Friday, March 23, 2012

driving across the desert of the luderitz peninsula

"All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I wold wake in the night, I would lie listening, homesick for it already."
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

I was enjoying watching the Europeans slowly turn a delicious shade of lobster pink-red as they baked under the sun. Me, I was of a different breed and had spent enough months trekking the Namib desert that slapping on sunscreen had become a daily ritual and I was now becoming a lovely healthy gold-brown that made me look like I was born on the islands of Phuket.

We were heading for Agate Bay, the beach spot that the little girl Shannon had told me about where you could see more seals. My initial plan the day before had been to try to hike it there, but now I had a ride in the Europeans' truck, and I was glad, because it turned out to be a longer journey that I had been expecting. The route to Agate Bay takes you out of the city, past the townships, past the forbidden zone of the Sperrgebiet (with signs sternly warning DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES TURN RIGHT), and then finally this huge wilderness beach facing the ocean and Seal Island, looking so uninhabited that you'd think that we were the first humans to discover the place - except for the brick braai structures every couple hundred metres.

"This would be an awesome party spot," the boys agreed.

The rhythm of the waves seem to pull us into a sleepy serene trance. Claudio and Alina played tic tac toe in the sands until the waves washed each game away. Lars, ever silent, sat on the shore with his t-shirt over his head in what looked like deep contemplation. Till wandered away. I waded as deep in the cool water as I dared, and feeling the current pull at my ankles, pretended I was in a Mariah Carey music video. There were birds on the island nearby, possibly penguins, watching us with amusement as we played in the water, probably wondering what it is about humans that make them go all daydreamy in the ocean.

Gloria Carey

Alina and Claudio

Eventually we had to leave the wild isolation of this beach, so we piled back in to the truck, the Europeans looking slightly more red then before. Our next stop was Diaz point, on the other side of the peninsula. This was the first part of the area where European explorers had landed on in 1488, a historic moment much better remembered than Shark Island. Also, we had heard there was a cafe there, and we were starving.

It was not easy finding our way to Diaz point, as the signs were not marked clearly, and even our guidebook's maps were ambiguous. The rocky roads seem to blend into the weird moonscape that surrounds Luderitz, so sometimes it was hard to just follow the road. It was almost a test of character, to see who could make it there. To add as an extra challenge, the lands around the road were all surrounded by the diamond-rich Sperrgebiet and more signs warning diamond smugglers against trespassing. And yet it was so easy to accidentally drift into the Sperrgebiet; it just takes one wrong turn off an unclear signpost - and then frantic reversing of the truck.

Eventually, we made it to Diaz Point, where we discovered that the cafe was closed.

As with the rest of Luderitz, there weren't much diversions at Diaz Point to entertain visitors - a rusty playground, a mini-golf course entirely in sand and rocks, and a grave marking the spot where a soldier had died of hunger. Alina drily remarked that we might have been saved from such a fate if the darn cafe had only been open.

what a closed cafe looks like.

there wasn't exactly a food court here.

Instead, like Agate Bay, Diaz Point was more of a quiet contemplation sort of place. We crossed the wood bridge and climbed up to the point where stood a replica of the cross set up by the Portuguese explorer Diaz, who had discovered this place over five hundred years ago. The ocean waves crashed furiously against the rocks and I found myself mesmerized again, like I had been at Peggy's Cove in Nova Scotia. We sat on the steps and watched. There was a small island nearby full of seals, resting on the rocks watching us. I thought about how if one kept going across the body of water I was looking at, we'd hit South America.

seals on the island, watching us.

Till, pretending to be a Portuguese explorer.

Soon enough our hunger became unbearable, so we drove back to Luderitz, across the moonscape, wondering if we had sent home photos of us standing here, could we convince anyone that we had been to the moon? We ordered burgers on toast with milkshakes at the Waterfront's Sea Breeze Cafe, and then at that point I departed from my European travel companions. They were on the hunt for Internet. I knew from experience that it was going to be a hopeless cause.

For dinner I ate a plate of mussels drowned in garlic butter and camembert cheese with two glasses of South African dry white, and turned in at the hostel early. It was still empty. I dozed off on the couch watching too many episodes of CSI and woke up in the morning to the loud honking of my ride, a combie van driver named Auntie Anna. She had a tendency to curse up a storm in Afrikaans but she was absolutely sweet to me. The combie van made about six stops after me, going back and forth between the township and the city, picking up fish at various points. I thought about asking why they didn't make all the stops in the townships at once, and all the stops in town after, but gave up on trying to be a North American ass obsessed with efficiency. The other locals in the van were curious about the presence of an Asian foreigner in the van but were too hot and tired to talk to me, which was what I preferred. It was a long hot ride back to Windhoek. I opened the window a little to let a little air circulate, but it was all hot desert air coming in. We mostly slept in the van and ate little. I tried to ration my water.

