The Time Traveler: One

Hugh Ellis

‘One’ is a 2006 song by Irish rock band U2 and African-American soloist Mary J. Blige.

You can’t un-hear it. With earworm electric guitar riffs, Mary J’s unique voice, and sarcastic lyrics like, ‘Did you come here to play Jesus/ to the lepers in your head,’ it’s not a tune to forget. You won’t see much of me on the dance floor, but play ‘One’ and I’m there, air guitar and all.

The song, an ode to frustration in relationships, has a chorus that goes like this:

‘We’re one, but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other
Carry each other.’

Talk of being ‘one’, of unity, gets a bad rap nowadays.

It’s often said that you must love yourself before you can love another. However, that line has regular Joes like me, who certainly can’t muster the kind of self-admiration the Instagram pundits seem to possess, wondering if we’ll ever have enough ‘self-love’ to find a mate.

Talk of the country being ‘one nation’, common in the Nujoma, Mandela, and early Mugabe eras, is out of fashion. ‘Difference’ seems to be prized almost as a goal in itself.

Considering things I see around me, it’s hard to disagree.

Coronavirus lockdowns, for example, make the posh suburb a nice place to be. On sunny evenings, the streets are full of runners, skaters and cyclists. Harassment from law enforcement is non-existent, as it should be. This is certainly not always the case in Namibian townships, to say nothing of South Africa.

In a way, my job is better now than before, having a variety of devices to enable me to work from home. Can your average working class person say the same? More likely than not, he or she is about to be laid off.

I’m taking Silozi lessons during the lockdown. It’ll be my second African language. But it’s more a nice-to-have than an essential-for-survival. I got to write an entire doctoral thesis in my native tongue: how many native Silozi speakers, or Oshiwambo or Hai//Om speakers, can say that?

But, having said ‘we’re not the same’, what then?

I, for one, miss the 1990s talk of unity and brotherhood. It spurred many of us on to find creative solutions. ‘It’s too late, tonight / To drag the past out into the light,’ sing Mary J Blige and Bono, U2’s frontman. While the past’s impact on the present cannot be denied, a focus on the future often seems to lead to more building, and less breaking down.

What then, is the answer to this riddle?

For me, I will take to heart what I will from now on call The U2 Theory of Social Relations. We are one, but we’re not the same.

We are interconnected: A person in Wuhan who eats a chicken that was bitten by a bat, can put a Namibian out of pocket. Who’d have thunk it? Wherever I have travelled in Africa, our similarities have impressed me the most. Breaking bread with a family in Accra was not that different than having discussions around a braai fire on a Namibian farm.

But we’re not the same. The way Namibia has suddenly found money for social grants and housing the homeless in this Corona crisis gives me hope that, just maybe, we can take radical action against all those other stubborn inequalities, including ending the legacy of Apartheid town-planning and land theft.

We’ve got to carry each other. I really hope rich people learn from this virus that we’re only as safe as the most unhealthy, least-insured poor person. If we want this messy miracle called Namibia to work, we’ve got to live with each other; share not only land and resources, but Internet connections and business networks, too.

There are many reasons why The U2 Theory of Social Relations might not be implemented. Plain old greed probably being number one.

But still, given Namibia’s history of grabbing miraculous victory from the jaws of humiliating defeat, I’m keeping my air guitar at the ready.

Dr Hugh Ellis lives in Eros, Windhoek, where he has a mostly-workable Internet connection and a supply of nineties and early-2000s music. He works as a lecturer in journalism at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views he expresses here are personal views. Check out his blog on

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