Saturday, 12 June 2010

close encounters

Whoops, time has wings and again I have neglected to keep the blog up to date.....not helped by the demise of my laptop and even more sporadic internet availability.

Highlights over the last couple of months include a visit from Alan's side of the family, Gail, Andy, Clare and Paul quickly follwed by his mum, Joy. Eilidh also impressed everyone in April when she was part of a three strong team who cycled on rough gravel tracks through the mountain passes from Windhoek to the coastal town of Swakopmund. Most of her year at school took part, sleeping under the desert stars (no tents) at night before checking their shoes for scorpions in the morning and setting out on the next leg of the 400 km journey.

At the end of April the schools close for 5 weeks so we took a couple of weeks in May to explore the beautiful and remote Kakoaland, more adventures covered in Alan's musings.

At least Alan still has internet in his office so here is a copy of his latest ramblings.......

The Kavango River rises in Angola before flowing through Namibia and on into landlocked Botswana, emptying into the vast Okavango delta, a mighty river that never reaches the sea.  From Friday to Monday we stayed at Ngapi Camp on the banks of the Kavango, in the region of Namibia that takes its name, a beautiful location. This was our VSO Global Education weekend, the subject of which was community conservation, an undoubted success in Namibia, where endangered species, such as the black rhino, now flourish. Ngapi falls at one end of the community conservation scale, the land owned by the community, the camp leased and operated by an investor/proprietor. Further up the scale communities are responsible for large scale conservancies, some truly vast, where they manage the land for wildlife (as well as for subsistence agriculture). Here the local people benefit from tourism, on occasion communities operating their own campsites and lodges, or receiving payment from trophy hunters, the latter's activities tightly controlled under licence. This whole area of community land ownership is fascinating and there is a resonance with our own community land initiatives many of which have breathed new life into Scotland's rural areas.

On Saturday night we sat around the fire, chatting, drinking, discussing the day's events, telling stories. One of the camp guides, Ernest from the nearby village, liked riddles and we were intrigued to hear a local version
of the 'fox, chicken and corn' conundrum where you have a river to cross and just one boat. How do you get them all across safely, taking just one animal or item at a time? - only in Ernest's version it was a hyena, a cow and a bundle of grass. Here's another of Ernest's riddles for you, answers on a postcard please. The man who makes it doesn't want it, the man who buys it doesn't use it, and the man who uses it doesn't know it.

We had a bit of a scare travelling back on Monday and our own close encounter with African wildlife. Ngapi is in the north of the country about 700 miles from Windhoek and we were keen to reach home before dark, leaving early and getting a move on - probably too much of a move on in fact. Approaching Okahanja the road was good, straight as a die, the tarmac smooth. We have a big beast of a car, a twenty year old Nissan Patrol, with a 4.2 litre diesel engine, tough as a Kudu steak. It's the only car I've ever really felt an affection for, not for what it is, for who can fall in love with a piece of metal, but for the quality of engineering, the
robustness of the design. It's a classic piece of machinery which you can maintain and repair yourself.  I like it.

As we hammered along, suddenly and without warning a huge warthog sprung from the side of the road. I braked hard, tried to swerve but there was no chance, we hit the hog hard. The bull bar and bumper took the force of the blow but as the front drivers wheel mounted the poor creature's body, the car momentarily lost contact with the road. The rear wheel struck the hog as the front of the vehicle came down and I struggled hard to keep control. With too much speed and track rods bent by the impact we careered off the road and down a steep embankment.  I fought to keep the angle broad, worried the vehicle would roll, and we cut a long arc through the waist high grass, bouncing over boulders before slowing. Remarkably we managed to steer back up the embankment and onto the road, parking neatly in parallel. For a brief moment I had thought we would lose everyone.

The following morning part of me didn't want to leave the house, wanted to keep all the family close. Eilidh on the other hand merely considered this all good facebook material! 

