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When I asked if he thought the average (ethnic/social group) was lazy he rescinded the term ‘lazy’ in favor of them being unmotivated.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

Elephants And Others

What’s the first animal you think of when you think of Africa?

Elephants, right?

I had been in Namibia for over two years, have traveled to different parts of the country (some renowned for its population of pachyderms), have seen road sign warning of elephant crossings, and even saw the thigh bone of a recently killed elephant that was put down for terrorizing a village. But I had yet to see a living, breathing elephant in the wild.

On my various trips around Namibia I’ve seen some interesting creatures, everything from desert chameleons to stately giraffes. I saw a herd of wild horses in the desert outside of Luderitz, a flock of 20 or more ostriches racing up the side of Mount Rössing, a huge colony of seals on the beach of a small island about fifty kilometers into the Atlantic from Walvis Bay, a herd of zebras crossing the road in front of me near Etosha. I’ve seen skittish mouse birds, flocks of gregarious lovebirds, flamboyantly pink flamingos, and an island overrun by penguins.

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Seals on an island near Walvis Bay

But not one elephant.

That is, until this passed weekend when some friends and I went to Omaruru. Like many small towns in Namibia, Omaruru depends on tourists. The town started off as a center of trade for the Ovaherero in 1863, but was soon co-occupied by white colonists who established a trading post and brewery, and it became a focus of contention between white settlers and the Ovaherero during the Herero Wars in the early 1900s.

Today the town is a quiet way-station for those in route to Otjitwerongo and the O-Land Regions in northern Namibia. Nearby Omaruru I was surprised to learn that there are two operating wineries. This passed weekend we visited one, the Erongo Mountain Winery which was establish 6 years ago on what used to be an olive grove.

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Restaurant in Erongo Mountain Winery

The winery is a relatively small operation producing a selection of whites, red blends, and dessert wines. As is true for most of Namibia, the winery is being hit hard by the ongoing drought. Its vineyards are barely producing and the winery must import grapes from other regions around Namibia and South Africa. The winery is home to a fine restaurant that offers excellent dining in conjunction with wine tasting. Our small group opted for a tour of the winery which included and light lunch and wine tasting.

I’ve toured wineries before so I was familiar with some of what goes into making a bottle of vino, but it was still fascinating and fun to explore the backrooms and hidden crevices of a working winery. A warehouse-like room was lined with huge stainless steel distillers, some operating, while others were being cleaned for a new batch. In another large room juicing machines and other equipment lined the walls. In yet another room, kept cool and dark, were barrels of various types of aging wine stacked to the ceiling and filling the room so that only narrow isles were possible.

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Barrels of aging wine!

Our tour guide told us that the drought has forced water restrictions so that they can only maintain a small grove of vines. Even those looked thirsty, but she assured us they were healthy and productive.

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Very dry vineyard

After the tour we were treated to a salad lunch. It was one of the best salads I’ve ever had and I would definitely get it again. That’s saying a lot because I’m not a huge fan of salads. During and after our meal we were served various wines, starting with a chardonnay and ending with a sweet wine that had a distinct chocolate flavor. I don’t care for sweet wines, but that one was very tasty.

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Light lunch was delicious!

Then, full of salad and wine, we left the winery and drove ten minutes to the entrance of the Omaruru Game Lodge. Typical of Namibian game reserves, this one was surrounded by high electrified fencing with large steel gates at strategic points. Once inside, however, it looked as though we were in a resort with bungalows situated within a well maintained area of lush foliage and wild animals grazing just beyond a high wooden barrier.

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Beyond the barrier, an ostrich posed.

At 3:00PM my group and several others climbed into a safari truck (a Range Rover modified to carry up to ten passengers in a canopied platform). Our guide, who looked as if he were about to fall asleep while talking to us, said that he’d first try to locate the elephants, which may be hard to do since they range freely over the 7500 acre portion of the 20,000 acre reserve.

As we roamed through that section of the reserve we easily saw signs that elephants were about. Small trees that had been ripped apart laid in ruin along trails stamped with the distinct circular footprint of the large beasts. The elephants destroy the trees while attempting to scratch themselves. Piles of elephant dung litter the area. The only thing missing was a sign the warned, “Here there be Elephants!”

Our guide wove through thick bush, dry riverbeds, and rocky tracks for at least a half an hour, but no tuskers. I was beginning to think I was cursed and would never see an elephant in the wild, but as we rounded a bend on a dry riverbed we hear some rustling in the brush nearby. Through the dense foliage we caught glimpses of massive grey forms. The guide honked his horn and a parade of five elephant lumbered out of the bush. Our guide told us that the elephants are used to him because he brings them fresh cut hay and apples, but they are skittish around stranger and we should stay in the truck. I had every intention of following his request.

Elephants ARE HUGE!

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Stand-offish male enjoying lunch

 

It’s hard to put into words how big these creatures are, especially the male and leader of the group. We watched as the pachyderms chowed down on the hay and apples. The big male was standoffish and grabbed a bale for himself and climbed out of the riverbed to watch over the herd while he ate. He never took his eyes off us. The rest were content to hangout in a tight-knit group and seemed to prefer to stay several meters away. Although one, a young adult male, got curious and decided to see if any of the passengers had food. He came up to the truck, right in front of me, trunk extended, sniffing for goodies. When he didn’t find any he simply turned away. But he was close enough for me to touch him, and I did. His skin was like rubbery tree bark.

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He was just looking for a snack!