It was unpleasantly hot and crowded, but I soon came to realize that I enjoyed these combie van rides. The desert landscape was, as always, breathtaking and the mountains made such strange sharp formations. I've grown accustomed now to sweating through my jeans. As crowded as these rides get, and as hot as the desert gets, I knew I was going to miss these road trips once I got back to Canada.

"Now, looking out the tunnel of trees over the ravine at the sky with white clouds moving across in the wind, I loved the country so that I was happy as you are after you have been with a woman that you really love, when, empty, you feel it welling up again and there it is and you can never have it all and yet what there is, now, you can have, and you want more and more, to have, and be, and live in, to possess now again for always, for that long, sudden-ended always; making time stand still..."
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

the ghost town of Kolmonskop

My new European companions' decision to check out Kolmanskop made me happy, partly because I now had some company, but also because it saved me from having to try to hitch a ride out to the ghost town for a second day.

Kolmanskop looks like a mirage from afar. For miles you drive, and there is nothing but sand dunes in a desert that looks completely uninhabitable. And then from the sand rises this little town that once was the thriving centre of the diamond industry for decades, until the diamond business moved elsewhere and the entire town shut down, leaving it to the sands to slowly devour. Now the town is a still snapshot of the 1920s, with sand as its main inhabitants. Kolmanskop was the main reason why I had taken the long road trip down to Luderitz. I had seen photos of the place before, and I wanted to see a dead town for myself.

in the middle of nowhere: wow, that's a lot of nothing.

We arrived late and joined in the tour that was already in progress. Unfortunately, that particular tour was entirely in German. Luckily I had German friends to translate for me. What they translated for me was:

1. There are hyenas in the buildings. Watch out for the hyenas.
2. There was snakes in the buildings. Watch out for the snakes. They are poisonous.
3. Don't steal any diamonds.
4. Don't cross any fences. The bored guards will shoot you.

Eventually the tour ended and we were free to explore the ghost town on our own. I am a writer and I like to write, but I feel like these pictures can say so much more than I could ever describe.

photo from the old days when people lived here and gathered for parties. Nice flag.

"Dahling, this house looks divine. I think we should buy it," I said.
"I think we should buy that one," Claudio replied.

"I get this this room, with the balcony," said Till.
"Which one is my room?" asked Claudio.
"You can get the closet."

All I can say is that Kolmanskop was one of the most surreal things I had ever seen in my life. We trekked through the desert from building to building, as sand built up inside our sneakers. In each old building you could imagine how people had once lived - the tour guide had described some of the houses the way that a real estate agent would sell a house - but now all you could see was the piles of sand leaking in through the walls, the windows, and the broken floorboards. No diamonds though, and no ghosts - this time, anyway.

the boys take a rest after exploring the ghost town in the hot desert. They are slightly sunburnt.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shark Island in Luderitz

When I ask my friends what the Afrikaans word for "soon" is, they have no answer. The closest they can come up with the concept of "soon" is the Afrikaans word for "now", or sometimes "now now". Namibia has a different concept of time. "Now" does not mean what North Americans perceive as now.

This truth came out when I set off for a weekend trip alone to Luderitz. My plan was to take the cheapest way there, which was by combie van. Unfortuantely, these vans do not leave until there are enough people going to the same destination, so sometimes you end up waiting and waiting. I waited six hours, to be exact. It was a real test of patience and ability to lie on a metal bench and do nothing for six hours. I watched two stray cats hunt a grasshopper. I watched people wander in and out of the Rhino Park Beauty spot. I watched a man beat on a young boy trying to hawk some wares. I watched a security guard dance to pass the time.

My patience was finally rewarded by the universe with a slightly less-decrepit-than-usual combie van which actually had headrests, for which I was grateful because it meant I could sleep without leaning on my neighbours. This was good because I was wedged between the tall gruff driver and a large coloured man from Walvis Bay.

"So, you are from China?" he asked me.

"No," I answered. Sometimes I think I should get a shirt.

The roads to the south of Namibia are flat fields of tall green and yellow grass, reminding me a bit of driving past cornfields back home in Ontario. There are less mountains here. It was a long drive, about ten hours, and we didn't pull into Luderitz until midnight, even though I had arrived at the combi vans at 8AM. It was too dark to see much of Luderitz at all. All I could see were the trees by the side of the road, looking like ghosts.

When I woke up, it was a beautiful morning with clear skies and church bells were ringing like in a French song. The streets of Luderitz were completely empty and quiet except for church sermons. There seem to be a lot of churches in Luderitz.