And of course everyone was great. Vehicles stopped, people climbed out and rushed over, shaking our hands and thanking God, helping me as I pulled the animal's body from the road heaving on a broken tusk. I suspect the meat wasn't wasted either. All of us are okay which is all that really matters, and our VSO colleagues, the Fab Four, Katy and Kev, Steve and Kat, who arrived soon after, couldn't have been kinder, ensuring we were fine and taking Eilidh and Cameron home with them to play the piano and watch Ninja Challenge on satellite TV!

And the car? Well thanks to Piet, a genius of a bush mechanic with a large club hammer and a 12 ton pipe bender, we straightened the steering rods and completed a repair any garage would have been proud of. Wheel alignment Tuesday morning and a bit of panel beating this weekend and the Big Blue Beast will be right as rain.

Cameron now wants to paint a warthog on the bumper and cross it out, just like the Red Baron...............Nissan Patrol 1 - Warthogs 0.


I stood in the shade of the FNB bank in the pedestrianised Post Office Mall, central Windhoek, watching as Cameron and his cousin bargained for the best price on a model bent wire and bead giraffe, a present young Paul wanted to take home for his pal. Cameron was an old hand at this now, the proud owner of a menagerie of carved wooden and wire n' bead animals, he was sure to get a good price.

The Mall was busy, a direct route to the popular Fernhill shopping centre, and those walking past were an interesting mix of tourists and locals from the various Namibian tribal groups. One man caught my eye, dressed in blue workman's overalls he walked directly towards me, diagonally across the pedestrian flow. He grinned broadly, a smile which appeared just a little too wide and his bright white teeth just a little too big.  Approaching he held out his hand and grasped my own as if meeting an old friend. "Hello Taté" he said enthusiastically "how are you?" "I am well thank you" I replied in the standard Namibian greeting "And how are you?" "I am very happy" he said "a lady in Katatura is taking in mental people. I have my own bed and we are fed and there is water." "This sounds very good" I replied. "Yes, I am very happy. Look at my hands". He showed me the palms of his hands, then turned them over and waggled his fingers, the way a child does when pretending to play the piano. "Look" he said still smiling "They are clean. When I lived under the bridge they were always dirty, it was very hard to wash, but now I have water and I am clean." He hesitated briefly "There is no cost but I saw my brother give the lady some money, 120 dollars, he said it was for water". The man looked doubtful. "Perhaps it was" I replied "It is good your brother can pay." He smiled again. "Yes it
is good. I am very happy, very happy". I returned his broad smile with my own and the man rejoined the pedestrian flow. Meanwhile Paul and Cameron had bought the giraffe, 30 dollars, a good price indeed.

There is a large region of Namibia called Kunene, about the size of Scotland it is home to just 70,000 people and famous for desert elephants, black rhino and the Himba people, many of whom continue to live a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Often one see's pictures of the Himba, particularly Himba ladies on promotional tourist literature. This is not surprising as they give a striking impression, dressed in animal skin skirts and heavily ornamented, their bodies and tressled hair covered in a mixture of ochre, ash and butter fat, which apart from providing some protection against the harsh sun gives a deep red hue. The ladies look magnificent.

Driving from Opuwo, the capital of Kunene, we headed to Epupa Falls on the Kunene River which marks the boundary between Namibia and Angola. The scenery was stunning and although a high clearance four by four was recommended the gravel road was good. There were few cars so the Himba folk we occasionally saw hitching a lift, did so with much enthusiasm. The first lady we stopped for, carefully spread a cotton sheet on the seat, to protect the upholstery from the ochre - not that we really minded. The second was less careful and passed her baby to Eilidh to hold, red ochre quickly covering most of her 'California' top and skinny jeans.  Next there was a Himba gentlemen, also traditionally dressed and his young son squeezed in tightly, Cameron having now to sit on his mum's knee in the front seat, as the car was filling to bursting point. The man carefully placed his panga (machete) under the passenger seat and held his three dead chickens on a
stick above his head. Everybody smiled and although we only knew how to say moro (hello) and peri wee (how are you) and our passengers spoke no English, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. Dropping off our first hitch hikers, apparently in the middle of nowhere, we quickly picked up another two Himba ladies, each with their babies, never crying, but wide eyed at these curious white people. The ladies laughed and rubbed Eilidh's hair between their fingers touched her pale white skin. 

