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

Thoughts on the Psychology of Poverty

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A shanty town near Windhoek, Namibia 

A friend recently made a statement that, though he later rephrased it, made me think about a subject that I not only have lived through, but am actively trying to address during my stint in the Peace Corps. 

My friend and I were discussing the possible promotion of a colleague when he stated that others viewed the colleague as lazy. When I asked if he thought the colleague was lazy he replied, “No more or less than the average (Insert ethnic or social group here).“ 

When I asked if he thought the average (ethnic/social group) was lazy he rescinded the term ‘lazy’ in favor of them being unmotivated. 

This line of thinking is not new to me, I’ve heard it said about me and members of my family, the group I ethnically identify with (African American), and people of every color, social, financial, or religious affiliation by people of every color social financial or religious affiliation. Here in Namibia I’ve heard it used by members of one tribe when referring to members of another tribe. I’ve heard it used by White Namibians when referring to Black Namibians. I’ll even admit to following this course of thinking myself from time to time, especially when I get frustrated when trying to help someone, or get tired of people asking for or expecting things from me because they think I’m rich. While I believe that the lack of motivation, even abject laziness can be factors in the status of individuals, I know it is wrong to apply such generalized labels to any group of people. Yet, we do it. I do it. Maybe because it’s an easy way to dismiss people. Which, in itself, is lazy.

I was born and raise in poverty. I have known my share of a lack of inspiration and desire, and regardless of the reasons, I have fallen in lengthy states of slothfulness. There are times, even now, when I just don’t want to bother. I know I’m not alone in this. I would propose that many born to wealth experience the same lack of motivation. I have known people who come from well heeled families whose only apparent desire is siphon as much as they can from the family fortune while doing as little constructively with their lives as possible. To the unfortunate parents and those around him or her, this person could also be seen as lazy and unmotivated. So, it seems that these terms can apply to anyone regardless of who they are or where they fit in the world.

If some of the poor are not just lazy or unmotivated, I would even venture that most of them aren’t given the amount of physical effort they put in to making a meager life for themselves, then what is it that keeps them poor? Why is it that, when given the opportunity to better themselves, some poor people will ignore said opportunity or do something to derail it, putting them back into the poverty hole they began in?

There have been many studies and subsequent articles (* I’ve listed a few at the end of this post, but there are hundreds more available.) written on the psychology of poverty and most seem to have a common thread; that the poverty mindset is complex and that there is no one cause or definitive process for addressing it. Even so, many studies have notice several major themes associated with those who live and continue to live in poverty regardless of the help provided. One theme in particular resonates with me and I can attest to its validity, that is the notion that poverty is self-perpetuating. To be more succinct: Poor people are poor because they don’t know how not to be.

I mentioned earlier that I was born into poverty. This is true. My parents struggled all of their lives and barely made enough to scrape by. I’ve known more days than I care to count that I’ve gone to bed hungry and wondered not only what, but when would I eat again. My mother was neither lazy or unmotivated, but she saw a life outside of the day to day struggle for the most basic of needs as fairy tales best viewed wistfully on our ancient black and white TV (when it worked). When we did have money it was spent on the urgent necessities of the moment.

Still, there were times when we had enough food to eat, rent was not several months behind, and power and water bills were paid in full. Those were happier times, but as I look back on them I realize that my parents did little or nothing to keep from falling into the hole again. According to many of the studies I mentioned, poor people are unduly stressed and because of it they try to find ways to alleviate the stress, which usually winds up being decisions based on immediate emotional needs and not those that might end or help reduce the causes of the stress in the long term. So, any extra money is spent on unnecessary, often expensive things that return immediate pleasure, and actions follow a similar course. When the regular source of income vanishes there was nothing to fall back on, and the poverty cycle starts again.

I believe that people, in general, are creatures of habit. We do things because it is the way it’s always been done. When people who are used to a way of life are given a choice to move out of that life into something unknown, but has the potential of being better than where they are, people will often choose to remain where they are. If we apply the tenant of the aforementioned studies to this situation we might assert that a person, faced with a choice of going into the unknown or staying where he or she is, will choose to stay even if staying perpetuates a miserable condition because the only thing about the unknown that this person may see is that there will be more stress, and in a life already brimming to overloaded with stress, more is to be avoided. This is something I’ve also experienced and have firsthand knowledge of from those close to me who were faced with such choices. I was able to see the possibilities for what they were and took advantage of them, and I was able to coach people close to me to do the same. The results were almost always positive or no better than where we were before the change.

We can argue all day about the semantics and definition of what is a “better life” and what it takes to achieve such. That’s not my focus. All I’m saying is that there are reasons for why people do what they do, and more often than not those reasons are as deep and complex as any life. To dismiss an action or condition to triviality and generalities is to ignore the complexities of life itself. I must also reiterate that my discussion is not a generalization, it is just one facet of why I believe poverty persists regardless of the countless hours and mounds of dollars we throw at it in attempts to fix it.

The question is then: Can poverty be fixed or are we just spinning our altruistic wheels, fooling ourselves into thinking that we are doing some good when in reality, we are not? Can we eliminate the causes of poverty so that everyone can enjoy a full and prosperous life? 

