She is down to earth, has her feet on the ground and her entire being is deeply connected to the heart and soul of Namibia; that is the First Lady, Madam PenehupifoPohamba.
As soon as she starts to speak, you realise at the core of her heart is a fearless fighter who is and has been waging a war against all odds to better the lives of ordinary Namibians. It is clear she is in a class of her own, as she has overcome the trappings of power associated with the State House and all that comes with being a First Lady. In short, she is the servant of the Namibian nation who has stood the test of time and is willing to spend every little atom of her energy to better the lives of the people of Namibia.
In this interview, she shares her personal life and that of the First Lady. Suffice to say, the President is blessed and so is Namibia for having such a First Lady.
PF: In retrospect, how can you describe your experiences as the First Lady of this country?
PH:Being the second First Lady of the country has been a rare privilege and humbling role. I play a very important role in serving the nation, which is very honouring. However, this is not a comfort or holiday resort, there are some challenges I face, as an individual, and these have become my daily struggles.
It all has to do, to a greater extent, with the matter which burdens my heart; the daily challenges of the people at grassroot level. These people need to have answers to their problems and thus need to be attended to. It is worrisome that those of us who live in towns and municipal areas seem to have forgotten or simply ignore their plight altogether, which is sad. Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to assist these people by listening to and attending to their problems.
PF: From your experience, what exactly is holding us back as far as the development of the local communities is concerned, given the policies, structures and resources that are deployed year in, year out?
PH:The first thing is lack of education. People need to be educated so they can have knowledge of what is and what isn’t produced in their country. Being educated would also mean preventing the raw materials of the country from being sent out to benefit others. As a nation, we are blessed with an abundance of natural resources, unfortunately, they are shipped or carted out of the country in their raw forms.
As such, it holds us back from developing our industries, especially the manufacturing sector, which could directly and indirectly absorb employees through downstream economic activities.
As long as our people are not fully educated, our resources will continue to be taken out of the country. The unfortunate thing is, we continue to buy items made from our resources at higher prices. Such practices mean that we remain predominantly a consumer nation, which always pays for premiums. Besides the little we get from taxes, we are not fully in control of what could produce the real value of our wealth to enable us to have the lion’s share of what we have as nation.
PF: Are you saying beneficiation is the way forward?
PH:Yes, especially for the young people. We should really pay attention to their education if we are to have a critical well-educated mass. These young people will then help to usher in a new era of inspired and fired-up captains of industry and commerce. They could then take charge of that important arm of the economy to stop the excuses that prevent the processing of our resources in our homeland. In the process, we could create massive employment and greater wealth, here in Namibia, not elsewhere.
PF: What has it taken you to handle all the complexities that come with being a First Lady, both at home and abroad?
PH: It has been difficult but not too difficult, because one just needs to learn how things work. As for me, I emulate my husband’s leadership style, which is based on good communication skills and extensive consultation. Given the people around me, I have learnt to listen to them and their problems and then learn from them.
I have also had to do my research on other first ladies in Africa, the business community and stakeholders. I have had to learn from and listen to all of them to move faster to a stage where I could execute my duties at the levels I am expected to and beyond.
PF: How do you prepare the President, day in, day out?
PH:It’s not really a hard task. I have my schedule like any other person, except that it is prepared by my staff at the office, so I work from that. In the House, the Government has employed people who make sure the President’s clothes are taken to the laundry, are ironed and are brought back to the wardrobes.
The cooks also know the schedule around his movements. If, say, his day starts at around 6am, they prepare a cup of tea for him before he leaves. But if, say, he is to leave by flight at 2 or 3am, there is no need for them to prepare him breakfast, because he will have it on the plane.
My task is thus to ensure the President has eaten and has enjoyed his meal. If it is not well-prepared, that’s where I come in to correct the issue by speaking to the cooks to see to it that it doesn’t happen again.
However, before I became the First Lady, I used to have a daytime job, as a nurse, and would always cook for my family, especially during the weekends, although I had a helper. Therefore, I had a problem with the fact that I could no longer do that when we got to State House, mostly because my husband and my children were used to my cooking.
