Windhoek: The Independence Museum that isn't

An index to this series appears at the top of the first post.

November 28, 2019

I had only one afternoon remaining to me, and I was determined that I would see the principal museums of Windhoek! As I waited with the students for lunch to be assembled, I signed a stack of certificates to memorialize their participation in class. I was delighted that they seemed to enjoy the class so much. It certainly can feel presumptuous to give someone a piece of paper like an award for listening to me, though! As lunch drew to a close, I hitched a ride with two of the local TESA folks over to the Independence Museum. They were on their way to the nearby Hilton for the afternoon’s program of project updates.

The Independence Museum

The tallest building on the city’s highest hill is pretty hard to miss. Independence Museum, Windhoek

On the day before, I had climbed the monumental staircase to the statue of Dr. Sam Nujoma (founding president of Namibia). As I entered the space between the three legs of the building, a security officer who had been dozing on a ledge turned his head in my direction, so I nodded at him. I paused to look at the bas relief images on the insides of the legs, and then I entered the elevator, passing a strangely unattended desk. There was no sign to indicate that the museum was closed. On the 28th, though, the desk was attended. The attendant invited me to sign the guestbook, and up the elevator I went!

“Hail the soldiers who brought us peace,” perhaps? Independence Museum, Windhoek

This time, the gallery doors were open, and I stepped through them, unsure how this museum would present history. I was a bit startled by what I saw. The face of a middle-aged Sam Nujoma, dressed in camouflage shirt and cap, was presented far larger than life, superimposed on a Namibian flag. Flanking him to left and right were national flags on poles plus nine bas relief representations of “Early Resistance Leaders.” The room offers very little information about these individuals other than their names, but then their faces would likely be instantly recognized by Namibians.

The Independence Museum wants to ensure you know the father of the nation, Sam Nujoma.

The next room made it clear that all evils were to be attributed to external forces. The banner “PRE-COLONIAL SOCIETY, PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE” set the tone in foot-high letters. Monochromatic paintings on the walls showed peaceful village evenings plus beautiful dance scenes. I was excited, on the other hand, that the room offered some of the archaeological findings from the “Apollo 11” cave in extreme south Namibia. Apparently the stone slab drawings were originally exhibited in this room, but they were not on display because replicas are being created. These slabs are important because they may represent the first written communication inscribed on a movable surface rather than a rock face. The drawings may be more than 10,000 years old. I also appreciated a map that attempted to reconstruct the original domains in which various groups such as the Ovambanderu Amrai, and Tseir were located in the middle of the 19th century, when only Swakopmund and Walvis Bay were occupied by Europeans.

At the time of the earliest concessions to Europeans, many indigenous populations were already engaged in substantial trade with the Cape Colony to the south. Namibia is home to many different populations.

The next room offered a world of interesting photographs illustrating the interactions of German colonial forces with indigenous people and with the South Africans. The photographs were quite upstaged, though, by busts of three heroic figures: Chief Samuel Maharero, Captain Hendrik Witbooi, and Chief Iipumbu ya Tshilongo.

Passing through a curtain to the next section, the visitor is suddenly presented with 3D sculptures spanning the walls of indigenous people lying in sprawled piles of death, with others hanging from nooses. Next to them, we have a date (October 2, 1904) and a self-satisfied German military man painted in ghostly monochrome behind the sculpture. The date is intended to remind us when General von Trotha issued a pamphlet announcing his “extermination order” against the Herero people. In subsequent orders and commands, General von Trotha demonstrated he was willing to take any action, no matter how heinous, to accomplish this genocide. The Hereros were not alone, either. Other indigenous peoples were also treated with great cruelty (see also “Shark Island“). I mention this legacy here, because the museum doesn’t provide any of that information. It just associates the 1904 date with death on a massive scale. The genocide is generally noted as lasting from 1904 to 1908, and estimates place the death toll above 100,000 individuals.

While the Independence Museum expresses horror at the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, it does not inform visitors about it.

This pattern of Namibian heros against external evils continues to the next room, depicting “Namibia under the South African Apartheid Regime.” The information about Namibians banding together to petition the United Nations was good, but I would ask that the exhibit explain that the petition was intended to repudiate South Africa’s attempt to merge Namibia as a fifth province.

This statue to commemorate the victims at Cassinga seemed far more appropriate to me than the graphic depictions on the walls.

In one of the most jingoistic paintings I have ever seen, the museum makes it clear that it holds Apartheid South Africa to blame for an atrocity portrayed every bit as traumatically as the genocide under the Germans. The wall-sized painting depicts dozens of people frantic for their lives as women and children are shot down in a charnel house (I will not include my photo here because the image is pretty disturbing; Flickr has a few, though). Yes, it even includes a baby in diapers standing alone, screaming in terror. The Cassinga Massacre (sometimes called a “Battle”) resulted from the South African Defense Force assault on a Namibian refugee camp in Southern Angola as well as a nearby People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) base via almost 400 paratroopers. The event on 4 May, 1978, is remembered in a national public holiday for Namibia. When I entered that room, I had never heard of this assault. At present, visitors receive a load of emotion but essentially no information to contextualize that emotion.

Was a floor-to-ceiling mural necessary?

The glorification of SWAPO and PLAN teeters into essentially Stalinist space as one reaches the tail end of the museum. I entered the museum hoping to understand more of the process by which Namibia was able to prise South African fingers off of their country. Namibia reached independence in 1990, just as South Africa began turning itself into a democracy at last. This coincidence, of course, is not explored at the Independence Museum.

The Alte Feste museum is closed.

This Alte Feste (old fort) was constructed by Curt von Francois in 1890 as forces under Hendrik Witbooi approached the crest of their power.

Alte Feste,” the old German fort, is the earliest building still standing in Windhoek. It is clear that the city is still grappling with how to represent this building; its service as a museum appears to be changing, if not ending. I climbed the monumental stairs to reach its front gate, where I was able to read the piece of A4 paper stating that the museum was closed until further notice. Some folks at the tourist bureau claimed that most of its artifacts were in the process of being moved from Alte Feste to the Independence Museum, but it’s quite clear that the latter is not intended to exhibit artifacts with detailed descriptions.

