|Namibia: Windhoek, City Profile||
Several things set Windhoek apart from most southern African capitals. Its clean, efficient and colourful, despite receiving little rainfall. But it also boasts an endearing character which attracts visitors to stay longer than they might in most cities. Amy Schoemand takes a look at her hometown.
Visitors call it quaint, cosmopolitan, one of the cleanest capitals in Africa, a city of many contrasts.
As a resident of many years' standing, I have mixed feelings about Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it; whatever the case, it's a city of many moods-bleak and blustery in October before the rains, vibrant and colourful in April, sparkling and at its best after a shower has washed the dust off the roofs and trees. Considering it's the capital of a desert country, it has a surprising abundance of flowering trees and shrubs- bougainvillaea in many shades, frangipani, convolvulus, aloes, flamboyants and bauhinia, and in October, defying the bleakness, jacarandas blazeboth purple and white.
The people also have many moods. Sometimes they are easy-going, humorous, open and friendly, other times surly and quite unhelpful. Come December, when the days are hot and breathless and the air vibrates with the shrill chirping of cicadas, summer stupor and inertia set in. So be warned, this is not the time to come and do business in Windhoek. Residents leave town on a general exodus to the coast and its cool bracing climate, and by Christmas Windhoek's central business district resembles a scene from On the Beach.
Fortunately, by mid-January/February, especially if it has rained, there is renewed hope and optimism all round and you will be welcomed with open arms. If you must come during the height of summer, prepare yourself for a dry sauna but don't lose heart, it invariably cools down at night. Otherwise come during the winter months. This is also the best time for game viewing, if that is on your itinerary.
South African playwright and poet Dorian Haarhoff, who lived in Windhoek for many years, wrote the following about it:
Windhoek, City Windhoek,
an old person sitting on shifting waters,
memory a worn skin across two hundred suns
recalling a veld patch in a drought land.
your springs seethe in caverns under earth,
your river roars in brief season.
thorn trees crown you, stones surround you,
guts of the country,
solar plexus of this land.
Ai-gams, meaning "firewater", was how the Nama referred to the numerous hot springs that attracted them to the area in the first half of the previous century. Their co-settlers, the Herero, called it Otjomuise, "the place of steam", and the British explorer, Sir James Alexander, also inspired by the hot springs, gave it the incongruous name of Queen Adelaide's bath. It was the legendary Nama captain, Jan Jonker Afrikaner, who coined the name by which the city is known today. In the 1840s he settled near the place where the strongest spring reached the surface, today's residential suburb of Klein Windhoek. In memory of Winterberg or Winterhoekberg in the Cape, the birthplace of his ancestors, he called it Winterhoek. During the German colonial era the name became "Windhuk", and under South African rule the spelling was changed to Windhoek.
Visitors are often surprised about Windhoek's hilliness, expecting the capital of a desert country to be an oasis on an arid plain. On the contrary, Windhoek nestles in a mountainous and airy basin on Namibia's central highlands at an altitude of 1,650m. A mixture of historical colonial structures, modernoffice blocks, skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs, Windhoek is surrounded by mountains-the rolling hills of the Khomas Hochland to the west, the Eros Mountains to the north-east and the Auas Mountains to the south-east.
A good perspective of the city can be gained by doing the Hofmeyr Walk, which follows a ridge between Klein Windhoek and the city centre. The route is accessible from Sinclair Street, about five minutes' walk from Independence Avenue. The best time to do this would be during March and April when the aloes are in bloom and the trees, of which there is a good selection of indigenous species, are in full foliage> Also leading off Sinclair Street is Werth Crescent, from where there are steps to a circular lookout point which offers splendid views across Windhoek to the north, west and south. For photographers addicted to eternalising sunsets, this is the place.
Windhoek's so-called cosmopolitan atmosphere has as much to do with its architecture as its people. Although the period of German colonial rule was relatively short-it lasted from 1884 until 1915-the European influence is still very much in evidence, even in structures built after independence.
An example is Windhoek's CBD, a miscellany of turn-of-the-century German colonial architecture and post-modern structures designed to blend with the steep roofs, columns and cornices of the historical buildings. In Post Street Mall, for instance, tent-shaped turrets, roofs and pillars echo the style of the colonial buildings, but are painted bright blue, pink, cerise and purple.
A much-photographed and prominent example of German colonial architecture is the Gathemann Building in Independence Avenue. Both its setting with modern skyscrapers on either side, and its steep sloping roof designed for snow to slide off, are a complete incongruity. The only development of any significance built after independence which has moved away from this style and has an African feel is the Supreme Court. Featuring curving colonnades, walkways and thick sloping walls with small openings, it echoes the adobe style of northern African countries such as Tunisia and Morocco.
