In a ping pong interview, The Patriot provided space for an interview between H.E. Jo Lomas and Kazembire Zemburuka “One Year British High Commissioner to Namibia & One Year in the UK as Namibian Chevening scholar”.
The two narrated their different experiences after one year in their new environments through the traditional ping-pong journalism style which is seldom used in modern times.
KZ: Having been in Namibia for a year now, what are your first impressions, Jo Lomas?:
JL: I have had a wonderful year here in what really is a unique country. It’s been my first posting to Africa (I was previously in Bosnia, Geneva and Syria) so I spent some time observing and learning about the culture and how things work here. Namibia has come a huge distance since her independence and should really be proud of what she has achieved, but of course there are still many challenges. I’ve spent much of my first year looking at how the UK can support Namibian economic growth and how I can attract business and investment here.
As you returned after a year of studies in the UK, what are your thoughts on this one Chevening year?
KZ: It was a once-in-a-life time opportunity to study abroad on a prestigious scholarship such as Chevening. I was based in Cardiff, Wales – a small city by any stretch of the imagination, compared to the larger cosmopolitan cities such as London. City life was comparable to our capital, very quiet and serene at times, but ideal for university life. I immersed myself with the city and its people and the history of the place. It was indeed an exciting time and the treasure trove of lessons learnt will remain with me for the rest of my life.
JL: In the time you spent in the UK, there was the historic vote on Brexit. How did you experience this?
KZ: It was a surreal moment especially on our campus. Our university much like other institutions of higher learning have considerable interests in the EU. Funding is one area, but also the strong presence of EU students and faculty who enrich the learning and research agenda. On referendum night we gathered with fellow students amongst them students from the EU countries at a local pub. The natives as we refer to UK residents were optimistic and upbeat about a “yes” vote. Overnight, these predictions came to naught. What followed was indeed a roller-coaster, from the announcement of the resignation of the PM and the change in government – I was amazed and how things changed at such amazing speed. I was also in awe of the system and how everything kept on working seamlessly even though from the outside it appeared as if it was a chaotic process. I was, however, dismayed by the racist and extremist undertones of the campaign and the increase in the number of racist incidents in the aftermath of the plebiscite.
As a representative of the UK overseas, how did you experience the Brexit vote here in Windhoek?
JL: On a personal level it was quite a shock! I remember going to bed at about 11pm when it looked as if the UK was going to stay in the EU. When I woke up at 4am things were looking quite different – needless to say I didn’t get back to sleep! I was actually back in the UK for our Ambassadors’ Conference a week later. It was a really helpful time for us to talk together and discuss the implications. For many it was a chance to commiserate but for all of us it helped us refocus on the future and how we can make BREXIT a success. Here in Namibia I see my role as explaining what BREXIT does and doesn’t mean. I am clear that we are still a member of the EU and will be so until we leave (not for at least two years) so there is no change to trade agreements for the moment. I’m also clear that whilst we don’t know what a future trade deal will look like, the UK has always been a supporter of open and fair trade and we don’t expect that to change.
KZ: Equally historic, what are your thoughts on the Geingob administration one year in office, especially his “Harambee Prosperity Plan” and the will to eradicate poverty?
JL: I came from a posting in Bosnia, also a relatively new independent country, but one where ethnic tensions and a lack of vision still predominate. What has impressed me about Namibia is the shared direction that the President, the Government and the people share. Everyone is focussed on reducing poverty and inequality levels. The challenge is of course how to make this happen. I am a big believer that poverty can only be decreased by economic growth which will improve job prospects and the tax base. Much better to grow the cake than to try and carve it up – there is just not enough to go around.
As you mentioned President Geingob’s Harambee Prosperity Plan and his “War on Poverty”, what are your thoughts on inequality and poverty in the UK?
KZ: It’s interesting that you mention economic growth as a key ingredient to overcome inequality. However, economists now argue that that alone is not adequate to overcome entrenched inequality. There needs to be a stronger emphasis on sharing wealth and that’s one of the outcomes of the HPP. Interestingly, these conversations also dominate discussions in the UK where there are pockets of poverty and people who are at the margins. I witnessed this aspect by visiting a local food bank supported by retailers and run by volunteers. Clearly, the myriad of government welfare programmes is evidence that prosperity remains elusive for thousands of UK residents. The point is; poverty and inequality will remain until we are able to confront the current system that enriches the top at the expense of the lower classes in society.
JL: Yes, I agree that growth needs to be combined with policies to ensure that quality of life is raised for all. Speaking about inequality and job creation, what did you notice in regard to prosperity and trade in the UK?
KZ: Well, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for dealing with inequality. But job creation is an intervention that has proven to work. In the UK, you’ve unemployment in single digits and that speaks to how developed the economy is. Another aspect which I think is central to our Namibian efforts is entrepreneurship. Where I was based I was impressed by the drive of small entrepreneurs and especially migrant communities. They operate retail shops and other ventures that create employment and are the bedrock of the communities. Some of these shops operate into the late hours of the night and are very competitive. It’s something worth emulating, if we are to create the jobs necessary to eradicate poverty in Namibia.
As High Commissioner your job is of course to look for trading possibilities between the UK and Namibia. What are your observations in this regard, with one year in the job?