Luderitz is an old German harbour town on the coast. It's an odd location for a town, sandwiched between the cold Atlantic ocean and the massive desert. You basically drive past the dunes for what feels like forever until the road suddenly spits you out into this quaint little town of bright coloured houses and the ocean. It's a lot farther away from Windhoek, so unlike Swakopmund, it doesn't have a huge tourism industry. In fact, with its main industries being fisheries and diamonds, you could almost swear they don't want tourists, especially since the town is surrounded by the intriguingly frightening Sperrgebiet National Park, which despite being a national park, is extremely forbidden to everyone, lest anyone try to sneak in and smuggle out diamonds. Those DO NOT ENTER OR ELSE OUR BORED GUARDS WILL SHOOT YOU just aren't that tourist friendly.

Luderitz is a better reflection of the kind of tourists that Namibia tends to attract: richer, older folks, often German, with their own cars. The destinations in Namibia tend to be far apart, there isn't much of a public transportation, and the terrain is rough and sometimes dangerous. It's not like Cape Town: you don't see a lot of teenagers, and you don't see a lot of backpackers. I discovered this when I realized I was the only person in a 8-bed dorm in the town's only backpackers hostel. Also, you need a car to get to any of the "tourist" destinations in Luderitz.

I don't mind this at all, because it also tends to mean that every where you go, it tends to be quiet and uncrowded, making you feel as though you are experiencing something that was meant just for you. I like trying the off-the-beaten-track stuff, so I set out on foot, breathing in the refreshing smell of sea salt in the air. My goal was to try to hitch a ride to Kolmanskop, the ghost town that lay about eleven kilometres inland from Luderitz. I hung around the safari shop, hoping to find other ghost town thrill seekers. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to be heading there that day, and I was not feeling up to an eleven kilometre hike in the height of the heat in the desert, so I had to abandon that plan for the day.

I asked the lady at the safari shop where there was a beach near here, and she told me there was a small one at Shark Island.

I took the long way there and took some pictures of the town along the way.

the famous brightly coloured painted houses of luderitz. I liked this practice of using vibrant colours. It reminded me a little of Jelly Bean Row in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

this gambling hall was pink.

the famous goerke haus, rising from the rocks

the jetty

luderitz: land of barren desert, palm trees, mountains, and the ocean

a church on the rocks, pretty much in the middle of nowhere

Shark Island was accessible by foot, although apparently people don't do that very often, because the guard at the gate was surprised to see me show up on my own. He asked me for my lunch. I offered him some crackers. He let me in.

What most people don't know about Shark Island is that it used to be a concentration camp. One of the world's first concentration camps, in fact, where the Germans exterminated thousands of Nama and Herero people in horrific conditions during the Namibian war, 1904 to 1908. Many historians believe that the techniques practiced here developed into the massive concentration camps during the Holocaust. Now Shark Island is a resort.

I've been to Auschwitz. I did the tours and saw the bunkers. There is nothing of the sort at Shark Island. There is no sign explaining the significance of the site, nothing to hint of its gory past. There actually isn't much at all at Shark Island, actually, and it would be a bit of a stretch to call it a resort. It's mostly barren land, all rock, with a sort of desolate feeling, surrounded by crashing ocean waves. I was struck by how small the area is, and wondered how they could kill thousands of people here. It was one of the reasons why I had decided not to camp here.

I found the beach and sat down to eat my lunch, a carton of Oshikandela and a meat pie from the OK Grocers (which was OK). Back when this place was a concentration camp, the Germans would take the bodies of the victims that had died, and decapitate them, sending the skulls to Germany for scientific research to "prove" the physical superiority of the Aryan race. Then they would dump the bodies on the beach for the sharks to feed on when the tide came in. Shark Island. And now I was having a picnic on the beach.

I was approached by a young barefoot Namibian schoolgirl whose family was having a braai nearby (yes, on Shark Island, former concentration camp, now Sunday afternoon family barbecue spot). She introduced herself as Shannon.

shannon and her brother, playing on the beach

"Why are you sitting on the rock and not in the sand?" she asked me.

"Because I'm afraid of finding bodies on the beach," I replied.


I realized that she hadn't eaten her lunch yet, so I decided not to explain. "I'm afraid of ghosts," I replied, which seemed to make a lot more sense to Shannon for some reason.

"Why aren't you swimming?" she asked.

"Because I'm afraid of sharks," I answered. Which I thought was a perfectly sensible answer.

She and her little brother kept me company as we watched the tide lap around the rocks, enjoying the view of the ocean and the beach, which seemed to be covered in more oyster shells than sand. Her brother told me the story of how once it snowed in the nearby town of Aus, and everybody went out in hordes to Aus to see the snow. Shannon pointed out the seals swimming in the water. They told us that they planned to study hard so they could one day visit Canada.