Epupa Falls are just beautiful and the contrast between the broad fast flowing river, lined with palm trees, the greatest concentration of palm rees in Africa apparently, and the parched landscape around couldn't be
greater. Since this area was of little agricultural value and hence of little interest to the colonisers, the Himba were generally left to get on with their own affairs, their rich culture continuing, and whilst independence has brought schools, including mobile schools, and some development, many Himba continue their traditional ways.

During the liberation struggle the SWAPO fighters felt that the support from the Himba was limited and it has been suggested that there is an animosity between the SWAPO Government and the Himba people. This was brought to a head with proposals for a hydro electric plant on the Kunene River. The Kunene is very important to the Himba, not just for the water it brings, but spiritually, and many of the ancestors graves, with whom the Himbas converse through the holy fire, are buried along its banks. The Government, keen to bring development to the country wanted to tap the mighty Kunene at Epupa and potentially this could have met much of Namibia's electricity demand, but would have flooded a vast area. The project would be high profile, the huge dam symbolic of the newly independent Namibia. The Himba people objected, a tribal leader famously saying that they could no more flood the graves of their ancestors than drown their own children. There was a prolonged court battle, the Himba claiming the development was unconstitutional, the Government claiming over-riding national interest. The Himba won, there is no dam at Epupa.

Some years later Kunene was struck by three continuous years of drought. The Himba people losing most of their livestock, many having no choice but to move from the remoter areas to Opuwo and the other small towns.  A traditional way of life was seriously under threat, potentially, it was suggested, to be lost forever. What was to be done? Would traditional animosities cloud the SWAPO Government's judgement? Would resentment at the high profile defeat in the High Court limit action? No. The young democracy proved its mettle, every Himba household was compensated for the loss of each animal, new cattle were brought in, and all Himba were assisted in relocation to their traditional areas. The Himba way of life that has existed for thousands of years continues, and Kunene remains the only region of Namibia where SWAPO is not the ruling party.

Having pitched the tents on the banks of the river, under the shade of the makalani palms and just yards from the falls, and with Cameron content with a newly purchased wooden warthog and Eilidh having de-himbered, washing the ochre from her clothes, we reflected on the day's journey. Fleetingly it struck me that four topless women in my car within a twenty four hour period was something of a record, beating, in fact, my own previous personal best by about errhm..............four.


OYO comes to Scotland

Cultural differences make life interesting but can lead to misunderstandings. The British have a tendency to circumvention, the Namibians to literal interpretation. When I say to my colleague Fenny "It would be great if you could handle the visas Fenny" she hears this as a statement or an observation rather than a request. So when Leonard and Bizack, the Zimbabwean musicians, were due to arrive and we check the arrangements, there are no visas, we haven't applied.

The visa office say no chance, it takes weeks to process an application and I am told stories of visas taking many months. Leonard and Bizack are due on Sunday, just five days time. Fenny is eventually given some forms to fill in which state they can only be signed by those for whom the visas are required, and of course the applicants are in Zimbabwe. The clouds start to gather. A performance has been arranged for the National Theatre of Namibia in less than two weeks time, immediately ahead of a high profile event in Cape Town, OYO and the Zimbabweans performing before MPs from seven southern African countries. The musicians and the dancers need to rehearse.

Finally I manage to get hold of the mobile number of the Assistant to the Permanent Secretary for Immigration and Home Affairs, promising not to reveal who gave me his personal number. I call him on the Tuesday afternoon. Mr Kamati is very helpful, advises me to fill in the forms and sign them myself, get copies of passports, which I had done, and a letter from the VSO Country Director, explaining the situation. "Time is very short" he says, "but we shall see". He arranges for me to meet with the Permanent Secretary on the Wednesday morning at 8 am. Out comes the sun. I attend in my suit but Mr Kamati "is writing an exam" and the Permanent Secretary is not in. "He will come in and then go straight to a meeting" I am told by the brusque receptionist "a meeting all morning, maybe all day". I ask if I can wait.

