It was late November and frigid outside, and I was sitting at my desk at The New York Daily News office down near Wall Street literally itching to travel. I was emailing with my friend Tangeni in Namibia and he once again extended an invitation for me to come visit with him and his family.
The prospect was looking good except for the astronomical airfare prices ranging from $1600 for 54-hours of flight and layover time to $8000 for 17-hour direct flights to Johannesburg, South Africa with a connection to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It was crazy, but as my girlfriend Tiffany Black says, “Never give up!” So I searched high and low on Hipmunk, Travelocity, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, and FINALLY found a somewhat direct flight for $1900 on CheapOair. That might be the most I’ve ever spent on airfare alone, but I booked it. Hey, we only live once!
Less than 30-days later I was packed in a Toyota 4Runner with Tangeni, his girlfriend Nankelo and their two babies, Kankameni, 2, and Natsetweya, 5 months. We were driving to Tangeni’s ancestral home near Amilema in northern Namibia, about an 8-hour drive north from Windhoek. The drive offered stunning views of the country’s topography, which on this leg of the journey was mostly green, lush, and mountainous. We passed through small towns and villages on the way.
But the real adventure began when the road turned to gravel and instead of trees and mountains there were farms and traditional huts scattered before us. I have personally never seen human dwellings such as these and to think that one of my best friends grew up in one. It was so cool! His farm, like most, was comprised of several small huts made of raw tree branches and thatch rooves, an outdoor kitchen and outhouse, pens for goats and maybe cattle or chickens, and planting fields. His had the added bonus of a small house made of cement blocks and a tin roof.
In this region most people make a living tending to livestock and crop farming, Tangeni told me. Your wealth, he said, depends on how many cattle your family owns. Surprisingly, farmers allow their ‘assets’ to roam freely and far away, and they love strolling on the road. Note to self: a Namibian traffic jam means either cows, goats, donkeys or ostriches are blocking the road.
In New York City a traffic jam means sitting on the Cross Bronx Expressway for hours going literally no where! This city girl had many other life-shaping moments and realizations in Amilema, some that will haunt me forever.
1. Let’s start with the fact that there was no running water…
I’m going to let that sink in. There were no sinks, people! There were no flushing toilets, no showers or tubs, and no refrigerator that dispensed fresh drinking water. When I asked Tangeni where should I brush my teeth, he replied, “Anywhere.” All the household’s water is collected in rain barrels or collected from a well.
2. The outhouse is a place of horrors.
Located about 50 feet from the house in a field surrounded by wild animals, the outhouse is made of cement blocks and tin with a non-flushing toilet bowl sitting over a hole in the ground. I can’t tell you much more about it because I never went in. I peed behind trees and held my poop for a little over 30 hours until I got to a lodge with a flushing toilet.
3. Not pooping was a good thing because the only option for a shower was a plastic bag filled with water hanging behind a few tarps.
So I didn’t shower either. Ironically, it was not uncommon to see white porcelain tubs scattered in the fields. But these tubs were not meant for bathing. No, they were for holding water for the livestock. Nankelo explained to me that daily showering just isn’t something people who work in the fields all day do, because they’re just gonna get dirty again the next day. Duh! Naya Rivera would feel perfectly at home here.
4. Your ability to cook depends on your ability to start a fire.
Thank God there was a resident cook. The kitchen was a four-walled shack under which was a shelf with a few pots and a place to build a fire with branches and some matches. Thank God there were at least matches unless I think people would starve. But even with matches starting a fire was not easy. Nankelo and I tried it for a good 10 minutes with just a struggling flame rising from the ashes. Tangeni, the fire master, gave the fire a few quick fans and suddenly it was raging. Apparently there’s a certain way you must fan the flames to provide optimal oxygen…who knew.
5. Your hands are your utensils.
Eating with my hands isn’t a new concept because I did it in Ethiopia and I do it every time I visit my favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Zoma. What was new was the custom of washing my hands in a shared basin with everyone at the table. I shared a beautiful meal of chicken and traditional porridge called oshifima, magically prepared in a pot over a flame, with Tangeni’s mother and Nankelo. I was the last one to wash my hands in the basin. A deep place inside where my OCD lives was crying.
6. After dinner I was itching for something to do…
But there are no TVs and barely internet access, so my only option was to chase the goats. I was dead set on catching one of the little ones but damn those suckers are fast. I tried my best lioness moves to separate the weakest from the herd but they left no man (I mean goat) behind. After skinning my leg in my effort, my only other option was watching Tangeni and his brothers play dominoes. I lay on a mattress in a dirt lot and looked up at the sky pondering the limited entertainment options. It dawned on me suddenly why bored people have so many kids…
7. On top of all this it was HOT.
The heat in this region seemed hotter than in Windhoek and was just about as oppressive as an elephant sitting on your chest. It was almost hard to breath. There was no air conditioning or even cool water to pour on my head. Tangeni offered that sitting in the thatch hut was the best option but I didn’t find it much cooler then sitting in the shade, which helped almost none.
8. And then there were the bugs…
The threat of being bitten by possible bugs, such as scorpions, was real. Tangeni said it happens all the time, in fact, it happened to him once. And the spiders in Namibia seem to have no fear of man. They crawl right on you! In the evening the mosquitoes arrived in mass and descended on naked and covered skin, pushing their grubby suckers right through your clothes.
9. But you could only hear the buzzing of the mosquitoes not see them because it was dark as f5ck.
There was no electricity on the farm at night except for in the house. No lights outside meant two things. First, the night sky was AMAZING. I could see stars for days and the moon was a bright orb in a brilliant sky. Second, I was left blind to any animals waiting in the bushes to attack me. So I didn’t bother going to pee before bed because I didn’t want to be eaten by potential lions or leopards. As Tangeni’s family farm borders Etosha National Park the threat was real and I wasn’t taking any chances.
10. My mind was blown!
Despite my comical writing of this post I actually REALLY enjoyed my time on Tangeni’s family farm and will be forever grateful that he thought me a good enough friend to invite me there. Knowing that he grew up there, tending the fields, retrieving eggs from the hens, herding the goats, and generally living a hard-knock life has given me a new perspective of who he is. The Tangeni I knew was the wine snob, Harvard-educated, master news editor with a keen eye always on the world’s current events. Now, I know Tangeni the farmer, the family man, the not-afraid-to-get-his-hands-dirty or be bitten by scorpions.
I also learned a lot about myself and how privileged I grew up. I thought growing up in the projects of New York City was a hard-knock life. But the occasional brown water that came out of the pipes and government cheese would have been a come up in Amilema. I left much more appreciative of what I have, but also awestruck by the environment and experience that shaped my friend.