future child—Rémy Batman Optimus Prime Zinedine Zidane Jr—that my taste buds are still having flashbacks about the kapana. The meat is so good the KFC a few streets away, despite its pretences, is about three minutes away from haggling on the street. I would not be surprised if it did. The kapana on the roadside tops any dead animal I have tasted in many takeaways.
As an aside I would pay good money to see a braai-off between Mzoli’s, from South Africa, and Windhoek’s kapana boys.
The kapana stands themselves are the end product of another micro economy. The beef—it is always beef—is bought from butchers in the meat market who purchase it from specific farmers. The firewood is sold nearby by another vendor. Somewhere in the vicinity there is a woman who sells vetkoek, a kind of fried dough, that compliments kapana slivers in such a heavenly way Gordon Ramsey would have to compose new swear words after tasting it. From start to finish everyone depends on someone else. Hardship on one person creates hardship for everyone else. In Katutura this is how ordinary businesses work.
Standing at the Wanahenda Bus Stop fighting with some tough slivers of kapana gives me the same joy I get when I watch Transformers. Like the film the food gets straight to the point; no one is there for the script or the hors d’oeuvres. Just give us the good stuff. It might not be “good” by posh standards. But it is cool. And the answer to “do you want some more, Rémy?” is “Hell yes!”
We gorge ourselves on the food and become sluggish. There is no walking around for a while so we opt to drive around to cover as much distance and see as much as we can. It is one’ o’clock and the sun is high. It is warm despite it being winter.
With no other prompting besides the sheer awesomeness of my music collection, “No Church in the Wild” slides onto the car stereo while we drive through Katutura. Everywhere there are human beings in a mob. The only mismatch between the song and the place is the number of churches in this wild place. If the churches and the shebeens got into a fight for supremacy even the most reckless gambler would hold out on the betting. But they add to the texture of the place. They are like little islands of religion in a sea of general could-not-care-less-ness. I love the contrast.
From Wanahenda we drive to Okuryangava and then pass through Hakahana where tin shacks furiously dot the landscape. We have left the tarred road a long time ago and we silently pray that our small Toyota Argos will not come across one of the potholes that could comfortably accommodate a grown hippo. We are now on the outskirts of Windhoek proper. There are no landmarks to steer by. There are no electric poles here. Every shack is serviced by a ramshackle toilet a few metres away from the house. In my pocket I have N$200 which is probably more than some of the households will see in the next month. A small pang of self-consciousness is temporarily suppressed by a this-is-Africa mentality that one acquires after a long time on the continent. So we drive around and look and think.
Despite the harshness of the environment around us there is a spark of humanity here you will not find in most of the suburbs in Windhoek. There is a community here. People know their neighbours. I do not know anyone on my street back home. All the children play together on the makeshift soccer field. Even though people face hard times, and the cold winter winds whistle through their small shacks at night, during the day you can hear a laugh.
You can hear conversations. People here do not BBM each other when they need to say something. They just talk to each other. Perhaps they talk and laugh because those are the only things that they can do without having to pay for them. Maybe they laugh because they know later there will be tears. This is a hard place to live in—if live is even the word for it. These people survive here. They exist here. These people, clinging to the outskirts of society, have fashioned some kind of life for themselves and somehow find the time to still share a smile despite the obvious hardship.
For a time we drive in silence. Both of us lost in our own thoughts. It is humbling to pass through parts of Katutura. To see so many people trying their best to eke out a living in the toughest of places, in the worst of times, is heart wrenching. I can never get used to seeing poverty and driving between the shacks of Katutura drains my emotional resources. This place cannot be experienced from one dimension. It is not just physical or aural. It burrows deep into your thoughts and haunts you all the way home.
By the time we finish our drive through Katutura the sun is setting again. It is cold now. The wind has picked up steadily taking the remaining heat from the sun away with it. It is time to return home once again.
I am a bit sad to leave though. It feels like I am abandoning the area. But I know that this place was here before me; I know it might be here long after I am gone too.
Am I romanticising a bit here? Yes. Of course I am. Most parts of Katutura are poor and dirty and everything else that you will expect from a township. But, and this is what I need you to understand, it contains the largest variety of life—human or otherwise—you will find in the city. It is poor, not through its own making, but because of the forces of history and the meanderings of politics and economics. At the same time though, it is tough and resourceful in ways the rest of Windhoek cannot comprehend.
I found it fascinating. Not in the way that anthropologists or sociologists would. I did not go there to measure people’s craniums and formulate otherworldly theories about human life. I found it interesting in the way an alien traveller would seeing a new place for the first time. I did not go there for spirituality or science or to make a political point; I went there to satisfy my curiosity. I found it interesting because it is differs from my routine and predictable Windhoek-West existence. It is not what I am used to. It surprised me.
There is little or nothing on the internet about Katutura, despite its long existence. Perhaps it is because it does not have as much historical glamour as Soweto, in Johannesburg, arguably the most famous township on the continent. But it has its own character and more people need to see it.
There is more that could—and should—be written about the place. I know I have not covered all of its themes and personas. I have not been to all of the shebeens or passed by all the car washes. There are a thousand and one shops I have not seen and more people I have not met. I can only write about what I have seen and heard and tasted. I can only write about what I have felt. And what I have seen is Katutura, the place we do not want to live. What I have heard are the rush-hour traffic jams, the sound of conversations and laughter echoing on the streets and ringing through the markets. What I have tasted is life, different but not bad—just different.
What I have felt is wonder and amazement—all the kinds of things you feel when you take the road least travelled.
Author’s note: Exactly three hundred-and-sixty-two thanks have to go to Josie Kustaa for his eagerness to show me around and answer all my questions. And one hundred-and-twenty-one thanks are packaged, mailed and hopefully received by Irfaan for championing backyard tourism.