I sit dissolutely in the Permanent Secretary's ante-office leafing through a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, curiously the only book on the highly polished glass coffee table. After twenty minutes, the previously frosty receptionist comes over to me and smiles. "Do you think you will sit here a long time?" she asks. "I think I may, Meme" I reply. And so she invites me into the Permanent Secretary's office, red carpet and walnut veneer desk. She sits in his large black leather chair and gently swings from side to side. "So tell me your story" she says, and I tell my sorry tale. Meme Kalungula leans forward across the desk and smiles "This seems very straight forward" she says "we must arrange the visas, without delay!" And off she goes. Ten minutes later Meme Kalungula returns with another lady, Meme Kalanga, who shakes my hand warmly, the African handshake, holding, clasping, holding. "We have approved your applications Tate" she advises.
Both ladies smile at my obvious elation. "Thank you Meme Kalungula, thank you Meme Kalanga" I say "this is very important to us". "It is important to all of us" says Meme Kalanga.

As I leave the office of Home Affairs that morning, I notice how incredibly beautiful Windhoek is.

The performance at the National Theatre was wonderful. The fusion of Leonard's Zim rhumba with the contemporary dance of OYO simply stunning. So then to Cape Town and a highly appreciative audience of southern African MPs congratulate the dancers and musicians on their outstanding performance. The
Swedish Ambassador is there and he speaks to our Director, it seems the Swedish Development Agency may be interested in supporting a roll-out of our work over other southern African states, training local groups in dance and drama as a medium for engaging, informing and empowering youth in the fight against HIV/AIDs. I send Memes Kalanga and Kalungula a fax to say thank you. Meme Kalanga phones me and laughs. "You are very welcome Tate Hobbett, very welcome indeed".

Plans are afoot for a Scottish OYO. An independent charity which will seek to build cultural, artistic and youth exchange between Scotland, the broader UK and Namibia, and to raise funds for the work of OYO in Namibia. We plan a launch at the Scottish parliament at the end of September and we are very grateful to Patricia Fergusson MSP for her support in this respect. The first project will be to bring an award winning OYO exhibition, commencing in the Scottish parliament building, to tour Scotland. Still Life is a deeply moving   photo exhibition showing that for people living with HIV there is still life, for it is often assumed that once a person tests HIV positive they are destined to lead a life of pain, rejection, loneliness and bodily
degradation. Developed in collaboration with VSO Namibia, Still life set out with the aim to challenge this negative image by training people living with the virus in the art of photography so that they could document the positive events that go on in their lives. 

We may need some financial assistance in arranging the touring exhibition and Highland Council have already agreed in principle to tour it through the Highlands. The sums required are actually quite modest and - queue sales pitch - the tour offers a unique, high profile opportunity for a patron or patrons to demonstrate their support for international cultural exchange, bringing for the first time to communities throughout Scotland this unique award winning exhibition........The Ecology Centre and Kingdom HA are already on board.