Windhoek's population of approximately 170,000 consists of a divergent mix of people. Tall Herero women, their head-dresses an elaborate version of a turban, sweep down Independence Avenue in voluminous Victorian-style dresses copied from the wives of Rhenish missionaries who settled in Namibia in the previous century. Businessmen and -women dressed in fashionable suits, swingers with short punky hairstyles spiked orange and green, students with dreadlocks or myriad black plaits, blou rokkies (women belonging to an Afrikaner religious sect who wear blue dresses), the Himbas, from Kaokoland, dressed in calfskin skirts and leather head-dresses, their bodies gleaming with red ochre and fat and adorned with metal beads and shells from the Angolan coast, rub shoulders with tourists in T-shirts and shorts or the latest in safari khakis and pith helmets.
Windhoek's shops and street markets also attest to the cultural diversity of Namibia's people. A good place to see a wide selection of local handicrafts and find something intrinsically Namibian is the Namibia Craft Market in the Old Breweries Building in Tal Street. Visitors are especially impressed by the hand-embroidered bed linen, cushion covers, table cloths and place mats produced by women in rural areas. These, in naive and colourful designs, depict animals, trees and scenes from farm and village life. What makes the pieces unusual is the fact that the designs are totally the creations of the women who produce them. Working without patterns, they plan each piece individually, stretching their imagination to improve on their previous works.
At the other end of the scale is the highly sophisticated hand-crafted jewellery produced in Windhoek. Considering its small size, the city has a surprising density of jewellery outlets and a remarkable number of top-class jewellers. Local jewellery is highly acclaimed for original design, which is strongly influenced by Namibia's landscape and wildlife, and its outstanding craftsmanship. Its uniqueness can be ascribed to the combination of expert German craftsmanship and local materials. In addition to a rich fund of traditional African elements such as ivory, porcupine quills, ostrich skin and elephant hair, Namibia produces an impressive wealth of precious and semi-precious stones, including diamonds, aquamarines, amethysts, dioptase, tourmalines and agates.
Another facet of locally produced merchandise is the finely-crafted karakul jackets and coats and other fashion and functional items made from leather, such as handbags, briefcases and wallets. In the NAKARA outlets, reversible Swakara garments manufactured in Windhoek's northern industrial area according to European designs, are displayed and sold. The versatility and elegance of karakul can be seen to good advantage in the colourful and avant-garde fashionwear designed and produced locally by Katharina Karl Costumes, showcased at its outlet in Independence Avenue.
The city has many bistros and sidewalk cafes, where a Namibian-style breakfast known as Fruhschoppen is served, an occasion often used to discuss or clinch business deals. Namibia's famous range of local beers-brewed in accordance with the oldest food law in existence, the Reinheitsgebot, decreed in 1516 by Duke William 1V of Bavaria-are served at several traditional beer gardens scattered throughout the city. Windhoek's restaurants are also pretty cosmopolitan, with the emphasis on German cuisine. Local specialties are Luderitz oysters, Kalahari truffles, green asparagus and, expecially, game dishes, including crocodile, warthog and ostrich.
Water is a precious commodity in a country where good rain years are the exception and drought is the norm. Windhoek is the only city in the world that is actually conserving water. In good rain years, surface water is pumped into underground aquifers, replenishing subterranean water supplies. While Windhoek's population has increased annually by 5.4 percent since independence (1990), its water consumption has remained the same. And Windhoek was the first city in the world to recycle sewerage water, purified to a potable quality.
Amy Schoeman is a regular contributor to Travel Africa. She is a well-known Namibian photographer, writer and author of five books.
Africities conference highlights Windhoek's infrastructure
Windhoek will host the Africities 2000 Summit from May 15-21, 2000. The event is a conference for local governments from throughout Africa, and was inaugurated in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, in 1998. With the theme of Financing African Local Government to Strengthen Democracy and Sustainable Development, it is expected several thousand officials will attend next year's event.
This is a notable boost for Windhoek because it again highlights the city's ability to host major events. Far from the sleepy desert town some first-time visitors expect, Windhoek is home to several large conference venues-and it certainly has the accommodation facilities to support them.
The Windhoek Casino and Country Club was built to host the Miss Universe contest in the mid-'90s and, with its golf course and other leisure amenities, it remains a popular facility for both holiday-makers and business travellers alike. However, Africities 2000 will be hosted at the Safari Conference Centre, which is part of the Safari Court hotel, adjacent to Eros airport. In the city centre, the Kalahari Sands (also hosting a casino) is the leading hotel, but there are several smaller establishments such as the Thuringer Hof.
Many visitors also enjoy the wide range of guest houses, or pensions, scattered throughout the city. Ranging from converted homes to small blocks of flats, Windhoek's pensions add to its European atmosphere.
Windhoek has two airports. The international terminal is a 30-minute drive from the city centre. A second airport, Eros, was built very close to the central business district to cater for local flights in light aircraft. This is where most charter companies are located, so it's very convenient for most visitors.
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