During the weekends, however, I would take over the kitchen. Whenever the first kid - who would always wake up first - found me in the kitchen, he would run to tell his siblings, ‘Do you know who is in the kitchen today? Its mum, mum, mum! She is preparing breakfast!’ And all of them would come jumping, ‘Its mum! Its mum! It’s mum!’ I soon found out even my husband liked my cooking.
At the State House, at times meals are not prepared the way we like them but that’s how things are. We can always talk to the staff to change a few things but that’s it. They are very good people, however; they adhere to pieces of advice and they really help me.
PF: So, you no longer cook for your husband and children at State House?
PH:No. You know, I gradually realised every time I went into the kitchen to prepare meals for my family at State House, the cooks would feel as though I was taking over their work and eventually became afraid of being reprimanded for letting the First Lady cook. So they became uncomfortable.
Since I did not want to invade their space, I decided to stick to my chance to do as I pleased at the farm or to my house. Even there they say, ‘Madam, you shouldn’t cook,’ but I tell them, ‘This is my house, I will do what I want to do.’ But they are really good people.
PF: With such a tight schedule, how do you balance your life so that you have time for your husband, children and your official tasks?
PH: It is very difficult and has denied me the quality family time, especially for my children, my grandchildren and my husband. As I mentioned earlier, there are people who are employed by the Government to help me through each day. Therefore, they do some of the work, which I am supposed to do, on a daily basis. Unfortunately, to have a quality family time, especially with the children, you need to be physically available to guide them. You also have to keep in mind whatever you do for them is highly valued, compared to someone who only comes to tell them to eat or do something.
Sometimes you get caught up in your work until it hits you; ‘Oh, my children, I miss them and they must miss me too!’ You miss and want to be with them, to help them with their homework or tell them to do this and that but you cannot, because you are hardly around.
All in all, since there are people who help in the House, I rely on my technical advisor and my office whenever I am out and the programmes often go according to schedule. It is not easy but I cope, with the help of the people in the office. They are my advisors, my everything. I really appreciate the support they give me, as well as my husband.
PF: What qualities should one have to be a good First Lady?
PH:You see, becoming a First Lady or acquiring the office of the First Lady is not something one goes to school for, to get a certificate or a degree. It is something you find yourself in and have to learn from other people’s experiences.
But people are different. When I came into office, it was a challenge for me to put my head around it. I found it difficult to be put in an office with a chair, a table and a telephone at the corner of the table and nothing else. It’s not like most professions in which everything from A to Z has guidelines; books to read from or teachers to teach you about what to or what not to do.
I was lost in this office until I went to the Health Minister, Dr Richard Kamwi and said, ‘Please, Minister, can I assist my colleagues since I know there is a lot of work at the public hospitals and clinics, because I don’t know what to do in this office and I am not used to sitting down, doing nothing.’
So he allowed me to work at Robert Mugabe Clinic near the old State House on a voluntary basis for two years. Whenever I had time, I would go there in the mornings and only go to my office in the afternoons. But as time went by, I began to listen and learn from what other first ladies have and are doing. That’s when I began to realise there is a lot one can do in this office.
Sometimes I wonder if it was done purposely; there was nothing in the office for reference, no guidelines to learn from. It was completely empty. But as soon as I discovered there was a lot I could do, my office has been busy since.
PF: Are there times you have regretted being the First Lady?
PH:Not really. I serve the nation and I am geared for that purpose.
PF: The President was once quoted as saying the State House is like prison to him. Do you share similar sentiments?
PH:It is still like a prison to me too but there are so many things in the State House, which should be the way they are; no one can change them. However, whoever resides in it should be able to say what they are uncomfortable with. When you are in the State House, it is true it feels like a prison, because you are not free. You cannot just jump into your car and say, ‘I am going to visit my mother, my sisters or my friends.’
You have to consult the system and then you have to be followed wherever you go like a thief. Even if you want to go on a casual visit, you think twice for fear of burdening your host, because traditionally, it is unacceptable for people to come into your house without giving them water to drink.
Nowadays, it is not really literally offering water, as in the olden days when one had to make Oshikundu. Today, one has to go and buy cool drinks and things like that, which would not augur well when you pay a surprise visit to your sister with a group of 10 to 12 people. That’s why I no longer go.
