Literature in Windhoek takes many forms. Tucked at the intersections of Independence Avenue and Sam Nujoma Drive in the city centre, Wordweaver Publishing accomplishes perhaps its most challenging format: books. Outside the publication house’s yellow-painted bungalow-sized offices are posters advertising recent titles: Mama Namibia and This is not a Flowerpot.
Wordweaver Publishing House is one of Namibia’s few fiction publishers. As founder Bryony van der Merwe tells it, most publishers in the country survive on education textbooks. This is not to be taken lightly. Struggles for education in Namibia – first under German colonial rule and subsequently under South Africa’s program of Bantu Education – are reflected in the history of textbook publication. It involves early mission presses, for a long time the only ones that printed books by and for black Namibians; imported German textbooks which maintained a monopoly even after South Africa took power over the territory; the 1958 Van Zyl Commission which formally entrenched apartheid into Namibia’s education system; the Namibia Project and SWAPO’s Literacy Program which published textbooks and self-teaching books for exiled youth and adults; and Gamsberg Publishers, which in 1977 became not only the sole local educational publisher in Namibia, but emphasised local languages. It was only after independence, in 1990, that a host of publishing houses were founded which could compete to produce educational textbooks from within Namibia.
For Bryony, however, this lasting focus on textbooks has come at the expense of fiction. Even if a novel was published, she says, it received minimal, if any, marketing. She founded Wordweaver as a way to promote literacy and writing; as an avenue through which Namibian stories could be told; and to open up space for fiction writing, publishing and reading. Since March 2012, it has published 16 titles including short stories, poetry, novels, children’s books as well as various non-fiction titles meant to have a broader appeal. Bryony is not the first to try this and much of this past year has been a matter of proving Wordweaver viable in order to gain the support of other institutions. If the response from others in her field has been skeptical, the response from prospective authors has been enthusiastic. She receives more manuscripts than she can publish, working within multiple constraints, most of which come down to funding, some of which come down to quality.
Though one major challenge for Wordweaver has been a dearth of booksellers in Namibia, I saw the novels in the window of a bookshop on Windhoek’s major street, advertised in a restaurant and, surprisingly, at the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN). This is not a Flowerpot, about an abused woman, stood displayed among the art pieces in NAGN’s exhibition about gendered violence.
Wordweaver seems to be part of a broader upswing in institutional activity around literature in Windhoek. The Namibian Youth Book Fair took place for the first time last year; Namibian Children’s Book Forum recently gave out their annual award for the first time since the early 2000s; a Windhoek school is hosting Book Week; reading events are held by various groups; Gamsberg, for so long focused on textbooks, has increased its trade titles. [Spoken Word], for one, has been going strong for almost 10 years. It started when a group of friends in Windhoek, sitting around one evening, wrote a poem together. Oshosheni Hivelua, a writer, organizer and filmmaker, was one of them. She soon became a co-founder of [Spoken Word], a monthly evening of poetry performances meant in part as a corrective to the sense that there was “not much entertainment around here,” as she put it. It is organized by a rotating committee of nominated members.
Nomadic for years, sometimes forced to find a new home because the event’s seedy venues would shut down, it has boomed since settling in at the Warehouse Theatre. It’s a fitting venue, as Oshi sees [Spoken Word] as part of Windhoek’s theatre/performance scene. At Warehouse Theatre, the event attracts a full house, though the venue is only part of the reason. [Spoken Word]’s reputation has changed. No longer seen as a closed underground intellectual club, it now brings in a diverse audience which includes students, artists, performers, creative industry-types and an older demographic seeking to further satisfy their love of literature. Oshi is hard-pressed to name a common theme among the poems, but notes that an increasing number are about gendered violence. The NAGN’S exhibition also includes poems from some [Spoken Word] performers.
