An exclusive interview with Ndapewa Nakanyete a Geography lecturer at the University of Namibia

Ndapewa Nakanyete is a Geography lecturer at the University of Namibia. She just returned from a staff development program in Cologne (Germany), where she spent 2 years working on and completing her PhD.

Who is Ndapewa Nakanyete?
I hail from the Ohangwena region, where I spent my childhood moving between different villages, although I was born in Nyango, which was a refugee camp for Namibians in Zambia. I am 35 and a Geography lecturer at the University of Namibia.
I am passionate about traveling, mostly drawn to Africa because of my birth roots (my mother became pregnant with me in Angola, I was born in Zambia, and raised in Namibia), and to Latin America, inspired by my late mother’s vivid stories of her time in Cuba.
I come from an exciting but also dynamic extended family, mostly with amazing history. By family, I count more than five generations on both my matriarchal and patriarchal sides. My family background is quite dynamic. In terms of my immediate family, I am the only child of my mom and dad, born to what many would call an unmarried couple. However, I also have awesome siblings on both sides of my family – two younger sisters from my mom’s and three brothers from my dad’s.
My father and I share many similar traits, even though we did not spend time together until I was a teenager. We have since reconciled and now have a father-daughter relationship. My stepfather entered my life when my mom was a single mother and has been constantly present both physically and/or financially since my childhood.
Today, I have good relationships with both my maternal and paternal extended families, although it was not always the case. I endured emotional suffering as a child in their care, both when I was under the care of my paternal family and when my maternal family forcibly separated me from my maternal siblings and stepfather upon my mother’s death in 2000. I no longer hold blame against either side, as I chose to forgive them, hoping that they learned valuable lessons from those experiences. I take great pleasure in visiting omapata ange avali (my two lineages/clans), and providing support whenever I can and wherever it’s needed.

What is your earliest recollection from your childhood years?
One of my earliest and fondest memories is when my youngest sister was born. I was five years old, and we were living in Oimbadalunga village. This memory is bittersweet because, at the time, my mother was balancing her teaching career while taking care of my other sibling, who was sickly and had lost a twin brother. My stepfather, a truck driver, could not spend much time at home to provide as much assistance as possible to my mother due to the nature of his job. However, I had older cousins who helped her after school, though it was still challenging. It was during this period that I was placed under the care of my paternal side of the family.

Within your family, was there a strong emphasis on the importance of education?
My mother was a teacher, and I believe that both her parents (my grandparents), valued education. However, during the colonial times and apartheid, educational opportunities were limited and often restricted to missionary schools. I would say thanks to the Cuban government of that era. When my mother and many other children attending Odibo Saint Mary School decided to cross over into Angola, they spent time at Cassinga refugee camp. When the massacre occurred, and she miraculously survived, the Cuban government flew her and other young survivors to Cuba. She spent nearly ten years there continuing with her education until 1987. Upon her return to Angola and at the time Namibia had not yet gained independence, she and others were transferred to Nyango refugee camp in Zambia. There, they taught and cared for Namibian children and then continued her teaching career in Namibia upon the country’s independence.
Even though I did not have the chance to spend much time with my mother, I believe that her role as a primary school teacher laid a strong foundation in my early childhood education. Despite facing unfortunate circumstances, including emotional abuse and attending a school with very limited resources, for example, having only two books per class of 30 and the makeshift classrooms, I somehow managed to excel. I was often among, if not the top, learners at my schools, but being “top” is relative since I could not compare myself to children in better-resourced schools with qualified teachers. However, as I got exposed to improved educational and safe environments over time, I continue/d to progress and improve.

Could you narrate your educational journey, highlighting the various qualifications you’ve obtained from different institutions?
I began my educational journey at Oshawapala Combined School and Engela Junior School, both located in the Ohangwena region. Afterward, I completed grades 11 and 12 at Oshakati Senior Secondary School. For my undergraduate, which I completed at UNAM, I obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Geography and Sociology. Following that, I pursued a Master’s in Geographic Information Technologies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain) and a Master of Arts in Culture and Environment in Africa at the University of Cologne (Germany). Currently, I am in the final stages of my binational PhD studies in Geography, jointly conducted between the University of Namibia and the University of Cologne.

