Swakopmund is a town between desert and ocean, and between Germany and Africa
A group of bare-breasted native Himba women is disembarking a taxi to sell crafts at the park beneath the red and white lighthouse. While the owner of the nearby café starts chatting in German with a patron, a Herero woman in a colorful dress walks by, searching for tourists to get her picture taken and earn some money for it.
This is Swakopmund; here, Germany and Namibia come together like the Namib Desert and the ocean just outside the town. If you didn’t know that this is an African country, you would think that it’s a town somewhere in Germany with its German-like beerhouse, the cafés where you can eat black forest cake, and the German chatter everywhere.
The Germans arrived in 1884. They stacked the German flag into the sand and until 1915 Namibia was a German colony, known as German-Southwest-Africa. The Germans decided to settle in Swakopmund because of its dry river named Swakop. Everything was shipped in, even sand to build houses.
One could think there is enough sand in the desert, but the sand couldn’t be used because it is too salty and will not mix with water, explained Angelica Flamm-Schneeweiss, a German hobby-historian who gives guided walks through the town of Swakopmund, where the buildings still remain from the colony-era.
Like Dawson City, Swakopmund gives the impression of time standing still.
Angelica Flamm-Schneeweiss explained how the first Germans came to Swakopmund. She pointed at the ocean and explained the difficulty of disembarking the ships which came in from Germany. The ocean waves are wild and they had to hire workers from Liberia to ship passengers through the surf in boats, she said.
At the coast of West Africa there are the same conditions, so the workers knew what to do. Most visitors continued their journey by ox wagon into the inland.
Flamm-Schneeweiss guided the group to the lighthouse, which could also stand on a German island. It is the landmark of Swakopmund. Just a short walk from the lighthouse is the old railway station, built in 1898. A beautiful white building, today it hosts a hotel and casino. Walking into the courtyard, it seems like time stands still.
The sandy and dusty streets reminds me of Dawson City. There was no gold rush in Namibia, but a short diamond-rush, when a railway track worker found a diamond in the the desert in 1908. The Germans then began to mine the country.
When Germany lost the First World War, they also lost the colony and South Africa took over. The Germans grieved the colony and made efforts to win it back, Flamm-Schneeweiss said.
In the 1930s, Germans created postcards with a zeppelin flying over the town and a tram driving in the sandy streets. They sent it off to Europe to show how attractive the town was and attract more German residents, the hobby-historian said. But there was no chance to win back the colony; the colony was history. Today 20,000 German-Namibians live in Namibia, with 2,500 in Swakopmund. They celebrate traditions like Oktoberfest and Carnival.
Driving 10 kilometers out of Swakopmund is a completely different reality. Far from black forest cake and German-chatter, there is an ocean of shacks in the sand. The township is growing on the outskirts of town. People move from their villages in the north of Namibia to Swakopmund with the hope of finding work. This is part of the modern existence of Swakopmund.