Mistaken Identity

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By Metusalem Nakale Few men, if any at all, in the town of Otjiwarongo and its environs possessed what Haihambo ya Nghililewanga had, a bushy beard that had not been touched by a razor for years. He adored his endowment and would tease those to whom he felt God had not been as generous. Haihambo was reluctant to shave, despite his wife’s persistent entreaties to visit the barbershop in the workers hostel or compound on the outskirts of the township. Haihambo had come to Schonewald many years before in search of employment and now worked for a well-known wealthy German master. He claimed to have descended from Mandume ya Demufayo, the great king of Oukwanyama, who had fought the Portuguese invaders many years before and whose battles had earned him great honour among his people. King Madume ya Demufayo’s heroic deeds still lingered in his people’s memories and, like other tribal leaders of his generation, had inspired subsequent generations to resist foreign invaders. Haihambo himself was strongly built and in his early fifties. Among his people having a long beard was not only a symbol of high status, but also of enormous wealth. Those who were blessed with this gift were highly revered. Hence Haihambo was very proud and eager to remind anybody who would listen about his royal lineage and his endowment. He would take out his comb and run it through his beard with a broad smile on his face. Once in a while, Haihambo and his Nama wife went to town in the back of their master’s Land Rover to purchase soap, tobacco for the wife, maize meal and of course a bottle or two of Clubman for their frequent-end-of month binges. Haihambo started as a kitchen boy, washing dishes and cooking. When the number of farmhands had increased he had been promoted to shepherd. On this particular day, the shepherd and his master went to town, leaving his wife and Frau Otto, the master’s wife, at home. Of late the man from royal blood, had acquired a habit of going to Orwetuveni, the township, for a ‘quick one’, whenever time permitted, before returning to the farm. When they had finished purchasing diesel for the generator that pumped water on the farm and salt for the animals, he asked for permission to visit ‘his people.’ As usual, permission was granted. Running his comb through his beard, Haihambo headed for the township. Meanwhile, the master joined his fellow farmers at the Blummen Hotel in the town centre to crack a joke or two over an ice-cold glass of Hansa Beer. In the township Haihambo was greeted by ear-piercing sounds of East African and South African music blaring from shebeens, made of a blend of rusty corrugated iron and metal sheets cut from old cars, vying for customers’ attention. He was thirsty and needed something to quench his thirst. He went to Meme Nangula’s place, his favourite spot and ordered some home-brewed beer for twenty cents. His favourite number, Sibongile, was playing, but he was too thirsty to move to the beat. Besides he was getting a bit too long in the tooth. Meme Nangula, smiling, went into her shack and returned with a huge plastic mug full to the brim. She tasted its content and handed the mug to her eager customer. ‘It’s very strong today,’ she said shaking her head. ‘Really? I like it that way,’ said Haihambo. He took a l–o–n–g sip and nearly emptied the mug. ‘Mmmmm!’ he said when he looked up feeling the effect of the brew in his guts. Then wiping dregs from his beard, he stared at the sheeben queen for a long time, admiring her prowess in the art of tombo-making. Meme Nangula had been in the business for many years. Over the years she had become one of the top tombo-brewers in the township. When he had emptied the mug he noticed comings and goings at a nearby shebeen, but did not pay much attention. It was normal at such places for customers to frequent makeshift toilets. In the days of apartheid, South African soldiers who were illegally occupying Namibia, were very suspicious of any African man with a beard because many of the SWAPO leaders had beards. The South African forces of occupation had heard many stories about the freedom fighters. For instance, they primitively believed that the guerrillas possessed mysterious powers that made them invisible or turned them into a huge bird of the hornbill family. During the war such stories about the freedom fighters abounded and struck fear in the ranks of the South African Defence Force. One such story that was often told was that of the courageous SWAPO freedom fighter combat-named Danger whom the South African defence force soldiers chased after a heavy exchange of fire. According to the media, the fighter some how managed