Namibia: Merry Christmas!!

It’s been a bit more than 8 months since I sold my stuff, bided my family and friends goodbye, and boarded a plane with 15 other people who would become my ‘Namily’ here in Namibia.

Truth is, it doesn’t feel like 8 months, more like only 4. I don’t feel as if I’ve done enough, though my supervisor insists that I’ve made a difference. I have projects that I’m working on and am determined to make real headway in the coming months.

One such project I may have mentioned in an earlier post, Dreamland Gardens. The owners, Joseph and Elizabeth Makina, are hard working folks who are trying to make a business of growing vegetables here in the desert. Sometimes it seems that the cards are stacked against them. The biggest issue, as one might assume, is water. Oddly, there is water available, it’s just unreliable. When it’s not available everything dies and we have to start again. So, I’m trying to come up with ways to increase the reliability of the supply and more efficiently use what we have when we have it.

Spinach growing in Dreamland Gardens when we do have water

Another project is the Ûiba Ôas Miners. They are 50+ kilometers away and I have no reliable means to visit them, yet I need to help them somehow. The miners produce and sell raw semiprecious stones to tourists who stop at their kiosks on the roadside. There isn’t much I can do to improve that situation, but I think I have a way to increase their sales.

This petersite could make a great necklace!

The miners have equipment that lets them finish (turn raw stones into cut and polished gems) the stones they mine. The problem is that they don’t have the skills to finish the stones in ways that are aesthetically, therefore commercially lucrative. There is training they could take, but it would have to be tailored to them. So, that will be my focus for them.

Many other projects too, but that isn’t why I’m writing this post. What I really wanted to do was to send a big hearty THANK YOU to my family and friends who have supported me in my decision to do this Peace Corps thing.

The past 8 months has been a wild roller coaster of an adventure. I’ve felt the full spectrum of emotions, some I didn’t think I was capable of. I’ve seen and done things I know I could not have had I not boarded that plane 8 months ago. And the ride looks to be even wilder in the coming months.

And I’ve grown since coming here (not just in girth), and I feel that my path for growth stretches out in many directions, and all are positive.

None of this would have been possible without the support of the people who are the foundation of my social life, and who mean so very much to me. Again, to you I offer a deeply felt thank you.

To my new friends, those I have met physically and those I’ve met virtually, thank you as well. You’ve added to my adventure, and will continue to do so in ways I can’t imagine now. I hope that our meeting was mutually beneficial, and that our friendship continues.

To everyone, a Very Merry Christmas from beautiful Namibia.

And I hope that you will continue to…

Stay Tuned

Vern

Namibia: Cuisine

Meat! It’s what’s for dinner in a vast majority of Namibian homes.

When I first came to Namibia I stayed with a host family as part of the Peace Corps’ efforts to acclimate volunteers to their new environment.

My host family were transplanted farmer, they still own and operated a farm in southern Namibia, but choose to live further north and visit the farm from time to time.

They were also butchers. The day I arrived they had just received half a frozen cow, which was sitting, in parts, in their kitchen. For the following week their time was spend cutting up, packaging, freezing, and otherwise processing the cow. They got up early and worked until late in the evening. Often we wouldn’t have dinner until 10-11pm. And as you might imagine, the main course of every dinner was meat, in this case, beef.

It was a bit off putting at first for me. I wasn’t used to the amount of meat and how it was cooked and consumed. For instance, my American eating habits avoided large amounts of animal fat (except for bacon, which I’ll eat any time and anywhere), here that fat is relished. In fact, my host mother asked me several times why I would cut away the fat from my steak or chop.

Now that I’ve been in-country for 8 months I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the many ways meat is prepared and eaten. By far, the most popular way to cook meat is over hot coals. This is called a braai (pronounced ‘bry’), and while it may sound like our American barbecue, there are distinct differences.

Braai coals are created using local hardwoods. It takes 1-2 hours to get the wood reduce to coals suitable for cooking. The meat is prepared hours ahead of cooking. It is seasoned or marinated and then left to ‘age’ at room temperature. More on the meat in a bit.

