10 Mar 2005
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By Kuvee Kangueehi
WITVLEI is a dusty settlement situated some 150 km east of Windhoek on the Trans-Kalahari Highway. Its original name in Damara Nama is !Uri !Khubis (White Fountain) and was the pride of the white commercial farmers around the area before independence.
Despite its settlement status, it has served the surrounding farms as a shopping and leisure centre.
The Witvlei Hotel was the popular drinking hole for the white farmers and a no-go zone for the blacks. The town also had a number of small businesses like a biltong factory and a transport company. But since independence many of these businesses disappeared, including the private white school, which was exclusively for white children.
Before independence less than 500 residents inhabited the settlement, most of them employed at small businesses. Retired farm workers lived in the township and workers from the surrounding farms spent their leave days at the small town.
Fifteen years down the line, shebeens are now the biggest business ventures. Over 80 percent of two thousand residents of Witvlei are unemployed and live in abject poverty. Alcoholism, unemployment, stock theft and teenage pregnancies are widespread and to put the cherry on top of the icing, HIV/AIDS is taking its toll at the small village, resulting in a rise in numbers of orphans at the town.
Remember Oaeb is one of them after his mother succumbed to the dreadful disease in 2001.
Remember is 14 but looks much younger. His father is still alive but very sick.
Remember's father used to work at the post office in Gobabis a few years ago, but was fired because he used to drink and stay away from work. He has no medical aid and only gets some treatment from the local clinic.
Remember now lives with his aunt, Martha Oaes, who is unemployed and survives on her mother's pension. Sipping black coffee from a dirty blue mug, Remember does not appear very disturbed by the situation and he is just happy it is Saturday and he does not have to go to school. Standing in front of the "block of flats" where his entire new family stays, Remember is still wearing his school uniform. He is in Grade 6 at the Nossob Primary School.
Remember sleeps in the last room with two other children, together with his aunt and her boyfriend. The "block of flats", built from corrugated iron, is ever extending as family members add their shacks to the original structure that belongs to Remember's grandparents. The "block of flats" is home to seven adults and more than eight children.
Remember is not the only orphan in the family, as six-year-old Menesia Thekwane also lost her mother to the same disease. Menesia is not a relative of the Oaeb family, but the family decided to take her in because she had nowhere else to go. Remember's aunt who is telling the story of Remember and Menesia says the situation is not unique to her family and almost all families in Witvlei have orphans they are looking after.
She notes that a number of people at the town are infected and that alcohol abuse and unemployment exacerbate the situation. She added that people at the small town are still hiding the disease.
Angelika Oases, 42 years of age and a resident of Witvlei says the closure of the !Uri !Khubis Abattoir in May 2003 has greatly contributed to unemployment and the spread of HIV/AIDS at the settlement. She noted that over a hundred people from the town were employed at the abattoir and since its closure many have resorted to drinking and irresponsible sexual behaviour.
Oases, who was also employed at the abattoir claims they were left with huge debts and cannot afford to pay their water and electricity bills. She says that some of her furniture has since been repossessed and the men at the town have started stealing game and livestock from the surrounding farms in an effort to put food on the tables for their families.
Oases says what pains her most is that she cannot afford school fees for her children, and is calling on the abattoir management to reconsider opening the business and bring back life and hope to the small town.
She says that there is little chance for employment at the town and most of the people employed at the school, police office, Road Construction Company and the village council are not from Witvlei because most of the locals are not educated.
Aloysea Radiphuti, the principal at the Nossob Primary School noted that many residents of Witvlei complete primary education only and because there is no high school at the settlement they end up in the streets.
"When pupils finish Grade 7 at our school they only go to Gobabis or other schools for a short period and you find them on the streets after three months." Radiphuti says almost 30 percent of the pupils do not pay school fees because they are orphans and have been exempted by the Ministry of Basic Education and Culture.
She claims that mostly farm workers' children are the ones that pay school fees and Witvlei residents do not pay school fees because they are unemployed. She noted that the closure of the abattoir has affected the attendance of children at the school but her staff goes to the township to ensure that the children come to school.
Many Witvlei residents in despair are pinning their hopes on the reopening of the N$100-million abattoir, which has now become a white elephant at the impoverished settlement. And when it opens, it may provide a new lease of life for the likes of Remember and the settlement itself.