January 31, 2011

A Jeep Ride in Africa

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The storm clouds hung low that afternoon, choking the sunlight as the sky grew dark. The rivers were already beginning to flood and we would soon be trapped, for the trail to the main road becomes impassable once the brunt of the storm hits. As we raced down the pebbled path another boom erupted from above, rattling the entire chassis of the jeep. The road lacked streetlights, but the virulent lightning storm cadenced flashes of light, which would develop glimpses of the next stretch of road allowing us to adventure onward. Nature is wild and invigorating when experienced in its purest untainted element, and it saved my life.

It had been too long since I returned to the global south. Indeed, I’ve been suffocating for the last ten years, but something about that open dirt road, even as I filled my lungs with dust, allowed me to finally breath again. Every stone seems to have been turned in the developed world. Big cities, where everything is paved –– a skyline replaces the sky and stars. What is left to discover?

We were racing out of a game reserve in Namibia –– found in the southern continent of Africa –– which was thousands of hectares grand, all private land passed down through inheritance from the families of European colonizers.

The ride back to the backpackers lodge was full of history that has grazed very few ears.  The thick droplets colliding with the windows were deafening, and I listened intently, for although I was sitting in the driver’s seat, here in Namibia, I was a passenger. As loud as he could, my Namibian friend began telling us stories of not too long ago: “During apartheid, there were curfews on everything. You can’t go do certain things … this bakery, that barbershop, people did what they were told. It’s just the way people thought it was supposed to be. I don’t understand why or how people can treat each other like dogs.”

He explained the complex history of Namibia, from the Boers whose trademark cutting off of arms and limbs to subjugate a population are now practiced by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

How the Germans came next to Namibia and built such infrastructure as the Luderitz campsite in Shark Island. 60,000 Herero’s were killed in these concentration camps that were no different from the holocaust, except these stories don’t make it to Hollywood scripts. Women, children and entire families were worked to death or died from hunger, thirst, and disease. By the cartloads their bodies were wheel barreled to the beach where they would be buried a few inches deep, allowing the tide to wash away the dead Herero people and become food for the sharks.

The early 20th century was the height of racial sciences, and German and European craniology departments had a huge demand for human African body parts, which they used to cement the scala natura of races. The decapitated heads of babies were exported from Namibia and placed juxtaposed to those of apes in the German morphology and anthropology texts of the 1900s. After WWII, when Namibia became part of the British empire, apartheid was introduced and exacerbated and further entrenched racism and segregation onto the land. Dark skinned Africans from Windhoek were ousted into separate shanty towns and slums, where many of these people still reside.

“They made apartheid look good,” he continued on. “Convinced us it was the best way to run things and people believed it so, that it was just the way things are meant to work. But then we [his generation] had enough, and shit was going down.”

And it did go down, Namibia gained independence from South Africa and ended apartheid the 21st of March 1990, four years before South Africa ended apartheid and elected Nelson Mandela. Although lots of progress has been made over these last 20 years, hardships continue. Progress is inhibited by the inequalities and institutional racism, which now appear under a different veil, but still remain. Schooling in Namibia is stratified by Afrikaans as a first language, classes thus remain segregated and another generation of students are not being given equal opportunity. The West is doing its part in keeping the entire continent of Africa in poverty –– with its subsidized industries Africa can’t farm its own land or feed its own children. Transnationals pollute, rob and fail to invest in the communities. Colonization is taking a different shape, has a new name, but the suffering remains. Shit needs to go down.

The irony of the 20th century –– the age of the microchip –– is that we have gone to space, but still perpetuated Jim Crow in the U.S. and allowed Apartheid in Africa well into the 90s. And these ideologies are still entrenched within people, cultures and institutions. There are ideological poisons out there that are causing too much harm and not being tackled head on. It is time for a long overdue revolution in the way life is perceived.

Our species is unnatural because we contain the ability to evolve a lot faster than we are biologically supposed to through our extrasomatic cultural information. Most animals are hardwired to behave through coded instincts, we on the other hand behave based on what we learn from our environment and culture. The written libraries, now in the forms of gigabytes of information, indeed are as much of our genetic code as the nucleic acids between the double helix. Thus, I put forth the Gonzalez-Sagan Extrasomatic Glass of Perception, where our species is holistically responsible for the environment we create or let persist. And since our environments dictate our culture, values and perception, we are responsible whole-heartedly for any change or lack thereof. Everything that is written down can be mutated and evolved. It is not true that one needs ability, time, money or power to make change, rather the only variable is will.

The African continent is ready, Iraq is ready, Afghanistan is ready, the people who are dying today, whose lives will be forgotten tomorrow, are ready for a new world.  As students, we must be well-rounded and delve into multiple disciplines and cultures or else we’re ignorant and we’re missing out. I don’t believe that you can have satisfaction from your own close-minded world for its a poisoned one that was chosen for you. I do believe there are universal truths, one being that life is grand and people are beautiful.

Vicente Gonzalez is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at vgonzalez@cornellsun.com. Owls of Eden appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Vicente Gonzalez