By Charles Tjatindi
By the crack of dawn, Swakopmund’s informal settlement of DRC comes to life.
People emerge from their shacks, comprising mainly cardboard and old plastic bags, wielding empty water containers. They use the containers to fetch water for cooking and bathing from a nearby communal water point. A few metres down the settlement’s streets, a dim fire partially lights up the darkness as it glows, comfortably aided by the smooth early morning breeze.
In yet another street, school children have already started tackling the 10-km walk to school, joyfully singing and exchanging jokes. This is the start of a typical day in this impoverished area of Swakopmund – an area that houses close to a quarter of the town’s residents.
Despite the number of people that retire here to sleep at the end of each day, the area still lacks most basic amenities, such as proper toilets and electricity.
It is especially the absence of the latter that has those residing here more worried. Many revealed that the area has been prone to shack fires, mostly caused by candles and paraffin lamps. Given the highly flammable materials from which their dwellings are constructed, a shack fire is reported at least each second day. When this happens, residents reveal, they merely have to stand by and watch as their worldly possessions literary go up in flames.
“These cardboards and plastics we use for our shacks are highly flammable, you cannot do anything. There are people that tried to save their belongings but got severely burnt in the process,” noted one concerned resident.
Although water is accessible via a pre-paid units system, it still appears to be a financial burden to the residents, most of whom are unemployed.
Depending on the usage, an average family uses about N$50 worth of water per month. This is based on the assumption that there are about four members in one family. Unfortunately for residents here, this is not the situation. Many of those New Era spoke to said they cannot afford the charges and are at times forced to prioritise water usage thereby sacrificing certain needs for water in order to fulfil more important ones.
“Look at my place. I live here with my children and grandchildren… we are about 10 people in this shack. Do you think we will be able to survive on that amount of water,” asked Tate Junias Nangombe.
Nangombe, a former employee of the TLC mine in Tsumeb, moved to Swakopmund in search of greener pastures after the mine’s closure. Luck was, however, not on his side and he could only land himself some piece jobs. It was not much, but these piece jobs managed to support his family back in the north – which was all he needed at the time.
“Some of my former colleagues were not able to find work at all. I counted myself lucky. It was not much, but if I could send money to my wife and kids back home, I was satisfied,” recalled Tate Nangombe.
Owing to old age Nangombe’s health deteriorated and he could not continue working. That is when he opted to erect a shack for himself at DRC, where he reasoned he would be closer to good doctors, as compared to his home village in northern Namibia. In time, his wife and kids joined him and they have been living together ever since.
“My wife sews traditional dresses, which she sells for an income. With that money, we obtain water and other basic items. I also run a small grocery shop from home,” related Nangombe when asked how they get through the day.
Neighbours of the Nangombe family have just returned from collecting firewood. As they pile the few dried logs they collected, the elders of the group note that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get enough firewood of late.
“Nowadays we have to walk far to get firewood. The whole area close by has been cleared up and there is nothing left except some scrubs,” he said.
He and his brothers are, however, hopeful that they will get more firewood next time around.
“We just have to go a bit further than today next time,” he notes.
Although most of the firewood is for domestic use, the brothers also sell some to other residents.
The absence of proper toilets has been a grave concern for many. The area only has pit latrines, with one allocated to about five families. Residents noted that the toilets are inadequate, given the area’s population and are often smelly and unhygienic as a result of lack of maintenance.
The majority of residents here are unemployed. Those fortunate enough to find employment have to walk long distances to and from work each day, as the wages they earn as labourers and as temps are not enough to cater for transport. New Era is informed that some residents even have to walk all the way to Langstrand and back – a distance of not less than 60 km in total. Once employed for a while they buy bicycles, which they rely on as their sole means of transport. This includes dropping the kids off at school and proceeding to work.
As one drives out of this settlement, curious residents line up the streets to catch a glimpse, and enquire from others the reason for your visit.
If you have spoken to them, you would understand why they do this: they have been yearning for development for many years and every stranger that drives in, questions a few people and leaves, is considered to be bearing good fortunes.
Darkness is now slowly filling the air over DRC, as residents retire to their homes for the night.
A mother reminds her school-going child to go to bed so he can be refreshed for the long journey the next morning, while her husband stares motionlessly into the paraffin lamp on the table as if reading something from the dim light coming from the lamp.
A few moments later, it is quiet. DRC has gone to sleep. Tomorrow will be another day that these residents have to endure.