Sunday, 14 September 2008

Windhoek thoughts

Sitting in a nice Portuguese restaurant in central Windhoek last night, surrounded by a very mixed group of locals, I started thinking about how Namibia is so much farther along in terms of development and getting past its colonial past than so many other Sub-Saharan African countries. While there is definitely still a lot of poverty here, a small middle class is emerging over time, as was evidenced by the crowd enjoying their meals around me.

As I waited for my food to arrive, I read the last few pages of my book - a travel log of a British reporter who followed the explorer Stanley's route across the Congo from Lake Tanganyika in the east to where the Congo River meets the Atlantic in the west. His experiences during the trip showed how once fairly developed towns/cities in the Congo had deteriorated into crime ridden, isolated outposts where no road or river navigation is now possible - an example of how some countries have actually "undeveloped" since independence from colonial governments in the face of widespread corruption, plundering and civil war. There are actually people in the Congo who say it was better under Belgian rule. Considering how brutal the Belgians were (cutting off people's hands if they didn't procure enough rubber to pay "tax"), you know things are really bad if the comparison is favorable. By contrast, traveling in Namibia is what I'd call Africa "light". Roads are in great condition, tourists can drink water from the tap in the main towns, no garbage or litter are on the streets, and you can drive safely all over the country without any issues. As I walked around today, I stopped into several South African and German chain stores, where you can buy anything from Italian coffee makers to the finest European towels and linens. I can buy Ritter Sport and Lindt chocolate in the Spar supermarket, which made me feel a little giddy after weeks on the farm. Right now I'm sitting in an internet cafe where I have a 100 MBps connection. This is not to say that all of this is affordable for the average Namibian, but the fact that it exists here shows a level of organization and infrastructure that simply doesn't exist in many other countries in the region (excluding South Africa, of course).

All that being said, there are major strides that need to be made in healthcare and education. The fact that Namibia has much higher rates of primary and secondary school enrollment than in many other parts of Africa should not be cause for celebration, as the common denominator is very low. Most teachers teaching in public schools don't have sufficient qualifications themselves, and, from what I've read, many either don't show up or may not present a lesson when they do. So, while attendance is high, the rate of passing grade level exams is dismal. I also heard from local Namibians that all of the mattresses in the main hospital were recently stolen, so, if you can't afford private care, you could end up laying directly on springs after having an operation. There's still a level of chaos even in this relatively well-to-do environment.

From my conversations with people on the farm and in Windhoek, I get the impression that many whites here use these as examples of why blacks are totally to blame for the fact that they earn only a small fraction of what an average white person does. One white Namibian guide who visited the farm expressed amazement that USAID and any other foreign aid agencies would invest development money here when it was so poorly managed by the government. His point of view was that he had worked for his money, and everyone should just have to "pull themselves up by their boot straps", as it were. We had a bit of a debate, as I argued that what he considered "big" aid money was, in fact, peanuts by European or US standards. Also, I pointed out that while he was at a German boarding school in Windhoek in the 50s and 60s, black Namibians didn't have access to public education. His point of view was that this was the government's problem, not his. I was heartened to hear the farm owner argue against this kind of thinking. He basically said - if you care about your country, don't you want it to be better? If the government isn't getting the job done, should those of us who have the resources and/or businesses just sit around and wait?

As I finished up my Kingclip dinner (delicious fish) and Caipirinha, I saw an advertisement on the television for a company who guaranteed to get you an American work visa. The words "American dream" scrolled across the screen as a busty blonde woman in a swimsuit seductively pulled herself out of a huge swimming pool. The ad ended with people partying on a boat near what looked like Miami. At best, this company was overpromising; at worst, they are ripping off Namibians who think they will soon be living large in the US. I guess it's true that everyone really wants the same thing.

Etosha National Park photos

View from the main farm house & last day at kindergarten

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Last Day

Well, it's my last day on the farm, and I'm feeling a bit sad to be leaving. I think what I'll miss most is playing with the kids in the kindergarten. They are so sweet and smart, and it was great to be a part of their school experience, even if it was just for a short time. Being an only child (and not having done any previous teaching), I have often felt a bit clueless about little kids, so I think I might have learned more than they did! I sent a long email to the next volunteer with a detailed update on what we've covered so far and what they like / don't like and what songs we're singing, etc. He probably thinks I'm being a bit over the top, but I get the impression that kindergarten lesson planning is a bit haphazard as volunteers come and go, so, in my usual style, I'm trying to inject a little structure into the process;)

