There’s a big illuminated sign as you enter Windhoek’s Hochland Park suburb that says, I kid you not, ‘Goshwack Road’.
It’s funny because not only can one assume that the person who wrote it had no idea what a goshawk is – a gos-hawk, a medium sized bird of prey with pale grey feathers and a bright red beak, often found in semi-desert areas of Namibia. But also because (say it with me) Gosh, that’s whack!
If you think this column is going to be a tirade against ‘falling standards’ or ornithologically challenged municipal contractors, you’re quite wrong. I love it, and I totally love that I live in a country where ‘Goshwack Road’ signs can exist for more than a couple of days before being removed.
I love that at one southern border post, they once had a conservation poster up on the wall, saying ‘Namibia’s parrots need you help’, and right next to it, a specimen immigration form filled in the name of ‘Mr Parrot’.
I like that once there was a sign strung across Windhoek’s main avenue wishing everyone a ‘Happy Indepence’ (which admittedly was removed, especially after it started provoking jokes about ‘the politics of the belly’).
I like that we keep using an Independence Celebration logo that’s meant to symbolize cheering people and a flag, but inadvertently looks like a snail. It seems to say that no matter how slowly we move there, we will reach our national goals, and not only will we build the Namibian House, we’ll carry the damn thing on our backs, if we have to.
Not to mention the Calvinist sign-writer at one Jazz Festival, who seriously put up a sign on a stage-barrier reading ‘No Excess.’
In short, I like that Namibia is sometimes an amateurish country, where people are prepared to take risks, and don’t mind looking foolish.
Of course, things can go too far. An ornithologist who wrote a paper for Nature about the breeding habits of ‘goshwacks’ would become the laughing stock of his or her profession. Financial anti-fraud controls are another example of standards that do have to be strict, provided further that these target the big fish, not only schoolteachers who pilfer the office supply of paperclips.
However, we’re going to make it in the new knowledge economy, if we’re going to stand a chance in the midst of a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, then we have to be a nation that takes risks. Whether describing birds or programming mobile devices, we have to be people who are prepared to run with a good idea, even if we don’t know everything about the field.
Sometimes we’ll fail and make ourselves laughing stocks. But numerous writers on success have shown that without failure, we are unlikely to learn the lessons that will carry us forward into excellence.
Think how we used to laugh at the bad acting and overused locations in Nigerian movies. They’re still not exactly Hollywood classics, but many African counties are now asking how they can emulate the Nollywood film industry.
Alas, however, I fear that amateurish, try-and-see-what-happens Namibia is a dying phenomenon. At a time when it’s most needed.
Go into any big corporation or Government office these days, and there’s an insistence on avoidance of any kind of error. There’s a need to be ‘politically correct,’ not to avoid repressing vulnerable minorities (which is to be applauded), but so that you don’t get the boss’s nose out of joint.
There are some Ministries where the Executive Director is King, and God forbid you tell the King you have a better idea than he.
I know a number of private sector corporations who would rather import slick advertising, branding and public relations from South Africa than give the job to so-called ‘inexperienced’ locals who ‘might mess up’.
Me, I want my amateurish Namibia back, the one that produced world-class athletes and a renowned wildlife conservation programme. That started three universities in just twenty years, over the sneers of Witwatersrand academic dons who said it couldn’t be done. The kind of country that took on European fish thieves with only a few helicopters and some aging patrol boats.
Maintaining standards is all very well, but if you do it at the expense of taking risks, then it’s for the birds.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Check out his blog at ellishugh.wordpress.com