Honoring those who suffered under German and South African occupation is entirely appropriate.

The Rider Monument statue was removed from the Alte Feste front lawn in 2013, and I had hoped to see it where it was stored inside, tied down as though it might escape. Who knows when or if that will be possible in the future? The new monument in front of Alte Feste is highly evocative, and both sides of its pediment show horrific things happening to Namibians. “Their Blood Waters our Freedom” is a motto very much in line with the Independence Museum, in a way that Alte Feste never will be.

The Windhoek City Museum is not yet open.

When will the Windhoek City Museum open?

With one museum open and the other closed, I assumed that my third museum of the day was a coin flip. I walked two blocks further south to reach the Windhoek City Museum. The pedestrian entrance was padlocked. I walked a little further to a two-part gate. It was chain locked. I waved at the security people (sitting in a shady chair), hoping for some indication of where I was to go. They made no response. I then walked around the corner and up the hill to the auto gate. That one was also chain locked. A security guard directed me back to the gate on Mugabe Ave. This time I waved and “helloed” until the security officer felt embarrassed. He waved the female officer with him to check on me. She sauntered in a way that made it clear that she’d rather I went away so she could go back in the shade. After a few minutes’ saunter, she crossed the 100 yards.

The Windhoek City Museum is also closed. The guard waved vaguely in the direction of the city to say I would have to ask them (who?) to let me visit, and I made her clarify until she made clear just what building she had in mind. I noticed that some of the paint job that makes the museum building look new was beginning to peel away; the structure is old, and it’s just being repurposed to serve as a museum. When I reached the tourism bureau in the the government building, they explained that the museum now shows up on the tourist maps and features brown road signs directing people how to enter it because it will, eventually, open. They’re not sure when, though. Perhaps early in 2020 it will be possible to visit?

Uncle Spike’s Book Exchange

I resolved to abandon my museum quest and return to my bookstore quest. I returned to the intersection where “Uncle Spike’s Book Exchange” can be found, but this time I first visited the Orombonde Books shop recommended by the nice folks at the Windhoeker Buchhandlung (largely selling German books). Orombonde appeared to be in the final stages of closing up their business. The books are being packed off the shelves into boxes. I checked what remained on the history shelf but found little of interest.

My visit to Uncle Spike’s was definitely more enticing. The book shop extends back a bit from the cramped entrance, and the shelves offer a good selection of options. I could not believe my luck to find Historical Buildings in South Africa by Désirée Picton-Seymour. I’d found her Victorian Buildings book invaluable for writing the posts on Oudtshoorn. I acquired this book for a mere R60 ($4 USD). I also found a book that I think Natasha will like, so I was twice lucky!

German architecture mixes with modern buildings throughout Independence Ave in Windhoek.

With that complete, I walked along Independence Ave to photograph some of the German architecture buildings I’d seen before. I popped into the Hilton to visit my TESA colleagues at the workshop. Happily I was just in time for the group photo, though people may wonder who is that dusty hiker amongst the suits and ties?

How do you exhibit chunks of the Gibeon meteorite? Why not exhibit them in the pedestrian mall next to Town Square?

I took a stroll past Town Square Mall, and I’m really glad I did, because it’s a pedestrian thoroughfare, with lots of vendors in shady spots. I found a little gift for Natasha, though I probably paid too much. I also had my chance to visit the Gibeon meteorites, fragmentary “octahedrites” that stemmed from a 16 ton chunk when it plummeted from the sky in 1838.

I enjoyed fish and chips at Ocean Basket as I drained an entire carafe of lemonade. My life is very good, indeed.

Windhoek: three castles and a parliament!

An index to this series appears at the top of the first post.

November 27, 2019

Our tutorial broke up a little earlier today because this is Election Day in Namibia. I was delighted, because my plan was to absorb the Independence Museum and Alte Feste Museum, two of the biggest tourist draws in the city of Windhoek. Unfortunately, I’d missed out on an important connection between those topics. Election Day in Namibia is treated as a national holiday, and national holidays close both of these museums!

National Government Buildings

The circle at Christuskirche was strangely quiet. I encountered some European tourists who had been planning their trip for six months. They were peeved to see closures throughout the city. I learned from them that the gardens of the Tintenpalast (“ink palace”) Parliament complex were sealed from entry by police tape, but the approach to the building itself was still open.

The Tintenpalast, as seen through the plexiglass surrounding the Independence Museum elevator

I admired two lifelike statues facing the parliament building; Captain Hendrik S. Witbooi seemed more lifelike than his famous photo carrying a rifle, and Reverend Theophilus Hamutumbangela seemed serene and optimistic.

Witbooi and Hamutumbangela contributed different strengths.

The German colonial government considered three plans for its house of government. The winner came from pen of Gottlieb Redecker, designer of the Windhoek Christuskirche. Construction began in 1910, and government offices began moving into the completed building in October 1913. Walter Peters, who wrote the book on German architecture in Namibia, lamented that “There is nothing at home about this building; its monumental language of forms seems strange!” Ironically, South African forces invaded Namibia in World War I at the behest of the United Kingdom, and the Tintenpalast was occupied by enemy forces on the 15th of May, 1915, less than two years after the complex opened!

The stairs leading to the Tintenpalast porch were a late addition.

The castles of Windhoek

Southern Africa is not a natural place to look for European castles, though Cape Town offers a pretty substantial fortification that once guarded the beach (the city reclaimed several blocks of dry land a few centuries later, so it’s now in the middle of the city). In the years that Namibia was German Southwest Africa, however, a few distinctly German castles were constructed in Windhoek and in other areas, too. On a Windhoek city map, the castles of Schwerinsburg (1913), Heynitzburg (1914), and Sanderburg (1919) appear quite close together. The map, however, masks the steep rises in elevation among these properties! All three castles were the work of Wilhelm Sanders, who was born in Berlin in 1890. His company had won the contract to construct the government building complex that Redecker had designed.

