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.
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.
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.
More to come.