OKAKARARA – The utter despair that envelops a group of undocumented Ovazemba from Angola has caused these women to question whether they are indeed human.
Having settled, for over five years, on the outskirts of Okakarara in the Otjozondjupa region, they narrate a story of hardship, unimaginable poverty and their epic journey on foot to what they hoped would be the land of prosperity.
It is Monday morning, and Uaninikiza Maze is washing clothes in a small basin on the side of one of the makeshift structures.
Maze, like all the others in the group, is undocumented and is unable to say how old she is. She shyly points out that she is washing scraps of clothes that she uses in the absence of sanitary pads.
“We use pieces of cloth or material we can find to use during our periods. As you can see, I am currently washing my clothes to reuse. It is difficult because we can barely afford soap, much less cosmetics,” explains Maze.
Having stayed in Okakarara for five years, the hardship is etched on her face, which softens as a boy of around five walks up to her.
Many in the group are women, and when asked about their partners, they told New Era that they do not know, claiming their husbands just disappear for jobs and sometimes never return. Others remained behind in Angola.
The group, who trekked from Angola five years ago, now live in a sorry state.
Three crusty makeshift shacks fashioned out of rusted pieces of metal and other scraps serve as the only ‘buildings’ the community congregate around.
Bundles of wood are neatly stacked nearby as blankets that have seen better days hang on a fence.
The group survive on selling firewood, for N$10 or N$20 per bundle. But sales have declined, which worsened their living conditions.
We found around 30 minors, some running around playfully, others lying around listlessly while the adults, mostly women with babies, are in deep thought on how to feed their families for the night.
According to the women, some lost children on their way to Namibia in search of a better life, and had no choice but to bury them and continue with the journey.
“Sometimes we feel like we aren’t human. We lost our kids on our way to Namibia due to hunger, and buried them on the side of the road. The distance was long, and we had no choice as we had to walk most of the way,” they narrated collectively.
Another young woman who identifies herself only as Meme pours the last of the contents of the 10kg maize meal sack into a small pot with boiling water.
“We only live on pap. As you can see, we cannot afford anything else. We add nothing to the maize meal. It is just pap. We prioritise the children, as we can go days without a meal,” says Meme woefully.
“Our only source of income is selling the wood we collect,” they say. A young pregnant mother who introduced herself only as Tjikumbili adds that she walks many kilometres in her condition to collect wood, and can go for days without eating anything because there is nothing to eat.
“We also do not have sufficient blankets,” adds a voice from the back, as she points to the tattered blankets hanging on the shabby fence that surrounds two of the structures. Laughing at their despair - one would assume - the women explain how most of them sleep outside the structures as one of them is padlocked, the other one is where they cook and the other two are tiny, and each have owners.
“We sleep on the ground in the open with our children,” says Maze.
All clad in traditional attire which only covers the bottom half of their bodies, winter can be brutal.
When asked what else they can do besides collecting firewood, the women say they can do laundry and clean yards. They further pleaded for a piece of land, just to start a garden which will sustain them.
There are about 100 of them in the town of Okakakara, for half-a-decade.
Mbwale Tjikombouru, one of the few men in the small community, says they get exploited by employers because they do not have legal documents.
“I was working for someone, and last week the person just disappeared. He does not want to pay me because I do not have any documents. We can take care of cattle, but the challenge is that we end up being exploited,” he narrates.
Okakarara mayor Olga Tjiurutue, who alerted New Era to the plight of the Ovazemba people in her town, says the situation is inhuman, and no one can wish to live like that.
While on the ground, Tjiurutue further witnessed the desperate circumstances the group lives in, as the unwashed children tugged at her humanity.
She comments that these children must be in school.
“Something must be done, maybe for them to be legalised and get temporary documents that can allow them access to relevant assistance.”
She adds that the town council will start with small monthly contributions to help the group put something on the table while waiting for directions from national government.
“From our intervention, we can go into the community and plead for anything they can offer,” she explains.
However, Tjiurutue was concerned with the Ovazemba people’s behaviour in town, saying some of them are accused of crimes such as rape and theft.
“Because of the behaviour that is caused by some of them, the community does not want to be part of the assistance project. I ask and urge them to behave in order for them to be accepted in the community. People cannot be treated like animals,” notes the mayor.
Due to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cessation of refugee status as of 30 June 2012 for Angolan nationals, Samba Dominique, a refugee based at the Osire Refugee Camp, explains why the group could not be accommodated or assisted.
“Osire is operational, but it only receives people from other countries. They ceased to be refugees, and that is why they cannot be received in Osire,” states Dominique.
A refugee is a person who has fled their country to escape war, persecution or natural disasters.
Namibia’s commissioner for refugees Likius Valombola was unaware of the group of Ovazemba from Angola in Okakarara, saying, “I only know those who came this year. The Angolans are immigrants and not refugees. They don’t fall under the definition of refugee, and we must also know that they are not seeking asylum in order for them to become refugees.”
He adds that they also did not apply for refugee status when they arrived in the country.
Valombola refutes the notion that the Namibian government and the UN are wishing the refugees away.
“It is wrong. They must understand how international law works, and that those people have a country and come from a country which is free.
They only have to avail themselves to their government. In this case, the UNHCR cannot do anything as they only deal with refugees, and not illegal immigrants. The government of Namibia is doing a lot. These people are over 4 000 who are in Namibia, and the people of Namibia are helping them”, observes.
He continues that good Samaritans deliver food and water, among other things. Furthermore, the plan to elevate the crisis is only for the country of origin’s government to address the root cause. As to why those people are leaving their country, Valombola states: “I already know they are assessing and are encouraging their nationals to return. So, those Angolans should just return to their country because their government has put mechanisms in place. And those who left because of drought are being assisted, the sites are in Angola. They should cooperate and just go back because their government is waiting for them. They can only get documents from their country of origin, their birth country, which is Angola.”
Angolan migrants have continued to stream into Namibia, with a large group estimated at around 3 000 having gathered at Etunda in the Omusati region. These migrants have fled their homeland because of hunger, brought about by poverty and a persistent drought in recent years.
Continuous attempts to get comment from the Angolan government’s representatives in Namibia have been unsuccessful.