Like barbecues, braais tend to be social gatherings, but unlike barbecues, that tend to occur on special occasions, braais happen on any occasions or for no reason at all other than to socialize.

I should mention here that there are different ways to braai. Around lunch and dinner time you can walk down many streets in every town and find a braai stand where you can order strips of seasoned beef to be cut up, cooked and served, usually with a type of salsa that I can’t seem to get enough of. More on the salsa in a bit.

Braais may also feature cast iron pots where meats and vegetables are cooked in whats called a ‘potjie’ (pronounced “po-tgeez”). The resulting savory stew is eaten with ‘pap’, a thick maize porridge that is eaten by hand. (Note that the three-legged pot is called a potjie, but the meal may also called potjies.)

My favorite type of braais are the social ones where a host or hosts provide a place and a braai pit and people come with whatever the want to share. The last few braais of this type I was asked just to bring whatever I wanted to drink (but you bring enough to share).

Social braais can have so much meat that it’s unlikely you’ll get to taste it all. You’ll see people’s plates stacked with steaks and chops of beef, mutton and game. You might find some pap and salad buried under the meat.

And every social braai has wors (pronounced “vorse”) (lengths of savory sausage). Wors is always cooked last, and when the wors is done, the eating starts.

The last braai I attended I wound up being the braai cook, which is somewhat of an honor. I’ve become adept at starting braai fires, which can be a bit of a chore in windy conditions. When I get back to the States I’ll be brining the braai idea with me, along with several recipes. One of which, I’m still perfecting, is for the salsa I mentioned earlier.

The basic salsa consists of finely diced onions and tomatoes combined with a savory-hot spice. To that I’ve added other ingredients resulting in a salsa so tasty I have Namibians asking me to make it for them. Some have suggested that I package it and sell it. I may just do that.

MEAT!!! Typical braai

Potjies. The white stuff is not mashed potatoes, it’s pap.

Strips of beef with my Salas

You eat with your hands!

So, to experience true Namibian cuisine you have to go to a social braai. Bring your own bottle and come hungry.

Stay tuned!
Vern

Namibia: Half Forgotten, Half Remembered

Namibia is a beautiful country. It’s landscapes seem to merely tolerate the machinations of its human inhabitants, patient with the sage knowledge that time is on its side.

Storm in the Erongo Region, Namibia

Windhoek, the largest city in Namibia, owes much of its distinct European flavor to its apartheid and colonial past. It hustles and bustles well into the night with clubs pack full, even on a Tuesday night. But step away from Windhoek in any direction and you’ll immediately see what Namibia, the land, is really like.

The Warehouse in downtown Windhoek on a Tuesday night

In Spitzkoppe, about 3 hours south west of Windhoek, there is 4000 year old Bushman graffiti, but in the surrounding landscape little is left of those ancient inhabitants, nor of the Damara or colonial Germans who once laid claim to the area. Time has all but erased their footprints.

Spitzkoppe

Further to the southwest of Spitzkoppe is Arandis, a town built to house uranium miners in the mid 1970s. In 1981 a state of the art hospital was constructed to service the residents and the surrounding rural communities. Sometime in 2015 the hospital was abandoned in favor of a small clinic. As with everything in Namibia if left to nature, and with a little human help, the desert has started to erase the hospital.

Arandis Hospital, abandoned

A bit further, toward Swakopmund, at the foot of Mount Rössing, crumbling concrete foundations thought to be the remnants of a train station are all that’s left of whatever human business occurred there.

At the foot of Mt. Rössing

Go further south for about 10 hours by car and you’ll find Kolimanskop, a diamond mining town that was abandoned in 1954. What’s left are half buried buildings, ghosts of what they once were and what they once represented.

Kolimanskop Ghost Town

These are just a few of what is a common theme, a message from an indulgent land that says that after we and our endeavors have gone silent, this land will still be here. I feel privileged to be able to witness its inexorable march and show the evidence to you.

Stay tuned

Vern

Namibia: Surreal

There are many realities that I am discovering as I journey though my life here in Namibia. Most seem to be obvious, especially if spoken aloud. Like, “I am no longer in America.”

