Posted by: koolwine | September 19, 2010

Namibia: The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

American volunteer teacher Larry Kaplanski is smitten by his Namibian co-worker, Mavala Shikongo.

Country Focus: Namibia; the area was originally called Deutsch-Südwestafrika and then South-West Africa until 1990

Namib means “place of no people” in the local Khoikhoi language

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
Peter Orner
Originally published: Little, Brown & Co, 2006.
My edition: Back Bay Books, 2007.
306 pgs.

Acclaim: Winner of the 2007 Bard Fiction Prize; Winner of the 2007 Virginia Commonwealth University First Novelist Award

To make a long story short: Ohioan Larry Kaplanski arrives in remote Goas, Namibia to serve as a volunteer teacher at a Catholic boy’s school.  He quickly falls for his colleague Mavala Shikongo, a young woman who has just returned from fighting in the Namibian War of Independence with a two-year old son in tow.

My opinion: Orner’s concise chapters – some only a paragraph long – are striking and solid enough to stand alone as vignettes; taken as a whole they form a beautiful mosaic of a bachelor’s life in Goas.  Although Orner claims that “Kaplanski’s life in Namibia was a lot more eventful than my own,” his use of the first person point of view and vivid anecdotes give the book an autobiographical feel.  Orner interweaves the themes of desire and impermanence throughout Kaplanski’s descriptions of the parched landscape, the quirky residents, Namibian history and his feelings for Mavala.  A literary revelation.

The armchair travel experience: In 1982, Reverend Peter Kalangua, President of Namibia’s  Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, said to a National Geographic reporter,  “Education is our critical need.  Without it our future will be like our past. … When you go home, please mention that we would welcome American volunteers.”  Like Kaplanski, Orner responded to this open invitation and taught in a rural Namibian school for a year and a half in the early 1990s.   He used his firsthand experience to plunk the reader down in Goas: feel the searing heat of the day and the cold of the night, hear the incessant whine of mosquitoes, try on the lonely and austere life of a resident of the veld.

Throughout the novel, Orner refers to Namibia’s relationships with Germany and South Africa, the lingering effects of apartheid, and local tribal identities.  Completely ignorant of the country’s past and present, I found it difficult to make much sense of these bits of information.

In my book (or, how Namibia has affected me and maybe you, too)

Thanks to National Geographic, I know something about Namibia!
Lions and elephants striding down from sandy dunes into the Atlantic surf.  A beetle that stands on its head all night long while fog collects on its back, condenses, and run downward into its thirsty, waiting mouth.  A shipwreck- and whalebone-laden coast called Skeleton.  Welcome to the Namib Desert, which stretches along Namibia’s entire western coast.

And welcome to the end of knowledge or connections I had in regards to Namibia before my research for this post.  Since I can’t babble on about personal experiences with Namibian movies or food or acquaintances, I thought I’d share some interesting numbers:

  • Rank of Namibia among the least densely populated countries in the world: 2
  • Number of people in Namibia per square mile: 6.5
  • Number of people in Montana per square mile: 6.2
  • Rank of Namibia among countries that have included the protection of the environment in their constitution: 1
  • Percentage of land protected in Namibia: 14%
  • Percentage of land protected in the United States under the auspices of the National Park System: 3.6%
  • Age of the Namib, the world’s oldest desert: 55 million years
  • Years that the Welwitschia plant, endemic to the Namib Desert, can live: 2,000
  • Length of time it takes for tire tracks from off-road driving to disappear from the Namib Desert surface due to lack of rain: 40 years
  • Length of the Namib Desert’s coastline: 1,300 miles
  • Length of California coastline: 840 miles
  • Height of Big Daddy, the tallest sand dune in Namibia (and the world): 1,200′
  • Height of the Empire State Building: 1,250′
  • Number of Namibians living with HIV/AIDS: 210,000
  • Number of physicians in Namibia: 598
  • Number of HIV/AIDS patients per physician: 351
  • Number of children Angelina Jolie gave birth to in Namibia: 1
  • Amount of money Angelina Jolie and her husband, Brad Pitt, donated to the maternity wards of Namibian state hospitals: $315,000


  1. Namibia has a sad colonial past as the German Imperial Colony: South-West Africa (1886-1918). The current low population density is probably related to the severe administrative and economic suppression of the native Herero and Ovambo tribes in favor of the economic interests of German colonists. Native survivors of a heated conflict (Waterberg, 1904) were forced into the near-by Kalahari and banned from SW Africa under pain of death. By some accounts the Herero population declined 80% under German colonial rule.


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