We watched the group for a bit longer, then went in search of other animals, which we found in abundance. Zebras, wildebeest, springboks, kudus, ostriches, giraffes, baboons, warthogs were all present, but the best and surprising were the black rhinos. I didn’t know rhinos where on the reserve beforehand and seeing them were an added bonus. Again, massive animals. Like the elephants, the female approached our vehicle looking for handouts, but she didn’t get too close. The even larger male was more wary. He hung back and took his time to approach. Our guide told us he had been the victim of poachers who tranquilized him and sawed off his horn. It had grown back, but the trauma made him cautious around humans.

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Male Black Rhino cautiously approaches

Before our tour was complete we visited a manmade pool where two hippos bathed and protested our arrival by expelling large sprays of water. Again, the guide provided the animals with lunch and they waded out of the pond to partake. This was the only animal we saw that was not allowed to roam freely and the display reminded me the of the zoo I used to visit when I was a kid in Baltimore. As I recall the hippo display in Baltimore was larger than the one here and you could go to a lower level and watch the hippos underwater. Zoos in the US are pushing to make their animal habitats better suited for the creature they contain, so, though they appeared to be healthy, seeing hippos in such an enclosure was a low point of our tour, but it wasn’t the lowest point.

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Hippos!

There was a small herd of wildebeest hanging out near the rhinos. One was loitering near the pack, didn’t seem to mingle. Our guide told us that the animal was injured, snake bite. He maneuvered the truck closer and we could see, even from that distance, that the right front leg near the shoulder was infected. As we approached the lone wildebeest struggled to its feet and hobbled slowly away, wary of us, but its injury didn’t allow it to move very far or very fast. When we stopped, it stopped and collapsed to rest. Our guide told us that he would have to kill it. To leave it to suffer would be inhumane and its injury was far too gone for all but very expensive intervention.

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Injured Wildebeest

When our drive was over and we arrived back at the lodge the guide disappeared and returned carrying a gun. We all knew what it was meant for. It was not quite the Circle of Life from The Lion King, but more the reality of life in the wild, or at least, in the reserve.

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Heading out to end a life

Still, I got to see elephants, up close and personal, and got a taste of what Namibia was like, is still like in some places.

Stay tuned.

Vern

A Year Ago

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.

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I’m giving a career lecture at a local school.

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.

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A restaurant in a location near Rundu. This is apparently the second one as the name is ‘Trust Me 2’.

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.

Cows

This herd is a typical sight in northern Namibia. This one was near Rundu.

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.

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A common scene in the simple lifestyle of Namibians up north. This is in a homestead and they are pounding Mahangu, a grain used to make porridge.

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.

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Girls at a school in the Kavango Region

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.

God Bless The Rains Down In Africa

“It’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa, I bless the rains down in Africa”

Namibia is a land of contrasts. It’s dry for most of the year here in The Namib Desert if you don’t count the fog that occasionally rolls in from The Atlantic. Most days where I am it is sunny, breezy and warm. Not overly warm, the heat felt elsewhere in The Namib is moderated here by the cool ocean winds. There are the few days a year, sometimes only a few minutes a year, when there is rain.

Fog on the beach in Swakopmund

As luck would have it, I missed the rainfall that dampens this area for two years in a row. I was traveling up in Oland last year. This year the rains came early, while I was on a trip to Windhoek. Friends texted me about the weather I was missing. The air in Windhoek didn’t look particularly promising for precipitation, but when I went to sleep that night I could smell the rain in the air.

Evening in Katutura, Windhoek

I woke to a cool cloudy morning. I made coffee and took a look outside my hotel room and noticed that the ground was wet. Steel grey clouds hung low and moved sluggishly through the hills nearby.

As I watched, a light drizzle began and slowly got heavier. The shhhh of the many raindrops hitting cars and roofs and trees was soon accompanied by a symphony of drips and plops of water from those surfaces. Then, as if God wanted to add a finishing flourish, a single blue-white strobe of lightning flashed followed by a deep rumble of thunder.

Morning rain in Windhoek

Just as slowly as it had begun, the downpour slowed to a drizzle, then stopped.

“The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become”

My colleagues and I had two meetings to attend. The morning had promised more rain, but that promise was largely unfulfilled. The sun broke through the clouds, warming the streets and turning the cool, damp air into a steam bath.

With our meetings done, we headed back. We took the B2, The Trans Kalahari Highway, towards Swakopmund. The sun followed us and it looked as though the rains I saw in the morning would be all there was. But as we approached Karibib the weather changed. Ahead of us was a storm that darkened the horizon. Several flashes of lightning flickered through the clouds around us and the wind grew stiff and cool.

Storm up ahead

We drove into a downpour. There was so much water that the parched sand couldn’t absorb it fast enough and large puddles, some could easily be thought of as ponds, formed. By the time we got to Karibib the heaviest part of the storm had passed, but the water it left behind told just how serious the storm was.

The main street in Karibib was flooded, in places it was knee deep. Towns in The Namib aren’t designed to manage water and as we drove through we could see streams of water cascading down from the hillsides, adding to the pools we drove through.

Flooding in Karibib

As we drove towards Usakos the clouds had broken and blue could be seen through the grey. A light drizzle followed us for a bit then gave up the pursuit. We stop at a station outside of Usakos to stretch. I looked back at the passing storm and found a rainbow arching over the mountains.

The rain has passed

“Hurry boy, she’s waiting there for you…
It’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa, I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa, I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never have”
(Lyrics: Africa by Toto, Songwriters: David Paich, Jeff Porcaro)

Stay tuned.

Vern

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.

Vern