Cross Country

(Note: this was supposed to have been posted two weeks ago. Gettin’ crazy over here!)

Over the course past few weeks I have been traveling, literally, from one end of Namibia to the other, all for a good cause.

One of the projects I’m working one is called Building Cultural Bridges (BCB). It is the brainchild of Mike Lynch and Brett Claydon of Educators of America (EOA), a nonprofit that seeks to help students by helping teachers. BCB is an offshoot of EOA and its focus is to connect kids in different countries via teleconferencing equipment, in doing so these young people are able to directly converse and exchange cultural and academic ideas regardless of distance. Its a great program and I’m happy to be part of it.

My role has been to help facilitate the program in the Erongo Region of Namibia, and to that end I’ve helped to host several video conferences between students here and in Buffalo, NY. 

The program isn’t just to get the students talking, teachers on both sides of The Pond can and do use the conferencing equipment to chat and coordinate meetings and other projects for the students. One question does come up often, however: What’s it like to teach in (insert country here)?

It’s a valid question and one that often gets overlooked when chatting with counterparts in other countries. This brings me to the reason for my recent cross-country trekking. Mike asked me to produce a video that focuses on the teachers and their environment here in Namibia. That may sound like a simple request; interview a few teachers, slap a video together and I’m done.

Nope!

One thing I’ve learned during my stint in the PC Media Committee is that a good video is well planned. So, I started planning, and that’s when the logistical details started popping up. I wanted to give a broad perspective of the teaching environment here and the people who choose to teach in it, that meant I needed to talk to teachers in as many different geographical locations as possible, which meant I would need to travel. Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that PC does not allow volunteers to drive, so we are relegated to using the often dicier public/private transportation options. At best, you can meet some interesting people and enjoy a pleasant, air-conditioned ride for a relatively small amount of money. If you’re not lucky it’s be a cramped, smelly, dangerous, hand basket ride to Hell that is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been lucky and have had to endure only a few of the latter.

It seemed that the Namibian God of Transportation (No such deity, but there should be) smiled on me because Mike and Brett of EOA were making their annual visit here and were scheduled to head to Oranjemund (pronounced “O-ran-ye-mun”) and I was able to catch a ride with them to interview two educators, one from a private school, the other, a principal of a public school.

And so, my journey began.

Brett and Mike took the faster, less traveled, but far more scenic route, which is over dry packed dirt most of the way. They rented a 4×4 so we were able to maintain a decent speed even as the terrain grew more varied and the road less maintained. We headed out of Swakopmund down to Walvis Bay, then on C-14, a road that roughly paralleled the coast, but is much further inland.

Out of Walvis Bay the terrain is mostly flat with occasional inselbergs to break up the monotony. As we traveled further south the flat desert gave way to rocky hills and, gradually, into low, ancient mountains. We stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn to take pix. Further on the landscape became wild, rocky and raw. At one point we had to stop and just take in the view. It was otherworldly.  

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It’s like I stepped onto another planet.

We continued south to Aus, where we dropped off some supplies to friends and continued south on C-13 which borders a “Diamond Area”, an area where travel is restricted because of diamond mining. It’s a huge area and one of several in southern Namibia. After a few more hours on the the road we arrived at Oranjemund. As you might imagine, the chief industry for the town is diamond mining. For a long time the town was restricted and only residence were allowed free access. Others had to get a pass and were checked when leaving to make sure no diamonds that might have found left with them.

(The Orange Rive that borders South Africa (background). The wind on top of this hill nearly blew me off it.)

Oddly, wild oryx freely roamed the town and have done so for decades. These are large ungulates stand in size between white tailed deer and elk. They sport long, straight and very sharp horns and have been known to successfully defend themselves against lions. On a morning stroll, I walked pass several that seemed completely oblivious to me. Interacting with these beast, however, is strictly forbidden. They are wild animals and can get aggressive if you stand between them and food. 

So, should I try to feed, pet, or even get close to an Oranjemund Oryx?

Nope!

I was there on business, not sightseeing or oryx petting, so I got my interviews and other shots around the town. I caught a kombi back to Windhoek while Mike and Brett went on the Luderitz.

The very next week my host organization, The Rössing Foundation, needed me to head up to Oland (the area in northern Namibia so called because most towns have names that begin with ‘O’ and it’s mostly populated by people of the Ovambo tribes). I made arrangement to interview two teachers there and, with barely enough time to catch my breath, I was off again.

