AUGUST 18, 2011
Outjo, Namibia—Growing up in Namibia in the 1980s, Willem Bezuidenhout was alone with his cowboy dream. He wallpapered his father’s house in the capital of Windhoek with posters of Hopalong Cassidy and shunned play dates to watch The War Wagon again and again in his darkened bedroom, pausing the tape to trace John Wayne’s image onto pieces of translucent paper that he pressed up to the screen. His playmates—the sons of Namibia’s white farmers, doctors, or lawyers, like his father—made fun of him.
But that was before the white communities of southern Africa went crazy for country. These days, Bezuidenhout is a star. At an annual cultural festival in the dusty northern Namibia town of Outjo this past May, he shared top billing with a South African pop idol. Bezuidenhout’s show was an American-style rodeo with all the trimmings, including a lassoing demo that drew on the skills he picked up at the San Francisco Cow Palace, where he went to learn roping in the early ’90s, before the potential for a cowboy revival in rural Africa was fully understood. “In Namibia, as a kid, I had my twenty country-and-western records, and everybody looked at me strange,” Bezuidenhout told me the morning of the festival, panting as he lugged his ropes over to a homemade wooden corral. “Now everybody here loves Garth Brooks and Randy Travis.”
A DECADE AGO, André Lombard, a snowy-haired cattleman from Namibia’s sizable Afrikaner farming community, hatched a scheme with some friends to host an auction of live game animals to make a little extra cash. They anticipated a couple hundred hunting-lodge owners might show up, tops. But the night of the auction 1,500 people flooded the venue, a good chunk of the northern white farming community. Most of the people weren’t even looking to buy game. They wanted to know where the antelope barbecue—a traditional Afrikaner delicacy—and the DJ were. They appeared to want a cookout, a dance, a chance to celebrate something, anything, en masse. “They were there just to party,” Lombard remembered, still looking a little astonished at what his auction unleashed.
In fact, Lombard had unwittingly tapped a big vein. After Namibia and neighboring South Africa became democracies in the early ’90s, such spontaneous festivals began sprouting up everywhere among Afrikaner communities. An Afrikaans newspaper informally tallied nearly 100 over the last year and a half, and many more surely went unrecorded. They seem to fulfill the desire to escape the pressures of politics, to feel your numbers amid the growing awareness that black Africans are the overwhelming majority in these parts, and to take pleasure in little cultural rituals like antelope barbecue amid the revelation that Afrikaner culture, on the whole, might not be something of which to be proud.
Lately, these festivals have taken on an increasingly country-and-western edge. Many end with a plaintive chorus of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” sung around a bonfire in the guttural, Dutch-derived Afrikaans accent. (It isn’t only festivals where this phenomenon is noticeable: The tunes now topping the playlists on Afrikaans radio have “a major kinship with American pop country,” notes South African music critic Danie Marais. “They share a nostalgia for something which was sort of wholesome and pastoral.”) Lombard suggested it’s a way for Afrikaners to “re-experience our history”—or reimagine it in a less troubled, more exhilaratingly American framework, in which the Dutch descendants who settled southern Africa in covered wagons were not colonials exploiting black labor, but rugged pioneers opening the plains and breaking the wild horses. (Well, antelopes.)
Whatever the root cause of the phenomenon, Lombard recognized it, and, as he added musical acts and food vendors and his festival grew, the natural addition was a rodeo run by Namibia’s original cowboy. Bezuidenhout’s roping experience in the United States had given him, by then, the vague aura of a prophet who has glimpsed a promised land where an unapologetically masculine sort of pride still reigns. (“He even had the opportunity to work with the historic bull Oscar!” one of Lombard’s co-organizers bragged.)
This past May was Bezuidenhout’s second time performing at the two-day festival. Thirteen farmers’ sons, about double last year’s showing, most wearing khaki safari shorts rather than Wranglers, had signed up to try riding a bull. Bezuidenhout pointed out his angriest one, named Roberts, and the cowboy-hatted contingent clambered up onto the corral’s high wall to eye their foe. “It’s Roberts Mugabe!” one rider joked, a little nervously.
It was a few days after Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden, and Bezuidenhout had tried to get the U.S. Embassy to loan him a Stars and Stripes to hoist over the rodeo as a tribute. The embassy declined, but no matter. Bezuidenhout gave the occasion the imprimatur of authenticity by taking to the center of the ring on his horse and teaching the onlookers the lingo of American cowboys. “They’ll say, ‘Sell your soul to the devil, because your ass belongs to that bull there,’” he shouted. “Or, ‘It’s not a matter of whether you get hurt, it’s how bad.’” The gathering crowd laughed.
In the end, Roberts was not quite Oscar’s equal. “Yee-ha!” Hendrik Botha hollered as he leapt onto the bull’s back; Roberts bowed his head languidly and switched his tail. Oh, well. Other bulls proved perkier, and the crowd ate up the spectacle anyway. The Wild West is the dream, explained Jaco, another of the young riders. Uncertain of their future in southern Africa, all his friends were investigating opportunities abroad. “Some people go to Australia, but it’s better to go to the States,” he told me, where the luckiest obtain visas to work on U.S. farms.
After the rodeo was over, Bezuidenhout led his bulls out of the corral to make room for the second, and slightly incongruous, part of his show: camels draped in Arabian carpets. He brings them to other Namibian festivals each year and charges 30 Namibian dollars—$5 U.S.—for a camel ride. Bezuidenhout makes his living as a professional horseshoe-fitter based south of Outjo, but he knows the ins and outs of camel costuming from his weekend work as a trainer for animals used in safari movies.
Training show-biz animals and proffering camel rides might seem like strange side gigs for a devoted cowboy, but that’s par for the course in Namibia. Since white rule ended, whites in southern Africa have been engaged in an identity search that is economic as well as emotional. White governments particularly pampered their farmers and ranchers. Plowmen were their political support base, and they sheltered them with subsidies and extensive technical help. The new black governments, however, have turned their attention to other things. The bottom fell out most dramatically in Zimbabwe, of course, but making a buck has gotten more challenging everywhere. In Namibia, the white-dominated livestock business faltered when the government passed a law requiring farmers to use Namibian slaughterhouses instead of exporting live animals, which is more lucrative. Some people have resorted to truly imaginative adaptations. Riaan de Klerk, who farms south of Windhoek, hatched a scheme to ship Namibia’s indigenous ostriches to Kuwait to amuse sheiks hungry for an exotic pet. (Sadly, de Klerk said the ostriches were too hot in the Middle East and refused to mate.)
The Arabian Nights shtick doesn’t have quite the appeal of the Wild West, and, when the camels came out, most of Bezuidenhout’s rodeo audience drifted away. During a particularly slow patch, he offered me a free ride. As we bobbed around the corral, he mused about his future. Some people might be struggling these days, but the bewildering tides of history seemed to be lifting him up. He’s already been re-booked for a longer, more ostentatiously authentic rodeo in Outjo next year. Recently, some other Afrikaners tried to put on a rodeo west of Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, but they didn’t know what they were doing and injured a horse, drawing a lawsuit from the local animal-crueltyprevention society. Bezuidenhout hopes they’ll look to him next time. Indeed, he suspects many people will want him to host rodeos elsewhere in Africa soon. Among white Africans, the country-and-western thing is getting “very big,” he judged. “It’s only going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Eve Fairbanks is a writer living in South Africa. This article originally ran in the August 18, 2011, issue of the magazine.