When Okahandja resident Rauha Mathias’ alarm clock went off in the wee hours of one morning in April 2015, she knew her new job in Windhoek had ushered her into a new laborious era.
The young mother of two had just secured a better paying job as PR administrative assistant at the Social Security Commission head office in Windhoek – an exciting yet challenging chapter in her life.
Exciting from an economic and social perspective, but challenging because Mathias was to start travelling nearly 70 km to work and another 70 km to return home.
Essentially, she never saw the sun while in Okahandja, leaving home before sunrise and returning after sunset.
“It was hectic at first – early mornings and late evenings,” she recalled.
But she has two children who attend school and whose successful upbringing requires a good injection of financial resources.
And Okahandja is a small economy, with not enough diversification to accommodate the town’s 9 000 employable youth.
Apart from the SABMiller brewery, the Meatco abattoir, Closwa biltong, a few hospitality establishments, diamond-cutting factory NamGem, and the textile and shoes manufacturing army outfit August 26, there isn’t much private sector investment at Okahandja.
Otjozondjupa Region, for which Okahandja is one of the major urban centres, has an unemployment rate of about 33 percent, according to the Namibia Statistics Agency (NSA).
The NSA, after conducting the 2014 labour force survey, also concluded that 4 700 youths at Okahandja were jobless and, according to the 2011 population census, the town had 1 764 shacks.
These demographics have resulted in hordes of Okahandja residents flocking to Windhoek in search of jobs. Yet Windhoek, often dubbed a city that eats its own children, is no place for economic pushovers.
The idea of living in the nation’s capital is, to many, very enticing but realities on the ground, including high rental prices and unaffordable houses, mean the majority of citizenry cannot afford to live here.
Mathias too alluded to this challenge. “I currently pay very low for my own house in Okahandja and while the idea of renting a place in Windhoek is tempting, I simply cannot afford it,” she told this publication.
As of 2014, the median price of a house in Windhoek stood at N$774 000, which meant households must earn at least N$23 000 per month to afford an average property.
It is this state of affairs that is driving some of Windhoek’s own residents to Okahandja – where affordability of houses is slightly better. But economists fear that with the housing market booming in Okahandja, houses at the town may soon become unaffordable too.
The state of affairs that prompted many residents to commute between the two cities daily have several implications for individual workers.
The taxi fare between Okahandja and Windhoek is N$60, meaning commuters fork out N$120 daily and N$2 640 a month.
Yet the average commuter between the two cities is not your typical blue-collar executive who earns sufficiently to afford such a monthly bill on top of other mandatory expenses.
“The transport cost is killing us,” said Mathias, who now says she is used to the strenuous travelling.
“We simply cannot afford taxis, so what many of us did was to enter agreements with car owners who work in Windhoek to provide us with daily transport. For this we pay about N$900 a month.”
Apart from being expensive, taxis are also a source of massive inconvenience. “They are in business and therefore will not drive until the cab is full. One could be very late for work under such circumstances,” Mathias observed.
She currently wakes up at 06h00, leaves Okahandja at 07h00 and takes about 40 minutes to arrive in Windhoek. Before she leaves, she prepares food for her two children, which may include lunch as she is away the whole day.
“I’m always at work by around 07h45. When I come back home at night my children would be at home with my boyfriend or they would be at my mom’s house, which luckily is in our street.”
When she started working in Windhoek last year, Mathias barely did anything else after work. “I was always exhausted and I’d just go straight to bed. But now I sometimes go home with my laptop and do some work or I’d be watching soapies after work.” A communications student at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST), Mathias had to change her programme to distance studies because she could simply not cope with the realities of her commuting.
“By the time your leave class at night my driver would have left for Okahandja already and it’s not safe taking taxis that late – especially for a female.” Traffic congestion between the two towns remains a serious concern, especially on Fridays. Mathias expressed hope for a speedy completion of the dual carriageway currently being constructed between Windhoek and Okahandja.
“The dual carriageway would be a huge relief for us.”
The total costs for the construction of the said road increased from N$239 million to approximately N$330 million to cater for the full-length freeway upgrade, which includes two additional bridges and four access ramps at the second split-level interchange at the place for the former police control point. – This article was first published in New Era Weekend.