It’s that time of year again! We’re so happy to kick off our fifth annual Motherhood Around the World series with Kaylan Reid Shipanga in Namibia. Kaylan, a freelance writer, lives with her husband, Elago, and their two-year-old son, Lance, in the city of Otjiwarongo. Here, she shares 17 surprising things about living in Namibia, including big responsibilities for young kids and the hard-to-make food that her son loves…
The capital city of Windhoek
On first impressions: In 2010, I moved from New York to Namibia for a year to teach English and computer classes to high school students. I arrived in the capital, Windhoek, at night. When I woke up the next morning and opened the blinds, I was taken aback by how stunning the landscape was. The city is surrounded by tall mountains, and the air is so fresh. I also noticed the beautiful, rich reddish-brown hue of the soil here. I picked up a few stones that first day that I still display at home.
On meeting her husband Elago: I originally signed a contract for one year in Namibia, but I already knew I wanted to stay longer. Still, I never thought I’d meet my husband overseas! Six months after I arrived, Elago (his name means ‘lucky’ in his mother tongue, Oshiwambo) became an English teacher at my school. We started chatting during breaks, and soon enough we were inseparable. Even though he grew up in a rural village community with huts and I grew up in New York City with skyscrapers, we felt so similar and really connected.
A traditional hut in Elago’s home village
On dating: When Elago and I met, we were teaching in a small town near his family’s village, and people started telling his mother that they’d been seeing her son around town with ‘the American teacher.’ She initially didn’t approve since casual dating was not common in her tribe. But after we decided to get married, Elago brought me to his village for a few weeks. The language barrier was awkward at first — his mother knew only a bit of English and I knew only a bit of Oshiwambo. But after we announced we were engaged, she took me under her wing and we became close. We got married in 2014, and had our son exactly nine months later.
On pregnancy: In the U.S., people will often offer a pregnant woman their seat or hold the door open, but in Namibia, they’re less catered to. You’ll see very pregnant women working in the fields, carrying heavy loads on their heads or walking long distances under the hot sun. Private healthcare is expensive, so most local women go to public hospitals that have shortages of staff and equipment. It’s also not uncommon for pregnant women from rural areas to sleep in tents outside hospitals near their due dates, so they don’t have to travel so far when they go into labor. For these reasons, my husband and I decided to go to New York when I was five months pregnant to have the baby there. It was a huge privilege to have that option.
On welcoming Lance: When we first brought our son Lance to my husband’s village (which is five hours from the city where we live now) to meet my mother-in-law, the family performed two Aawambo tribe rituals. The first was something they do for anyone coming into the home for the first time or after a long time away: they put a paste-like substance on his forehead in the shape of a cross, a symbol of welcome. Then Elago and his cousins went into the fields where all the animals were grazing and picked a goat to slaughter for a big family meal in honor of the first born-child. It was a wonderful day. My son is now considered the son of everyone in the tribe. Whenever we visit, men, women and children will take him right out of my lap.
Kaylan visiting the Himba tribe
On diversity: One of the things I love most about Namibia is being exposed to so many different cultures. There are about 13 major tribes in the country, and they have different languages and customs. For example, my husband’s Aawambo tribe (the largest in Namibia and also called the Ovambo or Owambo) revolves around planting and harvesting a grain called ‘mahangu,’ while the Herero and Himba tribes revolve around cattle/livestock. Despite their differences, they all live pretty peacefully side by side. There are also many people from other African nations living in Namibia. It’s a true melting pot.
On home life: We live in a modern apartment complex with hot water, electricity and Wi-Fi. We have two bedrooms, so although Namibians are much more into co-sleeping, we decided to buy a crib. But it ended up not fitting through our front door, so Lance is still in our bed! I speak English to Lance; at his daycare they speak English and Afrikaans; and my husband also speaks his mother-tongue Oshiwambo to him. There’s no shame around breastfeeding here, and I feel comfortable feeding my son in public. I often see women walking down the street with a breast exposed as their children nurse.
On toys: Before I became a parent, I imagined pushing my child on the swings at a park, but playgrounds just aren’t a thing here. Sometimes it’s challenging to come up with activities, but we often hang out at the local tennis court while our son throws a ball around. The toys they sell in our city are similar to American toys, but the kids in my husband’s rural village play with whatever is lying around — sticks, sand and nuts on the ground. When Lance visits, he does what his cousins do. I really like that it’s more relaxed; it’s such a different vibe from city life.
On entertainment: Our city is pretty small. Part of me wishes it were as developed as the capital, where there are spoken-word events, natural hair meet-ups, race car driving, a movie theatre, malls and nightclubs. But the other part of me appreciates its cozy simplicity. Our town’s parks are just grassy areas along the main road. There are no benches, so people bring blankets. We buy grilled meat from the street vendors and find a shady spot together. Eating meat, talking and having a beer or a soda in the grass is a classic Namibian thing.