That became completely apparent when stepped off the plane in Windhoek 6 months ago. But there have been times when it wasn’t so obvious. I grew up in neighborhoods where nearly every face was a shade of brown and most people lived from check to check, be it paycheck or welfare check. Fifty or so years later I find myself in nearly the same environment, just on a different continent. My home back then was basic, but clean, just as my home is here in Namibia. I had many friends, but I also spent a lot of time alone back then, just as I do now. So living here often feels familiar and can sometimes seem as right as rain.

In my Erongo Region town there are things that need fixing and little money in the town’s coffers to fix them, just like so many hamlets throughout the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and the Rural South in the U.S. and people make do with what they have, and learn to see beauty and grab opportunities when they present themselves. One can get lulled into expecting the familiar, but it is the vistas and the random chance encounters that can make the reality of my current life slam me like a linebacker, and I’m left wide-eyed, slack jawed and can only mutter, “oh!” while my mind attempts fit what I’m experiencing into some familiar context, and failing.

I had such an opportunity last week. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer, on vacation with family, offered some extra seats in a plane charted for an aerial tour of Sossusvlie and Fish River Canyon here in Namibia. I was lucky enough to be able to take advantage of the offer. What I saw was hard to describe, the only word that may do it justice is ‘surreal’. Instead of me trying to tell you what I saw I’ll let the photos I took do the talking.

Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon

Sossusvlie

Sossusvlie

Sossusvlie


More to come.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Namibia: Close and Personal – Moses Helao of Karakulia Weavers

In one of my earlier posts I talked about my Afrikaans teacher, Aunty Martha. She was such a wonderful and interesting person that I felt I needed to tell you all about her. The thing is, I’m constantly meeting wonderful and interesting people, which is only reasonable since I’m in a wonderful and interesting place. (Duh!!!)

Anyway, I thought I’d start sharing some of the stories of the folks I meet and have been lucky enough to call my friends. I’ll call out these types of posts with the title: Namibia: Close and Personal. Since Aunty Martha was the first, this post will be the second in the series. I hope you enjoy them.

When I’m in Swakopmund on business, which tends to be during the weekday, I try to get around town by walking. It isn’t the fastest means, I could and catch taxis for that, but walking lets me see more and I get my miles (or kilometers since this is a metric country) in.

On one of my jaunts I walked passed a fairly nondescript building with these words painted on the side, “Karakulia Weavers, Handmade Rugs”.

“Ok,” I thought, “that could be interesting.” And I filed it away in the back of my mind to investigate later.

Walking also means that I put a hurting on my shoes. I have a pair of Wolverine 1000 mile boots that I’ve worn a hole in the sole and had to get repaired. I figured I needed another pair of shoes to walk around in and some friends, Georg and Xenia (hopefully they’ll be the subject of an upcoming Close and Personal), recommended some locally made shoes. As it turned out, the shoe shop is directly across the walkway from the rug maker. The shoe shop didn’t have the color or size I needed, but promised they would soon and said I should stop back. Since I was there and the rug maker was open I thought I’d stop in.

I’m glad I did.

Karakula wool


Moses Helao owns Karakulia Weavers. The small factory is one of the oldest businesses in Swakopmund. It was established in 1979 by Ms. Jenny Carvill. Mr. Helao started as a wool cleaner in 1991, learned the business and ultimately bought the factory in 2011.

Moses Helao, Owner of Karakulia Weavers


When I walked into his shop Mr.Helao was emerging from his office. He is a tall man who smiles easily. I guess he’s used to curious tourists dropping in all the time, but tourist season is only just beginning, and I was alone. Not your typical camera toting sightseer. Mr. Helao must have recognized that I was different and, after our greeting, he asked where I was from. I told him.

“What brings you to Namibia,” he asked?

I gave him a brief version of my story and he said, “Ahh! The Peace Corps! I know of them. They do good work. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

Mr. Helao shaving a rug.


He then offered to give me a personal tour. I was happy to accept. He showed me a video of a sheep getting shorn, then the resulting bales of raw karakul wool sheared from local sheep. We moved on to stations where the wool is cleaned, processed, and dyed. The dyed wool is laid out to dry in the sun, then spinners take the piles of freshly processed wool and turn it into yarn in a way that is not too different from how its been done for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. I passed bins containing skeins and spools of spun yarn in such a variety of colors it would shame a rainbow. And then there were the looms. Maybe 20 of them, each manned by artisans who took the yarn and turned them into beautiful rugs and wall hangings.

