Vicki On Ya Toivo the Family Man [interview]

ON the eve of her iconic husband’s 90th birthday, Vicki ya Toivo gives us a glimpse into the unofficial and non-life life of her liberation stalwart Andimba Toivo ya Toivo.

How and where did you meet Andimba Toivo ya Toivo?

I met my husband in October 1984, while he was in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. I had invited Lucia Hamutenya, who then worked in the office of the United Nations Commissioner for Namibia, to accompany me to a public rally at City College in Harlem to hear Angela Davis. Angela Davis was a communist activist, university lecturer and a former political prisoner. Lucia asked if she could bring along two Namibian friends. When I arrived with my car to pick them up, Lucia was with Andimba Toivo ya Toivo and Leake Hangala. I was shocked when Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, an internationally known freedom fighter, got into my small car. I recognised him immediately, since his face had appeared on SWAPO’s New Year’s cards campaigning for his freedom. That is how we first met.

Racism was still rife in the 80s. How did the two of you overcome the different cultural and racial backgrounds? The world today is often referred to as a “global village.” I do view different cultural backgrounds as obstacles that must be overcome. My husband and I are both progressive and democratic-minded people, and we had been exposed to many people of different cultures by the time that we met. We chose each other because of our attraction and feelings for each other and because of our common values.

I think that it is important in such a relationship to learn about and respect each other’s culture and to embrace the positive aspects of all cultures. However, because we are from different backgrounds, some things that we say or do might not be understood as we intend them to be. Therefore, it is also important to understand the expectations related to social behaviour.

I had met quite a number of Namibians in the United States before I met my husband. In my opinion, Namibians are more polite and respectful of others than many Americans. I know that unlike in the USA, where one can enter a room of people seated around a table and just say “Hi everybody”, in Namibia much greater importance is attached to the ritual of greeting, and the greetings themselves reflect a degree of care for and interest in the person being greeted. I can remember vividly how Theo-Ben Gurirab, for many years SWAPO’s UN representative, would think nothing of greeting and shaking hands with twenty or more people before the start of a solidarity committee meeting.

When I first came to Namibia, Andimba introduced me to Sally Kauluma, an American by birth and the wife of (now late) Bishop James Kauluma. Sally is fluent in Oshikwanyama and Oshindonga. She tried to teach me Oshindonga and at the same time introduced me to some of the Owambo cultural norms. One of the first things I learned is that if you want to offer your guests something to drink, you should not first ask what they want to have, as in the US, but instead, you should serve the variety of drinks that you can offer and let the guests choose. I made quite a few mistakes as I navigated my way through a new and different culture, but I find that most Namibians make allowances for my ignorance. More importantly, my husband has also provided guidance.

How did you balance the needs of being a working mother and that of being married to Ya Toivo?

The challenges facing all working mothers are very much the same, regardless of the profile of their partners, and I need not elaborate upon them. I cannot say that there is always balance in marriage, because there may be conflicting demands on the time and needs of the partners. During his 15 years as a minister, the demands on my husband’s time were quite heavy, and there were significant periods when he could not spend as much time with the family as he would have wanted. The children and I accepted that a part of him belongs to the Namibian nation. We also devised strategies for the family to be together. We always accompanied him to national celebrations and often travelled within the country, especially to the North, on weekends. In the early days of his ministerial career, Andimba and I attended countless receptions and we often took the children with us (uninvited), but later on I realised that I had to be selective in order to prioritise the needs of the children. Given my husband’s national responsibilities over the years, I have tried support him, to make sure that our kids have a good relationship with both parents, and to make my own contribution to the nation as a professional.

What type of father is Tate ya Toivo?

A good father. My husband believes that elders can help to shape the character and values of the younger generations and he has therefore spent a lot of time aising the children and discussing with them the importance of respect towards others and of hard work. He will always tell the children that he does not like cheats, liars and lazy people. Our children have been brought up to be friendly, open, tolerant and humble. Andimba has inculcated in them a belief that education is critical to enable them to aance in life. Although I am the parent who has been involved with their education on a day-to-day basis, Andimba has always played his part. He helped them with homework and attended many parent conferences, school assemblies, and dance and violin concerts, whenever possible.

