Zambezi: Part Two

As I’ve mentioned in Part One of this post, The Zambezi Region was fabled to be rich in wildlife and foliage. After spending my first year in the Namib Desert, I was looking forward to some lush greenery full of chattering, chirping, squawking, grunting, roaring animal life. I am from Florida, though not a native, year-round greenery has become part of my DNA.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the desert, but I do miss the rain.

So, it seemed a good omen that it rained the first night we were there. It was a light rain, lasting maybe 15 minutes, but to a man from a land where rain can be a daily occurrence, that drizzle was a godsend.

The next morning was cool and sunny, and me and my media pals went to work documenting Krissy, the Peace Corps volunteer assigned to the remote village we’d traveled so long to get to.

There were many things that didn’t quite jive with what I’d been told about the Zambezi Region. Yes, there’s water, lots of it, in fact. The Zambezi River was maybe a kilometer from the village and even in the dry season, which it was during our visit, the river is wide and deep. But I wouldn’t consider the area we were in lush. In fact, while there were certainly more trees around, I’d say it was sandier than the desert I’ve lived in for the passed year. And far more hazardous. 

On the first night there Krissy warned us not to go barefoot, “There are spikey things everywhere.”

In the Namib, like in the deserts in the southwest U.S., plants tend to have thorns or spikes. Cactus is what most people think of when calling to mind a spikey plant. In the Namib even the few tree that there are have spikes that would put the thorniest cactus to shame. Branches are covered with inch long sewing needle sharp spikes that could easily puncture flip-flops and even some running shoes. But those spikes are relatively rare on the ground, and when they are you can normally see them before stepping on them. Where we were in the Zambezi Region, thorns and spikes are far more insidious, they are buried in the sand. No matter where you step you will almost always step on something sharp. The only saving grace was that most of the spikes and thorns are relatively small, not long enough to go through an average pair of flip-flops. But they do get stuck in the flip-flops. I spent many mindless minutes pulling thorns from my sandals and wondering how was it possible that the kids in the area can go barefoot without pulling thorns from their bloodied feet after every stroll.

Typical thorns on a typical tree in the Namib

And if the thorns aren’t enough, check out these eye-stabbing beauties…

Video: These could’ve been in my foot!!!

I mentioned that the Zambezi River is a short, thorny walk away. That doesn’t mean that there was plenty of potable water. People do use river for drinking water after its been filtered and boiled, but that’s not the normal situation. The village gets its drinking water from a borehole a few kilometers away. At the time of our visit, the pump that supplies water to the surrounding homesteads was broken and the only other source of water was from a private borehole within the village. The owner sold water to his neighbors for a relatively small amount of money, but he did charge. So, a morning and evening ritual for most homes was fetching water from the neighbor.

Water is heavy.

I have a full 100 liter tank the Peace Corps requires us to keep and I struggle to move it. Kids in the village half my size haul 25 liter tanks of water as part of their daily chores.  Women magically balance those tanks on their heads and walk over terrain I stumble over without a load. Even our host, Krissy, had to fetch water, but she had the use of a wheelbarrow. Even so, it was not work for the weak. (Try hauling 75 liters of water in a wheelbarrow through loose sand. Should be an Olympic event.)

If you can get pass the buried spikes and water hauling you start to see Zambezi for what it really is. Beautiful. Our days there were warm, breezy and bright, and night were cool and crystal clear. I’ve seen the Milky Way often enough in my town, and I’m still blown away by the view. Where we were in Zambezi there far fewer lights at night and the sky was so full of stars, the Milky Way so bright I could actually see my shadow from it.

Then there are the people. They are kind, generous, hardworking and everything I’ve come to know what Namibians can be. I live in a mining town and it is a melting pot of cultures, languages, beliefs and much more. It is also driven by the quest for money. That quest becomes all encompassing and often overrides what innate ethics Namibians have. For instance, often when people in my town learn that I’m an American (Because of my skin color most initially assume I’m Namibian and ask what tribe I belong to.) it won’t be long before I’m asked for money. It has gotten to a point where I don’t like to be social because people will assume I will pay for their drinks, their food, and more. In Zambezi people are will give you things, are quick to help, and are very curious about who you are and where you are from.

I also found that in Zambezi, and it’s likely true is most regions in the north of Namibia, people adhere closer to their tribal culture which includes singing and dancing at functions. There wasn’t a day that went by during our stay that we didn’t hear some group singing and people, even adults, are likely to break out in a dance if they hear a good beat.

Boys leaving school. One of the school building is on the right, our tents on the left.

By American standards, the village we were in might be considered poor. Homes had no indoor plumbing, some had no electricity. Cooking was done over an open fire and homes are made of mud with thatched roofs. But it would be wrong to think of these folks as being poor. They have everything they need, though some things are a bit harder to get and maintain than others. For instance, the village school stay open at night so students can study in the electrically lit classrooms, and teachers are on hand to help and answer questions. Parents and teachers get together to discuss how best to educate the kids. There are well attended parent/teacher meetings too. Even by those who don’t have children in school will attend. 