Rug being made to order

Looms!!


Mr. Helao’s pride shown brightly as he showed me each station and explained each process. His is a story of hard work and a passion to preserve a manual process in an increasingly digitized world.

Rainbow in wool


Mr. Helao is humble and soft spoken, but lights up when asked about his business. He’s a man who has worked hard to get where he is, yet he hasn’t lost site of his humanity. His company employs over 20, and ships it’s products worldwide. Whenever I come into his shop Mr.Helao stops what he’s doing and greets me graciously. He does this for everyone who comes in whether they buy or not. It’s who he is and I am happy to be able to call him a friend.

Check out his website: http://www.karakulia.com.na/workshop/

Stay tuned.

Vern

Something Old, Something New

Yes, I know it’s been a while, and to claim I’ve been busy would be a true, if somewhat worn claim. I’ve also been a bit under the weather, but again, it’s an excuse.

The real cause for my lack of blog update is a mild case of writer’s block. I have a seemingly endless list of topics to write about, but I like to feel out my topics before I start writing, and for most items on my list, I’m just not there yet.

Be that as it may, I promised to blog and blog I shall, even if the subject matter is a bit scatterbrained. Please forgive me.

Florida:
To my friends in Florida. My thoughts were with you as Irma blew through. I stayed up and watched whatever news feed I could get and chatted with friends in Florida and elsewhere who could get information better or faster than me. I know that some of you had damage and/or are without power. It is tough to watch as such events unfold and there’s nothing I can do but offer hope for minimal damage and speedy recoveries, but if it helps at all, that’s what I offer. Please feel free to reach out to me if you need to vent, sob, joke, or just chat.

Down for the Count:
The last half of last week was a tough one. I started feeling ill on Wednesday. Typical flu-like symptoms; chills, body aches, very tired. I had a fever, but it never exceeded 99℉. I figured I’d just ride it out. I had a meeting that I could not miss on Thursday, however, so I trudged into the office and sat in. My supervisor kept watching me as I sank lower in my chair as if the fever, now just over 100℉, was literally melting me as I sat. He ended the meeting and threatened to take me to the hospital. I declined explaining that if I could just get to bed and get some Tylenol in me I’d be ok.

He dropped me off and I staggered out of my street clothes, into my very warm PJs and piled as many blankets, coats, even dry bath towels on top of me as I had available to reduce the shivers. Thursday night was likely the most painful night I’ve spent in Namibia. My body, especially my lower back, felt like I’d been trampled by a heard of rampaging elephants. My head felt like a balloon a few seconds from popping from over pressure. My skin grew sensitive. Ever the hair on my arm hurt. Sleep was evasive. I finally took some extra strength Tylenol and within an hour I was asleep.

I stayed home Friday though I needed to go into Swakopmund, which was smart. When I woke I felt better, but still weak. Even though I hadn’t eaten since Tuesday night I was only mildly hungry, so I drank some fruit juice and ate a few crackers. By Friday evening my fever stayed under 100℉ and I was eating food.

My friend, Florian, offered to drive me into Swakopmund on Saturday if I felt up to it, and I did thinking that I would take care of the errands I needed to attend to and come back for more rest. Florian was with his girlfriend, Welma, and they had other plans and invited me along. I was feeling about 80% recovered so I thought why not (MISTAKE!!!).

Dunes and Flamingoes:
Just south of Swakopmund are dunes. I mean big dunes like the kind you see in National Geographic specials. We went there first. I had my trusty Canon GX7 MarkII with me and I whipped it out to get a few sandy shot like this one…

Dune


The exertion of climbing a dune to get into the position to actually shoot that shot was deceptively easy. I was breathing hard at the top, but the effort was worth it I think. After all, I could then go back to finish recovering, right?

Nope.

The Florian suggested that since we were the road to Walvis Bay, why not visit?

Ok.

