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  • Namibia 2007

    1.
    I read a book by Uwe Timm about early twentieth century German colonial politics in what is today Namibia. Eighty thousand Hereros then lived here. Within a very short time after their colonialization, the Germans killed all but fifteen thousand. Many died in concentration camps. Women and children were driven into the desert and left to die. I have to stop reading. I feel sick to my stomach. I switch on the TV, and there is a program on the History Channel about the Germans in Namibia! I learn that all around Swakopmund there are mass graves of Hereros in the dunes. Many skeletons are without skulls. The Germans forced the Hereros in the concentration camps to clean the skulls of their dead. These were then sent to biology students in German schools. I remember that in my school, there was, indeed, a human skull.

    2.
    We drive back from Damaraland towards Swakopmund. After a couple of hours on the well- maintained dirt road that winds through amazing mountain landscapes, we spot two Herero woman along the wayside. They glow in the bright sun, their black skin shimmering inside their vibrant traditional dress. One is shining brilliantly in bright red; the other, younger woman is all in green. They are selling small stuffed fabric dolls dressed identically to themselves. We buy a bunch of their dolls and ask if we can photograph the women. They love it! Of course we can! One puts on fashionable dark sunglasses. The older one, in red, starts to laugh and sing. We are thrilled with their spontaneous show.

    The older one says in quite good English,” I give you my postal address so that you can send me a copy of these photographs!’

    I get a pen and paper out of my handbag and am surprised that she knows how to write down her name and address. She even has a postal box! She returns the sheet of paper to me and asks, “Where are you from?”

    When we say “Mexico”, both woman jump up high into the air, their long skirts fluttering in the light midday breeze.

    “Give me your address,” begs the older woman. “I can write to you, and we can be pen pals!”

    I am surprised, but delighted, to get such a proposal from a poor Herero farmer and enthusiastically write down my Mexican address.

    A week later I print the photographs and send them off. I never receive an answer from her, but am satisfied that I completed my part of the pen pal proposal.


    2.
    Yesenia also is from the Herero tribe. Once a week she comes to clean our house. She is a tall, strong woman in her mid–forties, I would guess.

    Even though English is the country’s official language, Yesenia, like many native, black Namibians, hardly speaks any. She speaks Herero and Afrikaans. It is difficult for us to communicate, but somehow we manage.

    Yesenia comes every Monday. In a few hours she cleans the whole house. I am sure we comfound her with our relaxed housekeeping. Last Monday she wanted to put clean sheets on our beds. My husband had washed the sheets, but they were not ironed. I tell Yesenia that she should put them on as is. Ironing is not necessary, I tell her. After one night they will be wrinkled in any case. She stands there, huge, looks down at me and just shakes her head. She cannot believe my instructions. Do I see a glimpse of compassion in her eyes? Then her voice comes strong and decisive, “Not good. Not good!” And she goes downstairs, takes out the ironing board and presses the sheets. Then she makes our beds.

    I sit down to paint in the living room and after a while see my husband come down the stairs. He wants to open the fridge and taste a bit of the Emmentaler cheese that we were lucky enough to find in the supermarket yesterday. But Yesenia steps into his path. She has just washed the kitchen floor. She points at it, looks into my husband’s face and declares sternly, “Not good. Not good!” My husband bows his head and with soft steps retreats back to the second floor. Ten minutes later he makes a new cheese attempt, but Yesenia again signals to the wet floor. Empty-handed, he returns upstairs. I grin deeply inside.

    Oh! Here comes Yesenia toward me. She has a mop in her hand and again barks her “not good” twice. With that, I am ordered out of the room, out of her way, so she can wipe the floor. I no longer grin. Like my husband, I slink my way upstairs. I find my husband watching TV. We look at each other and break into laughter.

    Ten minutes later I dare go downstairs. I see Yesenia carefully inspecting my unfinished paintings, lying on the living room table. She hears me coming and looks up. Finally, a smile. “Good, good, good,” she proclaims, gesturing at my art.

    I am so happy that there is finally something about me of which she approves.


    3.
    One day I ask her about the festivities for the upcoming Independence Day. Will the Hereros appear in the local stadium in their stunning national dress to honor their president when he addresses the nation?

    “No,” she answers. “The president is from the Ovambo tribe. He is good for the Ovambos, but not good for Hereros! We Hereros do not celebrate the independence.” I have read that the Ovambos comprise more than half of the Namibian population.

    I am disappointed. My husband and I had hoped to photograph the Hereros in their beautiful traditional clothes.

    “Photographs?” says Yesenia, and a broad smile fills her face “Do you want to photograph me?” I am surprised. I am used to Mayans who hate to be photographed and can become quite aggressive toward people trying to ‘capture’ them on film.

    “I have a traditional dress,” Yesenia presses on. “When do you want to photograph me?”

    “What about next Sunday?” I suggest. Her smile grows even broader. “Can I bring my cousin in her dress, too?” she asks.

    Of course, she can.

    Sunday morning I hardly recognize my helper. She wears a very long dress with a flowing white skirt. Over it is a dark, short and narrow jacket dancing with golden fringe. Shell necklaces adorn her neck. Her traditional Herero hat lies square on her head. It is made of the same material as her skirt. It is tubelike, running from right to left. At the front of the hat rests a sparkling brooch. Yesenia wears make–up. She looks younger and more relaxed than I have ever seen her. She is taller than my husband and smiles down on us with dignity. To me she behaves and looks just as I imagine an African queen!

    And she has brought a fellow royal along, her younger cousin Alina. Alina’s dress is the same style, but all in red.

    Both women let us position them this way and that; they seem to enjoy fully the attention we are giving them. When finally we are satisfied and thank them, Yesenia begs, “Can we have a photograph where we are both sitting?” They can, of course. I go to bring some chairs, but no, she does not want chairs. She wants a photograph with them both sitting on the patch of grass in front of the beach. Both women drape themselves on the lawn and smile more smiles, and we photograph. Then we invite both of them to join us in our living room.

    Changing roles, we now serve Yesenia -- cookies, fruit and soft drinks. The two demolish everything in no time. Alina does not speak much English either, but I manage to understand that she has a fiancé. Her parents and his are in conversations about the marriage agreement, how many cows he must pay her parents. She hopes that she can marry shortly. I recall the Hereros are cattle herders. In modern Namibia, many men still live in the countryside taking care of the cattle while their wives work as maids in the cities, like Yesenia.

    “Is your fiancé a good man?” I ask.

    Alina laughs and nods. ”Yes, he is a good man, because he does not drink alcohol!”

    Yesenia smiles a huge smile. Her face becomes as soft and lovely as that of a very young girl.

    When we say good–bye, both women hug us again and again. They repeatedly tell us, “This was a wonderful morning for us!”

    So it was for my husband and me.

    Please, also see: Forgiving The Murderers
    and: African Women

    Photography by Kiki

    More Paintings
    My Blog
    Mi blog
    Kiki en TELEMUNDO
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