Me with some of the local boys who was curious about movie making and photography.

The village residents earn their living primarily from the river through fishing, or by farming. It is a much simpler life, devoid of the urban bustle that will stress even those born in it. Here, one can understand the term, “Namibian time” to mean that life doesn’t have to be rushed to be well lived. 

I like that.

After 5 full days of filming, photographing and interviewing, our team was ready to leave. Sleeping in a tent while there was not the best experience. During the day the slightest breeze blew fine sand into our tents no matter how tightly we buttoned everything up. I had the shake out my sleeping bag nightly before going to sleep, but by the third day I was was just trying to shake out the heavier grains of sand. The fine sand gets into everything and it’s useless to try to avoid it. 

Media Team member, Katie, waiting for our transportation

Even my camera was affected by the ultra fine dust. I have a Canon GX-7 Mark II, an excellent travel camera. Almost all the photos you’ve seen in this blog were taken with it. The only downside is that the camera isn’t dust proof. It had survived the Namib with only a few particles getting into the lens, but Zambezi proved too much for it and the automatic lens cover jammed. When it finally freed itself after repeatedly turning the camera on and off, it left a sizable scratch on the lens. Luckily it doesn’t affect most of the shots I take with the camera, but you can tell its been through a lot.

Media Team relaxing around an open fire.

The day came to leave Zambezi behind, and while we were eager to get back to a bed with less sand and a real shower, I, for one, felt a bit sad to leave. We had scaled and baked fish fresh from the Zambezi River over an open fire. We had bathed outside in a stall made of sticks. We had watched the local youths perform a native dance. We had slept on lumpy sand under the stars. We had lived among people who loved their life, their community, their culture. And we had witnessed how a Peace Corps Volunteer can be truly integrated in an environment so different that many back home just could not handle it.

Sun setting on the Zambezi River

Our trip back to our sites were fairly uneventful. Elephants and other wildlife remained hidden from us. I still have several months left in my service. Maybe elephants are still in my future. This is Namibia, after all, you never know what’s beyond the next rise.

Stay tuned.


Zambezi: Part One

I recall watching a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episode that featured the Zambezi River. The TV show host, Marlin Perkings, showed animals nervously drinking from the muddy river, hoping to quench their thirst and not become dinner for the huge crocodiles that lurked nearby. It wouldn’t be a nature show if it didn’t show the waters erupting in flurry of reptilian jaws as some poor antelope was snatched and dragged into water and its doom, completing the ‘Circle of Life’.

Back then I wanted to be Mr. Perkings and witness the life and death dramas played out every moment on the African plains and riversides. I didn’t know that, to catch those sequences of life and death struggles, film crews waited days, sometimes weeks to shoot just one clip. Life and death and everything in between plays out at its own pace oblivious to the wants and machination of Man. But I didn’t know that back then. I thought Africans saw such happenings daily, like we see cows, pigs and chickens on local farms or dogs and cats in our urban homes. All one had to do was go there and witness these spectacles play out like scheduled Broadway shows.

Fast forward about 50 years, as much life experience and the luck of being selected by the Peace Corps to serve in Namibia. I now know that even back then the Wild Kingdom film crews were lucky to get the shots they did. Even so, when the opportunity to go to the Zambezi Region of Namibia came about I couldn’t help but hope to see African wildlife near rivers or hanging out and doing whatever it was that African wildlife does. Specifically, I wanted to see elephants in the wild. I’ve seen zebras, and giraffes, warthogs and baboons, herds of Rock Hyraxes and Springboks, flocks of Love Birds and flamingoes, even a huge colony of penguins, but I’ve yet to see a single elephant in the wild. The Zambezi trip was a real chance to rectify that.

The trip to the Zambezi Region was work related, I’m part of media crew and we were to document the daily routine of a teaching volunteer assigned to a remote village.

When I first found out that I was actually going to spend 2 years in Africa I fully believed that I would do it living in a mud hut, cooking my daily gruel over an open fire and spending my days building schools, aqueducts, or figuring out how to grow crops in a land with an annual rainfall of less than a tenth of an inch per year. Never mind that I hadn’t so much as camped in my backyard and every houseplant I owned was artificial because I always managed to kill the live ones. We Americans have such a narrow view of the rest of the world. So it was a big surprise when I learned that my assignment was in a fairly modern town, my home for my two year stay is a relatively large 4 bedroom house with hot and cold plumbing. My office has a large, sun filled window and air conditioning. On most weekends I can get a croissant that rivals the best I’ve had anywhere. I was honestly more than a little disappointed. I really wanted the ‘African Experience’.

As it turns out, not every Peace Corps volunteer winds up in offices in some urban center, some actually do get to stay in mud huts and eat traditional foods while executing their Peace Corps duties. The volunteer we interviewed in the Zambezi Region was one such lucky person. She stayed in a Silozi Homestead and taught science at the local school.