Over the next two hours, I labored up and down hills, trying to find the optimal position to photograph each of these three castles. Shwerinsburg was a pretty tough target, though. After walking all the way up to the property line, The castle pairs a 1913 hall with an 1891 tower. I encountered a security booth at the end of its drive. Seeing nobody there, I called out a hello. Up popped the head of its security officer, who explained that it was private property. She did offer that I could climb atop the rocky outcrop to the side for a photo, though. In the end, I found that I could get a better vantage on the castle from a much lower elevation on Robert Mugabe Ave (definitely requiring the telephoto lens), though I was disappointed that the view left a construction dumpster in the shot.

Schwerinsburg (1913) rises above the road connecting Windhoek and Klein Windhoek.

I had read that Heynitzburg had become a hotel, and after my puffing up its hill nothing sounded better than a mango juice on its observation deck lounge. I enjoyed talking with my waiter, who alleged that the Internet is suppressing the stories of these castles (he hadn’t read the article featuring these castles in the 1978 Restorica). He shared a particularly juicy tale that Schwerinsburg and Heynitzburg were occupied by a fiancé (Count Bogislaw von Schwerin) and fiancée (Margarete von Heynitz) duo. He confided that underground tunnels linked the two properties so that the couple could enjoy private time together. Call it urban legend, but I love it!

Sanders completed Heynitzburg in 1914, just before the occupation of Windhoek by South African forces.

The view from this observation deck is really stunning (though the view from Schwerinsburg allows one to see the landmarks of downtown without the hillside in the way). I was gazing out into the distance when I saw a column of dust blown into the air. It was a massive dust devil! I was happy to snap a telephoto shot.

A dust devil traces through western Windhoek, as viewed from Heynitzburg.

Someone hoping to observe Sanderburg is going to have a hard time if they walk by it on street level. I didn’t push my nose up against the gate to stare at someone’s private property. The observation deck of Heynitzburg, however, does offer a somewhat tree-occluded view of the side facing the city. It looks like a thoroughly wonderful place to live!

Sanderburg, the home of the architect completed in 1919, has been upgraded by a massive garage on the far side. He lived there only 3 years after its completion.

Dave tries again to find his book!

I was resolute about my plan to visit a good bookstore, and this time I set my sights on Uncle Spike’s Book Exchange. As I crossed Robert Mugabe on Heinitzburg Street, my urban surroundings became more… practical? I saw businesses, but they weren’t the sort to attract a pedestrian or a tourist. I turned north on Jan Jonker Street. I nearly turned an ankle dodging a car at Lazarett Street, and a guy wearing a reflective vest tried to engage me in conversation (the type that inevitably becomes a request for money). I simply said, “I’m not stopping for a conversation” and lengthened my stride. Soon I was in a city park in front of the Angolan Embassy. I liked the statue of Dr. Antonio Agostinho Neto, first president of the Republic of Angola, but the number of people lounging in the park worried me a bit, and I kept moving at a brisk pace until I reached Uncle Spike’s Book Exchange.

It was closed for the holiday.

With the last of my tourism plan washed up for the day, I paused to visit some higher-end craft stores on Tal Street south of the B6. The quality was considerably better than the items I saw along Independence Ave. I was relieved that at least some businesses were open!

Once again, I retired to the Wernhill Park Centre for some snacks and food. I paused at Milky Lane even though it was crowded with children, and I really enjoyed the large double-thick banana-flavored ice cream shake. I made it into Mugg and Bean just 25 minutes before their 5PM close to grab a burger and fries. I’ve become a fan of their bottomless lemonade!

Dave revisits his fear of taxis.

As I exited the mall, I decide to grab the first taxi I saw. A taxi driver hollered at me the moment I reached the exit. I told him I wanted to go to the OK Foods in Pioneer Park (one block from my hotel), and he waved me into the car. The car already had two passengers, though, so I realized I’d have a shared ride (Strike 1). Then I saw that the receptacles for the seat belts were buried beneath the seat in the back (Strike 2). Once we were on the road, his aggressive driving was quite a turnoff (Strike 3!). I don’t think he understood the purpose of the stop lines at the lights. At one stop light, another taxi pulled up beside him and shouted through the window at his friend, my driver. [laughing] “What are you thinking, man?” His response? “Money!”

Our driver pulled to the side of the road after hooting his horn at another pedestrian. I then scooted to the middle of the back seat to make room for another passenger. Once we dropped the fellow from the front and the fellow to my right, things were more comfortable. I learned that the taxi fare for my part of this shared arrangement would amount to 12 Namibian Dollars, or 81 cents in US currency. We reached the OK Foods without further incident, and I hiked the remaining block to the hotel.

Postscript: The Villas of Windhoek

If you share my interest in historical architecture, you might be interested to know that Windhoek is home to a variety of villas that date from the first decade of the twentieth century. I learned about them from a 2018 M.Phil. thesis by Vanessa J. Ruhlig at the University of Cape Town. Walter Peters and Ruhlig both incorporate historical photographs of the “Villenviertel” or Villa Quarter of Windhoek in their work.

Otto Busch, a contractor from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, settled in Windhoek in 1905. Busch is particularly distinguished as a master builder. For the next few years, he built several villas on the Boysenschanze, north of the “notorious district,” in what has become known as the characteristic villa quarter.

Of the three villas built by Busch in 1905/07, the one of Herr F. Kiesewetter has an outstanding effect. Its front emphasizes a tower with umbrella-like roof and flagpole. On the ground floor, the tower serves as living room dungeon [?]. From the living room one ascends via a single-flight staircase to reach the tower room. There are two verandas, an entrance porch and a south-facing veranda accessible from the living room and bedroom. Both verandas are provided with wooden pillars, decorative breastwork and spandrels as a graceful arcade colonnade and colorful sailing blinds as a sunscreen. Kiesewetter sports the letters of his name in the belt frieze of the tower of this exotic villa. Obviously impressed by this villa, Mr. Albert Kiss has himself built a similar villa in Klein-Windhoek von Busch the following year.

Walter Peters in Baukunst in Sudwestafrika: 1884-1914 p 153. inexpert translation from German

Sadly, the Kiesewetter Villa was demolished in 1968. I believe that some of its neighboring villas may remain. When next I am in Windhoek, I will be sure to seek out any remaining signs of the Villenviertel. It appears that the city of Swakopmund, however, may have retained more architecture from this period.

