“I was sick that day,” he tells me.
Larry is of average height and build with short cropped hair and skin as smooth and dark as Swiss chocolate, but you would not know it to look at him now. He is hunched forward with one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the manual shift knob. His eyes, normally clear and vividly brown, are now dull and veined. He’s been driving for 7 hours with just a few short stops for gas and restroom breaks. I am a willing, but largely useless passenger. I’m not allowed to drive, one of the Peace Corps’ seriously enforced policies meant to keep me safe in a country where traffic accidents is one of the leading causes of death. Never mind that it’s also one of the leading causes of death in every industrialized nation on earth and yet I have survived over 40 years behind the wheel driving, but a policy is a policy and I’m relegated to reprise my role as copilot and entertainment director on this trip north.
As a copilot, I’m horrible. I don’t know the roads, I have no map and my phone’s connection to the internet is dicey at best, Google Maps is not going the happen. And for most of the trip I felt I was failing in the entertainment department too. My experience with people for whom English is not their mother tongue has led me to believe that any conversation with deep subject matter is likely a lost cause. Language is the barrier. Though Larry’s english is impeccable, he still has problems (as most people do when learning American English) with American cultural references, inferences and allusions, and it’s surprising how much of our day to day conversation is made up of such. Still, I tried. Jokes, facts about this and that, even a brief run through the American political landscape, none of it seemed to ignite a conversation of great length and more often than I wanted we fell into a mildly awkward silence.
All of that changed when we stopped in Otjiwarango which serves as a gateway to all the regions in northern Namibia. The regions directly north of Otjiwarongo are collectively known as Ovamboland or O-Land. The area gets its nickname not only from its inhabitants, who are primarily of Ovambo decent, but also because the names of the four regions and many of the towns and cities within them all begin with the letter ‘O’. The four O-Land regions are Oshana, Ohangwena, Oshikoto, Omusati. (I asked Larry about the names and he said there’s no real reason for it, it just is. Then he tells me a joke in which some foreigners were trying to talk to a woman who only speaks oshikwayama and after trying unsuccessfully to ask the woman to get into a car someone suggested that they preface each English word with ‘oshi’. The the resulting instruction was, “Oshi-please oshi-get oshi-into oshi-the oshi-car!” Apparently it worked!)
The Oshana Region, is where Larry was born and raised and his excitement on returning to his home region plainly showed in his actions. Instead of me trying to find things to talk about Larry would point out places and explain some of the history or memories he’s experienced when he was a child. He’s normally a guy who laughs easily and seems to know everyone, and that trait was most prevalent here. Anytime we stopped anywhere in O-Land Larry would see an old friend or acquaintance and they’d laugh and talk about old times.
We were driving through the town of Oshakati, the largest in the Oshana Region, when he pointed to a fairly new building near the center of town. Out in front of the mauve colored structure was a black granite obelisk surrounded by a short, ornate fence. “It happened there. It used to be a bank, a First National Bank branch,” he said, then pointed to a grassy area not far from the building. “That’s where I was waiting with a friend. As I said, I wasn’t in school that day because I was sick. I was 14.”
The strip of grass, perhaps 5 meters wide and several hundred meters long, is now surrounded by a wire fence. “The fence wasn’t here then.”
Larry parked the bakkie (pickup truck) we rode in and we walked over to the fence. Leaning lightly on a fence post, he said as he pointed, “We were right over there.”
All around us people went about their endeavors, much as they likely did 30 years ago. Everyone but a few cabbies looking for fares ignored us as we walked across the street and stopped in front of the obelisk. “30 people died,” he said. “Mostly women. Professional women. Nurses and teachers. It was a payday for them.”
On the obelisk was a list of names. Above the names, an engraving of the Namibian flag and these words:
The 20th Commemoration of the victims of the bomb blast at the FNB Branch
The following sons and daughters of Namibia were brutally massacred in a bomb blast at the FNB Oshakati Branch 19th February 1988:
Then the names: Johanna Onesmus, Beata Sheetekela, Silia Amaambo, Lahja Omagano Shilongo…
Larry studies the names for a moment. I wait in silence. Time hasn’t shorten the list for him. I think he reads each name to himself. After a moment, he sighs, turns and walks back to the bakkie. I follow.
We are in O-Land for meetings with some local entrepreneurs. The meeting isn’t until the following day and we need to find our accommodations for the night. And dinner. We leave the mauve building and black obelisk and find food and shelter between Larry chatting up old friends. He’s very happy to be home.
The next day the meetings go well, we’ll be helping some farmers establish several commercial gardens that will provide jobs and fresh produce to the area. After a few more meetings with local organizations who will also be involved, we pack up to head back south. Before we leave we make one last stop. The obelisk.
“There is a businessman who is now a friend of mine, his cousin’s fiancé died in the explosion,” he tells me. “They were both heading into the bank when a man asked the brother for a job. He stayed outside to talk to the man while his fiancé went inside. Then the explosion happened as she was about to leave. She died later, on the 26th of February. The cousin says he would likely be dead too if that man hadn’t asked him for a job.”
I wonder if the cousin gave the man a job, but I don’t ask, it seems inappropriate somehow. I do ask who planted the bomb and why. “There is speculation, but no one knows for sure who planted it. No one took credit for it. They didn’t have video surveillance like they do today. Since no one took responsibility, no one knows exactly why. It was during the time of apartheid and many bad things happened during that time.”
He gives one last look at the site and the names on the stone, then we start back. You would think the ride south would be somber, but that isn’t who Larry is. While in O-Land we visited his mother and other relatives, delivered gifts to role models who inspired him, and toured places he once explored as a kid. These are obviously good memories and he’s glad to share them with me.
Instead of heading directly south he detours so that our path skirts Etosha, a huge national game reserve, in hopes that we’d see something interesting. We do! We see springbok grazing, a herd of zebras crosses the road in front of us, and not far away a small herd of giraffes watch us go by.
The detour has added at least two hours onto our five hour drive back over dark gravel roads. Just at sunset we got a flat. We’d hit a sharp rock that put a gash in the left rear tire about the length of my hand. I finally felt like I had something to contribute and helped change the tire. While doing so it became obvious why vehicle maintenance is critical in Namibia, especially if you travel the backroads.
By the end of the drive Larry was a spent man, but he somehow managed a smile. My guess is that he’s happy to be back with his family, but I also believe that, as it might be for most Namibians, any reason to go north is a good reason to go north. It’s returning home, recharging the spiritual batteries, to walk through memories, both good and bad, and re-center one’s self. I think he managed a smile because he got to go north, to go home.
I get that.