Between Tsumeb, where we spent the night after our last day in Etosha, and Rundu, which is near the beginning of the Caprivi Strip, the tiny northeastern part of Namibia that squeezes in between Angola and Botswana, we crossed the Red Line. This line, marked by a veterinary control fence, prevents the north-south crossing of animals, or the passing of animals from the northern communal subsistence lands to the commercial cattle farms of the south. The goal of this fence is to protect the southern animals, which are sold for meat both inside and outside of Namibia, from instances of foot-and-mouth and other diseases.
For us, the fence wasn’t so interesting in regards to its role in keeping cattle disease-free, as much as it amazed us how different life was on the two different sides of the fence. South of the fence Namibia was either wide-open spaces that seemed to be occupied by absolutely no one or small cities that were generally of a fairly modern (and sometimes quite German) design with supermarkets, banks, clothing shops, and Western-style housing (or shanties).
North of the border, Namibia suddenly and very dramatically became Africa as most of us non-Africans probably picture it. We entered a world where life centered around the village, and where villages consisted of rondavels constructed of mud and clay with thatched roofs and small enclosures for animals. The villages were surrounded by stick fences. A communal water spicket was usually also available, and women and children walking from the faucet to their homes with large containers of water balanced on their heads was a common sight.
Animals–goats, donkeys, and huge cows with prominent horns, roamed freely, grazing on the side of the road, or standing stubbornly in the road daring you to approach. Occasionally a small boy with a stick walked alongside them, doing his best to herd them.
In between villages, maize, sorghum, and other crops grew. On occasion, you’d catch a glimpse of women grinding up the maize into meal, using stone pots and a stick.
We were a novelty it seemed. Though we were driving on a paved national highway, every single person we passed stopped and stared at us. All the children would wave frantically and burst into huge smiles when we waved back. Some tried to race our car; others yelled at us to look at the snake they had caught. Though life was certainly not easy, there was obviously much joy.
Outside some of the villages, crafts had been set out, apparently to sale to the few tourists like us who passed by. There were enourmous clay pots and giant masks, wooden airplanes and helicoptors, and carved animal figurines. Wanting a closer look, we stopped at one of the larger stands, which seemd to be manned by absolutely no one. The village was perfectly quiet. But as we all know, appearances can be deceiving, and as soon as we pulled over and got out, seemingly the entire village emerged to stare at us. We moved through the goods, checking out the various items for sale, and greeting the people, most of whom just continued to stare. Jeff, finding a cheetah he just had to have, began to bargain with the guy selling it, and I moved off to say hello to some children who had gathered in a group to gawk.
As soon as I spoke to one girl, all the others moved in, and I was soon surrounded by kids. They told me their names and ages, where they went to school and what grade they were in. We talked about football and netball, and they stared, stared, stared at me.
Finally, they asked me a question: How old are you? This apparently interested the parents too, who were gathered in a cluster a bit further away, as they yelled to their children to find out what my answer had been. I could only wonder what they thought. At 28, I was certainly older than many of them, yet I did not have any of the things that they, at my age, would have: a hut (or house) of my own, children, the weariness of having to physically work hard every day. My life was pretty much as incomprehensible to them as theirs was to me. But we shared a smile, some laughs, and I think, a wonder at the beautiful strangeness of this thing we call life.