Windhoek: the Owela Museum of Cultural History

An index to this series appears at the top of the first post.

November 26, 2019

I invested the morning of my first full day in Namibia in teaching a roomful of students about the biomarkers field and the value of proteomics as a biomarker discovery tool. I loved that the students were very interactive, and they asked great questions. When lunch arrived at 13:00, I was excited to know that I could escape to tour the city afterwards… and glad to feel I’d connected with the students, too.

The Owela Display Centre, National Museum of Namibia

The main entrance of the Owela Display Centre for the National Museum of Namibia has seen better days.

The UNAM shuttle agreed to drop me at the Owela Museum, one of the National Museums toward the north end of Robert Mugabe Avenue, the “main drag” of sightseeing for Windhoek. The Landesmuseum was created in 1907 under German colonial government. The State Museum (1957) represented a reorganization under the South African administration. After independence, the organization became the National Museum of Namibia in 1991. The Owela Display Centre had originally opened in 1958 as a companion to the Alte Feste (old fort) museum.

I had read that the museum had languished in funding, but I still wanted to see the cultural history on offer there. I entered through the road gate to see a building that had once been painted creatively but had suffered from lack of upkeep for some years. A wagon from many years ago held a place of honour on the slope facing the entrance, but a plant had grown up through its structure. Yes, time has marched on. I was unsurprised when the curator greeted me with the news that some parts of the museum were not well-lighted because no money has been available for repairs. She forecast that I would be asked for a donation after I’d had a chance to see the museum.

The name “Owela” comes from a game that has been played for centuries!

The museum is organized into three areas: 1) the upstairs cultural exhibits, showcasing cultural differences among the various peoples that are indigenous to Namibia, 2) the downstairs area that continues that theme and offers a comparison of clothing styles that have been adopted by various groups in more recent years, and 3) a natural history museum.

I would definitely name area 1 as the highlight for the museum. The walls are covered with photographs and artifacts to tell the story of the different groups. It certainly doesn’t limit itself to the Nama, the Ovaherero, and the Ovahimba. I was pleased to see large (even life-size) examples of the houses created by different groups in different times and examples of items of clothing or musical instruments.

What Himba woman would be without these ornaments and clothing?

The museum does not shy away from the damage that has been done by the “scientific” research used to justify eugenics and master race ideology. Hans Lichtenecker, in particular, comes in for particular damnation for forcibly coercing young and old people from indigenous communities to make facial casts, photographs, and audio recordings of their languages.

Coercing the elderly into facial casts is not okay. Using that cast to justify racism is every bit as bad.

The downstairs area included more artifacts and hut reconstructions, but much of the space down there is not used. It feels like something of an overflow from area 1. When I emerged into area 3, I felt pretty discouraged that the natural history aspect of the museum relied heavily on taxidermy animals that have clearly had better decades. All of them are in ragged condition, and enough of the lights are out of operation in this part of the museum that it’s not entirely safe to navigate. My nose is not particularly sensitive, but I’m pretty sure I detected mildew. I had already navigated around an extension ladder lying inexplicably on the hallway floor in area 1 of the museum. Prominent signs thank the embassy of Finland (located nearby) for supporting the upkeep of the museum.

I was, however, delighted to see two animals on display. I conduct research in Crocuta crocuta, the spotted hyena. Namibia features two close relatives of the spotted hyena, one called the brown hyena and the other called the aardwolf, with the former adapted to scavenging and the latter adapted to pursue insects.

Taxidermy aardwolf at Owela Museum

In my hour at the museum, I was the only guest. Two areas of the museum that were continuously occupied during my visit, though, were an informal table on the back patio where very experienced players had a rousing game of dominoes and a picnic table on the grounds where a rollicking party was underway. I was happy that the gamers in back were willing to let me take a photo. This, too, is culture!

Dominoes on the back porch of the Owela Museum


From Owela, I trudged up the hill to Christuskirche, a picturesque German Lutheran church located on an island in the middle of Robert Mugabe Avenue (the church predates the road, incidentally). My feet were grateful for a chance to sit down inside the church. My eye was drawn to a massive memorial placque running the length of one wall, cataloging hundreds (>1000?) of German deaths during the genocidal war against the Nama and Herero. The controversial Rider statue built to honor the German dead once stood nearby, but it was retired in 2013 to the Alte Feste museum. The language on display inside Christuskirche is still German.

German Protestants had established themselves in Windhoek in 1896, but the assault on the Herero delayed serious efforts toward building a church until 1906. Gottlieb Redecker, an architect born to missionaries at Otjimbingwe, offered multiple potential plans for the church, and his third was accepted after he produced watercolor renderings of the “Neo-Romantic” design. The Latin Cross floor plan holds only 400 seats (incidentally, furnishing the building was delayed because it cost twice as much to build as had been anticipated). Its 42 M tower marks the northwest corner of the church. The cornerstone was laid in 1907, and the church was inaugurated in 1910.

Christuskirche, viewed from the west side

Once I reached Christuskirche, three other tourist sites were in view: the Alte Feste museum, the Independence Museum, and the state house “Ink Palace.” I will visit those on a subsequent day. I was content to descend the western slope to the Crafts Market. I had hopes that I would find original items there that would be good gifts, but all I saw at the relatively small market were items that I could just as easily acquire in Green Market Square of Cape Town. I did spot some carved chess boards, but I didn’t bite.

Wandering north along Independence Avenue, I saw several oddly Teutonic buildings that have been repurposed for modern shops, and then I wandered into an area that had budget stores like Shoprite. South Africans would be happy to encounter Neddbank and First National Bank storefronts throughout the town, too. Soon I reached my planned endpoint, the Kudu statue.

National Art Gallery of Namibia

National Art Gallery in Windhoek

I wasn’t sure what I would find in the National Art Gallery, but I was sure it would be worth a try. The Gallery is throwing its full weight behind the graduates of the University of Namibia Visual Arts program. The permanent collection of art is in storage, and the students’ master works are on show in all three galleries of the building. It didn’t take long, and some of the work was definitely worth a look.

