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Open Features: 8 - In Namibia

"We have bulbuls, doves, sparrows, thrushes and a shrike or two, loads of crows, some seagulls - BUT NO PIGEONS...It has to do with diamonds. Smuggle a pigeon into the mining area, it can fly out with s small pack of diamonds taped to its leg and go home to Alexander Bay, or Port Nolloth, or even Cape Town or Springbok...'' Isabel Bailey learns about life in the Namibian mining town, Oranjemund.

We have been enjoying the country and this little town enormously. I’ve made no real musical contacts yet. I had an appointment to meet a pianist on Tuesday evening, which we postponed to next week. We’re meeting in the one of the churches here, one with a piano. That’s why the date was postponed; the church had services every night this week!

I’ve contacted the music teacher at the school, who sounded much more promising, but she’s away on school holidays, so we’ll have to wait until then to find out just how good she is. There don’t seem to be any other musicians in town, other than a clarinettist (not much good to me without other instrumentalists), an eleven-year-old who plays the violin and his sister who plays the trumpet!

We haven’t done any socialising; it’s been wonderful just being “Leon and Isabel”. For much of the time, I’m “just Isabel”, of course. I walk to town and back, do the odd bit of housework, practice my flute, and do a fair amount of writing and reading.

At last we’ve sorted out the domestic worries of not having gardening tools or a vacuum cleaner – the company is paying the town’s garden and cleaning services to take care of it all for me. What a pleasure. Now I can water the lawns and at least encourage a little growth around the house! And once every two weeks I have the day off from washing, dishes, ironing, linen-changing and even washing. The cleaning service do it all as well as the vacuuming!

The water in Oranjemund comes from the Orange River. It is pumped into a tank where the sediment is allowed to sink to the bottom, and then the water goes into the pipes for use. Leon doesn’t think any other purification is done. Once or twice we’ve had orange water coming from the taps when there’s been some kind of disturbance in the pipes or the tank… It tastes vile. We filter it, and mix it with Oros or lime juice, and then it’s almost bearable.

In Oranjemund, there are all sorts of the usual kind of African garden bird (nothing exotic, don’t get excited). Though we did hear and see two beautiful fish eagles flying directly over our house towards the river-mouth a few weeks ago.

We have bulbuls, doves, sparrows, thrushes and a shrike or two, loads of crows, some seagulls – but NO PIGEONS. Every town on earth has pigeons, they’re a general pest - like rats with wings! Once again, it has to do with diamonds… smuggle a pigeon into the mining area, it can fly out with a small pack of diamonds taped to its leg and go home to Alexander Bay, or Port Nolloth, or even Cape Town or Springbok… So pigeons were outlawed in Oranjemund. We have gemsbok roaming the street, with horns like javelins – but no pigeons…

A couple of Saturdays ago, Leon and I did a semi-circle of the town, walking out in the desert. Throughout our walk, we could see Oranjemund, the sea and the Orange River. We walked for about two hours, past huge dunes; past lines of fence-posts that disappeared into the drifting sands; buried bottles and ripples and waves of sand; past plants that looked completely dead except for green and fleshy buds at their tips. The wind, off the sea, was cold, but the sun was hot. Our feet sank slowly into the sugary sand at each step, and we used every muscle from our toes to the top of our heads! Leon dug into a couple of moon-shaped holes in the sand, looking for a scorpion to show me. I was very glad that he didn’t find one.

We returned to town near the cemeteries, which we explored. There were two. The older one, which hasn’t been used for a while, was where the Ovambo mine-workers were buried in the bad old days. The other one was for the whites, but is now generally used. On the headstones was all sorts of information – age at the date of death, and organisations the deceased belonged to. There were several Free Masons, and several M.O.T.H.s – and a couple who belonged to both. Then there were the young people – one family lost two sons in their twenties to a car accident; there were teenagers, fourteen and fifteen; and children; eleven, nine, three, two, one, a few days old, one day old. The babies’ graves were grouped together in a portion of the cemetery where grief still hung, intangible as a mirage.

We’ve walked from one end of town to the other, seen all its history (particularly the houses where Leon lived in his five years here); the luminous-yellow and green building where Leon works, his office window (the third from the end on the north wall); the white school buildings with their blue roofs; the hockey and rugby fields where gemsbok graze every afternoon, and where a huge owl sometimes sits in the mist at night. We’ve even walked across the rubbish dump to look at Pink Pan where flamingos are rumoured to live – we’ve seen none since we’ve been here.

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