BCTF Online Museum
Namibia children

Whose blood waters our freedom?

Namibia is a hauntingly beautiful land of deserts, savannahs, borderland rivers, the highest sand dunes, Atlantic ocean beaches and protected wild animal parks. This great cattle country is also blessed with valuable minerals including diamonds and uranium. One of the few African countries that is not over-populated, most of its people still live on the land supporting themselves with subsistence farming. The capital city, Windhoek, is about the size of Victoria.

Namibia's recent history has been scarred by colonial powers. Under German rule until South Africa was given it as a protectorate post World War I, Namibians increasingly resisted this forced situation when apartheid reared its ugly head in South Africa and spilled over to their country. Thus were born resistance movements, the strongest being the South West Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO). SWAPO eventually defeated the South African forces and achieved independence for Namibia under a United Nations supervised peace accord in 1990. A line in the Namibian national anthem typifies this struggle, “Whose blood waters our freedom.”

The BCTF International Solidarity Committee and Larry Kuehn in particular became involved with Namibian teachers in the late 1980s and when the Namibia National Teachers Union (NANTU) was formed in 1989, the year before independence, NANTU requested BCTF assistance to train members in union membership and leadership skills. In 1994 I was fortunate to be selected, along with Susan Lambert, to go during summer break to begin developing NANTU workshops. Initially Oxfam Canada contributed money, supplies, a vehicle, and a working space for us in Windhoek. At that time Nantu was working out of a house with little room. The project was initially proposed as three years but the BCTF relationship with Namibia continues to this day. Highlights over the years have been supporting our Namibian colleagues in learning English. No one in the country has English as their first language as South-West Africa had been under German and then Afrikaner domination. Most Indigenous Namibians speak several local languages. At independence the Namibian government declared the language of government and education would be English. Naturally this caused major problems for teachers in particular and still does today. The BCTF and Canadian Teachers' Federation have sent several teams over the years to assist with English language training, and despite improvements it remains a concern.

The BCTF has also sent teams to Namibia to train facilitators and develop union leadership workshops relevant to the needs of Nantu. Currently more than 15 workshops are offered to Nantu's membership. This past summer Nantu's Director of Professional Development, Naftal Shigewada, took part in the BCTF Summer Leadership Conference in Kamloops, returning to Namibia with vigour and new ideas to service NANTU's teachers. Over the years the BCTF has brought approximately 30 NANTU leaders to British Columbia for further union training. This has been education they could not receive in Namibia. We have used the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Winter School, our Summer Leadership Conference, and the Justice Institute. Four NANTU members with Certificates in Conflict Resolution from the Justice Institute have taken leadership roles in school administration and within their union.

Several NANTU leaders are now in government leadership positions. In fact the present Minister of Education was trained in negotiation skills by Sheila Pither and myself several years ago when she was a NANTU leader. 

In the 1990s, discovering that one of our trained facilitators was actually teaching under a tree in a rural area, we became personally involved. In partnership with Oxfam Canada, we raised funds to build a two-room school with water and toilet facilities in the Onesi area. In the 2000s we saw the need for an orphanage in the rural town of Nkurenkuru. The scourge of AIDS has decimated families and left so many orphans and vulnerable children. The Ufenkenda Orphanage in Nkurenkuru was officially opened a year ago. Several Vancouver schools financially contributed to this project plus my local, the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association. VESTA in fact is twinned with the Kavango Region in Namibia.

NANTU continues to progress. This October they successfully carried out a two-day national strike. Their 95% strike vote especially shocked the government as they do not enjoy compulsory membership as we do. This got the government back to the negotiating table, NANTU became creative and ultimately achieved a successful resolution. With no strike fund this was a huge victory for them and public education in Namibia.

The BCTF legacy of strong and long-lasting ties with the Namibian National Teachers' Union is an example of BC teachers' commitment to international solidarity. I have always found that I learned as much from our Namibian colleagues as we ever gave to them. We shared our cultural strengths. They are so patient and forgiving of our past colonial wrongs. I am very proud to have been involved with the International Solidarity Program since 1994. 

By Don Reader, retired VESTA member
Reprinted from Teacher magazine,Volume 29, Number 2, January/February 2017.

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