The waves were so rhythmic and soothing that I found myself falling asleep. When I woke up, Shannon and her brother had returned to their family to eat and they were replaced by a young German man sitting next to me, trying to talk to me with his limited English. I eventually figured out that he wasn't a hallucination or a ghost coming back to haunt the concentration camp, mainly beacuse I feel like ghosts wouldn't be hanging around in their underwear. I followed him back to his campsite on the other side of Shark Island, where his friends were all also in their underwear, because it was laundry day.

They were four young Europeans travelling through Namibia the way that tourists travel through Namibia, with a giant truck and an incredibly-equipped camping kit that could survive a Siberian winter. The girl, Alina, greeted me and explained that they had been travelling for days together and they were glad for a chance to talk to someone new. They invited me to stay for dinner and drinks. I thought, why not? It hadn't been my intention to have a social party on the site of a former concentration camp - with Germans - but on the other hand, I didn't have any dinner plans.

As they began cutting up vegetables and tending to the braai fire to cook the meat, they told me about themselves. One was an archeologist, another a high school teacher, and the other a guitarist in a Swiss garage rock band. The fourth guy, Lars, never said a word the entire time, so I didn't know what he did, but he did a splendid job of cooking.

While the boys cooked, Alina and I climbed up the rocks and watched as dolphins played in the water near the island. The sun was beginning to set. It was a pretty surreal moment, with the dolphins, the sunset, the delicious smell of braai cooking, the newfound friends, all on a spot that had seen some of the worst suffering man has inflicted on others. But maybe that's a different way of Namibia healing itself, transofrming a place of horror into a place of peace and having a nice time with friends.

sundowner at rivers crossing, sunrising in khomasdal

I'd always heard that Rivers Crossing was a beautiful spot for a sundowner, but hadn't had a chance to check it out because the lodge is about five kilometres out of Windhoek and you need a car to get there - a nice sturdy one too, to make it over the rocky gravel roads.

Luckily, on one of my last nights in Windhoek, AN and S invited me to go for a sundowner with them. They have a nice study car. A station wagon, inf act, which fascinates Namibians everywhere, as they keep offering to buy it off S. They don't really have stations wagons here. I like AN and S because they let me intrude on their cool dates.

I love sundowners. It's a tradition I'd like to bring back to Ottawa. Basically you get to a high spot, and then you have a drink as you watch the sun go down. This may be a bit difficult in Otttawa, which is very flat and has no tall mountains.

We were seated at a table outside next to a swimming pool. I'm pretty sure this pool has the best view that any swimming pool in the world has. It was eerily silent on the top of the mountain at Rivers Crossing, with everything calm and still except for the wind blowing in our faces. It was chilly. AN and I had forgotten our sweaters, so the waiter gave us towels to wrap ourselves up from the cold. I couldn't tell whether we looked extremely cool, like the babes on Baywatch, or extremely dorky, wearing towels at a posh place.

The sunset was absolutely breathtaking. What is it about sunrise and sunsets that fascinate humans so much? Is it part of our fixation on changes in nature, like equinoxes and solstices, watching day turn into night and then back to day? Or does the sunset signify a socially acceptable time to start drinking without being judged as a boozer?

Whatever it is, the sunset at Rivers Crossing was pretty great. It's the rainy season in Windhoek so there were enough clouds in the sky, reflecting pink streaks from the sunset. It was an incredible sight: on one side of the horizon was the setting sun. On the other side of the horizon facing the sunset was a double rainbow.


You could see the sprawling city of Windhoek in the distance, streetlights on and blinking. It was a very romantic moment for S and AN. And me, the third.

After the dark settled in, I had a very different night in Khomasdal, my new neighbourhood. I went out with nenad, WK, and Wi11be to Wells', a neighbourhood bar in Khomasdal, and incidentally, the first bar I had ever been taken to when I first arrived in Windhoek. As usual, the sight of an Asian woman in a coloured bar drew some attention from the locals, which produced the following conversation

man: Nee hau.
me: What?
man: Nee hau.
me: Why are you meowing at me like a cat? Woof woof.

This is my #1 most common conversation with Namibian strangers. #2 is the following:

man: So are you from China?
me: No, I'm from Canada.
man: Oh, you must take me to Canada.
me: Why do you want to go to Canad? It's very cold in Canada
man: It can be cold in Namibia too! Sometimes it gets down to 10 degrees.
(gloria suddenly starts laughing like a hyena)

Nevertheless, I have great conversations. We stayed out for a couple of drinks, and then hitched a ride home with ZK's old friend from high school, which, as I found out, was actually only last year. It was a bit odd getting teenagers to drive me home - I feel like the natural order of life should make it the other way around. At any rate, we rode home in the back of his pickup truck, which looks like a really cool thing to do but is actually quite uncomfortable. And then everyone stayed up for more drinks and conversation until the sun rose.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

the namibian children send me off with song and dance

My last days at the Bernard Noordkamp Centre, the after school program in Katutura that I've been volunteering at, has been one of the most beautiful moments during my stay in Namibia.

