The Chinese Are Here

What have the Omusati Regional Council, the Crafts Centre being build, the recently opened 100km tar road C41 between Okahao/Tsandi and the Opuwo/Ruacana junction, the ‘Outapi Times Square – Outapi’s newest and biggest shopping complex – and our region’s showcase school Onawa near Annamulenge in common? They are build and sometimes also financed or donated by the Chinese.

I’ve read a lot about the People’s Republic of China and their increasing presence and interests on the African continent during the last years. Recently I also watched the rather humorous BBC documentary ‘The Chinese Are Coming’. You easily could shoot another episode in Namibia.

Except when supervising their ‘China’ shops in Northern Namibia, where clothings, electronics and miscellaneous stuff of poor quality, are sold you barely see them in public life here. That they are numerous also in Namibia I had to hear the first time when I was listening to someone working at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry at a cozy dinner in Windhoek. In construction business they are simply everywhere here in the North. At Onawa, our newest school, roughly 40 Chinese workers, a few local labor, and even fewer ‘boers’ working there seven days a week – the Chinese are even not resting on public holidays. A tour on the construction site is a tour into a different world: earth moving vehicles, most building materials, engineering drawings, staff quarter kitchen (they do make delicious steam bread) and the toilet paper. It all comes from China. At the Omusati Regional Council things went into absurdity: even the emergency stickers on the water hose boxes are imported and have exotic phone numbers on it. Luckily they have their own fire truck.

There are many good articles on websites of relevant economical magazines trying to get to the bottom of PRC’s involvement on the African continent: explaining why comparatively simple work is done by ‘imported’ Chinese labor in African countries with high unemployment rates. So no need to philosophise about that. My only observation is that they work at a breathtaking pace. But the constructions have low quality standards and will not last long it seems to me.

Much more interesting is what locals up here think about their new neighbors. Whenever I had a good chance I’ve tried to bring up the topic or was watching, for example when waiting at the car wash or gas station and I Chinese store owner drove up. More black than white. Not surprisingly many locals are critical, sometimes even adversarial and express it verbally, when it comes to it. In the Omusati Region we have an unemployment rate of ~75%. Most people work for the government. Private business comes down to small shops, bars (shebeens – go on a building picture tour here), taxis or the car wash. The Chinese are competing exactly in that very first category with their shops which are flourishing. So they are, and are seen, as competitors and the same goes for the construction business. Some of my colleagues are on the other hand in favor of the Chinese and say they are doing good for the country. It is hard to say what their opinion is based on.

The Chinese itself don’t have it easy on the African continent. When staying at a friend’s place in Oshakati in the evening I often end up outside the apartment of Mr. H with a bunch of his friends eating and talking (as far as the language barrier allows it). H and his lovely wife and daughter own well running stores in town. He is in his mid-thirties. If you meet him the first time you would not think that. He had been in two African countries before. Several times robbed at gunpoint and injured with a knife. It is not a secret that Chinese store owner make a lot of money in cash. Crime has drastically increased in overcrowded areas around Oshakati since I came in 2010. Staying in Ongwediva (when Oshakati is L.A. – the adjoining Ongwediva is Beverly Hills) I heard several times shots fired at night – close to the police station. Due to that H. and most of his friends legally carry a gun with them all the time.

Construction workers at remote sites in the bush, for example at our Onawa school, are contrary to shop owners not exposed to the public at all and usually cannot speak a word English. They virtually never leave their barracks at the construction sites, where traditional food and phone calls via Internet help against home sickness. During my inspections at Onawa I also always felt welcomed and experienced a great deal of hospitality.

Namibia here I am: T plus 3 years

Before coming to Namibia at the beginning of 2010 I had a preparation course back in Switzerland. One of the things we had been warned of is that at some point during the assignment one would experience different cycles during the three years. Closer to the end time would run fast. But you would most likely also experience stretches where things would be quite sticky and days only pass by in slow motion.

Looking back I realize that I luckily never had those days. The three years had been flying by at the speed of light. However this is not the reason that my last blog post was published half a year ago. This is because the things you do at work and in your free time become normality after a while. Regardless where you are – routine takes over. So you start to think that they are not worth to be mentioned on any blog. Another reason will be explained in a following post on the tightrope walk of a development worker embedded within a large government institution.

So how does it feel to leave in a few weeks? To be honest this is not easy to answer. At work I had a smooth start from the first day. On the other hand the time off had been rough at the beginning. Compared to other parts of Namibia the 4-O-Region makes it tough in many regards (lack of cultural & culinary choice, dead nature, limited shopping facilities – to name a few). I always referred Outapi as the place to work – not the place to be. Although still going to Oshakati, which is 100km away, almost every weekend I refer Outapi as home by now. The reason for that is NOT that the town and Omusati has become more attractive in any of the above mentioned departments (to be honest shopping has improved also here). It is the amount of people you know after a while and friends you have up here. Your network. For work this is crucial to get things done. For your free time and emergencies like having your head stitched at midnight it is everything. And it is everything but easy to leave all those people back after three years. Happy new year!

What applies to blog posts also applies to taking pictures. At some point you stop doing it. Nonetheless a random selection of pictures taken in 2012.

alternative tourism in the North

Rain? I’ve complained a lot about it. Last weekend we’ve discovered the other side of the coin with an activity of which I would have never thought about it before: canoeing on the Oshanas next to Oshakati. Patrick let his connections in the water purification business play and managed to borrow two two-seater canoes from a friend. Our original idea was to have a small ‘test drive’ in the morning to see how we would manage before we would do the real thing on one of the bigger Oshanas in the North-West fed from the Angolan creeks. At the end we did 10km (bee-line). Despite the low water depth (20-70cm) it worked out quite well. Only the stretches with grass and ‘sand banks’ had been a tough one for boat Nr. 2 with Lindsey and myself as we didn’t want to get out of the canoe to pull it (bilharziosis?).

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lunch break stories: keep your credit card safe

Self checkout, SPAR, OshakatiAlthough electronic payment facilities can be found in every corner of the country the use of a ATM is still a bit thrilling as chances are that the money or the card (or both) is not coming out due to poor maintenance and old machines: last time when a Bank Windhoek ATM in Oshakati kept my banking card it took almost two hours to get it back.
At the two big supermarket chains Shoprite and SPAR I usually pay with my Swiss credit card. Here it is the staff that makes things exciting: at Shoprite I regularly have to show the personnel how the operate the POS cradle with a foreign card. At SPAR I’ve taken the advise to keep your card in view all the time literally: self checkout. As the person who can operate the dedicated terminal is usually not around I’ve started to make the transaction on my own and after it hand over the receipt to the till girl.

Bye rainy season…

Till two weeks ago the North has received steady rain and water coming from Angola since the beginning of the rainy season a couple of months ago. The outcome had even been worse than the flooding from 2008, officials are speaking of the ‘heaviest floods ever recorded’: thousands of people had to be evacuated and a great deal of everyday life came to a stop in the Region during the last month. Most of the schools closed down as it had become too dangerous for the learners to walk to the schools. Against all wisdom some decided not. Two weeks ago a NDF (Namibian defense force) boat bringing learners over a river capsized in the Oshikoto Region – one learner and a soldier drowned. Just the tip of the iceberg: dozens of people drown every rainy season as just a few are able to swim. Hard to believe when you see the dust-dry Northern landscape in a few months.
When the water level reached it’s high Adrian from VSO and I went to the main bridge between Oshakati and Ongwediva to watch the crowd. Have a look at the stunning pictures he took. Some of them had been published in the Namibian.