Since my feet were being uncooperative, I decided to start my way back to the hotel. I figured a taxi would be cheaper if I made my way out of the tailbacks of downtown, so I set out for the Book Den, on the western edge of downtown. It was a bit of a hike, and some of the areas were dusty, under construction, featuring litter, or all three. I did appreciate the chance to get a photo of the downtown area from the B1 / Hosea Kutako Avenue. The Book Den was a nice shop, and yet they did not have a copy of the “History of Namibia.” The manager reported that the book has only had two printings, even though both of them sold out rapidly. [In the end, I borrowed a copy from my university library.]

The Windhoek CBD, as viewed from the B1 highway

I was getting hungry, so I consulted Google Maps to discover that the Restaurant “Nice” was just north of me. I learned that it is a commercial outlet to give experience to the students of the Namibia University of Science and Technology culinary school… and they only serve lunch. I trudged eastward, down the hill to the Wernhil Park shopping mall. One of its upper floors offered a Mugg and Bean, so I sat down to a cup of strong tea followed by three flapjacks. Just a note: in southern Africa, flapjacks are considered dessert, so people often look at me funny when I make them a meal!

After this welcome pause, I began walking southward along the B1 toward the intersection with the D.H. Meroro road (which passes the Old Cemetery). This time, I opened my ears to the tentative hoots the taxi drivers use when they’re trying to pick up business. A young driver came along just in time; droplets had begun condensing out of the cloud cover! For a mere R24 (less than two U.S. dollars), I was safely deposited at the Casa Blanca Hotel!

Windhoek: Remembering the Old Location massacre

An index to this series appears at the top of the first post.

November 25, 2019

South African Airways resolved a troublesome strike just in time for my flight to Windhoek. If my flight had been a week earlier, I might have shown up the airport with no jet to take me! My friend Dr. Andre Loxton and I flew on SA8126, a direct flight from CPT to WDH, Hosea Kutako International airport. In the same amount of time it takes to reach Johannesburg, we were on the ground in Namibia. Even though the distance from the jet to the terminal was just a short walk, I was impressed by the sun’s power.

Tense arrival

I was in for a nasty surprise when passing through immigration. The information I’d found online suggested that I should acquire my visa upon arrival at the airport, but that apparently does not apply for a researcher who is teaching for three days at the university. The officials wanted to see my (non-existent) letter of invitation from the university as well as a letter noting my paid stay at the hotel. I could only show them the printed flyer advertising my biomarkers workshop and the directions to the hotel. Andre and I had become separated in the lines, and so he wasn’t at hand to address the problem (other officials apparently gave him a hard time, as well). When I mentioned that I had sought directions at the U.S. State Department travel website, they rolled their eyes and told me in no uncertain terms that the U.S. has no power here in Namibia. Didn’t I know that an immigration official could come to the university and arrest me when I tried to teach? After about ten minutes of this tirade, they rather suddenly stamped a tourist visa in my passport and waved me through. Just what was that demonstration intended to prove?

The rest of the airport was small but offered a few businesses. Andre and I each retrieved money from the ATM, but instead of receiving Namibian Dollars, we each received South African Rand! We were happy to discover that most businesses take Rand just as readily as they do Namibian Dollars, and there’s a 1:1 exchange rate so we don’t have to do math with each purchase. Our taxi to Windhoek itself felt a little pricey at 200 ZAR for each of us, but WDH is 38 km from the city’s downtown (the Eros airport, near the center of the city, serves Sevenair and Air Namibia flights). Our driver, Mario, was a good sport and drove more carefully than we have seen elsewhere. He was able to get us to the Casa Blanca Boutique Hotel with a minimum of fuss. The hotel was built in 1970 to resemble Fort Namutoni at Etosha Park. Since the meal served on the jet was minimal, Andre and I wandered next door to the Baines Centre, a small mall built around an OK Foods store. We split a large pepperoni pizza and acquired some drinks and snacks for our hotel rooms.

Andre was keen to get to work on a presentation he would give the TESA group, but I convinced him to join me for a half-hour walk up to the Old Location Cemetery. As we trudged north on Fritsche Street, the sun beat on us mercilessly, but by the time we turned onto the sweeping curve of Jordan Street, clouds had rolled in, and lightning appeared far in the distance. We had both demolished our 750mL water bottles by the time we reached our destination.

Old Location Cemetery

The Old Cemetery matters because it is essentially the only memorial to the demise of Old Location, a long-standing black neighborhood. On 10 December, 1959, Old Location was the scene of a terrible shooting intended to cow the residents into moving to the more controlled Katutura township. The aftermath might have seemed liked “urban renewal” for the white families moving in, but it plainly seemed like erasure for the black families forced out.

In establishing Hochland Park [1990], the outgoing South African regime, which had been in illegal occupation of Namibia, ensured that all physical traces of a crime committed against Windhoek’s African inhabitants were obliterated from the city’s urban landscape. The crime committed and carried out by the South African administration in accordance with apartheid legislation, entailed the forced removal of the city’s African inhabitants from the Old Location, and the subsequent razing of all the buildings that had stood there. By building Hochland Park the outgoing South African regime had ensured that the Old Location would forever be no more than an image existent only in ever-failing memory and without any form of binding to the physical world.

Jan-Bart Gewald, pp. 257-258, Chapter 9 of African Landscapes.

The entrance to the Old Cemetery has a substantial square gateway in red, marked with the words “1959 Heroes and Heroines Memorial Grave.” The effect of these somber words was somewhat offset by a gentleman sleeping in the shade falling beneath that lintel. He awoke as we walked closer, and we saw that he was part of site security.

I was excited that Namibia had created a museum to commemorate the demise of Old Location, but as we passed through the gate, the scale of that museum became apparent. A low marble wall is inscribed with a paragraph of text, explaining the significance of the 1959 killings. It’s helpful context. I would encourage anyone interested in the former neighborhood to visit the photo album “Social Life in Windhoek Old Location” at the Digital Namibian Archives site.