Even if your friend were to visit you, they would go through the system. And this person won’t like it and will ask, ‘Why am I being searched like a thief? So they do not trust me?’ No, they don’t trust you, because they don’t know you.
We all just need to understand the system is good and is there for us, even though we don’t feel comfortable in it.
PF: What keeps you awake about Namibia?
PH:There are many things that keep me awake about Namibia. Some are being attended to, although they still do not have answers yet, while others’ solutions are yet to be reached.
Let me mention only three things, which really keep me awake: The killings of innocent people, especially women and children by their so-called ‘loved ones’. It is really disturbing.
The Government, religious groups, community leaders and the public at large, are concerned about that and want to solve the problem. It concerns me that even small babies are being killed. What type of a nation are we turning into? How did we become so inhumane? All this robe me of sound sleep. However, we work together with other leaders to put an end to these killings.
The other thing is baby dumping, which has made me visit all the regions of this country. My first time to talk about this problem was in 1996. Back then, school children would commit suicide, mostly after finding out they had fallen pregnant (the girls) or had perhaps contracted HIV. But mostly, it was due to unwanted pregnancies.
I thought hard about what really caused those children to commit suicide. To come up with a solution, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I grew up in a Christian family where people went to church and loved God. My parents always wanted to stick to the traditional practices and as much as it was a bit okay then, I realised most of the girls who would commit suicide were like me, as a young girl. You would only be blamed when you did something wrong but would not be guided not to end up into making that mistake.
To this end, parents must be blamed, because they do not guide their children. The only thing they would say then was, ‘Look here, you are going to the hostel at Gabriel Tapoopi Secondary School [or college or whatever] and better make sure you don’t fall pregnant. If you do, don’t come back to our house. Find your way to your own home, because this is a Christian home.’
I had the same fears while growing up. I knew neither my father nor my mother would accept me into their home if I fell pregnant while at school. I knew even the church would chase me. Lucky enough, I came out clean, although I always had it in mind not to fall pregnant at that stage.
That’s why I insist parents contribute, although not 100% to the problem, by not talking to their kids about this issue in detail. As a result, whenever kids have a problem, they do not know which uncle, aunt, pastor or sister to talk to about their concerns.
This is the gospel I have been preaching to the parents in the regions I visit. I strongly encourage them to teach their daughters, while they are still young, not to depend on men, because it will always come at a price; mostly death. Some of these things give me headaches.
Then there are diseases, especially cancer, which is killing people almost as much as HIV/Aids does. Cancer kills our women, children and men; it does not discriminate. Currently, vaccines have been found for the cure of cancer but is only given to low-income countries, leaving Namibia out, because of its upper-middle income status. Whoever came up with that status for Namibia should note that those rich people are only a handful, as the majority of the people are poor and very poor that they cannot afford to buy the cancer vaccine. Therefore, the majority of the people will be wiped out by cancers if things continue this way.
To add on to that, Namibia was one of the countries currently rated with the highest prevalence of HIV/Aids in the world. I am happy to inform you that the prevalence rate among pregnant women has gone down drastically to about 17%. However, if the immune systems of the infected individuals are very weak, they are prone to opportunistic diseases. Therefore, if cancer develops in these people, they would easily be killed as a result. We are trying our best, together with the Health Ministry and the Government as a whole to find ways to help our nation overcome the scourge of cancer and other health related challenges.
PF: You have just celebrated 30 years of your marriage to the President, what would you say have been your highs and lows? Any lessons you have learnt thus far?
PH:Marriage is something that can make people rise together or crash land. It is all about two people who are bonded by their principles and the principles of marriage as an institution. Therefore, it depends on those individuals, how they want to live their lives.
The only thing that can preserve a marriage is understanding [each other], faithfulness [to one another] and good communication [with one another] on small and big issues. As a result, when your partner takes a certain direction, you should know why they are going that direction. You cannot just go out without informing each other, nor can you just wake up one day without explaining your anger, especially if your partner does not know why you are angry. But if you explain things to each other, that anger won’t become a big problem.
This should be the case in each and every family, if we are to raise our children and our nation the right way.
PF: Have you ever argued or fought with your husband?
