One Saturday morning, like so many often do, I was driving through the hills of Windhoek, along the Daan Vijoen road. Quite often as we drive, we do not take note of people around us, the needy in our society, those asking for our help, even just a hike.
I drove past two old ladies who were beckoning for a hike frantically with their hands. I could see in the rearview mirror their hands falling by their sides, as they sadly realised I would not stop for them. Suddenly, a thought rushed through my mind, and I heard myself saying, “these are my people”. With these words, I brought the car to a sudden screeching stop, drove back to the old ladies, and picked them up. Upon enquiring what the grandmothers were doing in the road, they told me that they were going to a house by the entrance of Daan Viljoen to look for food. I dropped the old ladies by the said house, and continued with my day’s business.
Upon reaching home, my conscience troubled me regarding the old ladies’ wellbeing. I informed my friend about them, and we agreed that we should buy them food and go back to the hills along the Daan Viljoen road to look for them. Early Sunday morning, we drove, first to the house where I dropped them, and then to a settlement in the hills adjacent to the Daan Viljoen road. My friend and I were flabbergasted to discover what life is like behind the hills of Windhoek. As we walked along the meandering road towards the settlement, we could see how people are scratching for basic survival. We searched for the old ladies from one shack to another. In the midst of the settlement, we could see human need and painful poverty gripping the residents. Finally, we found the ladies’ shack uphill, a bit further from the other residents. It is difficult to put into words our relief and excitement when we saw them. One grandma was in a wheelbarrow, seemingly exasperated, and the other sitting on the ground, playing a board game with her grandchildren. We gave them the food parcels, and drove back home.
As we drive in our cars along this popular road, do we take time to notice what is behind these hills of Windhoek? As we park our luxury cars and stroll or exercise along the Daan Viljoen road, do we even see this poor settlement behind the hills? The Daan Viljoen road is very popular with cyclists, motorists and those just taking a walk or jogging, but selfishly we only concentrate on ourselves, and never take a moment to see life behind the beautiful view of the hills we so admire.
Our second visit to the old ladies transpired a fortnight ago. This time as we delivered food parcels to the family, we sat down with the grandma and had a long chat. Grandma Ella (not her real name) lives with 15 grandchildren. She has stayed in Windhoek all her life, and moved to the settlement in 2018 to stay with her daughter. Sadly, her daughter passed on in 2019, leaving her to raise the children. Grandma Ella not only stays with her grandchildren, but also other children from the extended family.
The only income she has is the monthly social grant of N$1 300, and this is a drop in the ocean, considering the many mouths that she has to feed. What compounds the family’s predicament is that the settlement does not have clean running water, electricity and toilets. We accompanied the kids to collect water, and to the shock of our lives, the settlement residents get water from a pond in the river under the bridge where cattle, dogs and other animals also drink.
Human beings, sharing water with animals, what a painful sight! The water is dirty and not fit for human consumption, and as grandma Ella related, the children are constantly having running stomachs. It is sad to note that this spot under the bridge is a popular braai area for the affluent Windhoek residents who often leave waste all around the pond.
It was painful to hear the kids asking why people coming from Windhoek to braai always leave dirt, which then goes into the water the residents rely on for drinking and other household needs.
One wonders what the city of Windhoek and central government are planning for such informal settlements. The Harambee Prosperity Plan promised a formulation of a national informal settlement upgrading strategy in collaboration with the national alliance and other stakeholders by the end of 2021. We are approaching the end of 2021, and yet we still have such settlements with no basic provisions such as clean water and toilets.
This is a settlement just behind the hills of Windhoek, a stone’s throw away from Windhoek, the seat of power, and yet our leaders do not seem to be privy to the suffering of this community. Children from this community walk about 15km a day to and from school.
As Grandma Ella narrated, many children often start school at a later age than normal because of the distance to school and a lack of identity documents. She also bemoaned malnutrition, which often affects the children, and this is worsened by a lack of access to healthcare. It was also shocking to hear Grandma Ella expressing ignorance about the Food Bank. These are the vulnerable people who ought to be benefiting from the Food Bank, and yet they have never heard of it.
She had also never heard of the N$750 government dispersed during the initial stages of the Covid pandemic. What is the purpose of our social and poverty alleviating programmes if they are not reaching the most deserving? Can the communities be blamed for lamenting that they only see leaders during campaigning periods with so many promises of prosperity, and yet the same leaders vanish into thin air after taking the oath of office? Ironically, the Harambee Prosperity Plan states that “a society is judged by how it takes care of its most vulnerable members”. We will be judged harshly for failing to take care of this vulnerable community and many more dotted around our nation.