With kindest regards


Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Haver- March 2

Some mornings I go to the shop to buy milk, bread rolls and a paper. A litre of milk costs me N$13 dollars, the rolls N$7 and the newspaper N$3. So N$23 dollars spent before breakfast. At current exchange rates that’s about £2. The vast majority of Namibians, however, live on less than £1 a day.
We live a fairly frugal lifestyle here compared to the standards at home. The VSO allowance is modest but the cost of food is no cheaper than in the UK and as there’s a family of us to feed, we are reliant upon our savings (can you hear the violins yet?) but even with our canny approach to cash the fact of the matter is that we spend more in a couple of days than many households here do in a month.
It was difficult, at first, to work out how people survived. Clearly the fact that 25% of children are malnourished suggests that for many simply having enough to eat is a significant challenge, but gradually the answers have became clearer.  In the rural areas, particularly in the ‘communal’ areas (commonly owned land administered by ‘traditional’ authorities) where most of the people live, there are no rents and no mortgages to be paid, everybody building their own home, mud huts for many, bricks and mortar for some. Also, the majority of people are involved in subsistence agriculture, so food is grown and livestock raised. But for most it’s simply not enough, so young men and women leave their homes to seek work in the city, sending remittances back to the villages, family, in turn, sending food to the city. There is no unemployment benefit or income support and for the 50% of the workforce that is unemployed it is the wider family that provides essential support. Survival, therefore, is in the family.
Clearly not everyone here is poor. The security guard on N$3 dollars an hour, good work if you can get it, may well work a twelve hour shift at his boss’s luxury home. Mercedes Benz have showrooms in Windhoek, there are designer outlets at Maerua Mall and the physically revolting Hummers (enough to make a VSO cyclist retch), but popular amongst the nouveau riche patrons of ‘The Wine Bar’, demonstrate that someone’s making a bob or two.
Without doubt things have improved since independence and nobody except the most dyed in the wool Afrikaner would pretend otherwise. In terms of education and healthcare it’s a different world, universal old age pensions have been introduced (about £45 a month), maternity leave is guaranteed, and for orphans the carer receives N$230 a month for the first child and N$100 for the second (crucial in a country of 2 million with 150,000 AIDs orphans). Despite these improvements, Namibia remains ‘officially’ the most unequal country in the world, the pattern of wealth largely reflecting that of the apartheid era and although huge voting majorities demonstrate the affection that the people hold for SWAPO in waging the liberation struggle, there are growing voices for a greater redistribution of wealth.
Fundamental to this is the land question. When Ben Boyes, the Head of Education in Hardap Region, one of the speakers at a VSO training event and a former soldier in the fight for liberation, was asked by one of the volunteers what motivated those that went to fight, he took a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers.  And for Ben’s grandfathers it was the German authority’s declaration that Africans in Namibia would have to sell 75% of their land to white settlers that was the final straw leading to the genocidal wars of 1904 to 1907, when the Nama lost 50% of their people and the Herero 75%.
Much blood has been split over the dry lands of Namibia and land is still at the heart of wealth in Namibia today. It was interesting to hear Mrs Lange’s response, a commercial farmer and owner of the lodge where the VSO training was held, when I asked her about land reform. “I should not be a victim of the crimes of my ancestors” she said, supporting the Government’s line on ‘willing buyer-willing seller’ and opposing any suggestion of compulsory purchase.  Naturally I was too polite to comment but it is a fact that the descendants of the colonialists own the richest and the most productive land. 75% of all Namibia’s agricultural land and 90% of commercial farm land is owned by just 4,500 white farmers, figures which are even more surprising when you consider that just 5% of the Namibian population is white. Clearly the crimes of the ancestors continue to benefit some.
Many observe that the inequality here isn’t sustainable. So what is to be done? I saw a beautiful glimmer of hope in the following interview, from the excellent Sister Namibia magazine, with an elderly Nama lady resettled under the Government’s farm redistribution scheme. Under this scheme some 200 farms have been purchased, taken into community ownership, sub divided and leased to qualifying households. There are 250,000 households eligible but in 20 years less than 30,000 have been resettled.
Maria Witbooi applied for resettlement in 1996 and not much later received a piece of land. She settled on a cattle post and had to build her own house. She has always been an enthusiastic farmer. "I know what goats and sheep need and I know how to treat them," she explains. Before, she had lived on communal land further south, owning about 50 goats. But there it was difficult and frustrating. "There were no camps (fenced enclosures) and I had to run after my stock all the time," she remembers. "When I got older I could not do that anymore so I decided to apply for resettlement." She also disliked the crowded conditions in the communal area. "We were sitting on top of each other and this created many problems. People were fighting."
Today Maria Witbooi has her own place and her herd of 50 goats has increased to 145. Her children and grandchildren help her with the more strenuous tasks, and there is enough space for them to stay with her. Having her own farm did not provide Maria Witbooi with a life without challenges. She is forced to sell some young animals because of the drought. "A good farmer sells animals while they are still strong" she explains.
"I am very content here," she says at the end of the interview. "Here I feel free, I am independent, and most of my problems have been solved." Does she have any wishes for the future, I ask and our guide translates my question into Nama. The old woman seems to be embarrassed about this strange question after what she has just told us. She slowly shakes her head and smiles. "No, no more wishes."
Have a good Easter everyone. And watch out for that weather!

