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Thomas's Community Connection

Community-Focused Betterment:
Windhoek, Namibia

Community members leveraged skills, passions, resources and capacity to strengthen overall community betterment.


Figure 1. An image of Namibia, in comparison to neighboring countries.

I had the great privilege of being able to be a graduate-student-level intern at the Community Development Division of Windhoek for three months in 2014. This was the second time I was in Namibia, the first being as a college student studying in 2008, as part of a 5-month long program titled “Nation Building, Globalization, and De-Colonizing the Mind.” The internship in 2014 was much more focused on community-level social development programs.

A bit about Windhoek and Namibia

Most people in the United States know next to nothing about the African nation of Namibia. You might recall the name of this country from its short-lived fame when its name became a common story on US national news stations because US President Trump mispronounced it in a 2017 UN conference with many leaders of African nations.[i] When referencing Namibia at two different times, Trump pronounced the nation as “Nambia” – a combination of Namibia and its northeastern neighbor, Zambia. Other than from this, most people in the US might have little to no knowledge of that nation.[i]

A little more about Namibia. It is a very large country with just over 2.5 million people in it.[ii] In fact, regarding its geographic size, if Namibia were to be transplanted on top of the contiguous 48 states of the USA, Namibia would cover over 10% of the land. The country borders South Africa to the northwest along the Atlantic Ocean. Namibia has only been an independent country since 1990, following a legacy of European colonization and South African-controlled and implemented Apartheid. English is the official language since its independence. Prior to 1990, Afrikaans, a Dutch-based South African language, was its official language and taught widely throughout Namibia since the 1920s. In addition to English and Afrikaans, almost everyone fluently knows at least one ethnic tribal language.

Namibia is a young country and its capital city, Windhoek, is located near its center. Windhoek is the most populated city in the nation with approximately 400,000 people.[iii] It is seen by most within Namibia as the place of prosperity and opportunity. (In fact, if you go to the City of Windhoek’s official website, you will see the tagline: “City of Windhoek: The Gateway to Endless Opportunities.”[iv]) People are migrating from throughout Namibia to Windhoek in hopes of a better future for themselves and their families. Since year 2000, the population of Windhoek has seen a 60% increase, having had just below 250,000 people at the time.[v]

Social development in Windhoek

Surrounding much of Windhoek is a great burgeoning of informal settlements. This is due to the influx of people migrating from across the country and region. These informal settlements are homes, businesses and other structures that are built on land that is otherwise unoccupied. To meet the needs of this growing population of people, Windhoek is taking a proactive stance to incorporate and formalize many of these structures as opposed to evicting or criminalizing them. In the process of formalizing these homes, business and other structures, the city then provides utilities and services such as water, electricity, smoother roads, and access to emergency and social welfare services. This is some of for what the Community Development Division is responsible.


The Community Development Division houses many sectors that are responsible for the social development of the informal settlement regions of Windhoek. (Social development can be thought of as the betterment of society through intentional and planned processes. [Social = of or relating to society or its organizations. Development = a specified state of growth or advancement.]) Some of the sectors housed within the Division include: Planning, Urbanisation and Property Management; Economic Development & Environment; Social Welfare; and Youth Development & Training. The fact that these sectors and a few others (of which I cannot recall at this time) are located within the same division, and are responsible to the same executive director, are a sign that Windhoek sees community development as a broad, integrated and holistic effort, of which I agree.


My practice prior to this internship had taught me that community development includes government-based planning, social welfare, empowered citizens/ community leaders, economic opportunity and more. Exclusively focusing on one sector without accounting for the others is ineffective in building a sustainable, resilient and thriving community. My academic background in social work and urban & regional planning strengthens this perspective.


My internship

Officially, my internship was through the Social Welfare sector, however I had many opportunities to learn from and collaborate and work with members of each sector as part of my internship, especially the other three sectors I specifically mentioned. The Social Welfare section was made up of social workers who focused on more macro and community issues (as opposed to social workers who exclusively focus on children, individuals, small group or micro issues). The Planning, Urbanisation and Property Management section focused on the urban planning, growth, design and property ownership within the city. And as their names suggest, the Economic Development & Environment and the Youth Development & Training sectors focused on economic development and environmental sustainability and youth development and training.


