Shopping: A Cultural Experience?

While traveling on spring break, I had a few people tell me that by living in Windhoek, I was not experiencing “real Africa.” And when I returned to Windhoek after living in the North and traveling to a few different countries, I started to internalize that sentiment as well. I started feeling like living here wasn’t challenging or exciting anymore. It is true that many parts of Windhoek are well-developed and westernized and easy to live in. However, I also forgot to give myself credit for how well-adjusted I have become to the differences here. It is not just the fact that Windhoek is a “unAfrican city,” (a snobby and untrue statement) it’s the fact that I have been living in town for three months and have gotten used to various cultural nuances here. It took a solo trip to the mall to fully realize that.
I only had my internship for a half day today, so on my walk home from downtown I decided to do some clothes shopping. Malls are very popular in Windhoek, and on my walk home I pass by two shopping centers. I had planned this out and was looking forward to it because the malls close at 2pm on weekends and are so crowded it is unbearable. Usually only one cash register works at a given store and so even if you manage to try something on, the wait in line is easily a half an hour. Wednesday afternoon was a much more relaxed atmosphere, the only other people around were those shopping on their lunch hour, or a trickle of high school kids out for the day. I visited Mr. Price, Legit, and Jay-Jays, all South African owned stores that offer cute clothes for reasonably cheap. Since it is turning to Fall here, there were a lot of winter coats, boots, and sweaters…it actually does get chilly here! I caught myself humming along to some of the music in the store, it was mostly American music but there were a few Namibian ones thrown in that I knew the words to. While purchasing a very cute dress (for only $16 USD) I was aware that the woman standing behind me was very close, so close that she was leaning on the counter by the register as if we were buddies and she was waiting for me to finish paying so we could leave together! It reminded me that personal space bubbles are much smaller here. I have gotten cut in line a few times because I have not been standing close enough to the person ahead of me to “mark” my space. Leaving the store, like at all stores, I was asked to present my receipt to the guard and she checked my in my bag to make sure the items were accounted for. Upon entering the next store, my bag was taped up so I could not sneak any items into it. As I was walking through the mall to exit, I looked around at the other white people. Now, it is so obvious for me to spot the white Namibians from the tourists. The tourists were not dressed as well, were stopping to look at the souvenir trinket stands, or were clutching their purses. Sometimes I look like a tourist and other days I look like a local. Today, people treated me like a local because I was dressed professionally and I was by myself, not in a herd of American students. I don’t clutch my purse because I rarely keep my money in there, I keep it in my shirt and then take out the amount I need when I am in the dressing room. Oftentimes people assume I am German, the newspaper sellers on the street usually start waving to the German/Afrikaans newspaper when they see me walk by.
On my walk home, I was bombarded by taxi honks…I remember our first week in Windhoek we thought they were honking at us and we were a bit horrified. We quickly realized that they honk when they see any pedestrian because it signals that their cab is available for passengers. Cabs charge by the individual seat, so it is common to share a cab with strangers who happen to be going the same way. After saying “no, thanks” to the cab drivers, I continued my walk home, past the Polytechnic University and down the hill to my house. I had missed lunch and most of it was eaten, so I had a meal of leftovers: pap (porridge made from maize meal, I think), some veggies, and “dessert yogurt” (cherry flavored with chocolate sprinkles).
Tomorrow, we go to the south for a weekend camping trip and a seminar about community based tourism and natural resource development. Should be fun!

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