Agnes is a 23 years old Namibian born in an isolated village in the north east of the country. I had the pleasure to spend a few days at Desert Rhino Camp in northern Namibia and here I met Agnes – a very modern African woman. Agnes has embraced the modern age and the opportunities that are now on offer to the new generation of liberated females of Namibia. This trend to modernity is a rarity here in Africa where the tribal norms are prevalent and strongly reinforced by custom, tradition, and tribal law.
Agnes tells me that she was a safari guide for three and a half years before being promoted to the role of Camp Manager. The notion of a female guide set the cat amongst the pigeons with her male colleagues. Guiding in their book is very much a man’s job. Surely, a girl can’t know the difference between an elephant and a lion? But Agnes laughed off the resistance, and quickly learned her craft, including changing flat tyres on the jeep, fixing starter motors out in the bush and using a wide variety of skills and bush craft to ensure her guests were safe and sound while in her care.
Her aspirations reached new heights with her promotion from Guide to Camp Manager. She is undertaking a degree in Environmental Law from a South African University and is now approaching her final year. She is hopeful that the safari company will offer her a role in their Environmental Department on completion of her degree.
However, her modern outlook and attitudes are tempered by her tribal roots. Every time she returns to her village, a two day journey away from camp, her parents quickly denounce all her modern ideas and practices. They remain traditional and uphold the African way of life as far as the role of a woman, marriage, family relationships and children are concerned.
When I asked Agnes if she has any siblings she said shyly replied “yes 13”. This number, even for Africa is considered a large family. She said that her father “had been a very busy man”. Apparently, nine of her siblings are from nine partners. Agnes and four other siblings are from the union of her mother and father. Amazingly, in her village the traditional custom of strong familial bonds means that all siblings born outside the current marriage are collected from the other partners and then raised by the wife. Consequently, Agnes’s mother has raised 5 of her own children and nine step children.
Her parents are forever badgering her to marry. They are perplexed why she, at age 23, should still be single. Her father is often proposing possible suitors to her, such as suggesting that she marry one of his friends who was 52 years old. She said, “Daddy have you lost your sight and your mind? I want to marry for love”. This sentiment left her father perplexed. He believes that companionship and finding a woman to look after him are more important, than the so-called notion of “love”.
A chink of light from the modern world has crept into Agnes’s family. When Agnes returns home she takes a large bucket of KFC chicken pieces, apples and oranges. This feast is quickly devoured during the first day and everyone is happy and appreciates Agnes and her modern food. However, the next day when all the food is gone, old habits and traditional values reappear, and Agnes’ parents revert to telling her what is wrong with her life and that her values as a modern single girl don’t bring them any happiness or grandchildren.
As a joke on a later visit to the village and the family, Agnes took home a photo on her phone of an Asian gentleman that she had met at Rhino Desert Camp. Arriving at the village, after the bucket of KFC was consumed, her parents like a broken record, asked her about her marriage prospects. She replied with a broad smile, that she had found a wonderful man and she wanted to marry him very soon. She showed her parents the photo, to which, her father proclaimed that he had been taken seriously ill and needed his blood pressure pills. He then took to his bed for the rest of the day. From his sick bed he would look at Agnes with baleful eyes, moan loudly, roll over and face the wall in a state of depression.
Western values and marital fidelity are not practised with much rigour or enthusiasm amongst most people of Namibia. People live together and have many children out of wedlock to multiple partners. The children inevitably end up being reared by the grandparents. However, if a couple decided to marry it is a rigorous, drawn out and expensive affair. Firstly, a man with daughters is considered to be very lucky because at the time of the marriage, a dowry has to be paid to her family by the bridegroom’s family. This is often four cows, or is in the case of town people, the equal price of such. This price can vary upwards if the bride’s parents are not convinced that the potential groom is a suitable match or that there may have been some earlier indiscretions or wrong doings in the groom’s past.
Even though Agnes expresses modern ideals and appreciates that her gender has achieved a level of liberation, she confesses to me wistfully, gazing out on to the Namibian landscape, if she could meet a good man, have a baby and live in the bush, she would be in heaven.
Life for Agnes is a paradox, and no doubt, one that she will be in a constant battle with. My hope for her is that she will achieve her intellectual potential and career ambitions, as well as, find a good man who she loves and rather than being forced into a marriage where she will be a slave to him and their children and have to live with the consequences of his inevitable infidelities.
Being a modern and liberated woman in Africa is a struggle however, many women believe that the fight for equality and self determination is valuable. Go Girls!!!