Boyz in the Hood

I spend two and a half days in Windhoek, wandering the streets, and sitting in sidewalk cafes, eating apfel strudel and observing the locals. I also take a trip to the National Museum, since I realise I don't know much about the history of the place. I learn that Namibia was formerly a German colony (hence the apful strudel in display in every other cafe window). Namibia was handed over to South African in 1915 by the UN and there then followed a long,drawn-out struggle for independence, which didn't really come about until 1990. Still, from what I can see (and what I hear), the transition from white minority rule to liberal democracy is going relatively smoothly and, no doubt about it, this city has a far more relaxed vibe than Jo'burg.

After my history lesson, I dutifully pay a visit to the Christukirche, located on Fidel Castro Street (apparently the Cubans weighed in, in the struggle for independence, sending plenty of arms and men over). It's slap bang in the middle of a traffic island (don't ask me why) and towers over the city. It's constructed of sandstone, in a bizarre fusion of neo-Gothic and art nouvea styles. Some people say it reminds them of a gingerbread house. But I don't like gingerbread and I don't care for this odd little German monument either.

Two days later, I'm on a bus heading south west, towards Luderitz, a tiny town (10,000 people or so?) on the inhospitable western coast of the country. It's a pretty remote area, I'm told, but nearby, there's a deserted diamond town that I'm dying to explore. One problem – I've just found out there's only three buses a week from Keetmanshoop (my first leg) to the west coast and today isn't one of them. But I'm not sweating it – I hitched 2,000 kms a few days ago... what's another 337 now? So when my bus pulls in, after a much longed for coca cola and a dry cheese sandwich I hail a cab and tell the driver to take me out to the highway. After giving me the obligatory lecture (“I wouldn't let my daughter do this...”) but realising he's wasting his breath, he smiles at me reassuringly.

“There's just one road to Luderitz . This is it. It's not busy, but people on it will stop for you. I reckon you'll be there by evening.”

And he's right. It's just a few minutes before a woman pulls over and tells me she's heading to a lodge about an hour down the road (originally from Cape Town, she's an engineer working for a non-profit and advising local farmers on irrigation techniques). She's wondering if I'm heading to Aus, and I tell her I've no idea where Aus is!

“In the middle of nowhere” she laughs. "But there's a POW camp that some people visit. German troops were held there in the First World War. There's also wild desert horses, and some pretty spectacular scenery. Other than that – ithere's not much going on." She's friendly and fun and when she drops me at the side of the road I thank her no end. And then I sit down to wait.

It's hot, dry dusty. My watch says 2.05 pm but the road is empty. And I mean empty. Not a car in sight. Even I thought there'd be a little more traffic than this. It's another two hours to my destination and I don't want to be hitching at twilight! But no point in panicking just yet. So, spying a tree, on the opposite side of the road, I trudge over, pull out my water bottle and settle down to wait. I drink in the solitude. Indeed, it's so peaceful, so serene, so empty that I accidentally doze off.

I am awakened with a start. A group of boys are peering over me, curiously. I reckon they're about 11-12 years old. Most are barefoot but they aren't dressed in rags and they definitely don't look malnourished. They're smiling broadly at me and laughing amongst themselves.

“Miss...please tell us what you are doing under this tree?” one asks. Prick up your ears! His English so correct and charming (so 'proper') that thousands of miles away, I hear teachers in London weeping with joy and wishing they could swap their inarticulate pupils for these young men.

“Well, I'm waiting for a ride to Luderitz. And there aren't many cars going that way. So I thought I'd rest a little and I nodded off.”

“No” another responds, almost gravely. “This road is quite deserted. You might have to wait some time. May we sit down with you?”

“May we? May we?!” I am charmed. Who are these wonderful kids, who speak such grammatically correct English and are so polite besides?”

“Of course you may.” I scooch up. “Anyone want a biscuit?” They all nod, happily, and I pull out a pack I bought back in the capital.

“So tell me more about you...”

The boys chatter away happily. They live in a village close by, they tell me, and school is out for the day so they're wandering around the area, without so much as a care in the world. Their parents live off the land, a couple work with local white farmers, and their school is funded and operated by Canadian missionaries (which accounts, no doubt, for the good English). But the kids don't want to talk about themselves. They're dying to ask me all kinds of questions and, since there's no car in sight and I've plenty of biscuits, I willingly oblige.

“What are you reading?” one asks me (he's a mini-version of me at 12 years old). “Who is E. M. Forster?” (he's spied the book peeking out of my bag).

“Do you like ice-cream?” a second inquires.

“What does snow really look like?” a third wants to know. And then, the best one so far, from the leader of the pack...

“Have you ever seen Michael Jackson with your own eyes?”

I laugh wildly and they laugh too. They are bombarding me now with all kinds of questions, dying to know more about me, and out of the corner of my eye I see a car approaching. But I can't walk away now - they deserve answers. Another driver will save me, I tell myself, and I offer them all more biscuits.

We sit under the tree for some time, munching and laughing and I tell them a bit about England, and what it was like for me, growing up there. I explain to them that I have two favourite icecreams – Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk and Haagen Daaz vanilla. As for snow – well, it's light and flaky and dusty I tell them. It falls from the sky when it gets very, very cold. It's never cold enough to snow here in'll have to travel far north or south to see snow, I tell them. As for Michael Jackson, regrettably I have never met him personally but I was a big fan of his in my teens and even owned the album 'Thriller.'

One of them jumps up and starts dancing wildly, imitating the Jackson dude. Two others follow suit. They've got the moves down pat and they're so good I wish I had a boom box to hand or a camcorder – I could send a tape to someone at the BBC. But even to get out my camera might spoil the moment. I decide to make do with the memory of it, which I know will be pretty damned good anyway. We sit around like that for a while longer, laughing, joking, making silly remarks, and they entertain me with some more dance routines. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see another car approaching.

“Boys, I hate to break up the party, but I've got to hit the road.” They look disappointed but understanding. The driver stops, a young guy, who chats with them for a while in their local dialect, then motions for me to jump in. He's heading all the way to Luderitz. The boys carry over my backpack and sleeping bag from the other side of the road and I tell them how great it was to have met them, and to be sure to keep working hard at school, especially in English. They wave hard and fast, as the car pulls off and I turn around and crane my neck, until they are specks in the distance. I feel warm and fuzzy, and I remember why I travel.

Because of moments like these. Because of these Boyz in the Hood.