As far as the other projects go, it's been a busy 4 weeks. The owner and I have worked out a sustainable development management plan for the farm, and we have a series of goals and timeframes for projects relating to wildlife conservation, water conservation, energy efficiency, waste management, and staff and community development. These are based on recommendations from the Eco Award Namibia organization, HAN (Hospitality Association of Namibia) and MET (Ministry of Environment and Tourism). I've also drawn up some employee annual review criteria and forms so that the owner can start giving staff more regular feedback on how they are doing, as well as communicate expectations and goals more clearly at the beginning of the year. This is part of an overall push to improve guest services (since we have mainly European clients, and African levels of service are quite a different thing from European style interactions). To relate the annual review objectives to measurable goals, I've revised the guest feedback questionnaire to include some more metrics on levels of service and satisfaction with the different activities, etc. To bring all of this together, we now have a staff "best practices" handbook for the different areas (reception, meal/drinks service, guides, etc.) as well. So, as you can tell, I've been running around the farm from kindergarten to computer to put all of this documentation together. It's been really interesting, though, and I know I've learned a huge amount just by being here and seeing what ecotourism means in the context of a developing country, as well as what sorts of social development projects are working well in the community vs. what has not gone so well.

I hope you have enjoyed the blog - I haven't been as prolific a writer as I'd hoped, but it was still nice to know that my friends and family were following my adventures. If I get internet access during my time in Etosha or Sossusvlei, I'll probably post again. Otherwise, it's back to the UK on the 16th!

Friday, 5 September 2008

last days on the farm

Yesterday, I went to Windhoek again with the owner to do the weekly errands and shopping. I got supplies to make natural, homemade cleaning products for the farm, so that there's no water pollution going into the septic tank system. A much more interesting stop was to the Windhoek taxidermist. Yes, I was in the middle of piles of dead animals in supposedly "lifelike" poses that were going to be sent back to hunters in the US and Europe. There's limited trophy hunting (about 20 hunters per year) hosted here on the farm, so the owner needed to check on a couple of orders the taxidermist was working on. The manager showed me around the factory, so I got to see how they do everything (this was a fairly big operation, by the way, and all done by hand). There was everything from giraffes (where do you put that?!) to oryx to zebras to ostriches. Apparently, the men do a lot of the shaping of the bodies and stretching the hides over it, and the women do the
detail work on the eyes and faces. I saw a woman teasing eyelashes on an ostrich head to make it look as realistic as possible. What a bizarre thing to do for a living! What was really interesting was looking at where the boxes were going to. The majority of boxes were being shipped to Texas (I won't go there!) and Wyoming, although I saw one being shipped to Wall Street. Some rich dude in NY is going to have a stuffed leopard or something in his office. I guess there's no accounting for taste.

Normally, this kind of thing is totally not my bag. I'm certainly no friend of the hunter - I just don't get why people like to kill things they aren't going to eat - but the fact that there is more wild game on private land than in national parks (excluding the Big 5) here speaks for itself. The saying among farmers here is "if it pays, it stays". In other words, the private land owners have been much better at managing wildlife effectively and generating jobs for local people. For example, a farmer might allow private game hunters to do limited trophy hunting, but he and every other farmer in the area have a huge incentive not to overhunt the Oryx or Kudu that the tourists come to see on game drives and to hunt, as it would reduce their business from year to year. So, if the balance is right, the farmer is incentivized to only use what's necessary and take steps to ensure proper game numbers. On the farm here, the meat is actually used to feed guests
and staff, and the hunters just get the trophies (there's no predator hunting on this particular farm). By the way, oryx steak is one of the most delicious meats I've ever tasted:)

Well, I am only on the farm for 5 more days, and then I take off on a 7 day trip to Etosha National Park (in the north) and Sossusvlei (southeast, desert area). After my quick trip to Swakopmund with the other volunteer, I got the travel bug again and realized I needed to explore a bit more than just the farm. It should be fun!

I'm off to teach kindergarten now. We are learning parts of the body today, and I'm just getting them to sing "head, shoulders, knees and toes" on their own. Super cute.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Last day in Swakopmund

Well, we didn't have much luck with the flight or the sand boarding today (everything was booked), but we did do a bit of shopping, and we drove to a place where we could just do a walk in the dunes. We climbed to the top of several and just walked along the edge, causing little sand slides as we went. It's hard to describe how expansive the desert is here and how huge the individual dunes are. We were just in awe every time we turned a corner and saw some amazing new orange sand configurations against a perfectly clear, dark blue sky. All of this is a 5 minute drive from Swakopmund. It's a bit strange to be having coffee in a German bakery with fresh calalilies at your table at 9:00 and then trekking through a barren expanse of desert at 9:20. This is certainly a place of contrasts.

