I grew up in small towns all over Namibia. In innocent times. Long before there was TV, or personal computers, or the internet, or reality shows, or arcade or interactive games. In fact, where I grew up there was no toy stores either.
Grandma cooked our jam and grandpa carved our toys from cheap wood and made whips from real kudu hide bought from the tannery in Swakopmund.
To this day, I visit the places of my youth whenever I get the chance. The streets, the houses, the shops, the swimming pools, sports fields, the public libraries and the movie theatres.
And although these visits invoke feelings of pure, unadulterated nostalgia, they also serve as a personal barometer of change. For in this life, nothing remains the same. Change is a constant, ever occurring given.
Just as the water that flows in a river changes the very composition of the river for all eternity during every minute of its flow, the towns of my youth have been changed by wind and water, people and machines, technology and development, actions and reactions and ultimately, by time itself. Just as I have changed.
Thus, to conclude that these towns are no longer the same as I remember them is no major discovery – it merely states the obvious. The challenge is to understand change itself – its sources, its content and its consequences – and our own position in and relationship with that change.
Back then almost every small town had a movie theatre and going to the movies was big event. It meant an evening out with the family. So a special amount of sprucing and grooming was in order. But it was made even more special because it did not happen everyday.
Movies were screened on weekends only and thus something exciting to look forward to for a week or more. News of new releases caused much excitement and anticipation because it happened only once a month.
Mom once ordered granddad to go and fetch me from the farm where I was during the school holidays because a movie I desperately wanted to see had come to town. It was a feature called “Karate Killer” starring actor James Ryan and shot here locally in the desert outside Swakopmund. Released locally in 1976, it was re-released four years later in 1980 in the USA under a new title “Kill or be Killed”.
For the entire school term after that holiday one had to be on constant guard as karate-inspired, action-motivated, over-zealous, primary school learners re-enacted numerous action-packed fist-over-elbow flying, round-house-kick-filled moves from the movie. Yiiiiyahhhhhh! Oooooeeeewiiiii! Huh!
They did it in the local supermarket, on playgrounds, at the swimming pool and even in the church-yard before Sunday school. Small cuts and bruises and bleeding noses were displayed with pride. For a while the entire town lived by the movie’s credo: “Not just a challenge … the only way to survive”.
Dad often took great pleasure to tell new friends including all the fair damsels I showed interest in about the first time they took me to the movies. They must have been brave to tag along a young toddler very attached to his dummy teat. No one could remember how exactly the dummy teat got lost, but it did. And according to his well-embellished recollection he had to get down to all fours to sweep the floor, hoping to find his son’s much-desired object of comfort.
He claimed not to have seen even the opening credits or title as his darn-honest and spirited search was propelled by the uncompromisingly miserable, yet soulful cries of his young son. What must have been to the great dismay of fellow moviegoers that dummy teat was unfortunately never recovered. Not during that show and the hours thereafter.
This story always made me crinch and my lady friends laugh. Later on I understood that he meant well. He was trying to protect me much like the mother of an early girlfriend did many years ago when I arrived at their home for the first time to pick her up for a date at the movies.
While waiting in the living room for the object of my affection to finish her grooming, the mother presented me with an old photograph of her as a young toddler – naked – playing in a pool of mud. The child in the photograph looked happy. The mother did not. She was anxious.
“There”, she said. “Now you have seen my child without her clothes”. I was perplexed. I looked at her with what must have been surprise on my face. Then she fixed her eyes on me and waved the photograph at me. “Don’t you ever try to do that again!” I got the message. She was only trying to protect the child who meant so much to her.
The movie theatres in the towns of my youth no longer exist. Games arcades and insurance companies have replaced them. The buildings all have new coats of paint but there is nothing special about them anymore.
No more action-filled recollections of how the West was won, or special kisses as the hero saves the damsel in distress. Nearly no-one I know, goes to the movies anymore. And those who do are irritated by it.
We have TV and DVD and movies are on-tap and on-demand and the visual effect – ‘bullet-slice-time’ – that became famous with James Ryan has lost its attraction to a generation for whom technology has removed all limitations.
And sadly, as recent events have showed, people get killed at the movies.
I stop at the places of my youth because I can. But I fear in the next few decades it would no longer be possible.
Technology encourages us to live our lives in our private space, as much as possible. We stay in, rather than go out. We rent or download books and movies. Chat online with friends. Play games and participate in on-line seminars. All without ever having to meet someone face to face.
Back then, the great iconic elements of entertainment all took place in structures located in the public space. Libraries, movie theatres, drive-ins, swimming pools, play parks, zoo’s and bowling allies were all spaces that encouraged us to engage with our fellow townspeople. We could meet and engage. We formed clubs and mini-clans. We learned how to behave and interact socially in these social spaces. In fact, we were social animals.
These days, to paraphrase Robert Putnam, ‘we bowl alone’. Our social capital is gone … destroyed with our bowling alleys and movie theatres.
When I stop at the house in Koppie street, I can measure change, understand where it came from and where it is going. Journeys away from it and back to it have meaning, and although the house is old, empty and dilapidated, it has meaning, something that matters to me.
All too often these days, the old has to make for the new. Rather than finding new ways of incorporating or reviving the old, we do away with it. Eradicate it.
The neighbourhood pub with terrible food but beautiful conversation is torn-down to be replaced with upmarket offices and conduits.
Out with the old and in with the new. It is called “development” and we do it to towns, to buildings, to people and to communities, the whole lot. But I fear those claiming that they bring “development” or that “change is inevitable” have no understanding of either of these two notions. Yet, they present it forcefully, with contempt. Seeking only gain and spreading mostly pain.
Every time I contemplate one of these public spectacles, a scene from one of the great movies of my youth comes to mind. In the Outlaw Josey Wales (starring Clint Eastwood, released 1976) a politician speaks to a general: “The war’s over. Our side won the war. Now we must busy ourselves winning the peace. And Fletcher, there’s an old saying: To the victors belong the spoils.”
To which the general replies: “There’s another old saying, Senator: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”