The graves of people killed at the Old Location Massacre

The mass grave, itself, is just a few steps further. The headstone names the fallen “Martyrs of the Nambian Revolution.” A pair of weathered wreaths were atop the marble sarcophagus. I wanted to leave a sign that I remembered them, too, so I borrowed a Jewish tradition. I picked up a stone from the ground and placed it next to the wreaths.

The stony ground of the cemetery contrasts the greens of Hochland Park in the distance.

One of the great ironies of the Old Cemetery as a memorial is that it offers an excellent view of the hill that was once crowned by the Old Location. In 1967, the last remaining building was bulldozed from the site. In 1988-1990, the tony Hochland Park neighborhood was built on the hill instead, using an entirely new layout of streets to assert a more complete erasure of its history. As Andre and I strolled through the graveyard, Hochland Park’s comforts were always visible, separated from the cemetery by a narrow Arebbusch riverbed.

Figure 9.5 from African Landscapes overlays the Hochland Park map on the 1931 map of Old Location.

As we continued away from D.H. Meroro / Hochland road, we saw two small buildings at the Northwest corner of Old Cemetery. I was glad to see that a memorial chapel had been constructed. It does seem like an appropriate place to venerate the lost community. As we approached, though, I saw that someone was asleep inside. Andre called out, and soon another security officer emerged from the chapel. I caught a glimpse of two five-gallon buckets on the floor, so perhaps the chapel is not really a place one would linger to reflect now. My last hopes of finding a room with historical exhibits on the site vanished.

The security officer did, however, highlight that several veterans of the struggle for Namibian Independence were buried quite close by. Among others, we saw the tombs of Moses Mague Garoëb and Peter Mweshihange. I wondered what separated the people buried in this venerable cemetery from those interred at Hero’s Acre, just south of Windhoek. They certainly chose excellent company.

With its original grounds occupied with a suburb, it can be a bit challenging to envision Old Location. In today’s Windhoek, the only businesses I have seen keeping that name alive are a bar and music venue near Hosea Kutako Drive. I was really pleased to see that Henning Melber collected archives for the area into an evocative paper presented at the 3rd Namibia Research Day. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to develop a broader picture of Windhoek in the middle of the 20th century.

A meerkat and a taxi

Our departure from Old Cemetery was briefly brightened by Andre’s sighting of a meerkat. I strained to see, too, but I was only able to see the flash of its tail as it dashed away from us toward the ditch running down the Southwestern edge of Old Cemetery.

Can’t you imagine a meerkat standing on his hind legs just there?

After we crossed D.H. Meroro / Hochland, I decided to flag a taxi so that my foot (recovering from an injury in my driveway) could recover at the hotel. Andre and I mixed Afrikaans and English to explain our destination. In the end, explaining that we wanted to go to the “OK Foods” on Fritsche Street seemed the right strategy. After all, that’s just a block away from our “home” for the next few days!

Teaching for TESA: a week in Windhoek

An index for my Windhoek posts:

Flying to new places for work is a substantial privilege of professors. Back in September, I connected with visitors from Namibia who were interested in computation in biomedical research. My friend Dr. Andre Loxton and I decided to offer a three-day course in immunoassay biomarker informatics as part of the annual Trials of Excellence for Southern Africa meeting at Windhoek, Namibia. This week I will be offering my observations of the city from my five days there!

Regular readers may recall that I became part of TESA earlier in 2019 when I began co-supervising two students in Malawi. The TESA network, now in its second round of funding, is supported by the EDCTP (European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership). I was glad to visit with my friend Newton Kumwenda at Windhoek again; he and I had met during my visit to Malawi. Unlike the Blantyre work, the course Andre and I planned for Windhoek would be open to all comers, and we hoped for twenty students to take part. I believe we reached 24 participants! Because many of our TESA collaborations have featured the use of immunoassays in the context of tuberculosis detection, we decided our class would focus on the bioinformatics associated with immunoassay biomarkers.

One cannot help but appreciate the incorporation of bright colors and moving lines in campus buildings!

I have previously taught a clinical biomarkers course in seven parts at the University of the Western Cape, with many of the slides crafted by the excellent Dr. Caroline Beltran. It really helped that we could draw on those materials to build the Windhoek class. I created one set of slides that I hadn’t “performed” before, dealing with the problems of standard curves, missingness, and normalization for Luminex data. We decided to structure the program with the first talk at 8:30 AM, a tea break, and then a second talk at 10:30 AM followed by lunch. It really does help participation if the students are fed! I would have liked to have included practical exercises, as well, but I would likely be running the course solo, and I wanted to leave myself some recuperation time during the afternoons.

Our lectures addressed these topics:

  1. Defining types and properties of clinical biomarkers
  2. Deploying proteomics for biomarker discovery
  3. Understanding immunoassays via ELISA, lateral flow, and Luminex
  4. Employing standard curves, imputing missing values, and normalizing measurements
  5. Testing discrimination through receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves
  6. Avoiding common pitfalls in machine learning
Choosing the clinical question one wants to inform is essential to carrying out a successful biomarker discovery experiment.

I appreciated that our host, Dr. Jacob Sheehama, was able to attend much of the training workshop even though he began hosting the TESA annual meeting during the last day! I was very grateful to the associate dean of the University of Namibia (UNAM) medical school, who welcomed the students and opened our session. It was clear that the students honored him and valued his opinion. The medical school is really new, by the way, having only accepted its first class of trainees in 2010.

Jacob Sheehama gave our class his personal attention.

And what students they were! I cannot remember a time when I have taught students so eager to talk about this subject. They had all kinds of great questions and thoughts in response to my own questions. Sure, a good teacher is necessary to a good class, but students who really want to learn make all the difference. I learned that the participants ranged in level from graduate students to professors. At one point even Rodrigues Matcheve, TESA Project Manager and Coordinator, came for a session! I cannot help but hope that I can offer another training in connection with the 2020 annual meeting at Maputo, Mozambique.

