Namibia: Dust to Dust

Namibia gets its name from one of its largest and iconic geographical features, the Namib Desert. As one would expect, the Namib is dry, very dry. Average rainfall is less than a tenth of an inch a year. It’s been a desert for an estimated 60 million years, making it one of the oldest deserts in the world. To the east of the Namib is another desert, The Kalahari. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean and desert’s winds blow mostly from east to west, limiting any advancement of moisture from the ocean to inland regions, making the air extremely dry and dusty.

Dust is everywhere and gets into everything. You breath it, drink it, eat it. It permeates your clothing, your hair, and gets into your eyes. There is no escaping it. Dust is part of the environment, like moisture is in a rainforest.

When a westerner first comes to Namibia and sees a boy covered in dust we think that child is that way because he’s poor and can’t afford clean water and soap. His clothes are ragged because his parents can’t afford to dress him in anything newer, cleaner.

While that may be true for some what we fail to realize is that these people live in this very dry, very dusty environment and they have adapted. That child is dusty because that’s where he lives. His clothes are ragged because new clothes would soon be in the same shape in this unforgiving environment. Newer clothes are saved for school, church, or special occasions. We fail to see that while he is running barefoot through the dust he is laughing and playing like any other child anyplace else in the world. If we looked closer we’d see that he is well fed, has a place to sleep, and has a family that cares for him. His needs are all met and he is not suffering, but prospering. It is the dust that clouds our perception of him.

View of the Namib from atop Mt. Arandis


The wind blows and with it comes more dust. It comes through the cracks around the doors and windows and settles on everything in my house. I sweep out and mop my house once a week and I’m always surprised at how much dust I have in my dustpan. I wipe down surfaces and the cloth and it always comes away brown.

Dust.

On Sundays I do laundry. I don’t have a washing machine, but I’m luckier than some because I have a bathtub and I can hand scrub my laundry there.

It’s winter here in Namibia, a period that’s even drier than the rest of the year, if that’s even possible. The days can be warm and the nights very cool. I wear jeans and khakis a lot and, as you’ve might have guessed by now, they get very dusty. When I wash them after a week’s wear the water is always a dirty brown. Shirts fair better, it’s the collars and cuffs that get a brown stain.

A great thing about the desert, anything you hang out to dry, regardless of how wet it is, dries quickly. Dripping wet jeans are bone dry in an hour. Shirts take about 20 minutes. Underwear are dry in 15 minutes! Nearly everything is wash and wear here.

Least you think that the boy I described earlier walks around with years of dust layered on him you’ll be relieved to learn that children here often bathe at least once a week, on Sundays from what I can tell. Two Sundays ago I set out to climb Mt. Arandis. While in route I came upon about 7 kids, between 3 and 5 years old, lying wet and nearly naked (they had on wet underwear) in the middle of the street. The morning was cooler than most, but the sun had been up a while and had warmed the asphalt. The kids were drying themselves after a bath. They were lying next to each other chatting and giggling, some with eyes closed, apparently enjoying what must feel similar to the sensation we get when we snuggle in towels and sheets fresh from a dryer on a cool day.

You may wonder if lying in the street defeats the purpose of bathing. The answer is clearly, no. Remember, there is no escaping dust. If you stand completely still you’ll quickly wind up with a layer of it. Bathing cleans and refreshes, but there is always dust. They’ve learned to live with it. I’m beginning to. I mop my floors and wash my clothes and accept that my efforts are only temporary. I now look pass the dust and see the bright smile and shining eyes of the child beneath. I see the Namib as a living environment that exhales sand and dust made of mountains nearly as old as the Earth itself. I breathe it all in deeply and I look out into the desert and watch as the dust tinted light of the setting sun paints the sand red, and I smile.

Sunset on the Namib


More to come.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: Up North and Here

Again I must apologize for being slow on my post updates. Whenever I think there will be a span of free time for me to sit and write I discover it’s just not so. Such is the case this passed two weeks.

I have been:
– Trying to get my home for the next two years in some kind of order
– Meeting people in my community
– Trying to understand my new assignment duties
– Trying desperately not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the needs I must address over the next 24 months

And the list goes on and on. And, as if I don’t have enough to do already, I went and joined the PC Namibia Media Committee. Our job is to tell the world the Peace Corps story through a variety of traditional and current social media. My first assignment was in northern Namibia where we interviewed Krystal, a PCV living and working in the Ohangwena Region.

What an eye-opening experience.

Some PCVs join The Corps thinking they’ll live in a mud hut, eat bugs for breakfast, learn strange native customs all while teaching their hosts and the surrounding community some fundamental skill. Maybe that was true back in the 60’s, but today it’s harder to realize that romanticized idea of PC life. We do teach and render aid, but more often than not PCVs, especially those in the Economic Development arm of the Peace Corps, will find themselves assigned to urban areas where often the need is greater.