He found an area called The Lagoon and it’s wonderful place for bird watchers or anyone looking for a relaxing stroll. Since Florian was with his sig-oth I felt like a party crashing 5th wheel, but he and Welma assured me I was not a bother. Even so, I tried to give them as much couple room as possible. Easy to do at The Lagoon because there were so many flamingoes about.

Flamingo

Flamingtrio


Again, the pix were worth the effort, but my body was slowing shutting down, I just hadn’t noticed it yet.

Drinks on Him:
On our way through Swakopmund Florian suggested we stop for a drink, so we rolled into The Ocean Breeze, a nice size tavern tucked in the southern corner of Swakopmund. I got a glass of merlot (drinkable, but nothing to write home about) and watched a strange game being played between the bartender and Afrikaner who was determined not to lose, but did anyway.

The game involved three dice in a cup, each player has this. As near as I could tell it’s played like Yahtzee on speed. Three of a kind beats straights which beats two of a kind. It was fun to watch though I doubt I fully understand the rules. Even so, the Afrikaner lost twice while I looked on. Losing meant buying shots for players. I can tell you that the bartender can definitely hold her liquor.

While all this was going on a band struck up and played tunes either I hadn’t heard before, or they were butchered beyond recognition. I knew it wasn’t going to a good musical respite when during warmup the drummer couldn’t keep a beat.

Ah well.

The Return:
We did make it back to before dark (driving on the highway after dark is not for even the stoutest of hearts. Roads are occupied by the young, foolish and often drunk, and the occasional springbok. The two don’t mix.)

Only after I had settled in with a glass of wine that I noticed I was shivering. I checked my temperature and it was back to 100℉. No body aches this time, but I suddenly felt extremely tired. A hot shower, warm PJs and warmer bed was the cure. I spent all day Sunday recovering. This time the fever stayed down and by Monday morning I was 99% my old self again.

Sunset:
This photo has nothing to do with anything, it’s just me showing you what cool sunsets we have here.

Sunset


There’s more to come. I promise.

Stay tuned.
Vern

Namibia: Observations: Matured

Laura, a friend and fellow PCV, was grousing to me one Saturday. “Every time I get in line at the ATM the people in front of me insist that I go to the head of the line,” she lamented. “It’s like they’re afraid I’m going to fall over dead before its my turn.”

Laura is in her mid-sixties and keeps in shape by doing a weird aerobic two-step while wearing headsets and singing to whatever tune only she can hear. The exercise helps to keep her body on par with her extremely sharp mind, and keeps the local children entertained.

“It doesn’t matter how much I protest, they won’t take no for an answer. I guess I’ll have to live with it,” she concluded.

The “they” she referred to are the people of Namibia. They are the Herero, San, Nama, Ovambo, Colored, Basters, Whites, and the dozens or so other tribes and sub-tribes that inhabit this country. Their cultures and histories intertwine and are as diverse as their languages and appearances, but they all share a deep seeded respect for those they believe have been around a while.

I’m also in my mid-sixties, though time and life has been kind to me physically I’m starting to hear “Papa” or “Tate Kulu” associated with my name. These are titles of respect for older folks, though I guess they don’t respect me enough to usher me to the front of the line just yet.

Ah well…

I’m finding that Namibians view older people differently that we do in America. Back home everything is youth focused and advancing in years is something to be continually fought. We can’t do anything about the passage of time, but we’ll be damned if we have to look like it! We envy the smooth skin and firm bodies of the young and when we see seniors who have become comfortable with themselves we assume they’ve just surrendered to nature, they’ve given up the fight.

Here in Namibia, that you’ve been around a while seems to be cause for congratulations. Life here is naturally tougher, but its also hard due to created conditions. That you’ve managed to dodge death for so long means that you are either very lucky or very smart, and both should be respected.

But there seems to be more to it than finding ways of fending off one’s eventual demise. Namibians seem to understand that the longer we’re around the more we are changed. Our experiences make us different as we go through them. Some changes are subtle while other are fundamental, but that we are changed is the key. And the changes accumulate, they are integrated into ourselves so that we become something more than what we were. So, here, the passage of time isn’t just aging, it’s maturing.