Of course every success comes with its own challenges, and I would point to two features that didn’t go so very well. The first was that my lecture on proteomics (#2 in the series above) was really designed for UWC B.Sc. Honours students who had already taken part in Dr. Ashwil Klein‘s proteomics module. I needed to present that material at a higher level or take the time to explain tandem mass spectrometry more carefully. The second dealt with an electrical problem in the room. When the room lights were on, a set of four spotlights right in front of the screen were also on. We could press a button to deactivate the spotlights, but a sensor would detect movement in the room and turn them back on again. I had previously encountered this problem in a workshop at U-Witwatersrand, where I had simply unscrewed the bulb from the ceiling! At UNAM, a student posted at the neighboring desk would dutifully hit the spotlight button every time they came on, but the switcher could focus on little else since the lights reactivated dozens of times in each hour-long lecture.

These lights vexed me, most sorely!

I feel very lucky to have had this chance to work with the biomedical researchers of UNAM. Who knows what kinds of interactions will follow this workshop?

Oudtshoorn Scale Radio Control, 50th anniversary

An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.

September 20, 2019

A little less than four decades ago, my father took me to a Kansas City airfield for a show unlike any I had ever seen before. I saw grown-ups grinning like little kids, directing their model airplanes by remote control to fly loops and rolls! When I saw that the Cango Flying Club was organizing the 50th anniversary Oudtshoorn Scale RC event during my week off work, I knew I had to attend.

Many scales, and many eras

If you have never been to such a show, you might imagine a bunch of plastic airframes propelled by little electric motors. As I’ll describe, though, the types of planes and the engines that powered them were incredibly diverse. What distinguishes this airshow is its emphasis on scale models. For a scale airplane to qualify for the event, it needed to represent a real airplane that flies today or back in history. Every era of flight was represented, from the birth of flight at the start of the 20th century to contemporary jet fighters!

Perhaps the most dramatic example for me was a model of the Santos-Dumont Demoiselle (“Damselfly”). The real airplane first took flight in 1907 in France. Mark and Roux, representing the Cape Radio Flyers and the Stellenbosch Model Aircraft Academy, were piloting a Demoiselle in ovals around the Oudtshoorn Aerodrome. The other four planes in air were tearing around in acrobatics, but the Demoiselle took a more deliberate pace. Its slow speed made me hold my breath every time it reversed course. I decided to record a little video of the scrappy airplane; it was moving slowly enough that my camera could focus on it! Rather suddenly, though, the plane seemed to make an erratic turn, and then its nose pitched down. I imagined rather than heard a sick crunch as it smacked the dirt beside the runway and shattered to pieces. I felt terrible for its crew.

The remains of the damselfly. I am sure it will take the skies once more!

Real pride of place, however, must be given to the World War I-era Gotha G.II, a heavy bomber employed by the Imperial German Air Service (the Luftwaffe didn’t exist until 1935). The biplane features two wing-mounted propeller engines and a central fuselage for the pilot and gunner. I found myself wondering if this were the type of plane stolen by Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade! The enormous plane (perhaps a 1:3 scale model?) was towed by its pilots to the rear of the airfield for its brief flight. It seemed everybody was watching as they spun up its engines. It slowly lumbered into the air, and everyone applauded. It was only in the sky for a couple of minutes before it was navigated to a careful landing. The Pilot’s Post captured an amazing photograph of the plane in flight.

Just how would one transport such a huge plane?

I had interesting chats with Andries of the Bloem Radio Aero Team and Daniel of Port Elizabeth Radio Flyers. They explained that RC flight has been swamped by newcomers purchasing ARF (“Almost Ready to Fly”) kits. The artistry of building a scale model airplane from hundreds of parts takes considerably more time and energy. Because this airshow was limited to scale models, we were really seeing the products of months of craft. Electric motors are hardly the limit of today’s planes, though they are quite popular for reliability and cost. Plenty of airplanes at the show used two-stroke engines burning methanol, while others featured four-stroke engines burning unleaded fuel. One plane featured a turboprop, quite a technically complex mechanism to fit into a small space!

Oddly enough, South African companies produce components for the Eurofighter Typhoon.

As someone who grew up making model airplanes of military jets, though, I felt an incredible thrill to see scale model jets taking to the skies! My personal favorite was a model of a Eurofighter, dressed in South African colors. Werner previously flew with the Tygerberg Model Flying Club. The group apparently limited its activities to propeller-powered planes, though, so he has been flying solo in recent years. I also had my eye on a nearby model of an F-15, but I didn’t get to see it in motion.

The F-15 first flew in 1972, the year my brother was born.

I watched in awe as planes completed Immelmann turns, snap rolls and many maneuvers one could only do in an RC plane with more energy to spare than the real thing. The air marshals gamely kept limits on the total number of planes in the sky (and kept nosy bloggers behind the barrier separating pilots from civilians). I felt my head getting a bit warm, despite my hiking hat, so I paused for a blue slushy. Oh, life was very good!

In the evening, I attended a special indoor event for the Oudtshoorn Scale RC. The big boys had their fun in the morning, but the smaller aircraft, ranging from rubber-band powered planes up to electrical “foamies,” had a chance to fly inside the De Jagers Sports Complex. The cardinal event was the balloon race. All around the enclosed gymnasium, balloons were tied to crepe paper, with a chocolate bar tied to the other end. Whichever pilot popped the balloon could lay claim to the chocolate bar. Some of the balloons, however, were placed within PVC pipe squares or even under a folding table.

Two “foamies” attempt to destroy the remaining balloon.

Naturally, this event lent itself to younger pilots. One of their favorite tactics was to direct their foam airplanes into hovers, with the planes hanging down from their whining, madly-spinning propellers. That thrust-to-weight ratio is not typical of private airplanes!

Yes, you can power flight with a rubber band.

I was fascinated with the diversity of aircraft on display in the windless indoor environment. When I think “drone,” I automatically think “quad-copter.” A company called “E-flite,” among others, has been making very lightweight RC airplanes that are designed for indoor use. I must resist my buying urge! I sat next to Raffaele and Karin and their son; they had come from the Helderberg Radio Flyers near Somerset West to see the show. Their little boy was so excited; when he saw some foam gliders making an appearance, he begged his father to buy one. His dad replied that they would build one together. I rather suspect his son will someday be a young man attending the 70th anniversary of this event!

