Africa / Namibia

At the Namibian Carwash

Namibian men like to spend time “at the carwash”. This I was told by several Namibian women – “carwash widows”, no doubt – who spent evenings at home alone or taking care of the kids as their husbands and boyfriends spent the cool hours after dusk getting their vehicles cleaned and polished.

But why do their cars need washing so frequently? Namibia’s spotless streets and paved roads result in few filthy rides. And why on earth does it take so long?

A few days later I had my answer. Driving with a couple of local friends round Katutura, Windhoek’s largest township, in the afternoon heat, we stopped at a shebeen – a township bar – to cool off with a couple of Tafel lagers. Beside the bar was a carwash – and as we had a rather grubby car, it seemed logical to get it scrubbed while we drank.

The Namibian summer is hot. We downed our beers quickly, before they warmed up, and stuck our heads round the other side of the wall to see if the sticky sand had been sponged off the Mercedes. It had indeed, but the car was lathered up, the sun evaporating the bubbles as they slithered down the doors. We sat back down under the shebeen tarpaulin and discussed life in the township, home to two thirds of Windhoek’s population. I stuck my head round the wall again. The white paintwork gleamed – but the carwash attendant had started on the insides, shaking the mats out, hoovering up the ubiquitous sand. We called over the bartender and ordered more Tafels. Condensation clung to the dark glass bottles.

Our thirst well and truly quenched, we got up once more to check on the car. This time a team of men was brushing the tyres, now starkly black against the white. “Enough!” we begged. “We have to go!” There was no response. We pressed a hefty tip into the manager’s hand and got into the car. Revving the engine, the brush-wielding team clung on, determined to remove every last grain of sand from the tread. We backed out of the carwash, turned onto the road, and drove off, finally leaving our army of soapy scrubbers behind. Their dedication to their work was admirable, their pride touching.

But finally, we knew why the men dedicate so much time to getting their cars cleaned. It’s no coincidence that the carwashes open right next to the shebeens. They are informal business partners. The longer you wait for your car to be ready, the more you drink. It’s an excellent business plan, repeated throughout the townships, providing Katutura’s men with a convenient (if rather transparent) cover on a night out, the car-washers with business, the bar owners with extra income, and the wives… well, I like to think they enjoy their peaceful, men-free evenings, in which to indulge in some convenient little secrets of their own.

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