Sadly, I believe the answer is that there will always be poor people, but I also believe that we, who try to help, aren’t just spinning our wheels. I believe that not every person who finds himself or herself in financial straights should suffer in poverty. I believe there are those who can benefit from a helping hand and we should do what we can to offer that hand. I believe we must endeavor to continue to address the causes of poverty so as to give those who need the help, get the help they need to improve their lives and the lives of their families. I think I am proof that a person born in poverty does not have to remain in poverty. My life is better because I had help when I needed it and learned to make and continue to make better choices. In turn, my children’s lives are better, and their children’s lives have the potential to be even better. I believe it can happen to anyone who wants it. 

That’s why I’m here, and I will continue to try to help those trying to escape poverty no matter where I wind up. 

Stay tuned

Vern

What Have I Been Up To???

I’m going to stop apologizing for not writing more. Those of you who follow this blog regularly know I have a lot going on and the time to write an essay about my experiences seems to get more elusive than ever these days. Still, I need to write more, even if they are shorter posts, and I will. This one will be somewhat lengthy, however, so settle in, get comfy, and read on.

To start with, I am 2 months into my 1 year Peace Corps extension. I decided to extend for various reasons, which I have expressed in earlier posts, but the short version is that there were projects that were close to being finished or at least in a state where they could be finished by a volunteer who may follow me, and I loathe leaving things unfinished. That’s especially true for endeavors that involve others.  In the photo below you’ll see my “Task Board” which should give you an idea of how I keep busy.

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My tasks list doesn’t seem to be getting any shorter

I’m very happy to report that two of my major projects have made major gains. I may have talked about Dreamland Garden and the Water Mitigation Project in other posts. Again, the short version is that the garden, which is a project I inherited from the previous volunteer, is once again on a path to profitability because we were able to stabilize an inexpensive source of water. Farming in a desert is counterintuitive, especially without a dependable water source. Dreamland Garden now gets their water for free from a nearby town. The water is recycled and has been tested positive for human consumption. My project stabilized this water source by increasing the amount of water stored at the garden from 10,000 liters to 30,000 liter. We also improved the solar/electric system and irrigation system to make water usage more efficient. We are beginning to harvest our first sellable crops in almost a year and a half and we are very excited.

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The garden is prospering!!

The second big project I also inherited. A group of small scale mineral and precious stone miners live is a beautiful, but desolate place because they are close to the stones they mine and the market where they sell their gems and crystals to tourists and collectors. There are about 50 families living in that nearly inhospitable place in sight of Spitzkoppe, a World Heritage site and one of the places were ancient wall paintings can be found.

When I say that their location is beautiful and desolate I mean it in every sense of the words. It is a harsh, dry, windswept place that sees less than an inch of rainfall a year, and that’s when there isn’t a drought gripping the entire country. The stones they mine are beautiful and fetch a decent price when tourist stop by. With the money they earn they must hire someone to transport water to them and find means to cut and polish the rocks they mine to make them more attractive to tourists, who stop there in route to Spitzkoppe and other natural attractions. 

In 2015 a group of philanthropists built a market for them so that they wouldn’t have to sell the stones on the roadside, which was extremely dangerous given the poor road conditions, high speeds and heavy truck traffic the highway experiences. A workshop was also included in the design of the market, but power to the workshop was poorly thought out and executed. As a result the miners haven’t been able to use the workshop in more than 2 years. 

My focus was to somehow get them reliable power so that they could use their workshop and also charge battery packs to light their homes without using candles, which are dangerous as well. I tried the more conventional route and asked the local utility to quote a cost for running power to them, but met with resistance due to the extreme location. 

I finally came up with a plan to expand the inadequate solar/electric system supplying the workshop. I found a contractor willing to come out and quote the project, then proposed the solution to a US Embassy grant program. The upgrade would provide enough power to operate all the tools in the workshop, power a community refrigerator/freezer so that the miners can buy and store fresh food in bulk and save money, power to security lighting, charging stations to recharge battery pack for lights and other electronics in their homes, and power to run a refrigerator in the snack shop which offers cool refreshments to tourist.

I was recently informed that I got the grant and I’m now waiting for my application to be processed and the funds to be released so that work can start. As you might imagine, I am very excited. This will have a major impact on the quality of life for the miners and their families.

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Spitzkoppe

I also have other projects brewing: A movie making workshop to hopefully inspire people to tell their stories through video, a lecture series that I have been delivering to high schoolers to expand their view of the world and the possible career paths available, a short documentary to highlight the education options a local Community Skills Development Center (COSDEC) offers, and several others. So, to say that I’ve been busy is a bit of an understatement. Now that I have a hard deadline that’s 10 months away I’ve felt an urgency to focus on projects I know will have the biggest impact given the time I have left.

