“There are also a number of malls, though never as large as in one of the major cities. In fact, the whole of the Windhoek CBD could probably comfortably be housed in a large-sized mall in one of the larger cities on earth.”
There are better places to get a first look at Africa, than Windhoek. Admittedly the 40 kilometer trip through the hilly savannah, from Namibia’s main international airport to the capital, gives you a good idea of the environment, but the drive is on a tarred freeway, and all too brief. All of a sudden, Windhoek appears and you may well feel that you are no longer in Africa.
The larger African cities all have something to prove to you where you are: sprawling townships, endless slums, shanties, open markets and traditional huts. If you go by first appearances, Windhoek has all the well-fed contentment of a California retirement community or one of the more well-heeled villages along the Mediterranean. Even the dogs are well-behaved.
Windhoek was first developed as a town by German colonialists. You can see proof of this in the center of the city, the commercial hub of Namibia. Amongst all the more modern buildings, the old German buildings stand out. The center of the town is dominated a sandstone church that would not feel out of place in Germany. Incidentally, the round windows on the spire were donated by Bismarck. Nearby stands an older fort, from which the Germans defended their intent to do business in the face of an uprising by the Herero tribe.
The streets are lined with clothing stores, expensive jewelers (at least if you are earning Namibian Dollars), curio shops, restaurants and slickly branded franchise shops. There are also a number of malls, though never as large as in one of the major cities. In fact, the whole of the Windhoek CBD could probably comfortably be housed in a large-sized mall in one of the larger cities on earth.
On closer inspection, Windhoek begins to tell that although it does not seem to live in Africa, Africa lives within it. The faces and cultures are as diverse as any immigrant neighbourhood in New York, Paris or London. The difference is that here, everyone appears to belong and feel comfortable about it.
The pavements also have a story to tell. Areas have been demarcated from which small traders sell wooden curios and wire craft. Much of what is sold is little different from that which is sold at the next stand, so there is an opportunity to bargain. And there are the occasional street musicians and beggars who will appreciate a bit of your small change.
The city is polite in a confident way. Litter is almost unknown. If it happens, it is picked up. Crime on the street is limited and almost always very petty: security guards and police patrols are just prominent enough to frighten the really bad guys off. The most frightening thing is Windhoek taxis, but the fact that everyone is so alert to the dangers they pose means that very few people are harmed by them.
By night, the city closes its doors, and although one or two restaurants and nightspots remain open, most of the nightlife is found in neighbourhoods, closer to where people live.
Windhoek handles its poverty civilly and politely as well. The low cost neighbourhoods and the sprawling places where the people come to live seeking their fortunes can be found to the northwest of the town.
But although poverty is a reality and the poor have to make do, there is a provision for their future in low cost schooling and medicine. Low cost land, low cost housing loans and housing cooperatives are cosy prospects which give everyone who can earn an income an opportunity to belong.
If Windhoek could attract investors as well as it handles its municipal affairs, it would be scary. But poverty and many of the ills that go with it remain a reality.
There is little adventure to be found in Windhoek. Most of the city can be seen on a short half day or day tour. The one thing that really does need to be seen though, the one thing that stands out, is the fact that Windhoek could very easily serve as a model for a far brighter African future than all the gloom and pessimism surrounding the continent allows for.