to conjure up his magical powers and turned into an anthill. The day had turned into a sort of war machinery exhibition: the apartheid forces summoned all types of Israeli and American-made sophisticated military hardware and dispatched them to the combat zone. Then all hell broke loose as the apartheid soldiers bombarded the anthill to smithereens from all directions; and after the anthill was razed to the ground their rockets had continued to tear the ground, leaving a ten-meter deep crate where the anthill once stood. It transpired later that the freedom fighter had taken cover, rolled behind the bushes and vanished. The South African Defence Force, therefore, had to rely on informers sometimes to trap those illusive ‘terrorists’. Some informers who were drinking at a nearby shebeen had radioed their paymasters. In a rush, South Africa Defence Force soldiers arrived in their Caspirs, their guns ready to shed blood. The soldiers jumped out of their vehicles. Some took cover while others stormed the shack where Haihambo took refuge. Using the butts of their R4 rifles, they knocked down the door. The terrified shebeen-owner tried to explain to them that Haihambo was innocent, but her efforts were in vain. Haihambo tried to resist, but could not beat ten men; they subdued him and like a bag of maize threw him in the back of their truck. After blindfolding him, some of the soldiers returned to their base not far from the township. They took Haihambo to a notorious dugout while others remained to patrol the township at night. ‘Where is your gun?’ asked one of the soldiers. ‘I don’t have any,’ said Haihambo in a trembling voice. ‘Look at me m-a-n, Kaffir,” bellowed the officer. ‘Where is your Makarov or Kalashnikov?’ Haihambo was lost for a while. Lieutenant Kotze shook his head in indignation ‘You ‘re wasting my time, do you realize that?’ He cried, rolling his ‘r’ in typical Afrikaans fashion and grabbing a burning cigarette from his companion. He pressed it to Haihambo’s lips. Haihambo jumped with pain. The frustrated Lieutenant snatched the cigarette lighter from his colleague and lit it. Then he pointed the flame to Haihambo’s beard, which immediately caught fire. The smell of burning human hair filled the dugout. ‘You ‘re asking for it! Look, don’t make things difficult for yourself’, said the chief interrogator fuming, cupping his left hand over his nose. ‘If you don’t tell me do you know what I will be compelled to use?,’ he asked rhetorically. ‘I’ ll use this American fire-iron to blow your stupid brains out,’ he threatened. Then pressing the barrel of his revolver under Haihambo’s chin, he hissed ‘We won’t let commies take over this country.’ ‘But, baas, I work on the farm,’ said Haihambo in his broken Afrikaans, fearing for his life. In those days Africans were required to say baas to white people, meaning boss. Lieutenant Kotze knew better. He had been confronted by such situations before and knew how to extract information from ‘stubborn Africans’. Meanwhile Herr Otto was waiting for his worker to return to the farm. He knew Haihambo very well, like the back of his hand. Never before had he stayed in the township that long. When darkness came, the farmer became suspicious. Herr Otto went to the police station in the town centre where he reported his missing worker to the police. The latter asked him to describe the missing person. Fortunately a report had reached them about a person in custody at the military base whose description resembled that of Haihambo. Without wasting time, Herr Otto drove to the base. As he was approaching the entrance to the dugout, he heard strange sounds. He rushed and pulled the door open. Inside was a dark figure surrounded by soldiers. ‘Leave him alone you swine,’ said the furious master. The soldiers recognised Herr Otto immediately. ‘What has he done?’ said the farmer ripping off the blindfolds from Haihambo’s face. ‘He’s my worker,’ he screamed. At this point the soldiers started looking at each other like schoolboys caught red-handed smoking by the headmaster. The elated Haihambo lunged toward his master. The two men entangled in a long embrace for the first time in their lives. They could feel each other’s heartbeat. The soldiers, their mouths wide open, watched humanity defeat the colour divide. They looked at each other and then at the ‘frozen’ figures. ‘We thought he was a terrorist,’ said the torturer shamefacedly. ‘This must have been a case of mistaken identity,’ said the farmer. ‘Let him free,’ commanded the station commander. Haihambo with a huge grin on his face returned home to his wife. On their way he told the master what had happened. The following day, he asked to be taken to a barbershop in the township.