Although the practice of taking a vacation was foreign to him, Andimba accepted the need to take annual family vacations. During the December-January school holidays, we would spend three or four weeks in Oluno or elsewhere in Namibia, and we occasionally visited South Africa or the US.

What are Ya Toivo’s likes and dislikes?

As I already mentioned, he does not like liars, cheaters and lazy people. If you are familiar with Andimba’s life history, you will know that he abhors oppression, racism, exploitation and abuse of workers, corruption and any actions that deny the basic action that deny the dignity of human beings. He does not like people who are greedy, who boast or who promote themselves without regarding others.

In general, my husband loves people. He admires people of integrity and strength who have devoted their lives to the well-being of their people and to humanity in general, such as Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. His likes visiting his family and his huge number of friends. My husband prefers to travel by road, rather than to fly, to the far corners of Namibia, because this affords him the opportunity to stop and to visit or meet people along the way. I am convinced that Andimba is one of the friendliest people in Namibia. This is a wonderful quality, and it serves him well as a politician.

How does he spend his free time?

He spends his free time reading newspapers and books, visiting friends and family, watching news and keeping in touch with people by phone and email. He excels at maintaining his relationships. He will often phone someone just to find out how he or she is doing.

Can you tell us what his favourite dish is?

Andimba often says that he just eats to live, which is what you might expect from someone who was in prison for 18 years.

He is not particular about food, as long as it is well prepared. He generally follows a healthy diet, with support from the girls and I.

How does he maintain relations with his family?

He maintains relationships with his wide circle of family and friends, particularly those with whom he grew up and their children and grandchildren. This is central to Andimba’s character. He tries his best to attend all family occasions. He is also called upon to give aice and to mediate in family disputes. Both family members and friends seek help from him in solving their personal problems.

You stated earlier that you had known about Ya Toivo before you eventually met him. How did you get to know about SWAPO?

I first learned about the colonisation of Namibia when I was active in high school, where we debated the important issues of war, colonialism and imperialism. In 1967, while in my first year at university, I began my decades of political activism and began reading about world affairs and about the policies of the US government. In 1968, I subscribed to the African Communist, the journal of the South African Communist Party, which discussed Namibia and SWAPO from time to time.

I also attended public meetings and teach-ins to stay abreast of developments. I first met a SWAPO representative in 1979, when I was seated next to Theo-Ben Gurirab at a dinner of the National Lawyers Guild, an organisation of progressive lawyers to which I belonged. I was later asked to help organise the first US national solidarity conference with the African National Congress (ANC) and SWAPO, which took place at the Riverside Church in New York in 1981. From that time onwards, I met many Namibians, both SWAPO representatives and Namibian students, read SWAPO and UN publications and the publications of organisations in the US and Europe who were part of the international solidarity movement. I also read books about Namibia and about struggles in southern Africa. I participated in or helped to organise many solidarity activities with SWAPO and the people of Namibia. This is how I came to know about SWAPO.

Your husband is currently not active in politics. Is he still interested in politics and what does he make of Namibia as a country 24 years after independence?

Of course he is interested in politics. He believes that all human activities involve an element of politics. During his entire adult life, Andimba has been interested in politics because he is interested in improving the lives of his people. He is a true democrat and uncompromising in his political convictions. He has never been interested in acquiring positions for himself. His attitude has always been that, “if people want to elect me, then it’s fine and if not then it is also fine.”

Andimba spent much of his life focusing on his main mission, which was to liberate his motherland. The independence of Namibia was achieved, with great sacrifice on the part of Andimba Toivo ya Toivo and many others. He is grateful that after independence, he had the opportunity to enjoy the freedom and peace with which we are blessed.

He is also grateful that he was able to work toward the development of the nation through his government service.

He was accorded the honour of permanent membership in the political bureau and Central Committee of the SWAPO Party, and he attends meetings regularly.

Andimba is happy about Namibia’s progress since independence, but sees a longer struggle ahead to achieve economic emancipation, unless Namibians can avoid greed and can unite to develop the nation for the benefit of all.

Source : New Era