I arrived on one of my last days, with the intention of reading to the kids about the dangers of young people drinking (ironically, i had plans to go to the bar afterwards) when I discovered that the children had prepared a concert for volunteers like me who were leaving. They formed a choir of about fifty kids, all between grade 1 to 7 (with a few older kids helping to lead), and musical accompaniment only in the form of one girl hitting a drum.

It was absolutely adorable.

I always love listening to Namibians sing, because it seems like they all love to sing. Unlike many North Americans who needed to be pumped full of liqur and standing in front of a karaoke machine, many Namibians will sing, just because you ask them to, and they'll often break out into spontaneous harmony as well as call-and-response. I'm also impressed by their ability to dance in coordination with the music, which is something I've never really gotten the hang of myself. I just can't get enough of it. Especially with children singing. I love the sound of children's voices.

the kids sang a variety of songs in different African languages, many of them being spiritual songs, as I gathered from all the references to Jesus.

The children ended their concert with a touching song that was specially sung for us.

"good-bye our dear friends,
we shall never forget you
good-bye our dear friends
we shall never forget you
although you are very far
we shall never forget you..."

At the end of the song, they all filed off stage in a single line and gave me a hug. Every single kid in the program. All one hundred and fifty or so of them. That was a lot of hugs. Some of the kids were crying because they were upset about us leaving. I thought my heart was going to break. I may or may not have also had a tear in my eye.

the drummer


the biggest smile I've ever seen on Marybeth's face.

I decided to give back to the kids by giving my own little performance, in form of a singalong. I taught the kids a few North American classics such as "There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly", "There's a Hole in my Bucket", the theme song from the Elephant Show, and of course, "A Pizza Hut" (the consumerist junk food addict in me can't help but come out sometimes). The kids had never heard of these songs before, but they learned quickly and were singing the songs well after the concert - especially the Pizza Hut song.

My favourite moment was when, in a moment of pure selfishness, I taught them the harmony parts for my band's song "See Me". The kids loved that tune too.

The music of Scary Bear Soundtrack has never sounded so good, being sung by sixty cute Namibian schoolchildren.

It was an absolutely lovely way to send me off. Thanks for all the good times and the good music, Namibia.

Friday, March 16, 2012

my morning commute

on my last day of work, I think it is fitting to describe the morning commutes to work in Windhoek.

In Klein Windhoek, which was where the white people historically had lived and therefore is located quite close to downtown, I only have a few kilometres to go to work, so usually I walk to work. I may or may not have become notorious all over town because of this, because no white person walks to work, and generally you only see black labourers walking on the side of the road. There are no sidewalks generally, so I usually make my way down the dirt shoulders, grass as high as my thighs, past snarling dogs locked behind high gates. I pass the same black labourers every day, and by now we greet each other with a friendly smile and "Goeie môre!" as if we are old friends. I think I also pass the same cars every day, because once in while, maybe at a bar or a restaurant, I'll have the following conversation with a random stranger:

Stranger: "Every morning I pass by this Chinese girl who is walking on the side of the road."

Me: "Oh, that's me."

Stranger: "Really? I'll honk next time I pass you."

Me: "Why don't you just give me a ride??"

I've since moved out of my flat in Klein Windhoek and am now living with my friend Nenad in Khomasdal, the township where they relocated all the coloured people during the apartheid regime. Incidentally, if we were still living under South African apartheid, I think Khomasdal is probably where I, as an "Asiatic", would have been forced to live. I find this to be a very interesting thought.

Commuting to work from Khomsdal is different. The townships are very far from downtown, which was a deliberate decision by the white apartheid authorities, and is a big pain in the butt for basically every worker in the township who has to get to work in the town every morning. Windhoek doesn't have public transportation, not really. I mean, I see these big buses that go around sometimes, but nobody except some of the workers seem to figure out how they work. I suppose you might consider the fifteen or so people crammed in the back of a pickup truck to cound as public transportation, or maybe at least carpooling. But for most people, the main commute to work involves taking a shared taxi.

Taking a public taxi in Namibia is an art form that takes a lot of practice. In Canada, you would hail a cab, jump in, tell him where to take you, and watch nervously as the meter goes up and up and up.