Kaylan with her husband’s grandmother
On date nights: We haven’t had a date night since our son was born, but before parenthood, we would go to boxing matches or to the local open market for barbecued beef. Dating activities are simple in Namibia, but you realize you don’t need that much to enjoy each other. We also just go on walks. Our very first date was a walk through the small town just outside of Elago’s home village. As we walked he greeted people he knew and told me about who they were. We ended up sitting under a huge Baobab tree and chatting – it was such a relaxed and special date.
On traditional porridge: The staple food in my husband’s tribe is a porridge called oshifima, made with a type of millet called mahangu. The flavor is pretty plain, but we all love it. It’s eaten daily for lunch and dinner — usually served with meat and sauce — and sometimes for a child’s breakfast when mixed with a yoghurt-y milk. For a long time, my mother-in-law gently encouraged me to learn how to make it (she would leave the flour with me when she went to work), and I finally got the hang of it. I always wanted her to give me measurements, but nobody uses them, so I learned through trial and error. You just boil water and keep adding flour while stirring, but it’s super challenging because the porridge quickly becomes very thick. There’s a whole art to it. You need a lot of arm strength!
On beef: Staple foods vary depending on the tribe, but the one common denominator across Namibia is beef. This is a beef-obsessed nation; it’s like a national pastime. You’ll find people selling barbecued beef on streets all around Namibia — the smell is intoxicating. Before I moved here, I wasn’t a big meat person, but it’s so delicious that I’ve been converted. They slaughter the cow right before they cook it, so it’s much fresher and tastier than any meat I’ve had in the States. My son loves it, too. When he was just six months old, a relative gave him a beef bone to suck on. I had just started him on solids and wasn’t totally comfortable with it, but in the name of being polite I let it slide. He loved it, of course, and has loved meat ever since.
On children’s jobs: Many children are given big responsibilities at young ages. In my husband’s tribe, young boys are expected to tend to cattle, and girls help with cooking and housework. I’ve seen young boys at work rowing a canoe through an alligator laden river. I’ve seen boys driving donkey carts all on their own and I’ve seen little girls carrying babies and helping their mothers pound flour into the ground. My husband and I have talked about it, and we want Lance to take part in doing things for the village. It’s the culture of his Namibian side — they live off the land. The last time we went to the village, my son had just learned to walk, so Elago took him to get cattle in the fields. With girls, they start with small things, and they just fall into it. By the time they are 13, they can make the porridge.
On feeling special: Weddings are a big deal in my husband’s tribe, so we got married in his hometown. During weddings, the women of the tribe sing and ululate, which is a high pitch trilling sound. Also, a week before our wedding, we had to officially announce that we were getting married during the town’s Sunday church service. My father and my best friend came from the States, so everywhere we went in town that week, women would recognize us and start ululating, at restaurants or just walking down the street. It was so beautiful and made me feel really special. It was like a welcoming.
On having a Namibian wedding: Namibians often get married around holidays but there is only one church in town, so we had to share it with three other couples. I was initially worried about that, but it ended up being fine. Our wedding pastor was a dynamic woman who gave sermons in both English and Oshiwambo. Then we went to my husband’s village and were greeted by his family elders, who performed a ceremony to officially welcome us. People stuck spears into the ground, each one representing a cow they had given us. Then we sat under a large tree to pray and receive gifts from guests. Finally, we entered our reception tent, which was very similar to a wedding back in the States, with music, dancing, American-style side dishes, meats and fish, and of course, the traditional porridge!
On the police: As a black mother, there is a sense of ease that I feel here that I don’t in the States. For many African Americans in the U.S., the fear of a police stop ending badly feels very real. In Namibia, the black people I know aren’t scared when they’re stopped by cops. Race relations are far from perfect (before its independence in 1990, Namibia was formerly a part of apartheid South Africa), but worrying about my husband and son during routine police stops isn’t a fear of mine.
On moving back: I miss my friends and family in New York, but I think we’ll be in Namibia for at least a few more years. It’s more affordable and there’s a lot of work opportunity here for us right now. I’m also happy that Lance has such a rich culture to experience, and, as a person of African descent, I love embracing the traditions of my husband’s tribe. The value of knowing one’s tradition and culture is immeasurable.
Thank you so much, Kaylan! If you’d like to read more, Kaylan is the editor-in-chief of African American in Africa, a site that chronicles the experiences of African Americans living across the African continent.
(Photos courtesy Kaylan Reid Shipanga. Interview by Megan Cahn.)