A year ago I was trying to figure out what good I could do here in Namibia. I had been in country a little more than nine months and was feeling like a butterfly caught in a hurricane of emotions. There were times when I could see a path forward and everything seemed to line up only to find that the path was blocked by one or more of a long list of reasons, most of which, it turns out were my fault.
Actually ‘fault’ is not the right term, it implies that I’ve done something wrong, which is only partly true. What I did, like I assume most people from “developed” countries do when they come to Namibia, or to any country not their own, is to bring my country, complete with my systems of value and ethics, with me, and I tried to do things based on those systems.
That was definitely NOT the right approach.
We Americans, in particular, see the rest of the world as somehow wanting, not quite up to our standards, and we, because we are a benevolent lot, want to bestow a bit of our greatness on anyone willing to accept it (Sometimes even on those unwilling to accept it). We come into a country thinking that our way is THE way. After all, it’s kind of worked for us for the last 200 years, right?
The problem is that our arrogance blinds us to what a country and its people are really about. This certainly was so for me when I came to Namibia. I had read up on the country, knew it had modern technology, a thriving economy and so on, but I somehow ignored all of that and was focused on getting “The African Experience”. I never saw myself as being arrogant. I have knowledge and experience and I wanted to share it. I also have time to spend doing whatever I want and I saw myself as being open to new experiences, which was, in essence the take of the give and take when dealing with a new environment. I had visions of living in a mud hut, eating gruel, learning different ways of living while building schools for poor unfortunate souls who inexplicably couldn’t build schools for themselves.
Namibia, it turns out, doesn’t need a bunch of schools built for them. They can mange building them just fine. In fact, a lot of what I’ve done is to help some Namibians, struggling to earn a living find ways around obstacles that prevents them from succeeding. Those obstacles are part of the brackish environment where traditional Namibian lifestyles meets Western ideologies. The garden project in the town where I stay is a good example. It could and should be a thriving business even though it is set up in the middle of a desert. All of the ingredients are there except for a reliable water source. I’ve been working since I’ve been here to establish a more reliable source, and I’m almost there. But as I look back on the project I have to wonder if it could have been accomplished without me and the assets I brought to bear. In other words, could a Namibian solution have solved the problem. I think it could have, but would have been a lot harder. That path would have been blocked by obstacles that I could not have found a way pass.
My experience here can be summed up as follows: Forget everything you think you know about Africa and Namibia in particular, because nothing is what it appears to be.
Namibia is not some backwards little country ruled by warring dictators. It’s a democracy, and a young one at that, complete with the growing pains typical of a young country. It’s people come from nearly every ethnic group imaginable, though the Black Namibians are primarily of Bantu decent. You’ll find Whites of German and Dutch ancestry, a variety of mixed race tribes who refer to themselves Coloured and Basters, and immigrants from as far away as India, China, and several countries in South and Central America.
The country is still feeling the affects of its history of colonialism and apartheid, it is still feeling out its social and political fabric. That, in large part, contributes to how it views its place in the world.
There are problems at every social, political and economic level and to a tourist or visitor these problems may seem endemic and unsolvable. When I first arrived at my site I felt completely overwhelmed by what I perceived as the problems I was supposed to help resolve and by issues I thought no amount of outside influence could fix. But if one can step back for a moment and look at Namibia at the 10,000 meter level one might see that the overwhelming problems I faced as I unpacked are no different than those found elsewhere in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Great U.S. of A. It was the fixes that are different and that is what we, those of us who come to help, can’t see. At least, not initially.
It took me the better part of my first year to understand that while the problems here can be found anywhere, it will take a uniquely Nambian solution to fix them. We can’t “Westernize” Namibia’s issues away, wipe our hands as we climb on a plane bound for home and think we’ve done some good work. Time after time western solutions to problems here wind up abandoned or half finished and we wonder why, or worse, blame Namibians.
We Westerners fail to consider that Black Namibians have lived here for thousands years, Namibians of other ethnic decent have been in country for hundreds of years. Their way of living is as ingrained in them as taking a breath. We also fail to see that the causes of many of the issues Namibia faces is due to it being pulled into a world that doesn’t always fit them. A good example of this can be found in the ‘Locations’, areas around towns and cities where those who can’t afford housing build shacks out of any materials they can find, usually sheet metal and wood. Most of these shacks don’t have running water, poor sanitation facilities, no power. There’s little in the way of urban planning so streets are often narrow and haphazardly created. The only concession some municipalities may offer is occasional overhead street lighting and water stations for filling jugs.
When I first arrived I couldn’t understand why local governments allowed people to live in such horrible conditions. It took several conversations and months of observation to scratch the surface of how these locations came to be and why they persist.
Black Namibians tend to have family and farms in the norther regions. There they live a subsistence lifestyle where the number of cows determine a family’s riches. Homes are made of concrete block and metal roofs or the more traditional mud and stick walls and thatched roofs. Floors are dirt, cooking is done outside over an open fire, and kids run barefoot. Here outsiders will find the real Namibia where people are friendly, neighbors take care of one another and the pace of life follows the changes of the seasons and the movement of the herds.
What disrupts this idyllic lifestyle is the desire for “things”. The young ones watch movies and TV, see relatives who have gone to the cities and found good paying jobs and they believe that riches awaits them if they leave the farms and head to town. Many are only minimally educated so they wind up taking what few low paying jobs there are which don’t pay enough to rent a decent flat. Also, many send much of what they earn back north to their families, keeping barely enough to make it to the next paycheck. They minimize expenses by living in the shacks. They reason that it’s only temporary, and for some, it is, but for many more it become their new existence. As with many who live hard lives, they often find escape in alcohol or worse, which further entrenches them in poverty. They could go home, but often there’s a matter of pride. They’ve left the farm to make a fortune, they don’t want to return home empty handed.
That is just one facet of just one of the many issues facing Namibia, one that will require a uniquely Namibian solution. Which bring me back to why I’m here. My presence, my job here isn’t to save Namibia by instilling western business ideologies into the local populace. My job, as I see it now, is to find a way to bridge my knowledge and culture with those of my Namibian counterparts and to find sustainable solutions to problems we face. What should happen, if I do it right, is that as we address issues we come away with new knowledge that is applicable here and may find use elsewhere. In other words, my Namibian counterparts and I both learn something new and, hopfully, find innovative ways to address issues that affects not only Namibia, but the rest of the world.
Sounds like a tall order, but it isn’t as hard as one might think. To start all it takes is to step out of our world, remove the Western blinder and truly see what is around us. Only then can we become effective agents of change. Of course, removing our blinder may not be easy. We first have to recognize that we have them.