In Namibia, you hail a cab, tell him through the window where you want to go, and then if he chooses to take you, you get in and hope nervously that he won't rob you. At the same time, you try to avoid the stray dogs on the street. On the bright side, any cab ride will only cost you one or two Canadian dollars. On the downside, you have to figure out how to tell him where to take you. Cab drivers (or Namibians in general) don't do street names, directions, or anything that North Americans are used to using to get places. Instead, you have to pick a nearby landmark, a landmark that cab drivers will recognize. I have learned that if I went to direct a cab to my work, they will not recognize "the National Library" which is next door, but they do for some reason know where Kenya House is, which is this abandoned falling apart building that nobody uses anymore which is apparently under construction and has been under construction since God knows when. I have no idea why cab drivers know this.

Also, you can't just hop in the cab and say "Good morning, sir, I'd like to go to the National Library." That's too many words and for some reason they have trouble understand North American accents. Instead, you have to drop your voice very deep, almost to a growl, and bark "Kenya House, nee?" If the cab driver grunts "Unh" he'll take you. If he says "Ah", he won't. Those two grunts sound very similar so you have to train your ear to hear for it. Otherwise you might reach for the car door to get in, only to have him drive off with half your leg in the car.

White Namibians never take shared taxis, which they refer to as "black taxis". They have their own cars. To their credit, they often offer me rides when they see me walking on the side of the road or trying to hail a "black" taxi. Or they'll just honk, because they recognize me.

On another note, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WILL. Will is the brilliant artist who draws cartoons for me, including the logo for this blog. Everyone say happy birthday to Will.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

hoping my help is helpful: pondering international development work and my time in Namibia

"Not only can you make a difference, you are ethically responsible to do so." -Romeo Dallaire, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children

This is my last week at work here, which means that this is my last "Workday Wednesday" in Windhoek. This seems like a good time to reflect on the work I've done here.

Shortly before I left for Africa, my friend Yoni passed on a fascinating thought-provoking article that took a heavily critical view of volunteering in Africa. The article poked fun at young people in their gap year facing identity dilemmas or middle-aged folks facing an empty nest and a mid-life crisis, all deciding that teaching English or building a house in Africa is going to fill the emptiness in their lives. Helping poor people would help them feel better about themselves.

but by the time the first bombs fell
we were already bored

-The Arcade Fire "The Suburbs"

Such an altruistic conclusion is fine if you're looking for something to pass the time, but the article then questions whether you are actually helping - that is, providing meaningful and sustainable assistance that will actually implement significant long-term change in the developing country. Are you actually doing good?

Obviously there are lots of people "doing good" in these countries. But there are many examples where "help" is not all that helpful. While we were training for our program in Ottawa before we were sent overseas, we learned about foreign aid projects that simply failed. For example, the installation of a water pipe system in a village was all very nice and useful until the water pipes broke down and nobody was around to fix it or maintain it. Now the system just sits there, broken and rusty, and the people in the village still have to walk long miles to fetch water from the next well.

I was told of another story at the Katutura after school program that I volunteered at, where one well-meaning guy offered to teach a few of the kids to play the guitar. He showed up a few times, let the kids play with the guitars (and break them), and then never showed up again. Now the centre has two broken guitars.

Another difficult question that the article posed was whether your help is actually needed. Sure, you can volunteer to help build a house in Namibia during your spring break, but surely it would be better to send money to pay a Namibian construction worker to build the house? After all, he needs a job. Also, he's kind of been trained to build houses, while you have a bachelor of arts (for the record, I have a bachelor of arts). Are you actually helping, or are you putting a local person out of a job by providing mediocre quality services in something you don't specialize in?

I would argue that there are certain services that a volunteer can provide that can be useful to a country. Skills development and capacity building, for example. One of my American friends working at the local Namibian university tells me that for every foreigner they hire, they make sure they also hire a local Namibian that will be trained to replace the foreigner once he leaves. This strikes me as a responsible and sustainable arrangement.

Also, if your services are something that is genuinely in shortage and in demand in the country, your help will probably be quite useful. My friend Heather, for example, is teaching law in the Gambia, a country that opened up its first law school only a few years ago. Its legal system is still being set up and the country welcomes the legal experts of other countries to offer their advice and experience. Heather is essentially training a new generation of young lawyers. When Namibia first gained independence, we had judges and lawyers come in from many other countries to help establish a new legal system.

