A Crisis Corps Assignment in Namibia

-Robert Philipson, RPCV, Central African Republic

As a member of the LGBT RPCV group, I’d read about Crisis Corps in this newsletter.
Crisis Corps is a fairly recent Peace Corps initiative that places RPCVs in short term assignments around the world. I had been a volunteer in the Central African Republic in the 70s and was at a point in my life where I could take time to do volunteer work abroad again. Crisis Corps, with its normal assignment period of three to six months, seemed a perfect solution. And its easy one-page application overcame any lethargy I might have had about throwing my hat in the ring.

Some six months after applying, Crisis Corps contacted me and asked if I would be interested in a somewhat longer assignment (9 months) in Namibia. I cautiously replied that I might be, then ran to the atlas to look the place up. Situated directly north of South Africa on the Atlantic coast, Namibia, then known as South West Africa, had first been a German colony. South Africa occupied the country during World War I and administered it as a mandate territory until the anti-colonial wars and resistance movements in Southern African during the 1980s stanched South Africa’s appetite for supporting apartheid regimes. In 1988 South Africa agreed to end its administration in accordance with a UN peace plan for the entire region. Namibia won its independence in 1990. The country is a multi-racial society made up of several African tribes, a mixed race population known as Coloureds, and whites of both German and South African backgrounds.

I wondered what kind of gay life might exist in the capital Windhoek, where I was to be posted. When I went to gaydar, a British-based web site serving many of the former Commonwealth countries, and discovered over 100 profiles for men in Windhoek, I thought, “Well, this might not be so bad.” The fact that 90% of these guys chose not to post their pictures should have tipped me to the fact that digital anonymity doesn’t lead to gay pride safaris.

My Assignment: My assignment was to teach computer skills at Hage Geingob High School, named after the country’s first prime minister. The high school serves students coming from the poorest section of the city, the former Black township of Katatura. Although the school’s setting is stark – little more than concrete buildings in an empty field – it is fairly new and tightly run. The principle, Hanna Garesis, is excellent: a young woman in her mid-thirties, calm, efficient, and compassionate. Since she also owned the house I lived in, I saw a lot of her. The teaching staff of 20 was Black and Coloured, a lively mix of different tribes and languages. As is usually the case with teachers, especially in the developing world, they are fun, spirited, intelligent, and laugh a lot. The school is a real stew of languages, with Afrikaans and English the most common. The learners, as students are called, are dedicated to working their way out of their parents’ poverty. They are extremely well behaved in class. This island of strivers is surrounded by a sea of poverty, ignorance, crime, bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and waste.

My state-of-the-art computer lab was donated by the United States. The U.S. ambassador’s wife took a personal interest in the project and got the funding for it. On my first day on the job I took stock of where I was and what I was being asked to do. Hanna asked me to teach computer literacy to everybody in the school, learners and teachers alike. That was my mandate, and that’s all the guidance I got.

Materially, I worked in American plenty. Garnering the support to maintain this absurdly out-of-context electronic wealth was a much trickier matter. The Ministry of Basic Education is the familiar developing world institution: poverty-stricken, tight with funds, slow to pay its bills, and unable to provide effective oversight. The lines of authority between the Ministry and USAID remained confused. The guys who set up the lab and were supposed to make sure the hardware and software functioned properly, two South Africans, had split up and were squabbling in court. I met with one of them, our de facto network administrator, and he had a bit of the con man about him. It was apparent as I sat looking over his shoulder that he was self-taught in networking and didn’t have the answers to some fairly basic questions. He’s what I had to work with, however. Along with everything else, I had to learn something about network administration.

Passing for Straight: My Namibian friends and colleagues thought I had a wife and daughter because those who had been to my house had seen pictures of me with my sister and niece and . . . um, well, I lied about it. Actually, I lied about it at the drop of a hat – or, more precisely, in response to questions about my family life in America. In the States I tend to be contemptuous of gays who are in the closet, especially those who live in urban areas, but here it was a tactical decision. Because Namibia is a highly westernized, multiracial society, homosexuality is recognized as a concept – and universally despised. In one well-publicized quote, President Nujoma declared, “Those who are practicing homosexuality in Namibia are destroying the nation. Homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society.” Although homosexuality isn’t technically illegal, men wearing earrings in Katatura had been attacked and beaten. I took my earring out the third day I was in the country. I missed it.

