Biking Windhoek’s Bustling Township of Katutura
Most travelers journey to Namibia to admire the unique wildlife of this Southern African nation. The capital city of Windhoek, an Afrikaans word meaning ‘windy corner,” is generally, nothing more than a layover for visitors, before embarking on adventures in Etosha National Park, the Skeleton Coast, or elsewhere within this rugged, unspoiled country.
Before your wildlife safari or self-drive adventure, take a day or two to discover Windhoek’s history, particularly the township of Katutura, where the city’s black population was forcefully moved under Apartheid. I found a bike tour to be a humble, respectful, non-intrusive way to explore the tangled streets of this former township and its vibrant community.
Namibian culture is a blend of German, Dutch, English and African influences because of its history as a German colony and its subsequent control by South Africa as a territory. Namibia broke away from South Africa and its system of Apartheid after the politically charged ‘South African Border War’ (also called the ‘Angolan Bush War’) of the 1970’s and 80’s. The country became independent in 1990.
Katutura is a few miles north of the center of Windhoek, but it might as well be worlds away. It is literally on the wrong side of the tracks and it’s where in the 1950’s and 60’s, the South African government forcefully moved the city’s black population. The name Katutura is a local Otijiherero word that means “the place where we do not want to live.” While whites-only Windhoek thrived, Katutura went without sanitary water, electricity, or any gainful employment.
Even now, decades after Apartheid’s demise, Katutura’s residents still struggle. Most live in small shacks cobbled together from cinder blocks and corrugated metal sheets. Access to water is so hard that spigots are padlocked to prevent people from stealing it.
Bicycling to the Single Quarters Market
I booked a half-day bike trip through Katu Tours, which was started by Anna Wafila, a local who, with the help of a grant, opened her business in 2011 at the age of 29. She began with 18 recycled bicycles. She now has a fleet of dozens of new bikes, all generally well maintained.
We donned the required bike helmets and reflective safety vests and biked to the lively ‘Single Quarters’ market for a taste of kapana, a traditional street food of sliced grilled red meat and fat. When it’s ready, it’s kept warm on the grill, often next to a ball of batter called a vetkoek (‘fat cake’ in Afrikaans). We ordered by placing an amount of money next to the chef and then he provided us what he considered an appropriate value of meat.
The Shebeens of Eveline Street
Next, we biked to bustling Eveline Street, which was so filled with ‘shebeens,’ small, local bars, that the neighborhood is said never to sleep. Additional shops crowd the street too, though most businesses in this still-struggling neighborhood are hairdressers, barber shops, car washing stands, or the ubiquitous shebeens.
Wafila’s tours depart from and return to the women’s co-operative nonprofit Penduka Project at the Goreangab Dam. The co-op provides employment opportunities for up to 660 women, who make jewelry, table linens, cushions and other products. Sales from the women’s handicrafts also help support local tuberculosis patients, organize exchange programs with European countries, and provide interest-free loans to help women with their studies or to buy a house. The Penduka Project also provides traditional Owambo dancing and music for the clients of Wafila’s tours.
A Moral Dilemma Over a Photo
At one stop on our tour, I thought I saw what was going to be a great photo. In the foreground of the photo would be the water spigot, with a shanty five or six meters behind it. I focused the photo on the large padlock on the spigot.
As I squatted down to line up the shot, excited to help tell the community’s story of hardship and struggle, Wafila scolded me. She pulled the group aside and reminded us to respect the locals and their privacy. I put my camera away. I decided to find another way to tell the story of Katutura.
Dining on Local Delicacies
Post-ride, we tasted some local dishes at Xwama Restaurant where we dined on local delicacies like cornmeal porridge and soup, millet or cassava, Potjie stew, sheep’s head, and Mapone worms. The worms intrigued me because I’d heard stories about this local, tribal delicacy, and how modern Namibians adopted them in their cooking by grilling them with minced garlic and salt. Admittedly, I was excited to try them because… why not? However, the worms I tasted were prepared in the traditional way and I found them well cooked and rather tasteless.
The biggest food challenge was with the sheep’s head. I couldn’t bear to pull meat from its head and eat it because the sheep kept ‘staring at’ me, with his dead eyes and his lips pulled back into a sinister grin.
After dinner, we topped off our day with a few games of pool at the Phat Boys Pub in Tauben Glen. We drank Windhoek lager beers as well as brandies and Coke as we played.
So before embarking on adventures in Namibia, stay a night in Windhoek and visit Katutura. More than two-thirds of Windhoek’s population lives there, and lately, the residents have a new name for their community. They call it Matutura – “the place where we want to stay.”