That concept is applied to everything. For instance, in America our cheeses are ‘aged’, here they are ‘matured’. The flavor of matured cheddar is bolder, the color is richer, the smell is more pungent. It’s the way cheese should be experienced.

18 month matured cheddar. Tasty goodness!


There’s a matured (2014) South African pinotage that I’ve found that, unlike younger pinotages, is smooth and flavorful, and relatively inexpensive. It’s become my ‘house’ wine.

You may not find it Stateside, but if you do, get it!


It’s not just things, time and experiences enriches one’s ability to produce as well. Music expertly played on real instruments sounds far more intimate than the throbbing beats of canned tunes DJs push out. Shoes made by sewing leather soles to leather uppers seem to mold themselves to your feet, something plastics can’t do. Jewelry designed and painstakingly made by artists carry with them a bit of the creator’s soul. These and more require skills one only gains through time and experience. And the same is true for those of us who can truly appreciate them, us matured folk.

Earrings being crafted by a local artist


It could be that my time here in Namibia is forcing me to slow down a bit and see things through matured glasses. It could be that what I’m experiencing is just what everyone goes through when they’ve packed on a few years. I’m thinking it’s a combination of both.

And I like it!

Stay tuned,

Vern

Namibia: Pitch Black

In my last post I talked about how dry The Namib Desert is. I didn’t fib, The Namib is, indeed, one of the driest places on earth, and dust is literally everywhere. But dry is a relative term.

Winters in Florida are ‘dry’, but there it means we get rainfall maybe a few times a month and the average relative humidity hovers around 40% instead of raining five or more times a week with humidity hanging above 80% in the Summer months.

In the Namib humidity can get as low as 10%, but that really depends on where you are. Coastal regions will get fog so thick that clothes left outside to dry can come back wetter than when you first hung them. When the conditions are just right the dry desert wind stops and moisture soaked breezes from the Atlantic will push inland, sometimes up to 100km, blanketing parched sand and rock with an almost viscous layer of fog. This may occur 2-3 times a month with moisture ladened air, not enough to form fog, wafting in a bit more often. It’s hard to predict when it will happen.

Nights in the Erongo Region are usually crystal clear. It’s amazing that there aren’t more optical telescopes here because the skies at night are so full of stars it looks unreal. The Milky Way is easily visible, there are so many stars that constellations are tough to make out.

Yesterday I thought it would be a good idea to climb Mt. Arandis and stay until after dark to get some night shots of the skies. I bought a nice little tripod for my Canon GX-7 Mark II, a head lamp, a snack and some water and set out, timing my climb so that I could also catch the sun as it settled in the west.

I did this alone. (Do NOT try this at home boys and girls!! I did tell people where I was going and was in near constant contact the whole time, but it is still not a wise thing to do.)

Long shadow in the setting desert sun


I’d climbed the small mountain before so I knew the paths and felt confident I could pick my way down in the dark with the help of my head lamp.

My destination


As I ascended I noticed that, of all nights, last night was one of those misty-but-not-quite-a-fog nights. I could see the heavy air as the orange sun settled behind it. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to see many stars or even the Milky Way given that the peak I was on was only 600 feet above the desert floor, but I stayed and took photos. Here are a few.

The sun setting behind a thick mist from the Atlantic

B2 Highway and part of Arandis after sunset

Misty Arandis


In that last shot you can see how thick the air was over Arandis, clear just a few hundred feet up.

As it grew darker I became aware that things look a lot different with just a small spotlight for illumination. I stayed anyway, waiting until it was dark enough to see the Milky Way. I got lucky and was able to capture a shooting star.

Milky Way and shooting stars

“It’s full of stars!!”

OK, photos taken, now I have to climb down in the dark with no defined path to guide me. It was slow going and the wind can make you hear all sorts of things, stoking the imagination.

I made it down without incident, but still had a 40 minute walk in the open desert with nothing but my little head lamp to guide me. I kept wishing I had bought a brighter light…, and a shotgun.

I focused on the red light of a mobile phone tower in the distance, a familiar landmark. My pace was a quick one and all the while I kept feeling like I was a extra in the SciFi movie, Pitch Black, waiting for the spot in the script where one of the monsters would swoop in out of the darkness and make a meal of me, and not even Vin Diesel could save me.