Tonight, we are having dinner at a restaurant called The Tug. It's actually built around a moored tugboat. Ships have frequently gotten stuck in this area, which is why the coast around here is called the Skeleton Coast. The bad Atlantic storms force the ships off anchor, and they just crash into the sand. The last one was in 2006 - it's just a huge frigate sitting there. They can't move it! Anyway, The Tug is apparently THE place to go in Swakopmund, as many famous artists have painted the tables and the walls. Should be a good last night of our little vacation.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Photos from the farm and surroundings

I finally got a fast connection in an internet cafe, so I thought I'd post some of my farm pics. Enjoy!

Photos of Namibia

I am off for a few days, so Christiane and I drove the 400 km to Swakopmund, a German colonial town on the Atlantic coast. You can get kaffee und kuchen (traditional coffee and cake) here and even bratwurst and other traditional German specialities. The town is spotlessly clean, and it's like being in a small European town, except you realize that there are huge sand dunes in the distance (and, of course, many Africans!). It's a lot colder here than in the central highlands where we were staying, as a morning fog comes in each morning from the ocean and goes over the dunes and then clears by the afternoon. Christiane and I went on a desert tour today, and the guide explained that this fog is what sustains a huge amount of life where you would never suspect it. For example, thre are some beatles that do a "headstand" all night and collect the fog as it comes in, and, as the water condenses, it trickles down their backs and into their mouths. This environment requires unbelievable adaptation. The tour was really interesting - I held a sand snake, chased geckos, got a picture of a "white dancing lady" spider's fangs and an iguana catching a fly, and we did some amazing driving up and over the massive dunes. So amazing. The dunes go straight into the sea, which is a really unusual sight. We are trying to get on one of those puddle jumper flights over the desert tomorrow, but it was looking booked up today. If not, we're going to do some sand boarding (think snow sledding, but on a 500 foot sand dune), which also sounds pretty cool.

Friday, 22 August 2008

So, I am now teaching the kindergarten 3 hours per day, 5 days a week in addition to the other projects. Three hours doesn't sound like much, but I am totally exhausted by the end of each lesson. The kids range in age from 2 to 6, so they require a lot of attention and affirmation at each step. Because they're so young, they also get bored really easily, so even my Elmo puppet tricks get old after a while:) It was pretty difficult to get them to respond at first because they had no idea what I was saying, but they are now catching on to some of the basic commands "come over here", "sit down", "listen to me", "let's sing", etc. What makes it all worth it, though, is that they are starting to get the hang of hello, goodbye, numbers 1-6, basic colors, and saying A-G in the alphabet. Not too bad after 5 lessons, I think. They also call me "Teach-ah", and they run around me yelling it to show me their projects. Sometimes, when we're working in a group, I will catch one of them surreptitiously touching my hair or my arm - I think they're a bit curious as to why I look so white and strange, so they're just trying to figure it all out. Today, we planted a garden with corn, radishes, carrots, and  sunflowers. They were so careful when placing and watering the seeds today - it was really cute. 

All of this sounds rosy, but there are little things that keep reminding of where I am. For example, we always have a short lunch break around 11:30 at the kindergarten. Two of the girls never bring any food with them, and I found out yesterday that they are staying with their cousins because their mother doesn't take care of them (I didn't pry into why this was). I was told by the lady who helps in the kindergarten that, since their mother isn't here to prepare lunch for them, they don't get a mid-day meal, and sometimes they may not eat dinner either if they don't go back to whoever is taking care of them (they stay temporarily on the farm during the week so that they can attend kindergarten). If you could have seen these kids' faces when the other students pulled out their lunch, knowing they didn't have anything, it would have broken your heart. They were hungry, of course, but the harder thing was that they were so ashamed. Of course, I was a little outraged that 20 adults on a farm couldn't come up with 2 extra bread rolls for these kids for lunch, so I got it sorted out with the kindergarten helper and the farm owner. Anyway, it just illustrates that life is a lot harder for people here. It's easy for me to come here for a few weeks and pat myself on the back for teaching some English and helping out, but I've never been hungry, and I've never wondered if my mother would come for me.