I am very glad that I was able to attend this 50th anniversary event for the scale model airplane community. I really had no idea that so many flying clubs surround me here in the Western Cape. If you are interested in this hobby, you might want to check in with the South African Model Aircraft Association to find a group near you!

Oudtshoorn: Connecting with C.J. Langenhoven at Arbeidsgenot

An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.

September 19, 2019

I have mentioned several key pieces of Afrikaner culture, for example the Taal Monument in Paarl, the life of D.F. Malan, or the origins of Stellenbosch University. My visit to the home of C.J. Langenhoven, however, felt much more personal than those others. Langenhoven is sometimes billed as the “father of Afrikaans.” Arbeidsgenot, his steady home from 1903 to his death in 1932, is just a couple blocks from the center of Oudtshoorn. He wrote the words to “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” in this house. The poem, set to music, became the South African national anthem; part is incorporated in the current anthem, as well. He also helped usher the National Party to prominence from Oudtshoorn. That’s rather a lot of history for one house.

This image of Arbeidsgenot is from Carin Smuts Architects.

On the other hand, Arbeidsgenot is nothing like the feather palaces that I have described in previous posts. Instead, it is a rather unassuming cottage, with three bedrooms, a small living room, a rather more sizable dining room, a bathroom, and a decent kitchen and pantry. J.C. Kannemeyer explains in “Langenhoven. ‘n Lewe” (“Langenhoven: a Life”) that in 1902 the Langenhoven family’s budget was stretched very tightly, so the Langenhovens sought a property they could buy inexpensively [pp. 201-202]. They opted for a cottage named “Woodbine” on Western Road. (The road was only renamed for Jan van Riebeeck in 1952, twenty years after Langenhoven’s death.) C.J. Langenhoven decided to rename the cottage “Arbeidsgenot” (“The joy of labor”) at a later date, as part of his advocacy for the Afrikaans language. The Langenhovens were setting up their permanent home on a tight budget just as Oudtshoorn was exploding with new wealth and opulent new manor homes. The first Feather Palace, Olivier’s The Towers, was constructed nearby at about the same time the Langenhovens moved to this area. The closest Feather Palace, Pinehurst, was constructed essentially across the street one decade after they moved to the neighborhood.

Hats for her and for him. I have to think a preservationist would have some ideas…

What was it about this tidy bungalow that made it “just right” for Langenhoven? Keanan, my guide for this visit, gave the first hint: “In die sitkamer ontvang ek my vyande, in die eetkamer my vriende!” (“I meet my friends in the dining room and my enemies in the living room.”) [Kannemeyer p 205] Langenhoven’s own words acknowledge the rather cramped living room offered by his home. Several of the totems remaining in the house also have significant links to his work. One of his most famous characters, named Herrie, was a bull who towed a family around in Herrie op die ou Tremspoor, his 1925 contribution to children’s literature. Several other bulls were gifted to him after its success. Similarly, a stuffed iguana at the house points to  Brolloks en Bittergal. I liked the air of whimsy that these inclusions produced.

For a moment, this clothes washer was not the only American thing on the property!

I realized I have omitted a visit to the Stellenbosch Museum. The armoire in Engela Langenhoven’s room (his daughter) is a reproduction; the original can now be found at Stellenbosch, much closer to home than Oudtshoorn. The bedroom for CJ Langenhoven himself is separate from the bedroom for his wife. He found a bedframe crafted for an Indian princess that had mistakenly been removed from a ship at Mossel Bay and bought it at auction for his wife [Kannemeyer p. 206]. CJ Langenhoven himself slept in a bed with a blanket of skins that had been stitched together. A selection of his walking canes appears beside the bed. Keanan showed me his veranda chair where he was known to enjoy a drink and a smoke. Apparently these habits were not similarly enjoyed by his wife.

One must wonder how recently the electrical system was replaced!

A few years back, the graves of CJ Langenhoven (1873-1932) and of his wife Magdalena Hugo (1863-1950) were relocated to the property that he loved so much. There’s another curious inclusion there, too. The ashes of Sarah Goldblatt (1889-1975) have been interred quite near a bust of CJ Langenhoven that overlooks the other two graves. Keanan noted that she and CJ Langenhoven worked together, and he also offered that she was CJ Langenhoven’s lover (Kannemeyer offers much less certainty on this point at pages 371-372). Why, then, was she buried here at his home? In fact, a much larger question asks why CJ Langenhoven named Sarah Goldblatt in his will as the administrator of his literary works! A Master’s thesis by Leonie van Zyl helps to shed light on this subject, outlining Goldblatt’s many contributions to promoting Afrikaans in the 43 years she lived after CJ Langenhoven’s death (including her work promoting Arbeidsgenot as a key piece of the national heritage). It seems unjust to suggest that her only significance to Langenhoven was to be “the other woman.”

Sarah Goldblatt was a less-heralded stalwart for the development of the Afrikaans language.

In democratic South Africa, one rarely hears any mention of the National Party that is not immediately followed by “Apartheid,” the policy of racial segregation that caused so much anguish and death for so many people. It is worth noting that Langenhoven’s involvement with the party necessarily ended at his death in 1932, and Apartheid policy is often dated to have begun with the National Party’s attainment of a majority in 1948. At the same time, it would be quite undeniable that Langenhoven’s promotion of Afrikaans was a linchpin in the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. I need to read more to discern Langenhoven’s racial attitudes. Visitors to Arbeidsgenot today are most frequently white Afrikaners, not members of the South African Coloured community that frequently learns Afrikaans as a first language.

Who doesn’t love a pretty garden?

As an American, my grasp of Afrikaans is essentially nonexistent. I can report that the house has relatively little information presented in English. Most of it appears in little papers affixed to the door frames. If visiting vintage houses is your thing, you will enjoy your visit regardless. If you enjoy strolling in sunlit gardens, Arbeidsgenot is also a winner (I enjoyed listening to bumblebees sampling the tree flowers at the exit). If you want to learn more about the Afrikaans language or read some selections from CJ Langenhoven, you will find little help here. I would really love to see a reading room added to the property, particularly if they can offer some of Langehoven’s most popular writings in translation.