I’ve traveled to Oland many times so the route was familiar to me, but the last time I visited the area, as well as the rest of Namibia, was in the grip of a devastating drought. I talked about this in detail in an earlier post. Since my last visit the area has seen an abundance of rain. What was parched and dusty is now green and wet. Places where my RF supervisor and I drove across the last time we were here is now under at least a meter of water. The animals that survived are loving it. Cows, donkeys and goats that looked horribly thin now have less pronounced ribs and hips as they lazily munch on a veritable sea of vegetation.

Oland is home to an area that, even in its driest, has a beauty that’s hard to match elsewhere in the world. The area is between Otavi, Tsumeb, and Grootfontein and is called The Maize Triangular because it’s where most of Namibia’s corn is grown. The area is criss-crossed with extremely old mountains that are covered with shrubs and small trees. When the rain come these mountains are covered in a blanket of greenery that defies description. 

(Heading towards Tsumeb.)

Interviews in Oland done, I head back south. I still have several teacher interviews to do, but those will likely be local, an hour’s travel at most. I’m also putting together a video for the Rössing Foundation, another for COSDEC (which I haven’t started yet because of the travel. Sorry Katrina!), and I’m developing a video making workshop which the few folks who know about seem very excited about. And I only have about 5 months left! 

Gettin’ crazy over here!

And now I need to start thinking about what my next chapter will look like. I have some ideas.

Stay tuned.

Vern

The Journeymen

As much as I’ll complain about not being able to drive while in the Peace Corps, not doing so (driving, not complaining) has afforded me the opportunity to meet some interesting people while taking ‘public’ transportation. (I emphasize public because the system is very different than what I saw as public transportation in the States. Here, getting around requires you to ‘hike’, which is catching a ride in anything from a private car to private trucks, or going to a hike point and catching something going in your direction. I’ve talked about hiking in earlier posts.)

Yesterday, while at Rhino Park, a more orderly hike point in Windhoek, I struck up a conversation with a group of German Journeymen. I’d seen their kind before in Swakopmund, but thought they were a group of oddly dress young men celebrating something. In reality they are apprentice graduates who travel around the world living off their trade and gaining experience. The group I met yesterday were carpenter journeymen. 

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German Carpenter Journeymen in full regalia

There were 7 of them, all dressed in traditionally styled, heavy black cotton denim or corduroy bellbottom pants, a heavy, pocketed waistcoats, white cotton collarless shirts, and an assortment of odd hats. Everything from bowlers, to top hats, to wide rimmed carpenter’s hats, always black. I felt bad for them because they had to wear that outfit in the hot, humid Namibian sun and while stuffed in the back of a crowded kombi.

This groups, as I found out from our chat, was heading to the coast hoping to find work. I pointed them to Walvis Bay where they may find dock work, and to a backpacker’s inn where could sleep cheaply.  

To say they stood out would be an understatement. 

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No, I didn’t get their names. Yes, I should have.

One of the things I think we Americans lack are traditions like this. We have apprenticeship and journeymen ranking in some trades, but they only play lip service to what the terms mean, especially journeymen. The very term says what those who choose that route should be doing, journeying, discovering the world and using the skills you’ve learned to make the world a better place, and in return, gain experience in your trade.

I wish I had time to talk to these guys some more. I’d like to find out the depth to which they were committed to the years they traveled. I did learn that some had gone far and wide, to Japan, Brazil, and other African countries. Did they learn new techniques in their craft? Did they find themselves in places where their craft could be used to help, like hurricane ravaged Dominican Republic, or earthquake damaged villages in Tibet? These are places I can see where you gain the most experience while helping. Accommodations would be extremely limited, conditions would be hard, resources scarce, and they’d have to think beyond the textbooks to solve real world problems. What better way to advance your knowledge in a trade?

I did wish these boys luck on their journey and hope they gain and give as they go.

Ahhh, the people I meet!

Stay tuned.

Vern 

The Dry Season: An Update

It’s been nearly a month since I visited Oland and saw the devastation the ongoing drought has wrought. When I wrote the post, ‘The Dry Season’, it had started to rain in many areas in northern and central Namibia. Today was the first time since the rains have come that I’ve had a chance to travel out of the Erongo Region to Windhoek. 

As I have explain in ‘The Dry Season’ post, the lack of rain had made everything brown and dead looking. When I last traveled to Windhoek on the Trans-Kalahari Highway (B2), which heads northeast from Swakopmund to Usakos and Karibib, then east to Okahandja, where the terrain graduates from sand and the occasional inselberg to the north and rugged Khomas Mountains to the south, to rolling brush and bush covered hills and valleys, the area between Karibib and Okahandja looked like one vast tinderbox waiting for a match. 

