The Time Traveler: On the streets where you live

16 August 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
The streets in my neighborhood are mostly named after well-known late Namibian German businessmen. Metje and Ziegler, purveyors of fine automobiles. Gathemann the restauranteur. The famous traders, Woermann and Brock.
One exception is Olaf Palme Street, named after the former Prime Minster of Sweden. A socialist, global humanitarian, and ally to oppressed people, he was assassinated in still-mysterious circumstances, but his ideals helped define modern-day Sweden. Now that’s a story to tell your grandkids about where you live and how one should live.
There’s Nelson Mandela Avenue close by. Most black people I know feel that the great statesman bent over backwards, maybe too far, to calm the fears of his white compatriots. Yet I can’t help remembering the visceral reaction the name provoked in the early 90s from white South Africans of my grandparents’ generation, who had grown up with the propagandistic image of ‘Mandela the terrorist’.
When I drive to work, I meet the music composers. For someone who grew up on liberation songs, it’s an honor to list my professional address as 13 Jackson Kaujeua Street. And as I drive through Wagner Street to the back entrance of the Lower Campus, I hear in my head the music of epic North European myth.
My point is that street names, and the names we chose to give to things generally, matter. Not like jobs matter. Nor like equal economic opportunities for all, regardless of gender and race, matter. But names still matter.
They matter because names end up affecting the stories we tell ourselves, the conversations we have with our grandchildren and grandparents, and the music we hear inside our heads in our idle moments.
That’s why Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, so its people could think of an African civilization whose architectural achievements are world famous, rather than a despicable British imperialist. It’s why we renamed ourselves Namibia in 1990, so we didn’t have the indignity of a country named after a compass direction.
The Windhoek Lawyer Andreas Vaatz recently published an insert in a number of national newspapers, including this one, to voice his opposition to the renaming of Bismarck Street in Windhoek after the late freedom fighter and former Robben Island prisoner, Simeon Lineekela Shixungileni.
There are many arguments against the concentration of money in the hands of a few. But surely one of the best is that there’s something deeply wrong with a system where one man can afford to hand over that kind of cash to newspaper advertising departments, only to spew such utter embarrassment on a national stage.
It hardly seems fitting to dignify most of Vaatz’s arguments with a response.
Suffice to say:  it should be obvious that honoring someone who risked death, imprisonment and torture to liberate an African country is more important than celebrating the life of a man who - among many other deeds, I grant you - convened a conference where European powers plotted the carving up of the African continent.
But let me not excuse myself from the criticism that is correctly aimed at Mr Vaatz. Although I have tried, I have not worked hard enough to rid my city of both the economic legacy of colonialism, and its cultural overtones.
I have not yet written to the City of Windhoek stating that Richard Wagner, a lifelong supporter of the Nazi party, should be denied the honor of a ‘Strasse’.
As an ex-Brit, I’ve been too happy to see Shakespeare Street, and have not demanded to know why excellent writers in English like Ayi Kweh Armah, Wole Soyinka, Mongane Wally Serote, and Bessie Head don’t deserve the same honor.
I’m remiss for not amplifying the voices of black women who have called for female freedom fighters - women like Putuse Appolus, Martha Ford, Nora Schimming-Chase, Ottilie Abrahams - to be honored in street names.
I guess I could start by asking questions of the businessmen of my own neighborhood. Can one run a successful business under a racist government, and not be racist oneself? If so, under what conditions? Did the old businessmen fulfil those conditions?
Sometimes there are easy answers, when it comes to getting rid of the cultural legacy of colonialism. Sometimes there are only more questions.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow him on Twitter @ellis_hugh or read his blog at https://ellishugh.wordpress.com/

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