I’m happy to report that no monsters, lions, or even an ill tempered gecko bothered me. While the shots are not perfect they aren’t bad and are worth the adrenaline rush.

I may try it again, and maybe the next time it’ll be drier, and I’ll have a brighter light…, and a maybe a baseball bat. Just in case.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Namibia: Dust to Dust

Namibia gets its name from one of its largest and iconic geographical features, the Namib Desert. As one would expect, the Namib is dry, very dry. Average rainfall is less than a tenth of an inch a year. It’s been a desert for an estimated 60 million years, making it one of the oldest deserts in the world. To the east of the Namib is another desert, The Kalahari. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean and desert’s winds blow mostly from east to west, limiting any advancement of moisture from the ocean to inland regions, making the air extremely dry and dusty.

Dust is everywhere and gets into everything. You breath it, drink it, eat it. It permeates your clothing, your hair, and gets into your eyes. There is no escaping it. Dust is part of the environment, like moisture is in a rainforest.

When a westerner first comes to Namibia and sees a boy covered in dust we think that child is that way because he’s poor and can’t afford clean water and soap. His clothes are ragged because his parents can’t afford to dress him in anything newer, cleaner.

While that may be true for some what we fail to realize is that these people live in this very dry, very dusty environment and they have adapted. That child is dusty because that’s where he lives. His clothes are ragged because new clothes would soon be in the same shape in this unforgiving environment. Newer clothes are saved for school, church, or special occasions. We fail to see that while he is running barefoot through the dust he is laughing and playing like any other child anyplace else in the world. If we looked closer we’d see that he is well fed, has a place to sleep, and has a family that cares for him. His needs are all met and he is not suffering, but prospering. It is the dust that clouds our perception of him.

View of the Namib from atop Mt. Arandis


The wind blows and with it comes more dust. It comes through the cracks around the doors and windows and settles on everything in my house. I sweep out and mop my house once a week and I’m always surprised at how much dust I have in my dustpan. I wipe down surfaces and the cloth and it always comes away brown.

Dust.

On Sundays I do laundry. I don’t have a washing machine, but I’m luckier than some because I have a bathtub and I can hand scrub my laundry there.

It’s winter here in Namibia, a period that’s even drier than the rest of the year, if that’s even possible. The days can be warm and the nights very cool. I wear jeans and khakis a lot and, as you’ve might have guessed by now, they get very dusty. When I wash them after a week’s wear the water is always a dirty brown. Shirts fair better, it’s the collars and cuffs that get a brown stain.

A great thing about the desert, anything you hang out to dry, regardless of how wet it is, dries quickly. Dripping wet jeans are bone dry in an hour. Shirts take about 20 minutes. Underwear are dry in 15 minutes! Nearly everything is wash and wear here.

Least you think that the boy I described earlier walks around with years of dust layered on him you’ll be relieved to learn that children here often bathe at least once a week, on Sundays from what I can tell. Two Sundays ago I set out to climb Mt. Arandis. While in route I came upon about 7 kids, between 3 and 5 years old, lying wet and nearly naked (they had on wet underwear) in the middle of the street. The morning was cooler than most, but the sun had been up a while and had warmed the asphalt. The kids were drying themselves after a bath. They were lying next to each other chatting and giggling, some with eyes closed, apparently enjoying what must feel similar to the sensation we get when we snuggle in towels and sheets fresh from a dryer on a cool day.

You may wonder if lying in the street defeats the purpose of bathing. The answer is clearly, no. Remember, there is no escaping dust. If you stand completely still you’ll quickly wind up with a layer of it. Bathing cleans and refreshes, but there is always dust. They’ve learned to live with it. I’m beginning to. I mop my floors and wash my clothes and accept that my efforts are only temporary. I now look pass the dust and see the bright smile and shining eyes of the child beneath. I see the Namib as a living environment that exhales sand and dust made of mountains nearly as old as the Earth itself. I breathe it all in deeply and I look out into the desert and watch as the dust tinted light of the setting sun paints the sand red, and I smile.