Krystal heading home

Krystal, on the other hand and to a large extent, is living that idealized life. For the passed year or so she’s been working as a health care volunteer in the Ohangwena Region and while her hut isn’t mud and has a concrete floor as per PC requirements, her roof is thatched and she live in an Ovambo homestead. The homestead is basically a collection of small buildings surrounded by a wooded wall. It’s like small forted community where the citizenry are all related. The walls serves as a pen for smaller domestic animals and living space for family members whose ranks can swell to 15 or more, depending on the time of year or family event. The kitchen is traditionally outside. Older relatives may have their own hut, or live in the main house, which is larger and may contain a food prep area, bathrooms and gathering space.

Inside an Ovambo Homestead


Krystal has her own hut which is spacious enough for a large bed, closet, at least 2 desks and still have plenty of room to move around. I was envious. It can be dusty, goats and chickens wander by your door from time to time, you are far from any modern convenience, but the experience is pure, and it can feel genuine. By comparison, I have an air conditioned office with a computer running Windows 10, and an alarm system in my concrete block house. To be able to experience just a bit of what Krystal does, even for a few days, was just what I needed.

A dapper tatè (fatherly old man)


My experience didn’t stop there. One of the tasks I had was to take still shots of the environment; the people and the day to day activities they pursue. I did get some really nice photos too. I’m sprinkling a few here.

Something to crow about


It’s a rich environment, full of sights and sounds that are both foreign and familiar. Cows, goats, chickens, and even donkeys graze alongside the road unfazed by the roar cars and trucks zooming by. When they decide to cross, they do and traffic slows to avoid them. The landscape in this region reminds me of north Florida. It’s flat, dotted with palms and other trees, and here and there were pools of water, or places where water was and will be once the rains begin in Summer. (I know it may seem counterintuitive to some, but it’s Winter here. Similar to Winters in Florida, it’s relatively dry and sunny. In northern Namibia Summer brings rains, and crops and livestock flourish. As I understand it, the area becomes lush with vegetation, dry river beds come raging back to life, and the whole area is transformed into a seasonal Eden. I hope to see this for myself while I’m in Namibia.)

Market Day Delights


As part of the media committee I get to travel to many places in Namibia for projects, so I’ll get to see parts of the country other PCVs may not. But I’m also finding beauty here in the desert.

For instance, the weekend before I traveled north I decided to climb a local mountain, Mt. Arandis. It’s small in comparison to other peaks in the area, but this one is relatively accessible. The peak is a mere 2460 ft above sea level, but once at the top the view is spectacular. Local beauty.

View from atop Mt. Arandis.


And in another instance, the night I got back from up north fog rolled in from the Atlantic, which is about 60km from here. The mist makes everything look mysterious. The starkness of the desert is hidden and what you can see, even the familiar, looks strange and otherworldly. More local beauty.

Student heading to school in morning fog


There’s so much I can talk about, but I need to address other things, so I’ll pause this for now. More to come soon.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: Observations #2

People like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are beyond rich. That doesn’t make them bad people and we shouldn’t hold anything against them or their wealth, but the amount of money they have can make the word ‘rich’ seem like an obscenity. Gates and Buffet are generous, through foundations and other organizations they give back to the world that gave them their wealth in grand and purposeful ways.

Merriam-Webster defines counterpoint as, “the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture…” There are counterpoints to the Gates and Buffets of the world, and I recently discovered one here in Namibia.

My language instructor, Martha Bezuidenhout (lovingly called Auntie Martha), recently told me a story of a time in her childhood when her family was rich.

This was back during Apartheid and her father worked on a dairy farm. Circumstances occurred where her father needed to buy a cow to support his family’s need for milk (more on that story in an upcoming post), so he asked his employer if he could buy one of the cows on the farm. His employer agreed and in the following years Martha’s father was able to expand his cattle holdings into a nice sized herd and was able to sell cream to others, thus further supplementing the family’s income. When a cow was butchered they just gave away any meat they didn’t use themselves to others in the community. Because her family owned cows and had a small plot of land on which to grow crops her family always had food, even enough to share with those less fortunate. As Auntie said with a gleam in her eyes as she smiled at the memory, “We were so rich!”

Auntie Martha


To Auntie Martha the term ‘rich’ meant to not know hunger, and to be able to help reduce hunger in her village. The memory of her father’s industriousness and ability to provide for his family, his wealth, is an important part of who Martha is. Her father’s wealth, small compared to a well paid technician in a Fortune 500 company in America, was enough to define and shape a person who went on to become a teacher and, in turn, positively affected the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of students.

And now she has positively affected me with her warmth, patience, insight, and intelligence.

Martha Bezuidenhout is not rich monetarily, her wealth lies in a lifetime of knowledge and experience, and her ability and need to share that wealth enriches the lives of all she comes in contact with. She and those like her are the counterpoints to the Gates and Buffets, who, together and in their own way, give to make the harmonic texture of our world richer.

Stay tuned. 

Vern