Not a dumb American: Namibia edition

Have I told you about my project to read one good history about every African country? It is a project I have had in mind for a while, and I started it this year with my beloved Namibia. Because here is the thing about Namibia: We have been underappreciating it. Sort of a lot.

Let’s start with the basics real real quick. This is Namibia:


As you can see, it is the country north of South Africa on the west coast of the continent. It was colonized by the Germans, and then after World War I when German colonial holdings were being divvied up, South Africa took over governing it until it gained independence in 1990. It contains fewer people than the city of Houston (because a lot of it is desert). You have not been appreciating it enough, and I will tell you three reasons why you should.

1) Namibia is the first country to do what we are all going to have to do eventually unless we fix global warming much faster than we are currently fixing it, which is to run sewage water through treatments that render it once again potable. You wrinkle your nose because that sounds gross, but you will allllll be sorry you didn’t get used to this idea once it becomes inevitable. Namibia will have been used to it for years. Namibia is a forward-thinking genius pioneer of water reclamation!

2) Namibia has the freest press of any nation in Africa. You didn’t expect that, did you? Did you? You thought it was going to be Ghana or something! Ha, ha, joke’s on you, Ghana, the true truth is that it is NAMIBIA. Every year when Reporters without Borders does that thing where they rank countries based on how free their presses are, Namibia is always in the top twenty percent or so. You know who’s not in the top twenty percent? America, and we’re getting worse year over year, by a lot.

(I don’t know why I trash-talked Ghana just now. That was unnecessary. Sorry, Ghana. I am currently reading a big history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but maybe my next country to read a big history of can be Ghana. To show that I bear it no ill will.)

(It’s just that I feel like sometimes people are all, “Ohhhh, Ghana, you’re the very shiniest African nation, all the other ones are terrible compared to you,” and I get jealous for Namibia, which is just way down in the south there doing its best and recycling water and having a free press and whatnot. Ghana just has more people! They have like ten times as many people, so of course they’re going to produce more writers and artists that get exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s not a referendum on Namibia, you know?)

3) Namibia is a total baller at conservation. See! You didn’t know that either! It is in their constitution. And this is very lucky for the biodiversity of the planet, because Namibia has crazy mammals, many of which are endemic to Namibia, and they work really really hard to preserve them. You know how we are all (when we remember to be) worried about black rhino populations? Well, Namibia has the largest herd of them in the whole world, and that is not by accident, friends! That is a successful plan implemented by Namibia to save the black rhinos.

Moreover (like that’s not enough, right? That’s what I’m saying! Namibia!), conservation efforts in Namibia benefit local populations. There is a nice New York Times article about it that you may read here, if you are curious. Essentially, the power to manage sustainability and ecotourism initiatives at the community level is given to the communities. So instead of the government applying a one-size-fits-all top-down version of conservation, it’s managed at the local level, and the communities derive economic benefits from it, which gives them a stake in continuing this work, rather than it just being “because the government said so.”


The history of Namibia I read (Marion Wallace’s History of Namibia) was super informative, but rather dry. There really aren’t that many comprehensive histories of Namibia out there, and I’m pretty sure it’s because people don’t know what an awesome country it truly is. Please tell your friends. I want to spread the word.

Onward! The next book in my Africa project is David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. I am the queen of this reading project.

Review: The Bright Continent, Dayo Olopade

The universe is more diverse! If you aren’t already participating in Aarti’s wonderful September event A More Diverse Universe, you definitely should. Check out her amazing recommendations here and here and here, visit her blog to check out what other people are reading, and follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on Twitter.

My first read for this event is Dayo Olopade’s The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, a book I’ve long had my eye on because of its brilliantly colored, eye-catching jacket design. It’s also a terrific book, an antidote to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story.” Dayo Olopade has heard that single story a hundred times: the story of Africans who are passive-as-in-not-active and passive-as-in-suffering. The Bright Continent is aware of the suffering, the civil wars and the corrupt governments, but the stories it tells are of African ingenuity. Africans who are fully aware of government inefficiency and broken promises, and who work around those things. Africans who do not wait around to receive resources they don’t have yet, but who make the most of the resources they do have.

Olopade is sharply critical of top-down efforts to improve the lots of people in Africa. She argues that the models that work are those that come from Africans themselves, the people who know the country’s culture and shortcomings and have figured out how to work within them. Quite often these interactions are so informal that nobody in the West reports on them, and standard measures of economic growth and prosperity (such as GDP) miss them completely.

Many efforts by Westerners to send assistance to African countries are actually harming their economies, Olopade argues. When Tom’s sends a pair of shoes to Africa for every pair of Tom’s shoes you buy, it eliminates jobs in shoe-making that could otherwise exist in those countries. And also, people in Africa don’t necessarily want shoes the most. There are very likely other things they want much more. Or in many cases, foreign aid from developed nations comes tied to contracts with companies from the donating nations, and the money leaves the recipient nation almost as soon as it arrives.

Instead Olopade praises the solutions that take advantage of existing structures within African countries. The Tanzania company EGG-energy, for instance, wires houses for electricity and supplies rechargeable batteries to power the houses. When one battery wears out, subscribers return it and receive a new one.

The informal economy does EGG’s legwork. The company runs central charging and swapping stations but also enlists kiosk owners to stock its batteries alongside the soaps, chocolates, and mobile airtime typically for sale. When a subscriber swaps out a battery, the kiosk owner gets a cut.


“We’re trying to use the same distribution networks that already exist,” says [company founder Jamie] Yang, “people who go around selling produce on motorbikes, who walk eggs on bicycles or use wheelbarrows.” These extended networks enable EGG to reach ordinary people 30 or 40 kilometers outside the biggest city.

Reading this book was tremendously heartening. Because Olopade is right (and Adichie is right): The stories you hear about Africa tend to be stories of failed governments and civil wars. Those stories remain true, and we should listen for them; but they aren’t the only stories — they aren’t even the main stories — of what goes on day to day in the countries of Africa. And those day-to-day stories are worth telling.

Very much recommended!