About half of [Spoken Word] performers are students, who also receive a platform at the Polytechnic of Namibia (PON). There, POLYSH exists as a student poetry journal. Though they lack the funds to print a full publication, they have used the public pinboard in the school’s Office Building, facebook and a recently-launched blog to publish student work. At PON, educators are faced with a disconnect between students and literature, one facilitated by an education system and ministry little interested in the arts. Though PON receives over 100 applications for their Bachelor of English/Lit in English program, few are able to pursue it because very little funding is given to humanities students.
Annemarie Heywood, a long-time academic and educator now retired, commented that tertiary education in Namibia has historically been about developing human capital, casting out the humanities. She fought against this, filling the University of Namibia’s library in the 1980s, when it was still the Academy of Tertiary Education, an apartheid government-created institution. She lined its shelves not only with the usual cannon of English literature, such as Shakespeare and his commentators, but with “world literature, avant-garde” work, and two copies of the entire African Writers Series collection, donated by their offices in Johannesburg. This was partially a battle of languages: she insisted on English literature as an antidote to the Christian national education taking place in Afrikaans.
English’s place in contemporary Namibia is much more contentious than a simple binary of language of oppression vs. language of liberation. Though during Namibia’s liberation struggle students fought for English as a medium of education, it has not thoroughly penetrated the country. According to Sarala Krishnamurthy, Dean of School of Humanities at PON, it was reported in 2011 in The Namibian that 98% of the teachers were not proficient in English. In 2007, she founded Namibian English Teachers Association (NETA) to facilitate competence and skills training and informal capacity-building networks. It began as a group of 20 PON staff. It now boasts almost 800 members and several chapters: NETA Coast, NETA North and NETA South as well as the original in Windhoek.
Sarala told me that there is a “very strong orientation towards literature.” Sitting on a National Arts Council committee which funds literary publications, she sees how much is written, and how little is published in comparison. Yet she and her colleagues agree that Namibia’s primary and secondary curriculum don’t properly teach literature: it is integrated late, introduced at too-challenging a level (the first play students read is King Lear) and leads students to believe that literature means only Shakespeare. Some students enter university unaware of the existence of any Namibian or other African authors.
Namibian authors, however, seem to have a place in Windhoek, though the literary scene is hard to pin down; it pulls in people from various circles. Several authors published by Wordweaver, for example, have made a name for themselves outside of Namibian fiction: Amy Schoeman as a photographer, John Henschel as a columnist, Sylvia Schlettwein as a language specialist. The same is seen with [Spoken Word], where there is a loyal core group which itself slowly rotates, each member participating in other facets of Windhoek life, and a much larger number of people who come and go. And though [Spoken Word] is on the surface a stand-alone event, it is connected to a host of other happenings in the city: it sometimes features musical performances; pairs with comedy events; funds the One Love Trust; and collaborates with cultural centres to run workshops with international poets. It may even be publishing in print, film and/or photography. Students who write for POLYSH come from faculties as diverse as engineering, land management and transport and logistics as well as from within the humanities.
Namibian literature is a subject that usually draws a blank look and those deeply involved face many frustrations. When asked, everyone I spoke to lamented the lack of reading culture, shorthand for complex issues of adult and child literacy; high cost of books; access to libraries; Namibia’s literacy curriculum; a history of deliberately under-educating the majority of Namibia’s population; and the relationship between oral and written literature, among other things. Oshi had to think out loud “Who would be Namibian literature?” She grew up largely on her mother’s bookshelf, filled with the giants of Anglophone African literature, mainly from South Africa and Nigeria. She even had a hard time finding possibly the most prominent Namibian novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu. She didn’t have her hands on it for long, though, as she lent it to a friend, who lent it to a friend.
And so it seems to be with much literature in Windhoek. Because it circulates among overlapping networks, is dynamic, largely undigitized, incoherent, depends on constant production, and is based in a relatively small city, Windhoek’s literary scene is easily rendered invisible. Yet it exists as books, as performances, as works of art, as unpublished manuscripts, as pinboard publications. It proliferates.