I told my Associate Peace Corps Director that I was gay during the initial orientation, and she advised me to run, not walk, into the closet. It’s not that I couldn’t have done my work if I were out at school, it’s just that my being gay would have been the first, and only, fact that people would have registered. And, of course, there would have been no bouts of drinking in the shabeens with my male colleagues.

Oddly enough, the closet had its pleasures. There was an uncritical acceptance of claims to the role of father, husband, and family man that are not common currency in the gay community back home, at least not yet. I’m a man of some imagination, and since I have a family – just not the one that fits the dominant paradigm – it was easy for me to rustle up an appropriate anecdote about my “wife” and “daughter” when the occasion demanded it. My listeners never saw the quotation marks. And so I was accepted into the great straight world. No wedding ring? Nobody asked me about it. Occasionally I got questioned about leaving my “wife” back home, but that was an easy lob. I replied that I was there as a volunteer, that my wife made much more money than I did (she’s a lawyer), and that I couldn’t afford to be in Namibia if she didn’t stay in America and work.

Why couldn’t I have claimed to be single? I could have, but at my age it would have marked me as odd, and, among my male friends, I would have had to constantly parry offers of female companionship. This way I could be as ribald as my drinking companions—changing genders in my war stories, of course – without having to put my money where my mouth was. One group of drinking companions had dubbed itself the MBAs, Married But Available. Cute, huh?

Like all individuals who pass, I occasionally found myself party to discussions of the outgroup – gays, Jews, Blacks, Coloureds, you name it. One Friday drinking bout at a nearby shebeen, the discussion turned to homosexuality, and the men there shook their perplexed heads. I made a few points in favor of tolerance but for the most part was content to sit and listen. Actually the conversation wasn’t as vituperative as it might have been.

Gay Life in Namibia: Through the gaydar web site, I’d met a handful of gay men in Windhoek, all colors, and the unanimity of opinion was total: gay life in Namibia sucked. It’s not completely non-existent, even though there’s no gay bar; it’s just weak, fearful, and fragmented. Only a handful of gay men are “out” in any sense of the word.
Namibia’s semi-hidden gay organization is called The Rainbow Project, known among gays as TRP. The name expresses the hopeless desire to unite Namibia’s races under the banner of gay pride. There’s precious little pride and even less racial tolerance. If the whites ever participated, they pulled out long ago, retreating to private parties and social cliques. The Rainbow Project is now a Black and Coloured organization. I’m told that there are tribal differences in the acceptance of homosexuality. Among the Ovambo and the Herero, it’s absolutely verboten; the Coloured and Damara communities are much more tolerant.

One Saturday, The Rainbow Project sponsored an HIV/AIDS fundraising dance in Khomasdal, the formerly Coloured township where I lived. That I wasn’t going to miss! As it ended up, I was pretty invisible, but it was an interesting anthropological experience: a slice of pre-Stonewall gay life. About 40 young Black and Coloured men and women pitched up at a plain room that was sparingly decorated with red hearts and red balloons. There were a fair number of cross-dressers, tall young men in spiked heels and bare midriffs, and flapping wrists everywhere. Nobody was older than mid-30. Interestingly, all of the music was African; not one American song was played. Given the pervasiveness of American music in Namibia, that was noteworthy. On a table decorated with red candles and red streamers stood a framed poem, vaguely about the wonders of sex. Handwritten testimonials of gay and lesbian pride were taped to the wall, but the light was too dim to read by. The music was loud and conversation, had there been any, would have been difficult. What conversation I heard was in Afrikaans; I doubt many of these kids would have been comfortable in English. So I was out of it by race, age, and language. I drank two beers and left.

A Celibate Life but a Good One: Once I realized I wasn’t going to get laid while in Namibia, I just put that part of me in the corner and concentrated on what was available. And what was available was wonderful: satisfying work where I was appreciated, new friends and relations, frequent epiphanies of how beautiful life could be once the patina of routine had been removed. As an added bonus, Namibia is a premier tourist destination, and I traveled at every opportunity. I came home relaxed, refreshed, and already planning a return visit. If you can spare three to six months of your life, I recommend a Crisis Corps experience most highly.

Robert Philipson can be contacted at mzungu88@hotmail.com.