JL: As I mentioned, economic growth and how we can support it here in Namibia is my key focus. I believe creating the right business and investment climate is the most important thing the government can do. That’s why we are helping Namibia develop its legislation and structures to encourage Public Private Partnerships. It’s also why I have been saying that any empowerment legislation needs to make sure it does not discourage investment. Whilst I spend quite lot of time encouraging British businesses and investors to look at the opportunities in Namibia, a number of them are holding back until they get a sense of the investment climate here.
There was much talk about Brexit triggering anti-immigrant sentiments in the UK. How did you experience this in your time at Cardiff? Your overall impression as a foreign student in the UK?
KZ: Clearly, we’ve established that there are extremists’ right-wing groups which fan the racist agenda. Xenophobia is on the rise with economically weaker groups in the UK disillusioned with their own prospects blaming foreigners – black and white for their lot. I personally did not experience any racial incidents expect for the media coverage which we all observed. You tend to be insulated on campus. But I was impressed by how students rallied against the anti-immigration through various protests that denounced the views being propagated by fringe political groups. This re-assured me that all is not lost. Indeed, we need to aspire to higher human values of respect for others and their dignity. Overall, my impressions of university life were positive. I am proud to be associated with a world-class education system that prides itself in academic excellence and producing world leaders. In my class, we had a multi-cultural group representing all continents – a demonstration of the global reach and attractiveness of the UK education system. When it comes to preparation and education, how does the FCO prepare diplomats before they go out to post and “understand” the host country like Namibia?
JL: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides a very broad training on how to be a diplomat or an Ambassador. We learn about leadership, communications, presentation skills etc. However when it comes to our individual postings its very much up to us to learn for us to research for ourselves. We normally consult experts back in the UK and do a lot of background reading on our country. I’ll also visit British businesses and civil society interested in my country of posting. But nothing beats learning on the job for really understanding a host country. That’s why its important not to rush in and make assumptions but to observe how things are done and where our joint interests lie so we can make sure the relationship is really beneficial.
KZ: How do you spend your free time in Namibia?
JL: At heart I am an outdoor rather than a city girl so Namibian life really suits me. My family and I travelled 20,000Km in our first year exploring the different parts of Namibia. We’ve really enjoyed the camping here with the incredible views and solitude and amazing night skies. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to face crowded European campsites when we go back! My husband has done lots of off road motorbiking and my daughter and I enjoy horse riding so we are keeping ourselves pretty busy!
What did you find most challenging while in the UK? How did your family back in Namibia experience your year in the UK?
KZ: It was tough for the first few months. I haven’t been solitary in a decade and I missed my family dearly. We are a young family, my wife and four kids and it was a huge adjustment especially for the children. What helped was the good internet connectivity and our Skype calls became a daily feature. I also had the support of other Namibian Chevening students and I also made friends and developed relationships beyond campus that were instrumental and supportive. These are meaningful contacts that have enlarged my network and sphere of influence beyond Namibian borders.
JL: How did you spent your free time, when not studying and sitting in the library?
KZ: Cardiff has a vibrant social scene. It has virtually everything on offer. On the sport front we had the Rugby World Cup. The Cardiff Millennium Stadium is ideally located not far from our campus. We had a number of musical acts who filled the stadium including Beyoncé. The tickets for these events are quite pricey for students and so we attended the fan zone to watch the sport events. But nothing beats the Bute Park, the spacious grounds not far from my flat. I retreated there for long walks along the river, and it reminded me so much of home.
JL: And of course I must ask you about your experience of the UK weather.
KZ: Well, I learnt quickly that an umbrella is not an accessory but a must-have. We had rain non-stop through the autumn when I arrived and the winter as well. In fact, we had rain for all the seasons of the year. On occasion, we enjoyed sunny weather and we converged on the park for sunbathing. For the first time in my life, I actually missed our abundant sun.
JL: Yes I can sympathise! We really enjoy the sunny weather here but I’ve quickly learned not to complain about the rain as we do in the UK. In fact I’m out there doing a rain dance with the rest of Namibia!
KZ: HC, please allow me a final question. As a media person, I cannot resist: What is your impression of the Namibian media landscape and the current discussion on ATI, media regulation, etc.
JL: Namibia has a good reputation for press freedom and I see this on a daily basis; I think the press are playing a particularly good role in keeping an eye on tender procedures and corrupt practices. Namibia would definitely benefit from a strong Access to Information Law as well as membership of the Open Government Partnership. An open and transparent administration has been proven to provide better services to the public and fewer possibilities for corruption. So I fully support the Government’s attempt to introduce an ATI bill – the challenge however will be in this implementation. Opening up information requires a cultural change at every level of government.
The press landscape in the UK is often mentioned prominently around the world as one of the freest and most diverse. What’s your take on the UK media landscape? I see you did an article on ATI in the UK recently. How did this come about?
KZ: What struck me as well is the sheer size of community driven media outlets that serve local levels where national titles have long retreated from this important space. Also, it was interesting to reflect on how polarised the press media actually is, especially the established political allegiances. Interestingly, the press is going through trying times and we experienced the closing of a number of papers who decided to go online because of the loss of circulation. These are lessons for developing countries that will be faced with this challenge in the near future. As for the tools of the trade, ATI is important not only for the media but for ordinary folk who want access to government held information. As you mention, I made use of ATI to access information from the Wales Police regarding the number of protests and the resources committed to policing such demonstrations. Within the prescribed 21 days of filling the request, the information was provided. As President Geingob says Transparency + Accountability = Trust. And the UK model not only subscribes to this notion but is a leader in this regard.
KZ: I thank you.
JL: Thanks, it’s great to have you back!