Humble Shebeen: Upside and Downside


By Bro-Matthew Shinguadja The shebeen concept has been in existence for many years now. It is apparently an acronym of the following words “She has been here/there”. It was also apparently coined somewhere in Europe in the last century by soldiers who were looking for female friends in drinking spots. It is then alleged that when soldiers came into a certain locality, they could not find the female companions then they started asking bartenders, “Have you seen Mary? “Have you seen Anne?” etc. Every bar they had asked, they were told she has here/there, hence the word, “shebeen”. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary 9th Edition, shebeen is “an unlicensed house selling alcoholic liquor”. Namibian Phenomenon It is with some difficulties to state with a degree of certainty as to how the shebeen concept found its roots and famous or infamous status in Namibia. In the far northern regions, for example, there are words that may help to understand this phenomenon. These are cuca-shops or ‘okandingosho’. Literally, cuca-shop refers to a small private/family shop in a village. The cuca word has its origin from an Angolan beer which was popular during the 1960s to 1970s and was available in these regions. ‘Okan-dingosho’ presupposes something smaller in the Oshiwam-bo language which equally means a small shop that provides a variety of commodities raging from tombo, beer, ginger beer, Owambo liquor (ombike) to sugar, soaps, etc. Nowadays and more specifically from 1990, there is a new word ‘okabashu’ or ‘baxu’ which refers more or less to the same concept of she-been/okandingosho/saloon tavern, etc. However, there seems to be a mistranslation or misapplication of the word okabashu – from the Portuguese word ‘baxu’ which means ‘base’. When exiles arrived back in Namibia in 1989, some of them were confronted by many challenges, amongst other, housing. As a result, they were offered backyard spaces by their relatives and friends where they constructed one or two corrugated bedrooms (match-box houses), which they appropriately called “my or our base” because of the Angolan/Portuguese influence. Apart from housing problems, many of these exiles had no jobs or opportunity of securing one for many obvious reasons. Like in many struggles, people tend to learn many ways and means of survival, as the Namibian exiles did. Instead of sitting idle or totally being dependent on their families and friends, they started selling liquor, mostly beer firstly and selectively to their friends, comrades and acquaintances and slowly but surely to other customers. In fact, the period between 1990 and 1998 was the most difficult time for many exiles but was also a significant era for shebeen (okandingosho) businesses in Namibia. Tavern/saloon/shebeen or okabashu business did change the liquor landscape in Namibia hence now the law and debate in this regard. The ongoing debates on the Liquor Act (Act 6 of 1998) both in informal and formal fora in the country is, in fact, a healthy one, save alone, where certain viewpoints were stretched out of context and insults were traded for and against in an attempt to put a point across. But in any democracy like ours that is indeed unavoidable and it enriches the debate. Opening the Shebeen (Okandingosho), Tavern Cuca-shop: What are the positive pointers of a shebeen, tavern, saloon, cuca-shop? Obviously, there are good things from shebeen business, especially in peripheral locations and residential areas. These include but are not limited to the following: – One can get some of the basic needs at anytime and within a shorter and less stressful distance. If one needs a candle in case of unanticipated power failure, the shebeen is the only place of hope to get one at that particular time. – An unexpected guest/visitor on Sunday or a public holiday shows up, a shebeen is the only place to turn to for a cool-drink, beer or other ingredients for a braai. This list can in fact continue hence the benefits are many – the shebeen therefore oils the socio-economic fabric of the Namibian society in its own humble way. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, shebeens are not drinking places only. Shebeens do also offer people platforms to debate, argue and analyze issues affecting their daily lives, e.g., the status of the economy, socio-political development, etc. In reality due to the mixture of shebeen customers, interactions are very interesting because of many factors, e.g. due to its informal environment, ordinary people can talk/debate with well informed people on topical issues. To a large extent, one will appreciate the feelings, fears or optimisms, misgivings, etc. of the ordinary people on certain issues and then form a different line of thinking on doing certain things differently. The Upside of the Shebeen Box As argued earlier, she-beens are not clearly defined in the Namibian context. As a consequence, many she-beens offer the above benefits, services, goods and space for informal interactions, but there are negative impacts. Some of the nega-tivities are:- – Music is played at an unreasonable level of noise. The jukeboxes are turned on at will at anytime. This noise is not only a nuisance to neighbours but mostly to children, who have to do their school homework, study and need to sleep peacefully. – Entrance to many shebeens or “uundingosho” have no age restrictions and no rights of admission. This omission is the breeding source of disorderly behaviour at some shebeens, the selling of alcohol and tobacco to underage and already drunk customers. – The patrons of the shebeens, some of them behave in a way or fashion that have a negative influence on children and young people, e.g. excessive gambling, fighting, insulting, indecent behaviour, etc. This proposition was arrived at through first-hand information and observation. The writer has a fair understanding of both formal liquor outlets to that of informal ones, i.e. from the most highly graded hotel in Windhoek to one of the down-to-earth shebeens in Babylon township in Windhoek. Repackaging the Shebeen Box The issue now is not whether its right to run a shebeen (okandingosho) but rather on what terms and conditions. And whether the terms and conditions are just, fair and constructive to both parties, i.e. shebeen owner and community or locality where the shebeen is situated, are they contributive to Namibia’s Vision 2030? What is crystal clear is that every business whether in urban or rural areas has to confirm to certain laws and regulations which have to be respected, observed and adhered to at all times. Policy formulators and policy-makers therefore have to do some of the following: – Redefine and indicate clearly the difference between a bar, bottle store, liquor take-away (like big shops), shebeen (okandin-gosho), tavern, etc, including those in rural areas. – Make laws and regulations applicable to each category for they operate differently and in a different environment or locality for different reasons and sometimes for different customers. Is grading of shebeens and alike workable as applicable to hotels and lodges? – Make all applications and approval processes simpler, shorter, easily understandable and affordable by the public, just like in the motor vehicle registration’s case, the fees are determined according to the vehicle’s weight, etc. – Opening and entrance requirements as well as noise regulations should be enforced vigorously in the protection of the public at large and children in particular, – Educate the public (shebeen owners and customers) on these measures in order to appreciate the law and its regulations, and laws and regulations should be applied not only consistently but also systematically. All these clearly imply amendments to the Act. Finally, this is just a short contribution to the current debate on the shebeen issue which I personally think is a big issue but rather a matter which has been dragged into an unnecessary cobweb of political and personal ambition by using uninformed, ill-informed or ignorant participants. Some of the participants in recent demonstrations or scuffles with the police have no clue of this particular law. In summing up, the next contribution will particularly focus on the working conditions of employees who are employed by those who are claiming to be the owners of shebeens. I will, inter alia, be critical on wages, working hours, benefits and the general treatment. I therefore challenge them to come clean in defence of their sometimes illegal and unfair labour practices when it comes to employees in these businesses. Are those employees working out of poverty or in poverty?