By: Tobin Redwine
It’s written on walls, and buildings. We see it spray painted on the shambled brick shanties that dot the landscape of northern Namibia. O-S-H-I-N-I. I tried using context clues to get a grip on it. What could be so common that we see it almost as frequently as the shebeens and barbershops in this area? Is it a business? A restaurant?
My inquisitive nature got the best of me. While passing through Oshakati, I saw two buildings, back to back, in competing business parking lots. Both had OSHINI spray painted in large letters. I asked our driver, Dennis, “What is Oshini? is that the toilet?”
He looked confused, and then he thought for a little bit. “Oshini is hard to explain in English. It is a kind of wood used to grind millet.”
I thought back to our visit to the Nakambale mission museum, where we entered the working homestead occupied by Johanna and her family. They used giant wooden poles to grind up millet in a hole in the ground in traditional Ndonga fashion. Is that Oshini? Tall wooden poles? Are those buildings also housing holes for grinding millet?
Dennis continued to explain, “Oshini is also Oshini. It means truth.”
Here in the Osumusati region of Namibia, poverty is high. The unemployment rate is above 30%. The HIV infection rate is staggering in comparison to southern Namibia statistics. Land ownership is communal, tribal governances control purchases and schedules of homesteaders, shepherding communal herds of goats, donkeys and cows across roadsides. The landscape is busy with animals, disrepair, and people walking in all directions. Here in all the bustle of survival in the arid north, people feel compelled to write Oshini in huge block letters atop their buildings.
What is Oshini? It is a core value. At Texas A&M our values line the walls of the MSC, appear outside the Clayton Williams Former Student Building, and mark the bleachers of the soccer stadium; leadership, selfless service, integrity, excellence, and honor are carved into the rock around our campus. Those values define our community, our spirit, and our people.
Here, Oshini shows up on walls, buildings, and signs. Oshini. Truth.
Oshini is a waitress named Luise. The first night she served us dinner, we were leaving and she came running out the door behind us. She was holding $50 US in her hand. $50 US is equivalent to about $500 Namibian. She knew the Americans had to have dropped it, and she chased us down to hand it back to the student in our group who had dropped it.
After dinner, an old nylon string guitar would get passed around and I sang Roger Miller and Creedance Clearwater Revival to the desert. I finished a particularly lackluster version of Bad Moon Rising, and I heard thunderous applause from the door behind me. There was Luise, hands above her head, applauding.
When we left, she handed me a CD. She is a singer as well. Without expecting anything in return, she gave me primitively recorded album; Uuyelele. She sings gospel songs in her mother tongue. Overcome with gratitude, we gave her a t-shirt a student brought, along with a few other gifts we had for her. She told us it was the only thing form America she had ever held.
At the Ogongo campus of the University of Namibia, we got a tour from two students, Linda and Dash. These young ladies are studying crop science. They showed us the campus and the farm. They were patient with our questions, laughed at our awe of the termite mounds, and shared their culture and research with us. Linda is studying the effect that watering practice has on a maize crop. When I told her that her work was a-Maize-ing, she did a double take, and then threw back her head and laughed. Maybe it was at the joke or maybe it was at the groans from the rest of the group. Either way, a good joke goes a long way.
At the Nakambale community project, we entered the homestead of Johanna. She is 83 years old. She was born in the hut she now lives in, serving as the Matriarch of her community. She shared her millet with us, opened her home, and showed us their way of life, that starts with grinding meal using giant wooden poles that would give most full-grown, beard-wearing American men a serious shoulder problem.
At the Namibia Tannery and Leather Company, Kumbalani walked us through his factory. He talked about the process by which leather is made, and the economics of his business. He was most genuine when he talked about the treatment of animals in a humane way. He showed us a hide of a cow that had been branded more than 20 times. He flipped the hide over and you could see the brand marks, scarring all the way through the cow’s hide, in more than 20 spots.
I have thought a lot about that word, and the core values of the people we are meeting. Here is what they have taught me:
No matter your station in life, hard work is the foundation that feeds us, keeps us alive, and builds our community. Oshini is both the wood that Johanna uses to grind meal, and the truth that keeps her family working and living.
Our actions have repercussions. Our works leave marks deep beneath our hides and below the skin of others. Oshini is the truth by which our actions speak about our character.
Kindness to strangers is as universal as the pentatonic scale. Music is as universal as laughter. And everybody jams on CCR. Oshini.