Sunset on the Namib


More to come.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: Up North and Here

Again I must apologize for being slow on my post updates. Whenever I think there will be a span of free time for me to sit and write I discover it’s just not so. Such is the case this passed two weeks.

I have been:
– Trying to get my home for the next two years in some kind of order
– Meeting people in my community
– Trying to understand my new assignment duties
– Trying desperately not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the needs I must address over the next 24 months

And the list goes on and on. And, as if I don’t have enough to do already, I went and joined the PC Namibia Media Committee. Our job is to tell the world the Peace Corps story through a variety of traditional and current social media. My first assignment was in northern Namibia where we interviewed Krystal, a PCV living and working in the Ohangwena Region.

What an eye-opening experience.

Some PCVs join The Corps thinking they’ll live in a mud hut, eat bugs for breakfast, learn strange native customs all while teaching their hosts and the surrounding community some fundamental skill. Maybe that was true back in the 60’s, but today it’s harder to realize that romanticized idea of PC life. We do teach and render aid, but more often than not PCVs, especially those in the Economic Development arm of the Peace Corps, will find themselves assigned to urban areas where often the need is greater.

Krystal heading home

Krystal, on the other hand and to a large extent, is living that idealized life. For the passed year or so she’s been working as a health care volunteer in the Ohangwena Region and while her hut isn’t mud and has a concrete floor as per PC requirements, her roof is thatched and she live in an Ovambo homestead. The homestead is basically a collection of small buildings surrounded by a wooded wall. It’s like small forted community where the citizenry are all related. The walls serves as a pen for smaller domestic animals and living space for family members whose ranks can swell to 15 or more, depending on the time of year or family event. The kitchen is traditionally outside. Older relatives may have their own hut, or live in the main house, which is larger and may contain a food prep area, bathrooms and gathering space.

Inside an Ovambo Homestead


Krystal has her own hut which is spacious enough for a large bed, closet, at least 2 desks and still have plenty of room to move around. I was envious. It can be dusty, goats and chickens wander by your door from time to time, you are far from any modern convenience, but the experience is pure, and it can feel genuine. By comparison, I have an air conditioned office with a computer running Windows 10, and an alarm system in my concrete block house. To be able to experience just a bit of what Krystal does, even for a few days, was just what I needed.

A dapper tatè (fatherly old man)


My experience didn’t stop there. One of the tasks I had was to take still shots of the environment; the people and the day to day activities they pursue. I did get some really nice photos too. I’m sprinkling a few here.

Something to crow about


It’s a rich environment, full of sights and sounds that are both foreign and familiar. Cows, goats, chickens, and even donkeys graze alongside the road unfazed by the roar cars and trucks zooming by. When they decide to cross, they do and traffic slows to avoid them. The landscape in this region reminds me of north Florida. It’s flat, dotted with palms and other trees, and here and there were pools of water, or places where water was and will be once the rains begin in Summer. (I know it may seem counterintuitive to some, but it’s Winter here. Similar to Winters in Florida, it’s relatively dry and sunny. In northern Namibia Summer brings rains, and crops and livestock flourish. As I understand it, the area becomes lush with vegetation, dry river beds come raging back to life, and the whole area is transformed into a seasonal Eden. I hope to see this for myself while I’m in Namibia.)

Market Day Delights


As part of the media committee I get to travel to many places in Namibia for projects, so I’ll get to see parts of the country other PCVs may not. But I’m also finding beauty here in the desert.

For instance, the weekend before I traveled north I decided to climb a local mountain, Mt. Arandis. It’s small in comparison to other peaks in the area, but this one is relatively accessible. The peak is a mere 2460 ft above sea level, but once at the top the view is spectacular. Local beauty.

View from atop Mt. Arandis.


And in another instance, the night I got back from up north fog rolled in from the Atlantic, which is about 60km from here. The mist makes everything look mysterious. The starkness of the desert is hidden and what you can see, even the familiar, looks strange and otherworldly. More local beauty.

Student heading to school in morning fog


There’s so much I can talk about, but I need to address other things, so I’ll pause this for now. More to come soon.

Stay tuned.

Vern