I had to go to a police station recently (no need to say which one) to handle some administrative business.
The place was quite an awful building. As well as being too crowded (there were five people working in an office clearly built for one; I wouldn’t even want to imagine the cells), the place was dirty. Disgusting.
The floor looked like it had not been thoroughly mopped in years. Dust, cigarette butts, dead spiders and Lord-knows-what else clung to the corners. Brown stains and marks were all over the lower part of the walls. The whole place smelled slightly unpleasant - I couldn’t say exactly what the smell was; I’d rather not find out.
The Namibian police is chronically under-funded. Just ask anyone who’s ever reported an emergency situation and been asked if he or she has a vehicle available to transport officers to the scene. I used to think this was a joke or exaggeration, until it happened to someone I know.
But geez, someone could mop the floor, once in a while.
Generally, Namibia’s social services are struggling under the weight of central government cutbacks, at the same time as an increasing population need their services. For the police, it’s worse still, as they get called upon to be social workers, educators, emergency health carers, and many other things in poor communities where they’re literally the only state representatives.
But someone can find a mop, can’t they? Buy some industrial soap with the Station Commander’s lunch money, and wipe the stains off the walls at lunchtime?
Of course, Namibia’s government cutbacks and the atrocious working conditions of lower-level public servants are only one act in the big drama of injustice that is global capitalism.
As long as we continue to be a raw-material-exporting country, as long as we lack the capacity to enforce our tax and anti-bribery laws on the multinational companies, our state fiscus will be vulnerable. A slight downturn on the global markets, and sooner or later your local teacher or traffic cop finds themselves unemployed.
But even with all that being said, you’d think it would be a positive act, no matter how minor, for someone to sweep the dead cockroach out of the corridor and clean the bird droppings off the windows. Wouldn’t you?
I generally don’t trust ‘let’s pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ talk.
For a start, ‘bootstrapping’ is much of what we, as a country, have already been doing. The University of Namibia is a good example of that. All we had prior to Independence on that property was a teacher training college for whites only. We built that university up from nothing. Yet pulling yourself up can only take you so far. The deep issues in all our higher education institutions attest to that.
More importantly, no successful person or country ever makes it alone. That requires help, solidarity, a change in global systems. Without the Marshall Plan, massive US aid for Western Europe after the Second World War, for example, it’s unlikely that Germany would ever have pulled itself out of the rubble.
Much ‘bootstrapping’ talk denies that systems and political and economic forces are a problem. It makes us blind to our oppression.
And yet, in spite of that, I feel it is a revolutionary act to do what we can, where we are.
Clean up the police station. Paint your local school. If you’re an educator, learn a new thing on the Internet and teach it to your students. Help that struggling single mother you know in your neighborhood. Open a lemonade stand and use the proceeds to shelter the homeless. Offer your Kombi to transport underprivileged kids to sports practice.
Will it change the world? Probably not. Maybe caring for people’s dignity - if we are public servants, our clients’ dignity - might help create conditions for nurturing the leaders of the next Big World Revolution, but even that’s a reach.
I think, we should do what we can, where we are, with what we have, just because it’s resistance - resistance against the idea that we ‘third world’ citizens are nothing, and can never be anything. In short, it’s a way - a small way, maybe an insignificant way, but a way nonetheless - of re-affirming our humanity.
Hugh Ellis is a poet and a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. All views expressed here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog at ellishugh.wordpress.com