While observing her mother’s grave, Flora pulls aside the kids who, unintentionally, fall and step on it. “Her name was Maria Claudia,” says the 10-year-old girl, right after pointing at the inscription on the cross. The others, looking for attention, laugh and, at the same time, indicate the other niches of the cemetery. “This is my mother’s, and right next to it is my grandfather’s,” says one of the youngest. Behind Flora, a group of kids break out laughing, as commenting on the empty glass bottle that heads the tomb of the girl’s mother.
Maria Claudia was an alcoholic woman, like most of the adults living in Gochas, a village with only 500 inhabitants, mostly from the Nama ethnic group, which belongs to the Hardap region in southeastern Namibia. A few months ago, Flora’s mother died because she was suffering from AIDS. Her father passed away five years ago after hanging himself in the shack where they used to live. After becoming an orphan, her biological grandmother, also an alcoholic woman, refused to take care of Flora and her younger sister Michelle. Now, the two minors live in the shanty of a 60-year-old couple, who they refer to as “grandparents”.
In her new home, made of waste and materials such as asbestos, plastic and wood, Flora is the one who tidies, brings firewood, cooks and washes Michelle and the two grandchildren of the couple she lives with. Sometimes she can’t do any of this.
Occasionally, when she leaves school, a padlock doesn’t allow her to get into the house. Her adoptive grandmother puts it when she goes to one of the shanties where they produce beer at an affordable price. Until nine o’clock at night, Flora walks aimlessly, holding her sister’s hand and waiting for the woman to come back and open the door. These days she barely eats.
Flora is one of the many kids who wait in street until their parents, uncles or grandparents return from the shack that acts as a distillery or, as the youngest name it, “the lying-down school”. On weekends, she also cooks for other children living in the neighbourhood. On lucky days, she prepares porridge, a mixture of water, milk and flour. In other occasions, she must go out to hunt birds, skin them and roast them in the fire. “I give food to the others because I feel sorry for them. From Monday to Friday they can have lunch in the school canteen, but on weekends the school closes and the adults, instead of taking care of them, prefer to pass the hours drinking in the brewery. She’s only 10, but Flora knows exactly which is the main problem in her community. “What I like least about Gochas is the alcohol and the violence it causes in the adults. At home, when my grandparents get drunk, they yell at me and beat me for no reason.
Alcoholism, colonial heritage
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Namibia is the African country with the sixth highest alcohol consumption per capita. Specifically, each Namibian drinks an average of 9.8 liters of pure alcohol per year. Namibian men are, only after Nigerians, Gabonese and Seychelles, the ones who consume the largest proportion of this substance in the continent: about 17.3 liters annually.
Right in front of the brewery, an unconscious boy lies on the ground. People who enter the establishment ignore the body of the young guy devastated by the alcohol intake and stand in line where a dozen people wait to refill their glass. “On average, each client drinks between 10 and 20 portions a day,” explains the business owner. Helped by her son and her husband, the woman produces this beverage by fermenting a mixture of sugar, water, yeast and ginger.
Artisanal breweries in Namibia are part of a historical and colonial legacy. After the German defeat in World War I, the League of Nations handed over Namibia, then called German South-West Africa and controlled by the Germans since 1840, to the South African Union, the current South Africa. The agreement of this new mandate was signed in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1920. The document contained an article that explicitly banned the supply of alcoholic beverages to the native community. This rule led to the setting up of local stores where the local population produced, in a traditional and clandestine way, substances such as wine and beer.
As of today, the sale of alcohol to people over 18, regardless of ethnicity, is legal and there are licensed premises where it can be consumed. In addition, homemade methods are still the most usual. “We come here because we can’t afford to pay for a beer in the village bar,” says one of the women waiting to be served in this kind of tavern. “I drink to relieve my misery and because I have nothing better to do, I don’t have a job,” she adds. Like this woman, most of the inhabitants of Gochas do not work. According to data from Namibia’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2018, the unemployment rate reached 34.49% in the Hardap region. Among those under the age of 24, the same figure exceeded 46%.