Having experienced both local and international educational systems, could you provide a comparative analysis of these systems and elucidate how they have contributed to your personal development?
I do not see a significant distinction between local/national and international educational systems in terms of the knowledge and skills acquired. The exception lies in the fact that the German and Spanish systems I encountered were better resourced and funded by their respective states. Had I attended even just a public school in Windhoek, I might have noticed even fewer differences.
I believe that the knowledge and experiences I gained in Namibia, Spain, and Germany have all made significant contributions to my personal development. I do not believe that German or Spanish students were better educated than I was and vice versa; rather, we had different contexts and perspectives on what we had learned. I excelled in my understanding of Africa, while they excelled in their understanding of Europe. Both sets of knowledge hold equal importance. I am not sure if this is so because of my field, which is human geography, where all knowledge and its application is significant and contextual. In fact, experiencing the collective educational systems may have better equipped me with problem-solving, critical thinking, analytical, and decision-making abilities, due to exposure to diverse educational environments, compared to someone who went through just one system.

Given your background as someone who was born in exile and achieved notable milestones, what words of wisdom would you offer to those who are still navigating their paths?
I believe it is precisely the circumstances I mentioned that I experienced that have shaped me into the person I am today. However, I would not wish anyone to go through the worse part I did, for them to achieve the milestones I havee reached and even surpass them.
What I would say is, do not take anything for granted – whether it is the support of responsible parent/s, educational opportunities, the wisdom shared by our grandparents or even those we may sometimes underestimate. Every small lesson and experience has the potential to significantly and positively influence your life.

Regarding your career trajectory, was a career in academia always your aspiration? Please walk us through your professional journey, elucidating the steps that have brought you to your current position.
To be honest, my primary desire during my school years, especially in grades 8 to 10, was to escape the household I shared with my aunt, who was consistently subjected to physical abuse by her then-husband. Witnessing these traumatic events, I made a personal promise to study hard, attend secondary school, and never return to that house unless it was to rescue my aunt. While my aunt eventually left that marriage before I could complete my studies, it led to an even more distressing situation when the same man nearly killed my grandmother. I aspired to attain an education and seek justice for her, a goal I have yet to achieve.
Additionally, there were all other components, including my mother, who, despite not having been her choice, but war, ended up pursuing studies abroad and learned a new, beautiful Spanish language and culture. In her relatively short career, she made a significant impact on her learners, as a grade one teacher at Weyulu Primary School, Her passion for teaching and her kindness made me aspire to be just like her and beyond.

Your evident interest in and connection to African culture are noteworthy. What has driven your desire to deepen your understanding and connection to African cultural traditions?
Knowing who I am (African) is a result of my experiences and learning about various cultures and religions, a journey that has continues as I travel Africa and the world. This journey began 12 years ago and has consistently reinforced the idea that many of the aspects we dislike about ourselves are primarily a consequence of our colonial history and mental slavery.
I take immense pride in being African, recognizing the inherent value and humanity (ubuntu) in who we are, or at least were. There is profound logic in our traditional way of life that can offer solutions to contemporary challenges. Of course, there are elements I do not endorse or subscribe to, just as any society would disapprove of negative aspects of its historical past. Unfortunately, the arrival of colonizers and missionaries disrupted these aspects, but what a privilege to live in an independent and secular state of Namibia.

What advice do you have for the young people who are struggling to find their identity?
Think outside the box; refrain from making aimless comments and trolling everything you read on social media. Instead, take positive action, be mindful, kind and helpful to your community, because, as you can observe, in our country, there is little to no support available for you as a youth, and to the low-income earning communities, sadly.

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