When Petrus Haakskeen was not trudging through one of Namibia’s poorest villages selling bones and empty bottles well before his 10th birthday to supplement his grandmother’s meagre income, he read whatever printed material he could lay his hands on.
Life was rough. The young Haakskeen was one of about 10 other youngsters under the care of his near-destitute grandmother and competition for the little food that was available was often vicious and frustrating.
For him, therefore, reading was just a form of escape but it enriched his vocabulary and in no time his teachers were impressed by his proficiency in writing school essays.
“My teachers throughout primary and secondary school kept telling me my writing was fantastic. We were being taught in Afrikaans then. That was the lingua franca, and I was very good at writing compositions and poems but as a young person I did not see these comments as anything other than just compliments,” Haakskeen, now one of Namibia’s best poets and playwrights, said in a stirring, wide-ranging interview at his home in Katutura.
Haakskeen was born 41 years ago in Windhoek.
“Although I was born here, I was raised by my grandmother from the age of three years in Maltahohe, a small village 110 km west of Mariental. It was the practice of that time that women would give birth and take their children back to the village to be nursed by grandparents,” he said.
He said his grandmother was poor but very loving and hardworking. He recalls her doing odd jobs in the village to feed her many grandchildren.
“I was brought up under very poor conditions but my grandmother did all she could to ease my suffering. She had many mouths to feed because her daughters would also give birth and offload their children onto her. At some point, we were eight children in her house. Food was very scarce. At a very tender age, I resolved to help her and I would sell empty bottles and bones in the village,” he said.
In 1975, he enrolled at Daweb Primary School where he remained for the rest of his primary education. In 1983, he joined Emmanuel Shifidi High School in Windhoek before moving to Jan Jonker Afrikaner High school where he matriculated in 1986.
After matriculating, Haakskeen got his first job as a clerk in Windhoek, as it was not easy to get a bursary to proceed with education.
“There were few options for blacks in those days. The only tertiary institution was the Academy for Tertiary Education. Everyone went there; from teachers to nurses. Professions were also limited for black people. It was teaching and nursing because of apartheid,” he recalled.
After only three months of working, he decided to visit his beloved grandmother in the village.
On March 30, 1987, he and four of his friends set off for his village. About 30 km from his grandmother’s home, tragedy struck. The car in which he was travelling overturned. Two of his friends died on the spot. The other two died later in hospital.
“It was a very traumatic accident. I broke my neck and spinal cord. That left me paralysed from the neck down. I am the only survivor,” he said.
He said he was taken to Conrade Hospital in Cape Town where he spent a year-and-a-half for treatment and rehabilitation.
“I could not use my hands. I had to be operated on my back as surgeons tried to repair my damaged spine in vain. I have wires in my neck as I speak to you,” he added, emotions mounting.
He said the accident had messed up his plans and dashed his hopes of ever becoming a teacher.
“It was very difficult. I was only 19 years old when the accident occurred. I had these high aspirations and dreams and all of a sudden there I was being treated like a small baby, unable to do even the most basic things like turning to one side on the bed.”
He said it took him three years to accept his new condition.
“I was institutionalised and spent most of my time in care homes here in Windhoek. After three years, it occurred to me that although I was disabled, I was not dead, that I still had a functioning brain. I told myself I had to leave the care homes and try to do something with my life. I was tired of just eating and going to bed,” he said, adding that he is a religious person and spent long periods in prayer.
“I asked God to get me out of the wheelchair and revitalize my hands until I just realized that I could still try to do something without the use of my hands. After all, everything comes from the mind. I still had mine.”
In 1993, he decided to study computer operations with the Academy of Learning. He graduated two years later with a Diploma in Computer Operations.
“That qualification opened up a number of doors for me. I got a job in the private sector as an office manager for one company. I worked there for two years. I learnt the hard way that for a disabled person, working in the private sector is not easy. The private sector is profit-driven and so the ability to work quickly is crucial. After my rehabilitation I could not work fast. I typed with wooden splints attached to my hands,” he said.
He said he also came face to face with blatant discrimination against people living with disablities in the workplace.
“They paid me peanuts while I was managing their office as anybody else would have. I was paid less than able-bodied workmates, despite the fact that my work was often of better quality than theirs. It was assumed that I ought to have been grateful that the company actually employed me when I was confined to a wheelchair,” he said.
In 1995, he was employed by Ehalo Project, which had been set up to employ disabled people.
“I was special assistant to the director for two years.”
He then resolved to work for himself.
“Long after my high school and rehabilitation, I felt an overwhelming urge to write about what I was experiencing. The blatant discrimination I experienced because I was disabled really inspired me to write and highlight not just my plight, but that of the generality of disabled people. Life as a disabled person is not easy. People have a very negative attitude towards you if you are disabled. They think that you are useless and do not deserve the good things of life. When you try to look for a job, prospective employers automatically write you off. This is what inspired me to write. I wanted to show how people were stereotyping people with disabilities,” he said.
His first script was about people with disabilities and the way they are treated in the community, schools and the work place.
“Most of my first plays centre on the lives of people with disabilities,” he said.
His first play, Don’t Do Disability Discrimination (1993) was very well received.
“People say the first cut is the deepest. That was a very inclusive play and exposed many forms of discrimination against the wheelchair-bound, the deaf, the blind and the mentally challenged.”
The play was performed all over the country.
“A distinguishing aspect of my plays is that I try to use real characters. If the part requires a blind man, I get a blind man to play the part; real drunks will play the part of drunks in my plays. This makes my plays different,” he revealed.
Haakskeen is also a very good poet and in 2000, he published a praise poetry anthology on the founding President, Dr Sam Nujoma.
Entitled Profiles of a Hero the anthology carries 20 poems capturing Dr Nujoma’s life from boyhood to his rise to the presidency.
“I conducted lengthy interviews with Dr Nujoma and gained a deeper insight into his leadership style. I got it from the horse’s mouth and expressed it through poems,” he said.
Turning to what inspires him these days, Haakskeen says he drew inspiration from life in general.
“Day to day life and the social challenges we are trying to overcome like substance abuse, crime, discrimination, poverty, child and women abuse, unemployment, homelessness and so on inspire me to write.”
Some of his plays have been published under The New Namibian Plays. Every two years the best 10 plays by Namibian playwrights are selected for publication.
His aim is to win the Golden Pen Award.
“In 2001, I won the Best New Comer Prize for my play entitled, Finders, keepers, Losers, Weepers on land: how we lost it, how those who found it are keeping it, and we are weeping as a result.”
His other play, Gatiep and The Rubbish Bin, has also won prizes.
“It is about a street vagrant, the so-called “Malala pipe” guys, who befriended the rubbish bin,” he said of the comical drama.
He is now working on a film script.
He said there are limited opportunities for disabled writers “and often consultancies and other jobs are given to able-bodied writers because we are not mobile. The first to pass the post gets it. The market is also very small, but growing. I am very optimistic.”
Haakskeen looks after his sister’s children as he never married and has no children of his own.