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On a road south of the Brandberg Massif. This area hasn’t seen rain in months.

This week I had to go into Windhoek and this time the area between Karibib and Okahandja was transformed into an endless carpet of green. The area got some decent rain and is still getting an occasional shower. It’s enough to wake the bushes and the few hardy trees. Even the rocky hills, which don’t hold water, are now covered with green like stringy green comb-overs valiantly trying to cover bald spots. The further inland I go, the greener it got. I even saw puddles of water in once bone-dry riverbeds.

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Hills and clouds along B2. When I came through here a few weeks ago it was all brown under a cloudless sky. 

I’m sure the wildlife welcomes the change. I hadn’t seen the seemingly plentiful warthogs scrounging along the roadside in a very long time. This trip I saw two. I also saw a small troop of baboons, normally another common roadside sight that seemed to have disappeared during the dry season. The few cows that I saw grassing near the road were still skinny, but they looked far healthier than those I’d seen on my earlier trip.

This is the time of year when many Namibians head north to their homelands and farms. I’ve talked to some of my friends and they are overjoyed with the amount of rain they’ve gotten. Even here, in the Erongo Region, people seem happy and somewhat relieved with the amount of rain their families and friends up north have gotten.

Rainy season typically ends around the end of March to early April, that they are getting lots of rain at this point bodes well for the drought stricken and thirsty north, and all of Namibia.

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For the sake of comparison; this is a stretch of the B1 highway outside of Okahandja taken 3 weeks ago, just when the rains were starting.

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And this is the same stretch taken yesterday. What a difference.

To be clear, the drought is not over, this rain is just a reprieve. It will take several years to undo what more than 7 years of low rainfall has done, but as an African proverb says, ” A little rain each day can cause a river to overflow.” Keep your fingers crossed that these rain will eventually cause the the rivers to overflow.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Kapana

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(This picture was taken outside my house last Wednesday. It has nothing to do with kapana, I just wanted it show it to you. We get some fantastic sunsets here, but this one topped them all. It looked like the sky was on fire. And in case you’re wondering, that is an empty pool in the bottom of the photo. It was built for the miners and their families back when Rôssing Uranium ran the town and took care of their miners. Water was free and plentiful back then because uranium prices were high. Water now is too expensive to keep it filled, so it’s become a half forgotten relic, and reminder of better times.)

Every place has street food, fair that you’d find in markets, tiny shops, and street corners anywhere in the world. The best street food is often in places most tourists don’t venture. In Mexico it’s burritos, tamales and  tacos. In Thailand it’s khao pad. In Namibia it’s kapana.

During our first two months in Namibia the Peace Corps restricts our movements. Volunteers aren’t allowed to travel and explore, and for good reason. Those two months are spent orienting us to the environment and culture to better prepare us for the inevitable culture shock every volunteer experiences. During that time we have chaperoned excursions into Windhoek and other places, controlled exposure to the sights and sounds in which we’ll be immerse in for the following 24 months.

On one of those outings chaperons took us to the Open Market in Windhoek. If you’ve watched any movie or TV show where intrepid adventurers casually stroll through third world markets intaking the smells, sights, sounds and tastes of their surroundings, then you have an idea of what the Open Market we visited was like.

I’m familiar with these types of markets. I grew up in Baltimore and in several places in the city there are markets like this where vendors occupy cramped stalls and sell everything from furniture to food that would make you wanna smack someone, it’s so good. 

On one of my chaperoned visits I was introduced to kapana, which is any variety of seasoned grilled meat cooked while you’re standing there and served with a powdered spice mixture, a salsa of tomatoes and onions, and sometimes pap, a thick maize or mahagu (a local wheat-like grain) porridge you eat with your hands. 

The meat can be beef, pork, mutton, goat, chicken, and in some places, donkey. It is marinated, cut into filets and grilled. When you’re ready to buy you point out the cut of pre-grilled meat you want and the vendor will cut it into bite-size pieces, grill it some more, then serve it to you either on a plate and you can stand at the stall and eat, or you can get yours to take-away (to go) and they’ll wrap the heated meat in whatever they have available, often old newspaper. (So it’s best to bring something a bit more sanitary if you want your lunch to go.)

Last Thursday, while heading to Rehoboth (a town about 100km south of Windhoek) my supervisor decided to stop at the open market to get lunch. We had been nibbling on a bag of potato chips just before, so we used that bag for our take-away order. We didn’t get salsa or pap, just the meat. He ordered mutton, and beef liver.  

