To the average woman, being proposed to is something that typically happens once in a lifetime and usually involves a guy, possibly down on one knee, presenting himself and the offer of spending the rest of your life with him. This moment is usually pretty special and is a story that is told over and over again throughout the years. Throughout my year as a volunteer teacher in a small village in northern Namibia, I can honestly say that I have been proposed to at least 147 times. I should back up here. In Namibia, the word “propose” is used where the western world might say, “aggressively hit on”. What these two definitions have in common is that they both produce stories that warrant multiple retellings.
As a lone woman traveling in northern Namibia, knowing the local definition of “propose” definitely comes in handy. At the beginning of my Namibian experience, I was walking with a learner of mine who asked me if I had been proposed to by any of the local men. I replied with an adamant, “oh no no no no” to which she replied, “but that tate (man) just said he wanted to be your boyfriend.” That’s when the light bulb turned on and I realized yet another word that provided another brick in the ever - growing language barrier. Women of all types get proposed to by men on a daily basis in Namibia (just like the rest of the world) – being an outsider just gives that much more incentive to men on the prowl.
Once you have your technique down for side-stepping these proposals (or accepting them if that is your style), there are many wonderful things to see and enjoy in northern Namibia. If you want to get to know the locals, it is best to check out one of the many shabeens, or bars, that populate the main streets. While it is perfectly acceptable for women to physically be at these shabeens, what you order and how you act will be closely monitored. I have a favorite bar in the north’s capital city, Oshakati, called L G Bar. It is a lovely place that is one of the closest things to a real restaurant that the north offers. I have made it a routine to hang out there on the weekends, typically on Friday afternoons. The owner and staff are lovely and I’ve hardly had any unwanted “proposals” there. However, one aspect of my Friday trips has always perplexed me. The most popular beverage in Namibia is the national beer, Windhoek Lager. I’ve grown very fond of it and often crave one (or two) after a long workweek. When one of my favorite waitresses comes over and asks what I would like, I say “a Windhoek draught, please” and am answered with a look that I can only describe as a mix between confusion, disgust, and disappointment. At first, I thought it was a fluke. Then after several weeks of facing the face, I took a moment to look around. For one, there were hardly any other women in the bar. Secondly, of the ones that were there, none were drinking beer. They may have had hard ciders or vodka drinks, but none were partaking in my beverage of choice. That’s when I realized it: women don’t really drink beer here! It seems my waitress was just reacting to this smiling oshilumbu (white person) who ordered a drink that made her stand out even more than her curly blonde hair. This isn’t to say I have had any trouble getting my Friday beer; the face fades quickly and it’s back to smiles and pleasant conversation.
There are definitely different roles and expectations for women in Namibia as there are in many other countries. Luckily, Namibia is incredibly laid back and allows women to make some blunders with no more than a face or a laugh. If you can join in on the laughing, or make a face back, you have already taken a step towards cultural immersion. Regardless of the occasional slip up, traveling women in Namibia will be welcomed warmly. And who knows, they just might return with the most incredible proposal story.