The Common Good

Namibia-Angola War Retrospectives

For those who are students of Africa, the Caprivi Strip of Northern Namibia brings memories of the awful border wars and independence struggles of the 1970s and 80s. Perhaps the lessons apply to Israel and Palestine.

 Photo by Tom Getman
View across the Okavango River from Namibia into still minefield-strewn Angola. Photo by Tom Getman

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Ironically, one of the last and longest, most peaceful and unpolluted rivers in the world is the Okavango. It is the border between Namibia and Angola where still today a long stretch of the north bank Angolan farmland is mine infested. Large breem and tiger fish jump, and magnificent fish eagles take flight from trees on the Namibian bank and wing to large dead trees in Angola where hippo provide background music with loud braying. The behemoths make their way back and forth and often spend the early evening hours lounging on the beach in front of the main buildings of the River Dance Lodge near Divindu on the southern shore.

This gently lapping, wide, drinkable stream — that creates in nearby Botswana the amazing Okavango Delta — is bordered by Angola, Namibia, and Botswana. The crystal clear ribbon of nearly 500 miles of uninterrupted resource runs just a few yards under my feet a quarter of a mile across from where the Angolan fields and forests were the hiding place for Jonas Savembi before he was killed in 2002. His South African- and American-supported troops were routed by Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, the socialist leader of UNITA and president since 1979. We can see homes there that have been vacant since the war because local farmers fled the fighting. Kavanaga tribal tradition requires people to not dwell in places where violent deaths have occurred. Ethnic tribal relations are still tense between the Portuguese-speaking Angolans and the English/German-speaking Namibians, even though they are from the same ethnic group. The horrific memories of vicious cross-river raids and shelling persist.Tino, the founder of River Dance lodge and place of healing

The oral tradition is that in the 1980s, the apartheid-era anti-Soviet South Africans in support of Savembi placed artillery on local hospital grounds and fired into President Dos Santos’ UNITA locations. Rocket fire was returned across the peacefully flowing stream. It is told that little children in the hospital, too young to walk, actually stood in fear and ran into the surrounding forests.

Relations between the local villagers from the two sides of the Okavango are still tense even though the few Angolans left now come across regularly in traditional mokoro wooden canoes to supplement their meager supplies from better-stocked shops in Namibia.

A comfortable cabin, from where I write, is carved out of the previously war-torn jungle. Our hosts are Karen and Tino Punzul. Jamba, Joseph, and Kalu are the villagers who help manage the retreat. The Punzul newborn daughter, Anne Belle, will attend the local school and will be given a tribal name. Central to their following Jesus with justice passion, they are partnering in a joint venture with the nearby Kavanago tribal villages. Jobs are being provided for 16 families still recovering from the trauma of the war and isolation. The village secondary school is rapidly becoming the best source of education for the Northern Namibia Region — a public competitor to the Catholic Don Bosco Monastery School in the nearest large town Rundu, 60 miles to the west.

A special yearlong project of River Dance is to provide a portion of the proceeds from visitors’ fees and contributions to create a primary school library in the village.   

A church in the capitol Windhoek is providing “gifts in kind” from American NGOs.

When we meet God’s special healers in this land that has suffered so much from serial occupations (Portuguese, German, British, South African) rooted in the history of European colonial misrule and brutal wars of liberation, one can slip into pessimism. But the signs of hope persist in the deep commitment to biblical justice, economic equity, and tribal Ubuntu — or respectful humanism — that calms hearts, brings inner peace, and provides signs like local partnerships that build model communities of transformation by linking former adversaries.

River Dance Lodge's three managers from neighboring village.Psalm 46 describes it best in the declaration that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in the time of trouble … there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God … He makes wars to cease." At River Dance we see the healing works of the Lord who enlarges our vision and binds us to His faithful people across all boundaries.

One can even imagine similar joint ventures across the other walls and divisions when members of the different tribes at River Dance gather for prayer and praise as they start each day and their work.

As President Obama prepares to travel to Israel and Palestine, we can hope and pray that models such as the ones found along the Okavango River in Namibia/Angola will inspire local Syrians and Israelis beside the Sea of Galilee and residents of Palestine, Jordan, and Israel along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, to imagine and activate healing through similar joint partnerships.

A good start on the new “process” would be for American and Israeli leaders to treat the weaker party to the 65 -year “Holy Land” conflict with Ubuntu-like equanimity and compassion and spend equal relationship-building time in Ramallah as in Tel Aviv, or at least in East and West Jerusalem.

Tom Getman served as Sen. Mark Hatfield’s legislative director from 1976 to 1985 and with World Vision for 25 years, including five years as national director in Jerusalem.

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