It was raining when we arrived, but it was lunch time and the stalls were humming with business. While waiting for our food to cook I shot a short video to give you an idea of what it’s like. What you’ll see is a small section of what must be 15-20 kapana vendors, all selling similar foods. When you walk up they offer you samples. We tried several and settled on the guy in front of us in the video.

That’s my supervisor with the potato chip bag in the foreground. He’s adding some of that powered spice to our lunch.

Yes, it doesn’t look very clean, and on hot days the flies are horrible to deal with, but, man! Kapana is my favorite. And kapana in the Open Market in Windhoek is the best place to get it.

Stay tuned.

Vern

 

The Dry Season

Earlier this month I spent time in northern Namibia. I was there at first with my teammates on a Media Committee assignment. That’s when I produced the Ovambo Commute video, which was my own side project. After that I met up with my supervisor who was in the area to review two projects. I tagged along with him, feeling a bit useless because, while the projects had ran into snags (not uncommon here) they were well established and there wasn’t much I could have added even if I could speak Oshivambo. Nevertheless I tried to make the best of the situation. I had been in the area before, but the last time I visited the area was much wetter. Vast flood plains  were lakes and even larger areas sported patchy green as grass, brush and trees drank up the recently fallen rain and the seemingly ever present sunshine. This is the area many Black Namibians call home, and during the holiday season this is where they gravitate to, leaving whatever employment they might have in the towns and cities to the south to spend time “on the farm”. It can seem an idyllic life, following the ebb and flow of the seasons, living close to how their ancestors lived for a millennia. But even back when I first visited things were not as good as it seemed.

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Entrance into Etosha National Park

I remember commenting to my supervisor about the amount of water that seemed to be everywhere and him looking at me with a hint of sadness in his eyes and saying that it was not enough. He tried to explain to me that the pools of water that I saw was literally a drop in a proverbial bucket compared to the rains of his childhood. He said the livestock was suffering and the wild game suffered even more. In O-Land, livestock is wealth. In normal times livestock took care of themselves. They ate, drank and reproduced with little intervention from their owners. A heard of ten cows this year might grow to 13 next year, and 15 the following year. Where else can you get a ten to thirty percent per year return on your investment?

That was in 2017.

Raining season here normally starts in October. The north and eastern areas of Namibia are usually the dampest with places like Grootfontein, Rundu and Katima Mulilo  becoming almost subtropical with amount of rainfall they receive. In recent years, however, Namibia, in general, has been seeing increasingly less rainfall. Areas that once would turn from brown to green by late October now stay parched until late November or early December. And even when the rains do come, it tends to be light and sporadic instead of widespread and heavy.

This latest visit to O-Land was like I was visiting another place altogether different than where I was in 2017. Vast areas that was once and should now be wet were dry and dusty. As I sat in the passenger side of the our bakkie (local term for a pickup truck) I couldn’t help but see the devastation the ongoing drought has wrought. The first thing I noticed was that there were fewer animals about. In O-Land, cows, goats, donkeys, and horses are free to graze wherever they can. In better times that’s not a problem. The open rain-fed wetlands were surrounded by seas of grass and scrub, plenty of fodder for livestock and wild animals alike and you could see countless herds lazily grazing as you drove by. Now, however, grass and other edible plants are nearly as rare as waterholes. The larger animals suffer most. The few cows and donkeys that amble by display ribcages and boney hips. Goats are less picky about what they eat, yet even they are far skinnier than normal. The herds I did see have been reduced to scrawny packs that search endlessly for anything edible and water to drink.

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This donkey didn’t survive.

As we drove across what would normally be under a meter or two of water I saw carcasses of cows and donkeys half buried by the blowing sand dotting the landscape. We passed several bakkies with emaciated animals lying in the bed, too weak to stand. They were heading to slaughter. The owners attempting salvage what little they could from their herds.

For a few days, I stayed at the farm where my supervisor grew up. It was a typical Ovambo homestead with walls surrounding the core houses. This one was a more modern, instead of mud walls and thatched roofs, dwelling there were concrete block with metal roofs. We had power too, though that was erratic. The cooking house had a gas stove fed by a tank. Water came from a tap within the compound and was carried  by buckets to wherever it was needed. Even here the signs of how abnormally dry it was could be seen. Chickens hung out near the water tap waiting for spillage to quench their thirst. Even the cats lapped up water from the puddles the tap made.

My supervisor’s family owns cows and sheep. They appeared to be slightly better off than others I’ve seen. While there I filled a trough with water and watched the goats eagerly slurp it up.