PH:(Laughs) That is life. There is no way people can live together for so many years and yet not argue even once. You know, there are times when there are certain things in the house or in the community that will ultimately make you argue. However, as much as the argument can go, make sure both of you come to an agreement at the end of it. Don’t argue and then go your different directions. When people argue, it is because not everything is correct, so the argument is meant to put things in the right order.
We do argue but at the end of the day, we come back together again to solve the problem, take out the emotions that might have come with the argument and then move on with our lives. Never, and I say never have we ever fought physically.
PF: How many children do you have, where are they and what do they do?
PH:We are a family of ten, however, we both had children before we got married. I was married before but my first husband died in the war. I married my husband (the President) with his three children while I had two from my first marriage. With my husband I have three children.
His first-borns are twins; a boy and a girl. They are both married and live working lives. His third-born child works, is still single but has two kids. My first-born is married with children and works while my second-born is not married but has two children.
The first son I have with Pohamba has been working since he completed his degree in South Africa while the second one also has a degree in Information Technology (IT) and works at FNB Namibia. The last born is in her fourth year at university and will finish her studies next year.
Four of our grand-children live with us in State House while two are at our private residence at Okangudhi. However, they are many.
PF: How can you describe the President as a father, grandfather, Head of State and as a life partner?
PH:As a father, he is very fond of children and you will find him talking to them, especially the grandchildren who are staying with us. The children will be asking him all sorts of questions and telling him stories.
The President is a very hard working man and a lasting lover. He loves his nation and has learnt a lot about the problems affecting it. Even before he became the President, he used to be a minister of this and that, which gave him the opportunity to acquaint himself with all the local regions and understand all the problems they go through.
He still consults widely, as the President, and listens to the problems and challenges of his people. Although he cannot reach every part of the country, his Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians help him do so. I think he is doing all he can for his people. Unfortunately, he cannot satisfy everyone.
PF: You are a patron of various organisations, would you say local companies are doing enough in terms of corporate social responsibility?
PH:Indeed. I am a patron of various organisations but I have my own called the Organisation for Empowerment of Widows/Widowers and Orphans of HIV and AIDS in Namibia (OEWONA). I am one of its founding members. It is an organisation meant to empower widows and orphans of HIV/Aids.
A lot of local companies are really doing a great job in assisting some of these community development activities and I am really satisfied with their contributions, because they are really helping the nation.
We started this organisation without a penny but have been assisted by certain organisations, NGOs, development partners and stakeholders. They come and share the little they have, which has kept us going, although we have learnt ways of raising funds and sustaining our organisations along the way.
When companies donate cash, they want to make sure the money goes towards what it was intended for. They should therefore receive reports on how the money is spent, because they must hold you accountable for every penny they give you, which is how it is supposed to be.
We should remember that as these companies do this, they have to strike a balance. As a result, they cannot donate all they have because they run businesses. So far, most of them are doing very well in assisting in the development of our county, especially at grassroot level.
PF: Is there anything in your life that you cannot do without?
PH:The only thing I cannot do without is water. I have to drink it, cook with it, wash and keep myself fresh with it, so that I can progress well in all my daily activities.
PF: What inspires you about life?
PH:Let me leave that question to you (laughs).
PF: How do you relax and enjoy your “me time”?
PH:Although I retired as a nurse in 2008 but remain a Government official, I will completely rest only when the people’s problems have been reduced. Yes, one can rest but only when they have found ways to rub off their thoughts to other people to help them carry the burden and solve the problems of the nation.
Until the Government has enough educated people of at least 95% of the population and it can produce at least 75% of its own products; maybe then, I will sleep soundly. Otherwise, I will only sleep comfortably when I am too old to think about anything constructive, anymore.
PF: You participated in the struggle, any memories about what happened?
PH:The memories remain exactly that; memories. Now we have to focus on winning the economic battle.
PF: As we conclude, what message do you have for the nation?
PH:My message goes, especially to the youth of Namibia; refrain from alcohol and drug abuse, which both cause death, eventually. I want the Namibia youth to steer clear from anything that causes problems in our country.
Also to the youth is to stop baby dumping. The country’s leadership has to find tactics to use in engaging the local youth so they can understand the dangers of what they do and then get rid of them.
PF: Thank you so much, Madam, it was a pleasure engaging with you.
PH:You are more than welcome. PF