For some reason the fight for freedom in South Africa has overshadowed many similar movements in Southern Africa, especially Namibia. In some ways the fight for freedom from colonial tyranny started in Namibia in 1904, when the Herero and then the Nama rose up against the Germans. After World War II, Namibia was handed over to South Africa and the next horrible phase of oppression began. Just as the South Africans suffered under apartheid, so did the Namibians. The brutal oppression led to the war for liberation that ended with the country finally getting independence in 1990. Ellen Namhila fled apartheid in Namibia when she was only a girl; The Price of Freedom is her memoir of her journey as a refugee and then a returnee to the newly independent country.
When Namhila was ten years old, she saw her uncle arrested by the South African police. They first set their dogs on him in a savage attack, and then loaded him in their vehicle. When he was finally returned to his family, he was a broken man. Later riding her bike home one day, beyond the time of the state-issued curfew, the police shot her. These experiences along with many others that caused people to live in constant fear convinced the young Namhila that she could not remain in the country. At fourteen, she crossed into Angola with a friend and would not return to Namibia for nineteen years.
If you decide to read The Price of Freedom hoping to find a simple story of triumph over evil, you’ll be disappointed. Namhila writes only the truth as she experienced it. She does not paint with a wide brush covering the unsightly bumps, she gives us details and in those details there is much grey.
She lived as a refugee in Angola, often moving from one military base to another. In the camps, she received political education. She worked as a nurse and a teacher at various times. She was in Kassinga, a refugee camps, on 4 May 1978 when one of the most brutal bombing campaigns by the South African Defence Force (SADF) took place, the Kassinga Massacre. In a single day 624 refugees were killed, among them 298 children. Namhila was traumatised by this and yet she had no option but to continue, though it haunts her for the rest of her life.
For a while she lived in Lubango refugee camp where things were slightly safer and better organised. Eventually she was sent to The Gambia to finish her schooling. There the Namibian refugees lived with families though the cultural differences often made it hard for Namhila, especially the strict rules of Islam.
She returned to the camps after finishing school and worked mostly as a teacher. There she married, but spending time with her new husband would not be allowed since he was soon sent to Zambia to work for The Voice of Namibia and she was sent to university in Finland where she studied library science while trying to raise her new-born daughter alone in a country and culture she did not understand.
Eventually, negotiations led to peace and Namhila went home to vote for the first time in her newly independent country. But after nineteen years, the country is not the one she remembers in her childhood memories. Compounding that is the complex relationships between returnees and the people who remained in the country, some who had fought against SWAPO and independence.
“While in exile I remembered home through the things I had known,” Namhila writes in the epilogue. “Now that I am in Namibia, all that I am in Namibia, all that I knew of Namibia, of home, has changed. I am finding myself lost in my own country.”
Namhila is honest about the changes in the country and in herself that make it difficult for her to find a place again. She tries to go back to Zambia or Finland to see if somehow she has so changed that her home can only be found elsewhere, but she does not find her personal home in those countries either. Some in Namibia have bitterness toward returnees and do not want to assist them in any way to find their way back into society. This Namhila finds difficult. She knows what she gave up, what she went through for the independence of her country. She knows how much she sacrificed, and yet it appears that the sacrifice is not important. This is quite troubling for her.
From Namhila’s memoir the reader learns the real price of freedom to an individual. It’s an honest and captivating read.
(This review first appeared in my column It's All Write in the 19th May 2017 issue of Mmegi)