There is the argument that volunteering overseas provides an important learning opportunity for volunteers themselves. They get to experience new cultures and learn about hardship in the world beyond the suburban angst expressed in the new Arcade Fire album. I think this is very important, and if that is the main reason for a person to travel to Africa, then that is great. But in international development terms, there are other things to consider. The thing is, Africa is not a just playground for people from North America to come and feel better about themselves. Many developing countries can definitely use assistance, but only if the assistance is practical, meaningful, and somewhat lasting. Otherwise, it might just be better to send money. The cost of your airfare to Africa, accommodation, and meals might go a much longer way as a monetary donation than your week's worth of physical labour. Not to mention there are people in your own neighbourhood who could use help - just check out your local soup kitchen or rape shelter.

sometimes i wonder if the world's so small
can we ever get away from the sprawl

-The Arcade Fire "Sprawl II"

These thoughts have remained in the back of my mind during my entire stay in Namibia. Have I contributed something useful to the country? I would really like to think that I fall on the "useful" side of the spectrum. After all, I was recruited into this program sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Canadian Bar Association for my specific skill and experience as a lawyer. My organization could not hire a Namibian lawyer to do the work that I was doing, and so by offering my services, I was able to provide something to the country that would not have otherwise been offered. I've been here for about seven months, which I hope was long enough to be able to provide meaningful significance. My particular skill is in legal research and most of the work that I did here involved conducting research, especially of the international and comparative nature, to guide the Namibian government in writing new laws.

Some of the stuff I have worked on while here have included:

  • a research project on statelessness in preparation for a United Nations High Commission for Refugee regional conference. Stateless people are people who, for some reason, do not have any claim to nationality. Think, perhaps, about the situation of Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal, who is stuck because his country Krakozhia no longer exists as a state, but he has no claim to the United States, where he resides. I analysed Namibian legislation to assess whether they complied with the international standards set out in the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and I concluded with a set of recommendations on amendments that would need to be made to better comply with Namibia's international obligations.

  • The Namibian government has asked us to help draft a new Marriage Bill to address the specific issues that Namibia faces, including foreigners potentially exploiting Namibian women in a fraudulent marriage in order to gain residential status in Namibia. It's a bit of a twist on the usual sham marriages we're used to in the Western world, where mail-order brides immigrate to Canada or the United States and then face exploitation by their sponsoring partners. I helped out by doing research on what other countries have done to deal with these kinds of issues.

  • I attended a meeting with representatives of United Nations agencies and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare with the aim of hammering out a draft National Plan of Action on Gender-based Violence. I assisted with finalizing the plan. It was pretty encouraging to see people in high places talk about prioritizing gender issues like domestic violence, rape, and trafficking. We'll see how the plan is implemented though.

  • One of the biggest things we've been working on is completing the domestic violence study report, which evaluates the relatively new Combating of Domestic Violence Act and its ability to address the major problem of domestic violence against women in Namibia. One of the more interesting projects that I coordinated with regards this report was running a photoshoot with a visiting photographer for photos to use for publicity about the report and its issues. Ah, running photoshoots and coordinating model...the life of a lawyer is hard.

  • In addition to the domestic violence report, my organization is in the process of publishing a report on Namibia’s child maintenance (child support) laws. Like many places around the world, Namibia is no stranger to deadbeat dads. The thing is, Namibia has a lot of single moms, so unless you want a lot of kids growing up in poverty, it's important to make sure that laws about child support payments are effective and efficient. I provided research support for the writing of this report.

  • My organization has been assisting the Ministry of Health with the writing of a new Mental Health Bill. I accompanied my colleague to one of these consultation meetings in order to provide our organization’s comments on the Bill. I then provided research support for this process, comparing the draft bill with the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization and similar legislation in other countries.

  • My organization has also been helping the Namibian government to re-write the Births, Marriages and Deaths Registration Act. The current one is left over from the apartheid era. Yep. Time for a new one. In order to do this, I conducted extensive research on the specific issue of how birth registration is tied to citizenship laws, and provided a comparative analysis on how countries around the world have dealt with this issue.

  • I provided research support regarding the impact of environmental degradation on women as well as women’s access to credit and loan repayment rates, for submissions that my organisation made regarding gender issues to the National Planning Commission for Namibia’s fourth National Development Plan. The research about loans, while absolutely interesting (especially stuff about the Grameen Bank projects), made me panic a little about my own student loans.

  • I also wrote several articles explaining the law to the public. I drafted a section of a booklet on the Ministry of Education’s new learner pregnancy policy, explaining what legal options a person has if she cannot afford to pay the school development fund contribution, according to the Education Act. I also wrote two articles for the Namibian magazine Young, Latest and Cool, put out by the youth arts group Ombetja Yehinga Organisation. One explained to young people the process under the new Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) for removing a child from their home for child welfare and safety purposes. The other explained the difference between foster care and kinship care under the CCPA, and the procedures for both. Finally, I wrote an opinion editorial piece for the local newspaper on domestic violence.

Overall I feel pretty good about my work here in Namibia. But there is always that nagging feeling that remains. Maybe I could have been more useful if I had more experience. Maybe I should have stayed longer. And maybe the work I've done here will have no impact whatsoever because the Namibian government might not listen to our recommendations. But at this point of my stay in Namibia, I'd like to remain optimistic. I've worked hard while I was here, and hopefully it will pay off. And at the very least, I've introduced the country of Namibia to the girl-rocking musical wonders of Scary Bear Soundtrack.