When I learned that I was going to go to the Zambezi Region with my media crewmates I was excited. Five-plus days in a region famous for its wildlife, its simpler way of life, its very ‘African Climate’. How could I not be stoked? We even planned to sleep in tents during our stay. Turns out we had to because the village is so remote there aren’t any commercial or semi-commercial lodgings available. We’d set up our tents outside the volunteer’s compound, cook over an open fire (on occasion it turns out), and live, as much as we could, like the locals. We’d truly be getting a fuller sense of the ‘African Experience’.

To top all of that off, there was a very good chance we’d see elephants in the wild! Oh boy! Oh boy! OH BOY!!!

The day came to travel, which I normally have no problem with. As a Peace Corps volunteer, we are not allowed to drive anytime during our service. A cruelty meant to keep us safe. So, we travel as the less affluent Namibians do, we hike. A fellow volunteer and media crewmate, Maggie, hiked with me, so the first leg of our two-day trek was with familiar company and through familiar territory. We hiked to Otjiwarongo (pronounced, “Oat-gee-var-rongo”), the gateway to the northern regions, then to Rundu (Pronounced: “Rune-doo” and you trill the ‘R’.) where we took lodging and met up with the rest of our team.

All packed up and ready to go!

Rundu is a large town as towns go in Namibia. It has all of the amenities, including rush hour traffic. We spent one night in there and found a transport to Katima, the capital of the Zambezi Region. If you take a look at a map of Namibia you’d see why this leg of the journey is so interesting. Zambezi is the easternmost region connected to the bulk of Namibia by geo-political isthmus, a strip of land that starts in the Kavango East Region to the west, with Angola to the north and Botswana to the south. The single major roadway is B8 and, as I was told, “here, there be elephants!”

We were lucky enough to get a driver who had a small 7-seat vehicle, which we filled with equipment and ourselves. I sat in the copilot seat, camera ready to record the largest land mammal in its natural setting. Of course I was excited when we set out that morning. Partly cloudy skies meant a cooler trip, and I had a commanding view of the road ahead. After an hour or so of our 5 hour trip we started seeing elephant crossing signs. I took them as a good omen. Elephants would soon appear grazing languidly along the roadside, mother pachyderms shielding their rambunctious kids from trucks and other road hazards, agitated bulls flaring ears and shaking their huge heads, trumpeting at our intrusion. My hands became sweaty as I griped my camera in anticipation.

They promised elephants!!

After 2 hours the only animal life we saw were dogs, donkeys, cows, goats and, occasionally, their herders. Not exactly wild, but the cows, donkeys and sheep tended to play in traffic, crossing the road whenever the moods struck them. Still the signs we saw promised elephants, and began to be emphatic about it. First you’d see the elephant crossing sign then several meters behind you’d see another, but one had a ‘!’ sign above it as if to say, “Elephants! No, really! We’re not kidding!! Elephants!!” If my excitement was waning it was rekindled after seeing these signs. There must be elephants ahead. Patience, Vern! Patience!!!

Donkey determined not to let us pass

4 hours into the trip and the signs promising elephants, even the insistent ones, seemed no more than a lie. We had passed fields, rivers and flood plains with pools of water, perfect places for elephant hangouts, or so I thought, but we saw none. Our driver explained that it was mid afternoon and the beasts were likely deeper into foliage, were its cooler and away from people.

Trust us! Elephants here!

Well, that’s just great! No elephants! Maybe we’ll see some on our return trip.

We arrived in Katima late in the afternoon. Katima is the largest town in the Zambezi Region and also a shopping hub for the region. You can pretty much find anything you might want or need in the stores and shops, but the best place to go if you want to see real Namibian shopping is the open market, where local vendors offer up everything from fish, to handmade tuxedoes. It’s a cacophony sounds, smells, and sights all vying for your attention. It’s hard not to look like a tourists there. Even I stood out, my mannerisms were so un-local-like. I supposed me whipping out my camera didn’t help me blend in much either, but I couldn’t help it. There was beauty everywhere.

My teammates spent plenty buying chitenges and souvenirs. Even I bought a traditional dashiki.

We camped out in the living room of a local volunteer which foreshadowed our sleeping arrangements for the next seven days. Concrete floors are not the most comfortable, especially for an aging body like mine. Sleep was elusive.

The next day we got a ride to our final destination late in the afternoon. When we finally arrived at the small village, a little more than several homesteads near a minor crossroads, the sun was setting, we still had to setup our tents and arrange for dinner.

Did I mention that I’ve only slept in a tent 3 times in my life, and have set up a tent twice before? I’d never set up a tent in the dark and the tent I had, one I borrowed from a friend, looked easy enough to construct, so I wasn’t worried. It had only one tention pole, after all. How hard could it be?

Woman and child fetching water in the village where we stayed

45 frustrating minutes later my humble temporary abode stood, somewhat lopsided, in the sand. To the credit of its designers, not my ability to figure it out, the tent accepted me and my belongings without collapsing and I was able to get into my sleeping bag without too much ceremony. After a light dinner and media team meeting I settled into my new sleeping arrangements determined to make the best of the experience.

So ends the first part of my Katima journey. More to come shortly.

Stay tuned.