Namibia's first female trawler captain

By Steve Bradshaw

Media caption, Johanna Kwedhi on board her trawler

Slight, pretty, sharp-eyed, and quietly firm about things - Johanna Kwedhi is Namibia's first female trawler captain.

She is a living example of the empowerment of women in Namibia.

Johanna captains the Kanus, one of the largest trawlers operating from Luderitz Harbour, an old port rebuilt for today's fishing boats. It's her responsibility not only to navigate a coastline infamous for shipwrecks, but to bring in a profitable catch.

And this is an industry not used to women being, literally, at the helm.

"My responsibility is to command," Johanna says, working her six-hour shift at the bridge with her male chief mate and second mate.

"I have 23 crew members on board, they are all under my authority. My shipmates on board the vessel are wonderful. Each and everybody has his duty."

And then she adds, "We have procedures we have to follow, and if we don't we will have to see what happens."

"She is the one who gives the order, what have to be done for the day," says Chief Mate Aaron Alweendo. "The orders came from him - I mean from her!"

'Man's world'

Johanna trained with the Namibian Fisheries Institute, and was appointed skipper after serving for eight years as an officer and chief mate under a Spanish captain. Her company now has four more women doing similar training.

"This is a man's world," says Bosun Evalisto Shipo. "Since the beginning, it's been a man's world. If your leadership is not appropriate for the crew, you will not earn their respect."

And Johanna has done - while breaking another barrier too. "We have never seen a black person in charge of a ship," says Evalisto Shipo. "It has always been a Spanish person actually."

Johanna hasn't entirely sacrificed a personal life, though it's been difficult. She has a 14-month-old son, Innocent. Her cousin Auguste takes care of Innocent while Johanna is at sea, which is most of the year.

"I met Innocent's father on land," she says, "although both of us work at sea. We didn't get the opportunity to work together on the same vessel because we have the same rank."

Early pregnancy

When she first came to Luderitz, Johanna lived for six years in a house with no electricity, bathroom, or toilet. "People said to me, 'Wow, an officer living in the shantytown!' But I say, 'No I am here with peace of mind and I have (my) health.'"

She's not been back to her home village, Onyeka, for more than nine months.

Image caption, Education was key to Johanna's success

The trip is a 1,500km journey across a harsh but beautiful land three times the size of Great Britain. More than 70% of Namibians are subsistence farmers, including her parents.

Johanna had a twin brother who died at birth. In Luderitz, when Johanna had complications, her doctor referred her straight to the capital, Windhoek, for an operation.

But many Namibian women still "do not know the importance of going to the clinic during their pregnancy," Johanna says.

Despite big improvements, maternal mortality is proving one of the hardest of the Millennium Development Goals for Namibia to reach - even if here, as elsewhere, statistics can be hard to interpret.

"The big challenge for young people is if they fall pregnant at an early stage," Johanna says. Too many, she says, believe abortion is a simple answer.

Johanna helped her parents on the farm at the same as working hard to do well at school.

She remembers how she used to chop wood on her own, and look after the cattle when the long school day was over. "Without education, your life is behind, it's meaningless."

But at Onyeka school there is evidence that empowering and educating girls, as the Millennium Development Goals require, may be having unintended consequences.

Onyeka seems to be doing just fine. There are now more girls enrolling for primary school than boys, and many completing secondary education. What's more, says the Principal, Hafeni Kapenda, "The girls are more serious... the boys are so-so."

"You mean the boys just want cell phones?" Johanna smiles.

Looking after cattle

In class, the pupils' questions for Johanna come thick and fast. "When steering a boat," one boy asks Johanna, with devastating common-sense, "does your boat have rear view mirrors like in a car to help you look in front and at the back?"

The principal is full of wonder too. "I teach geography very well, very well, but honestly speaking I have never seen the sea. I am teaching about neap tide and rip tide but I have never seen the sea! This is like a dream!"

But, he says, the problem with boys goes beyond their interest in hi-tech toys.

"This area is more rural, in the Oshana region, and the people here concentrate more on their cattle. So the boys are taking care of the cattle. The boys are not so serious."

Some families, it seems, decide somebody's got to look after the cattle... and if girls are excelling at school, even becoming trawler captains, maybe it had better be the boys...

It may not yet be a widespread problem, but it wouldn't be the first time in history that targets have had strange consequences.

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