We were there to observe the progress made by local farming projects. The farms gets water from a concrete canal that connects to a large reservoir to the east. Just as in most places, if you have a reliable supply of water you can pretty much grow anything. One farm had rows of beets, spinach and onions., meager by American standards, but they made a beautiful sight here. 

With our primary mission completed my supervisor decided to take a ‘short cut’ through Etosha National Park, a reserve famous for its herds of wildlife. As we entered the park we could see more signs of how hard the drought as been on the land. It was my first time actually going through the park. On my last visit to the north we drove along a section of the perimeter. During that time the area was green and a large herd of zebra rushed across the road in front of us.

This time, however, we drove maybe 30km into the park before we saw any wildlife. My supervisor pointed out vast dry areas where water would normally pool this time of year. The only thing that reminded us of water the how the heat made the air shimmer in the distance, as if water was just a bit further away.

When we finally did come upon wildlife what we saw made our hearts drop. Small heads of zebra is what we saw first. The normally stocky animals were the thinnest specimens I’d ever seen. The same could be said for giraffes, gnus, and springboks. We eventually came upon a gathering of elephants that were huddled under some trees in a dry riverbed. Even these huge beasts looked baggy and worn. In fact, the only animals that didn’t seem too bad off were ostriches. We saw several flocks of them, a few appeared to be nesting, a behavior that likely wouldn’t happen if resources weren’t around to support a larger flock.

And everywhere it was dry. What little green we saw was muted by a patina of dust.

I remember watching a National Geographic program that focused on the hardship animals face while living in the African drylands. In normal times, after suffering and surviving much of the year on dwindling resources, animals struggle to hang on until the seasonal rains came. First to quench their thirst, then to eat. Plants, especially grasses, seemed to literally leap from the soil and within a week or two after the first hard rains, fields of grass appear and the wildlife settle into a period of abundance. It’s a cycle that appears to be changing as the rains come later and amount to less. 

Here’s a brief video of the wildlife in Etosha. Note how brown everything is.

As I’m writing this, about 3 weeks after my visit to O-Land, the rains have finally come. I’ve been watching the weather reports and global radars.

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Satellite/Radar of northern Namibia. Rain! and lots of it!

 

All across the north heavy, frequent storms are filling reservoirs and flood plains, washing through streams and rivers, and dousing the dryness. How long it will last is anyone’s guess, but for now, it’s welcomed relief.

Stay tuned

Vern

 

 

 

 

Ovambo Commute

When I was working for IBM I lived in Virginia and commuted to Bethesda, Maryland. It was a 35 mile (56km) drive over well maintained highways. The problem was that when I was on the road it seemed like everyone in northern Virginia was on the road too. It was managed chaos. What should have taken me 40 minutes at most usually took me 1.5 to 2 hours. And that was if there was good weather and no accidents. I’ve had 4 hour, one way commutes from time to time. It was grueling and don’t ever want to do it again.

Fast forward to this past week here in Namibia. I’m part of a team of Peace Corps volunteers, (Media Committee) who produce a variety of videos about our time here in Namibia, as well as our interactions with our Namibian counterparts. We try to give those unlucky enough not to have spent time in this beautiful country a visual and aural taste of what it’s like.

The past week the Media Committee spent time in the Oshana Region, which is very near the border of Angola. This is the area many Black Namibians, especially the Ovambo, call home. Many Black Namibians work elsewhere in the country, but during the yearly holiday season (December to January) they all go, “to the farm” where they likely grew up and where their families and friends are. This region is farmland with as many cows, goats, pigs, and sheep as there are people. In the rural areas, which most of the region is, you’ll find tiny villages with schools and churches. Often a Peace Corps volunteer, usually a teacher, will wind up in one of these villages. The Media Committee was there to make a media production about Rachel and her colleagues at a rural school. The principal of the schools, Principal Josephine, was kind enough to pick up our team of 8 and transport us to and from the school each day. A distance of 15 km (9 miles).

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Rural Oshana Region, Namibia

You might think that it isn’t much of a commute compared to the 35 miles I did in Virginia, but, as you’ll see, my 35 miles was a piece of cake by comparison.

I want to, once again, thanks Principal Josephine for hosted our team and driving us to and from the school. It was an extremely kind gesture and made our visit infinitely more enjoyable.

The video below was captured on my iPhone 8 in pieces by intention. The commute can take 25 minutes and filming the whole ride seemed pointless, so I only filmed the highlights. I also sped up the video to 1/3 its original length. Even so it’s over 3.5 minutes long.

I hope you enjoy it.

Stay tuned,

Vern