So, things here are moving right along. When my extension was approved the Peace Corps allows extenders to go home for a month, basic expenses and airfare paid. I took advantage of it and spent all of August visiting friends and family. It was something that I didn’t realize how badly I needed to do until I touchdown in Florida. Seeing the once familiar places, being with friends, hugging my children and grandson was cathartic to the point of nearly being overwhelmed by it all. I know I’ve changed a lot since being in Namibia, but nothing can change the love I feel for my family and close friends. 

I’ll talk more about my visit home in my next post which, I promise, will be coming soon. So…

Stay Tuned

Vern

Another Year

I’ve recently had a birthday. If the calendar on my phone hadn’t reminded me of the occasion I would’ve gone through the day without ceremony. It’s not that I’m actively trying to ignore the fact that I’m getting old (the aches and pains I’m starting to feel on a regular basis are reminder enough, thank you very much), it’s just that my days and mind are occupied with so many other concerns that most holidays and events go unnoticed, or would without external reminders. 

I did wind up celebrating it with my friends here in Namibia. When I do remember my birthday I celebrate it by giving, nothing big, I am a poor man after all. I buy beers or other drinks for those around me, which can be surprisingly hard to do because the folks I try to buy for insist on buying me beer. (I strictly adhere to my 3-drink maximum which is enough to give me a nice buzz.)

One of my friends even managed to produce a small cake and stuck a candle on it while everyone at the table sang ‘Happy Birthday’. It was unexpected and very nice. 

As I sat there after the singing stopped and the conversation turned from guessing my age to other topics I couldn’t help but marvel at the moment. There I was in Africa, surrounded by new friends, feeling completely at ease as if I had been part of this group for ages. In the passed 2 years I have seen and done things that I wouldn’t have believed I’d do or see 10 years ago. I’ve met interesting people with stories that can break your heart or fill you with wonder. At 66 years old my life is becoming saturated with experiences. If there is any reason at all to celebrate another year of existence, that would be it. 

The life I have now is so different than the one I had two years ago, so different that I’m afraid that those who knew me back then won’t know me now, I’ve changed that much. I have different priorities, see things from angles I could not have imagined just a few years ago. 

If I had to describe these changes I would say that I am more like the extreme version of what I was. I feel more engaged with people yet I enjoy my solitude more. I feel far more adventurous. I’m more intolerant of the differences between us and enjoy more of the things that make us similar. 

And I don’t want that to stop. I guess that’s the real difference between me then and me now. I used to be ok with the status quo, the predictability of life. Now, not so much. I want to see what’s over the next hill and around the next corner. I used to pride myself for not getting lost, now I enjoy losing myself in new environments, in conversations with new friends, and in discovering new perspectives. It’s growth that is becoming essential to my existence. 

So, I’ve decided to stay in the Peace Corps and in Namibia another year. Already the time seems to have accelerated as days and weeks seem to slip by like seconds and minutes. I’ve decided to stay so that I can see at least a few of the projects I’m working on come to some kind of conclusion. That’s a hold over from the used-to-be me, I don’t like to leave things hanging and I try to leave a place as good or better than I found it. As my normal end of service date approached I found that at least two of my projects were worse off than when I arrived (through no fault of my own, I hope) and I just couldn’t leave them like that.

Once the decision to stay another year was made suddenly things started happening and several projects advanced. I’ve even created new projects, some I know I’ll have done before I leave. One in particular that’s been a focus for me since I’ve been here is a local amphitheater. This one won’t be done, but I’m hoping to establish a sustainable path forward.

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Me and my Group Mates ( Best Group Ever)

The Arandis Amphitheater was built in the 70’s with the rest of the town for the expressed purpose of entertaining the miner and their families. Arandis was created to house uranium miners working for Rio Tinto. From pictures and stories I’ve learned that the town was a literal oasis, made green by desalinated water from Swakopmund, and vibrant by funds gleaned from the then high prices of raw uranium ore. During a time when apartheid ruled Namibia, black miners living in Arandis enjoyed a life few black Namibians at the time could even dream of. Rio Tinto through The Rössing Foundation provided everything, housing, stores, entertainment, power, water. Yards were full of trees and gardens, houses were well maintained, and the amphitheater was a community gathering place where shows and movies were displayed for free.

The last movie was shown in the amphitheater in 1992, I’ve been told. Last year we showed the first movie on that screen in almost three decades. But I’m not done yet. I see the amphitheater as a raw gem that needs cutting and polishing to bring it to its fullest potential. In renovating the amphitheater, I hope to reinvigorate the town by attracting outside interests. I want to see shows, festivals, and of course, movies there regularly. This, I hope, will bring in people and with them an influx of cash that could be used to renovate other areas of the town and invest in new businesses. 

That idea is starting to get some movement. I have the generous help of a local architectural firm to provide visuals of what the amphitheater could look like. I can then use that to find sponsors. 

I’m not deluded into believing that my vision is completely achievable. Many projects in Namibia and throughout Africa have started with good intentions and wound up being white elephants or worse, money pits. But some sustainable vestige of what I envision could happen, and it just might.

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In the desert

I’m 66 years old and I’m surrounded by new friends, new experiences and I’m pushing projects in a country I barely knew existed 2 years ago. If that can happen then anything is possible.

Stay tuned

Vern