To end on a positive note, the other volunteer (Christiane) and I are taking a 4 day trip next week to Swakopmund. This is a colonial German town on the southern end of the Skeleton Coast, so we'll get to hike in the desert, do some dolphin viewing on the ocean and possibly take a short flight over the Skeleton Coast to see the amazing dunes and shipwrecks from above. Distances are so far here (it's nothing to drive 500 km and not see another car), so some things are better seen from above if you only have a few days. The funny part is that Christiane doesn't have her driver's license with her, and I don't know how to drive stick, which is the only kind of cars they rent here. So, before we head out on Monday, I am going to be driving around in circles trying to learn manual. I know, I know, you are probably saying how ridiculous it is that I can only drive manual. Well, after this trip, all will be resolved:) More to come after our adventures in Swakopmund!

Sunday, 17 August 2008

busy, busy

It's been an interesting couple of days. Tons of tourists from Europe and the US come through here every day to see the cheetahs and leopards, and, since part of the volunteer bit is to talk to guests at meals and make them feel welcome, you find out a lot of cool stuff about people. To give an idea, I've met a South African woman working for USAID in Windhoek, an Italian guy who makes cosmetics in his own factory in Bologna, and lots of German families who seem to be traveling for a month or more on family camping holidays.

I'm also getting to know the staff a bit more. There's an 18 year old who helps in the kitchen, who is patiently trying to teach me a bit of Damara (there are 4 kinds of clicks, and I can only do one convincingly). I need some sort of diagram to figure out where my tongue should go to make these crazy sounds in the middle of words. Another cool person I've met is the main chef (let's call her "J"). J has published poems in a compilation of Namibian women's poems and short stories. The books are put together by a women's empowerment workshop in Windhoek, and the publication is supported by UNICEF, among others. I was so impressed by this woman, as she has lived her entire life on the farm, yet she has found a voice to speak out for change in these writings. She said she plans to write an autobiography - I love it! 

In terms of the natural surroundings here, we've seen the reserve cheetahs and leopards feeding, which is amazing to say the least. These animals are not in any way tame, but, since they are fed by humans, they're not nearly as reclusive as they would normally be. The cheetahs were literally 5 feet from the car, jumping around to get their bit of meat. The injured cheetah I spoke about before had to have its back leg amputated, unfortunately. It's a bit sad, but the owner has high hopes that she'll adapt and be able to run around with the other ones soon. Since she doesn't have to hunt for her food, she can still have a pretty good quality of life in the reserve. Speaking of the reserve, on a long walk yesterday, I heard this growling nearby, which stopped me dead in my tracks. It ended up being one of the reserve leopards, so it was on the other side of the fence, but this does make me think twice about attempting jogging alone here. Eek!

Well, that's about it for now. The dinner bell is ringing...

Friday, 15 August 2008

updates from the farm

Right now, I’m sitting by the pool in the sun as I type. It’s about 75 (that’s 25 for you Europeans), windy, and the sky is totally clear and bright blue. The scenery around here is pretty stark, as it’s the dry season, but there are animals everywhere. Just on the drive in last night, I saw a troop of baboons, 2 warthogs, and some antelope. Apparently, there are also some baby giraffes around. This morning, we went to see an injured female cheetah that’s been separated from others while she heals.  She was already somewhat used to humans since  the cheetahs are normally fed by the farm workers, so we were able to get pretty close (with the fence between us, of course). After lunch, another volunteer, Kristiana, and I went on a nature walk in the hills around the house, and we spotted some Oryx along the trail and a warthog at a stream. It’s just amazing how so much wildlife can live in this arid environment. 

On the volunteer front, I’ve been given my first assignment, which is to draft a sustainability action plan for the guest farm. The owner has done a lot already on the water conservation, recycling and community development fronts, but he’d like to review some of the latest literature and incorporate the applicable best practices.  On Monday, the kindergarten kids will be coming back, so I’m also going to start thinking about what sorts of English learning activities we can do.

Phew, lots going on, and it’s only my first day!

Monday, 11 August 2008

Here are some pics of the place I'll be staying...

Sunday, 10 August 2008

I’m wearing a fleece. It’s August 10th. Ahh, the British Isles.

Only 2 days to go until I leave for Namibia for a month, and I could not be more excited. It’s going to be dry, sunny and a totally new place to explore. My time will be spent teaching English at a guest farm kindergarten as well as helping out with anything that can leverage my research / office skills. Part of that might be to help organize some rhino tracking data, although I still need to learn to read GPS and figure out the mapping software! So much to learn in such a short time, but it's going to be great to have so many new experiences.

I guess the coolest thing about the trip will be to just see the amazing view in the morning and get to spend most of my day outside working with new and interesting people, instead of stuck in a little grey cube for hours on end. Can't wait!

Once I arrive, I'll post more about how everything is going along with pictures. More to come soon!