Travels Through Historical Fiction: a Vast and Open Land
It was never on my bucket list. Not even on a far flung, sorta, maybe, if I hit the lottery and have nothing better to do wish list. It was, however, on my husband’s. He had dreamed of visiting since boyhood, so it became inevitable that both of us would travel for 48 hours to reach this destination on the other side of the world. We left the plane at mid-morning, bleary eyed and disoriented. If it hadn’t been for a troop of baboons sitting on the side of the highway, I would have sworn we were in West Texas. Thus was my introduction to one of the most fascinating places I have traveled.
Namibia, a former German colony, has been an independent nation since 1990 when it broke with South Africa after a protracted and bloody conflict. Located on Africa’s Atlantic coast, Namibia is bordered by South Africa, Zambia, Angola, Botswana, and is separated from a small slice of Zimbabwe where the Zambezi River arcs between the two nations. Namibia is a constitutional democracy and is the first nation in the world to include environmental protections in its constitution. It has a stable government, and since independence, has managed to avoid the internal strife that plagues so many African nations. English is the official language; although, Afrikaans, German, and native languages are also spoken. Much of the population is multilingual. It’s history is like much of Africa’s: tribal rule followed by colonial rule and finally independence.
The dry lands of Namibia were inhabited since early times by San, Damara, and Namaqua, Since about the 14th century AD, immigrating Bantuarrived as part of the Bantu expansion. Since then the Bantu groups in total, known as the Ambo people, have dominated the population of the country and since the late 19th century, have constituted a large majority.
In the late 19th century during European colonization, the German Empire established rule over most of the territory as a protectorate in 1884. It began to develop infrastructure and farming, and maintained this German colony until 1915, when South African forces defeated its military. After the end of World War I, in 1920 the League of Nations mandated the country to the United Kingdom, under administration by South Africa. It imposed its laws, including racial classifications and rules. From 1948, with the National Party elected to power, South Africa applied its apartheid policy also to what was known as South West Africa. In 1878 the British Cape Colony had annexed the port of Walvis Bay and the offshore Penguin Islands; these became an integral part of the new Union of South Africa at its creation in 1910.
In the later 20th century, uprisings and demands for political representation by native African political activists seeking independence resulted in the UN assuming direct responsibility over the territory in 1966, but South Africa maintained de facto rule. In 1973 the UN recognised the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) as the official representative of the Namibian people; the party is dominated by the Ambo people, who are a large majority in the territory. Following continued guerrilla warfare, South Africa installed an interim administration in Namibia in 1985. Namibia obtained full independence from South Africa in 1990. But Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands remained under South African control until 1994. 
Nambia’s capital and largest city is Windhoek, a place where the past and the present blend in a seamless mix that would not make sense in another place or time. On the main downtown street, merchants offer every conceivable modern item while across the street in the city park in front of government buildings, villagers from the countryside dressed in traditional garments sell their handmade baskets, carvings, and trinkets spread out on blankets in the shade of acacia trees. Only the tribe that clings most closely to the ways of their ancestors, the Himba, are not seen in Windhoek. Every other group at some point comes to the capital.
For me, the most interesting place we visited while in Windhoek was a restaurant, Joe’s Beerhouse. Not before or after have I seen anything quite like it. The roasts of game animals are served buffet style, accompanied by local fruits and vegetables. The food was delicious, but it is the venue itself that stands out in my memory. Imagine a large African mud daubed village style thatch roofed enclosure that is open to the air in the middle so that the smoke from a huge fire pit can escape. Under the roof are additional fire pits and dining tables. The walls are decorated with traditional African artifacts and craft items. The mahogany bar looks like one at which Hemingway might have once enjoyed a beer. The atmosphere is a combination of touristy commercialism and traditional African culture. Dining there on a winter evening is recommended as the fire pits will be roaring and the buffet will be groaning. It’s a hoot and would make a great setting for a novel!
I have not read any works of historical fiction set in Namibia. There may be some, but I have not found any in English. Perhaps readers can make recommendations? In lieu of that, I can recommend three historical novels set in Africa. Since I am planning two more posts on the subject, I will feature one novel per post, starting with the first the the series, The White Rhino Hotel. While not set in the subject of my post, I believe that the story represents what happened throughout sub-Saharan Africa between the World Wars.
The Great War has ended, tragically for many, but for some, Africa holds the prospect of vast estates, fabulous wealth, and limitless opportunity in this powerful, wonderfully crafted novel of the natural and human perils that await pioneers in a promised land. In colonial Kenya the paths of these new settlers cross at Lord Penfold’s White Rhino Hotel. Here they meet the cunning dwarf Olivio Alevado, a man whose lustful desires and vengeful schemes make him a formidable adversary to his enemies and a subtle ally to his friends. Here the destinies of the gypsy adventurer Anton Rider and courageous, war-hardened Gwen Llewelyn intersect. Here hope is corrupted by greed, love by revenge, and loyalty by betrayal as the future is trampled into history.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namibia, accessed June 16, 2016.