"Peux ce que veux, allons-y." -Romeo Dallaire

Sunday, March 11, 2012

crashing parties at Lake Oanob

AN and S. were going to a party in Lake Oanob, just outside of Rehoboth. I thought to myself, I like lakes, and I like parties. I decided to invite myself along.

Turns out that the party I was crashing was full of diplomatic folks from the American Embassy and the United Nations. Luckily they were all very nice and welcoming, probably because I told them I was from the embassy of China. Just kidding. I would never do that. I'd say something more believable, like, the embassy of Ukraine.

The hosts had rented out a waterfront chalet at the Lake Oanob Resort and were throwing a three-day long party. These folks knew how to party. First of all, the chalet had a magnificent view.

view from the chalet

some of the resort chalets

This was pretty awesome, even though it was the only chalet at Lake Oanob that didn't have a name from the Lion King (all the other chalets at the resort were Nala, Pumbaa, Mufasa, Rafiki, etc...).

More importantly, however, the first thing that greeted party guests when they arrived at the party was a lamb on a stick.

Note: vegetarian readers may choose to skip the next few photos and instead read this thought-provoking article about the problematic politics of PETA written by my vegan activist friend Ryan

Mary had a little lamb, and it was damn delicious

Pretty damn awesome. I actually made it far enough into the chalet to grab myself a beer, and then spent the rest of the time sitting by the lamb roast, watching art happen. There is nothing really more beautiful than the sound of liquified meat fat dripping off a bone and sizzling in the coals below.


what happened after the lamb was ready to be served was a different form of art. There are many ways to hack up the meat after it has been roasted. My friend Hector once had a boy's night where he built his own lamb roast contraption in his backyard, which he cooked for nine hours, even cradling an umbrella over it when it began to rain, and after it was ready, he just laid the whole meat out on the kitchen counter and the men attacked it with their knives, eating with their bare hands.

My fiance was trained at the top culinary school Cordon Bleu and cooks for a living. He's always going on and on about how a proper chef must have the best tools to cut meat. What you need is a top quality knife.

Or a band saw.

when men cook.

watching a man use a massive power tool to slice up cuts of meat was both fascinating and nerve-wracking at the same time. I had my first encounter with band saw machines in high school drafting class. The teacher had put little piece of tape to indicate the area we were supposed to keep our fingers out of, so that we didn't hack off any digits. This toolman/cook definitely had his fingers well past the line. I was afraid but I couldn't stop watching. Also, every once in a while, some hot burning fat oil would fly off the machine and hit the children watching nearby. Mmm, delicious burning pain. Afterwards, I was sorely tempted to lick the blade, which i knew would taste delicious and nothing like the sawdust usually found on bandsaws.

Dinner was delicious, the kind of delicious you can only get when you push a lamb through a power tool.

Out near the resort bar, I ran into Lize's husband, who was taking his kids out.

"What are you up to this weekend?" he asked me.

"I'm crashing a party full of Americans," I replied.

"Ah," he replied. "I was going to ask if you wanted to join us on our big boat, but that sounds like a noble cause."

I opened my mouth to answer, and then wondered for a minute which would be a better way to spend the day, powerboating or eating baby animals. You know how I eventually decided.

Besides, some of the folks were taking the kayaks out. Lake Oanob is an artificially constructed lake that lots of city folks like to visit when they want to get away from the city. It seems to be more or less the only place around Windhoek you can ride a big power boat. Personally, I wouldn't see a point in owning a speed boat in a city that is not built near any body of water in a country that is flanked by two deserts, but a lot of rich Namibian families bring their boats there and whip around the lake, motors roaring, children screaming, and giraffes wondering what the heck all the racket is.

I am Canadian, and kayaking is more my speed.

there was also the option of taking these aquacycles out, but I still have my dignity.

Kayaking was lovely. We braved the waves slapping against the side of the kayaks caused by the wake of the powerboats, and paddled our way around the lake, approaching a hillside of sheep grazing near the shore, looking peaceful and delicious.

and ducks! lekker!

Followed by swimming, with our choice of the lake or the swimming pool.

The whole party had the relaxed, chilled-out atmosphere of days I've spent at the cottage with my friends. Some summer tunes playing on someone's iPod, the cheers of men playing some game on the lawn nearby, the warm sun on your skin as you lounge on the deck, wondering if you should take a nap, go for another swim, or get a beer. Sometimes it's nice if that's the biggest choice you have to make for the day. It was a pretty sweet party.

attempts at self-portrait