Due to my background in community organizing and leadership facilitation, for the significant portion of my internship, I was fortunate to get to work with members of the community to decide what they saw as a pressing issue directly within their community. Here I would utilize their passions and skills and teach new skills along the way. … In other words, going into this effort, I would be creating something new and undefined from scratch with no real connections and relationships with people within the community. … I couldn’t help but feel like I was being set up to fail, but I was excited to see what could come about. A foreign outsider coming to “solve” a local issue. This screamed very familiar to many failed development schemes by first world nations.


My colleagues at the Division introduced me to the unofficial leader of Greenwell Matongo (Maw-toe-ngo; an informal settlement neighborhood of Katutura, a township of Windhoek). The leader was a woman in her 40s who spoke very little English, but did speak Afrikaans and Oshivambo, the ethnic language of the Ovambo people. And, she ran a very successful seamstress business within the neighborhood. My first real interaction with her was as part of a tour where she brought me from person to person, as a sort of an introduction to who I was and what I was about – this young, white, American guy here in Windhoek. Through translation with local community members who were more fluent in English she introduced me. While touring they decided they would get a group of people together who were seen as community leaders to decide what the project was going to be about. As any social and community development organization can assert, sometimes local leaders will handpick people who are similar to them, creating a relatively homogenous group of people who intentionally or not exclude certain people. In my own ignorance I assumed this is what I would experience, that the community leaders that would be invited would be middle-aged adult women. I was really surprised and excited by the community leaders who were invited and showed up the next few weeks – high school aged youth, younger and middle-aged adults, and elderly, and both females and males in each age group. We had a group of about 15 people all from different families and each had their own networks within Greenwell Matongo. I was stunned and overjoyed!


Over the course of the first few weeks, discussing what were priorities and what could be possible, the community leaders decided a pressing issue was the lack of a local, affordable bakery. Bread, a staple of any diet, was pretty much inaccessible in Greenwell Matongo. As part of this bakery, they decided: 1) they wanted to own it; 2) those who worked in it would receive an income; and, 3) the profits would go to growing the bakery and to address other community needs. A community-owned and operated bakery I thought was an incredibly exciting venture! (I for sure was not about to determine for them whether I thought this could work or not. I would remain open-minded to see what was possible.)


By the end of the three months they had opened a business bank account, they were in the process of buying unoccupied land in the neighborhood, and then going from there they would begin construction. Along the way and through translation, I introduced them to some local grant opportunities from local foundations. I facilitated meetings where we identified their vision and I taught them the basics of and provided a roadmap of what foundations look for in funding organizations and community projects. When I finished my internship the members of this team were really on track to creating this community bakery. The groundwork was laid, and a lot of collaborative work had occurred across significant boundaries of economics, language, education, and more. As of the time I left the internship, I view this all as a success for the project.


Leveraging capacity

02.03_03.01_Windhoek Leveraged Collabora

Figure 2. An adaptation of David Siburg's capacity leveraging model.

Do not get any ideas that I (an outsider) came in with my expertise and “solved” (or worse, “saved”) the community. That is far from the truth. What really happened is each of us, the community members of Greenwell Matongo, myself and other members of the Community Development Division, and other partners, came in with our own unique missions and goals, but we came in with trust and openness to what could best support all of our own goals and hopes together. The overall common goal was community betterment, and this vision and plan for a community bakery would meet that goal. In other words, it was in the self-interest of each participating individual and group to work together to create this bakery. We each leveraged our own skills, passions, resources and capacity to get this group together to come up with an opportunity that would strengthen overall community betterment. I was lucky enough to be the facilitator in organizing the first steps of this venture and share some of my own knowledge of grant-writing along the way. Figure 2 above is an adapted model of capacity leveraging highlighting the relationship each organization has and how by working together, the collaborative outcome they create meets their own missions and goals.



Figure 3. Me (Thomas) dancing with the unofficial leader of Greenwell Matongo.

Figure 3 is a picture of me on my last day in Greenwell Matongo at a little party at the Greenwell Matongo Community Centre celebrating this work we all did together. In the picture I was learning a little dance by the unofficial leader of the neighborhood that I previously mentioned who helped spearhead bringing leaders together. And, as a token of appreciation, she surprised me with this beautiful shirt she made! It is fashioned in the colors and pattern of the Ovambo people. What a true honor and gift that I will treasure forever!

In future Community Connections I will discuss some of my other experiences where community members and partnering organizations have leveraged their own capacity to create a better outcome that meets each other’s self-interests and strengthens their own capacity and resilience. The capacity leveraging model which I adapted was developed by stratcolab’s Organizational Resilience Lead, Dave Siburg.

Until Next Time


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