In Gochas, the only ones who get a salary are those who work on the farms around the village. These lands, which are used for agricultural production and livestock, are managed by the white Africans who live in the area. Some of them are descendants of German settlers, but the majority are Afrikaners, an ethnic group with Dutch roots that arrived in Namibia after the country fell under South African hegemony. The Afrikaners imposed an Apartheid system in South Africa in 1948 and, therefore, also in the region of South-West Africa, today Namibia. The Apartheid, which means “separation” in Afrikaans, implemented a segregation between the different racial groups for the political benefit of the white population. In 1966, the South West African People’s Organization (Swapo), an insurgent guerrilla group, declared war on the South African regime and in 1990 proclaimed Namibia’s independence. After its victory, the Swapo became a formal political party and still today runs the country’s government.
After holding democratic elections and approving a new constitution, the new executive abolished the Apartheid system. To this day, white Africans represent only 6% of the total population in Namibia. However, they remain the most economically privileged group. Most villages, such as Gochas, are split into two and sometimes three parts. Black people live in the poorest area, where life conditions are harsher and resources are tighter. The white population and the Basters, who are descendants of a mixture of Dutch and indigenous people, reside in the wealthiest neighbourhoods. In fact, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Namibia is the second most unequal country in the world in terms of GDP, surpassed only by South Africa. In other words, the white minority still has a much higher income than the black majority.
Almost all farm labourers belong to local ethnic groups and have seasonal contracts. The south African country is now facing one of the worst droughts in its history. Since late 2018 it doesn’t rain and, last May, the Namibian government declared the State of Emergency. According to the country’s administration, almost 500,000 citizens, or 25% of the population, do not have access to basic nourishment.
“The drought has cut down on farm hiring. In addition, the landowners prefer not to employ labour from the Nama community”, says the social worker and head of Ecumenical Social Services of Namibia (Ecsos), Amanda Krüge. Ecsos coordinates a network of social programmes throughout Namibia. According to Krüge, “farm owners have stopped hiring Nama people because they are lazy, drink during the weekend and need three days to recover. The farmers prefer other ethnic groups such as the Ovambo and the Kavango, who come from the north. Although they also drink alcohol, due to their more corpulent genetics, it doesn’t affect them as negatively as the Nama do, who tend to be smaller and thinner.
The lack of rain and the low level of productivity promoted by an excessive alcohol consumption have led to an increase of unemployment in Gochas, and on the rebound, an increase in beer intake. “Those who are left with no salary don’t stop drinking, but use government subsidies for single-parent families and pensions for the elderly to keep doing it” says Krüge. Some even decide to exploit minors for an economic profit.
This is the case of Sheline, an 11-year-old girl who, just nine months ago, denounced her aunt for selling her sexually.
“It was a Saturday; I don’t exactly remember the month. My aunt, with whom I lived then, forced me to go to a neighbour’s house. I didn’t want to, but she pushed me. After the aunt left, the man pushed Sheline into his bedroom and raped her. “I screamed and cried but nobody helped me,” says the youngest with an impassive countenance. “When my aunt came back, I saw how the man gave her five Namibian dollars. That nightmare happened up to six times.
Thirty cents of euro are the price that the woman needed to supply her daily dose of alcohol. After the girl denounced the crime, one of the school teachers decided to assume the required cost for the girl to live in the village children’s hostel.
“In rural areas, many girls don’t report, either because they don’t know their rights, or because they are afraid of being stigmatised,” says the Namibia Forum for African Women Educators (Fawena) Program Coordinator, Happy Shapaka.
Sheline denounced it and now several of her classmates point at her and make fun of her. As Shapaka sees it, “this is a cultural problem, but in addition, gender-based violence and cases of rape often have the same starting point: the excessive consumption of alcohol. In 2015, the Institute for Public Policy
Research (IPPR) conducted a study entitled ‘Perceptions of Equality, Gender-Based Violence, Poverty and Basic Freedoms’ in which about 87% of citizens surveyed considered alcohol to be the main contributing factor to gender-based violence, followed by unemployment, poverty and cultural values.
Kooper, the man who repeatedly raped Sheline, lives just two streets from the hostel where the girl resides. In his house, one of the rare ones built with bricks, the 67-year-old man waters the plants in his garden, feeds his chickens and greets the neighbours passing by. Everyone in Gochas knows what he did, but in the village, Kooper remains a respected man.
*This story is part of a wider project carried out by Shoot4Change, www.shoot4change.eu, a non-profit organisation of social documentary storytelling whose aim is to raise awareness on social issues by seeking and telling those stories that are often ignored or forgotten by mainstream media.