My old friend Ben at Namibia Notes has a fascinating post that compares the changes that are happening in small rural towns in that southern African country with those affecting the land of his birth, and particularly the landscape of southeastern Massachusetts. Ben is a self-described "11th generation Swamp Yankee" who went to Namibia on a Fulbright in the early 1980s (as did I in the later 1990s) and is now a Namibian citizen and social scientist. Ben begins his post by reminiscing about childhood trips to Cape Cod in the days before the Interstates and the function served by towns along the Cranberry Highway like Buzzard's Bay where the traffic funneled before crossing the canal.
"As we went through primary school there was talk of a new highway, Route 24, a dual carriageway. We took larger and larger chunks of the trip along this road, and gradually the trip changed. Instead of a whole day, we could leave in the early morning and get to the summer house by noon. (It eliminated the need for ice cream stops much to our despair.) By the time I was in High School, the trip had whittled down to a few hours. It was possible to drive down in the morning and back at night. Buzzards Bay took on, though I didn’t give it much thought, a worn down look. Paint on the buildings was due more than a new coat. The style and polish of light fixtures, signs took on a quaint, just out of fashion look. Eventually, a new highway spliced off Route 24 and connected straight into the bridge. Buzzards Bay became a place you only passed through if you had a purpose...
...Namibia is dotted with dozens of quaint small towns — sort of like Buzzards Bay. Regularly in the new we hear of their economic demise. Municipal governments can’t pay their water or electricity bills and both subsequently get turned off. Residents complain of no jobs and the despair of chronic poverty. Shops and facilities too have that look of one too many coats of new paint missed. How did it get this way? We have to look at Buzzards Bay, except the roads didn’t go around these small places, rather the flow of commerce decided not to linger in our small towns as much as it used to.
To understand we need to know why our small towns existed. For most, if not all, they were initially there to support the local white farming community. each of these small places usually had; a post office, petrol station, police station, a church, hotel, grocery, hardware and clothing stores, schools, a few government offices, an outlet of Agra (the farm supply cooperative) and a place to auction livestock. Each also had, in the tradition of apartheid, a location where a pool of cheap labour resided. Local farmers could pretty much get all they needed whenever they went to town — meaning our small, quaint settlements along the roads. Trips to larger centers could be kept to a minimum."
Ben describes both demographic and economic shifts in population centers since Namibian Independence that leave many of these former "White Area" farming communities without economic purpose or direction. I recall this phenomenon even back in the 1990s when Viv and I were working deep in the sparsely settled Kunene province. We made trips "to town" based on availability of necessary supplies and the diversity of products available. We might drive 50 kilometers to Kamanjab, a crossroads settlement near the edge of the former Damaraland communal area where we lived and worked, to get petrol, beer and fresh meat but not much else. For other supplies we made a monthly trip that took out ancient land rover a day and a half to complete a further 170 kilometers to Otjiwarongo, centrally located on a main trunk road and where just about anything we wanted was available at good prices, often in bulk from a wholesale, and worth driving right past the small town of Outjo 60 kilometers closer to home because prices and variety were so much better if we extended our trip. There was a good German bakery in Outjo but there is one in every small Namibian town and we only stopped if we were making a day trip rather than a full monthly run.
Ben observes the same cost benefit analysis going on today:
"For many farmers, the decision probably went along the lines of: 'Do I drive to Bethanie this Saturday to buy things, and order some other stuff from the shops, or do I leave a bit earlier and drive to Keetmanshoop and get everything at once.' Multiply, by a growing number of farmers and residents of these small towns themselves, each making decisions about what to buy and where, where to put their children in school, where to market their livestock and so on, and the slope of economic decline for our small towns gets steeper. In the 1980s it was pretty standard for rural people to drive to the larger places (Mariental, Otjiwarongo, Tsumeb, etc.) to buy in bulk where you know there was more selection and cheaper prices. The Otji-Rama shopping center of Otjiwarongo opened in the mid 90s, if I remember correctly, and because it had the first outlets of the larger chain stores, it started drawing people from as far as Tsumeb for month-end trips. Places like Outjo, Otavi, Kalkrand, and Omaruru, were only a short (by Namibian standards) trip on the weekends, or even an afternoon. All of these places are connected by high quality roads. Another factors is cars and bakkies that don’t need to top up in every town. The cruising range of many cars is over 400 km, enough to get from Windhoek to Swakopmund or Windhoek to Mariental. Think of what this has done to places like Karibib and Usakos on the way to the coast. People remember how it was de rigeur to stop at Karibib or Usakos, halfway to Swakop, and have a bite and get some petrol. Increasingly more cars just slow down as they make their way through."
This is well worth the read, for there are lessons here for small towns beyond Namibia as well.