Monday, 15 March 2010

havering- March 1

Dear Friends
Cameron was 11 last Tuesday. “What would you like for your birthday son?” I asked. “A fish supper” he replied. So on Tuesday night we took Cameron and his pal Raul, to ‘Luigi and the Fish’ (the only restaurant in Namibia, according to Cam the connoisseur where the fish and chips are ‘nearly’ as good as Romano’s, the Burntisland chippy) where Cameron and Raul ordered……
I recounted the tale to Fenny, my very bright and articulate colleague who at 26 is expecting her first baby, quite old for a first time mother in Namibia. “11 years” she said “does it seem like a long time?” “It seems like yesterday” I replied, each year of course passing more quickly than the one before. “You know” she said “I’ve been thinking how different it will be for me, compared to my mother”.
Fenny was born in exile in Angola and she has a favourite picture of her mum, a striking young woman in combat fatigues holding an AK47. Fenny’s mother was the oldest of four children, living with her grandparents. Some days the soldiers would come, some days they wouldn’t. When they came they would beat her grandparents in front of the children, and if they wished they would beat the children too, and sometimes worse. At 13 Nangola had had enough, this had to stop. So she decided to join the SWAPO fighters and walked the ninety miles to the Angolan border. The border was a cleared strip of land maybe three hundred yards wide, mined and heavily patrolled. Nangola waited until nightfall and a gap in the patrols, she ran as fast as she could through the darkness. Her movement was detected and she could hear the whistle of bullets through the air. Nangola kept on running, straight through the minefield and across the border into Angola and on to the first village she found, where she fell exhausted. A kind old man gave her food and shelter, and put out word for the SWAPO soldiers to come. She was taken to a special SWAPO camp for women and children, highly organised where there was food, accommodation, education and medical supplies. For the first time in a long while Nangola felt safe.
The South African Army, however, did not distinguish between camps with women and children and camps with fighters. One day Nangola heard helicopters and saw the Caspars, the armoured vehicles of the South African Defence Force encircling. Everybody was running and screaming, the South African soldiers firing at the fleeing women and children. Nangola held the hand of her best friend and they ran in terror as fast as they could. In the panic her friend had tripped, or so Nangola thought, she too fell to the ground and turned to look. Her friend had been shot through the back of her head, she no longer had a face. Nangola let go of her friend’s hand and ran on down to the river with the others. Children were running into the water, most couldn’t swim and there were crocodiles. She stopped, knowing that if she went into the river she would die, she couldn’t fight and she couldn’t run, all she could do was hide. Amongst the screaming, the crying, the terrible noise of the helicopters, the firing of guns she lay down amongst the dead bodies on the river bank and closed her eyes. Many hours later and a long time after the shooting and the screaming had stopped, she could hear voices, Afrikaans. Soldiers were walking along the river bank, their bayonets fixed, striking at each body, making sure the job was done. The soldiers came nearer, she lay motionless, then more shouting and, thank God, the soldiers were called away. For two days Nangola lay too frightened to move, bodies became bloated in the heat. Then on the third day there were Oshiwambo voices. Nangola stood up to be lifted by a SWAPO fighter “You poor child” he cried, tears in his eyes. Four years later Nangola had a child of her own, Fenny, who tells me she was one of the lucky ones because both her parents came back from the fighting. 

Its twenty years since the end of the war this coming weekend and we felt honoured to attend the Namibian Business Awards on Thursday night where the guest of honour was Dr Sam Nujoma, leader of SWAPO throughout the liberation struggle and the official ‘Founding Father’ of the nation. Like all revolutionaries he spoke far better when he put down his notes and spoke off the cuff. He espoused the need for education, saying it was essential for Namibia “to train our own marine biologists to safeguard the richness of our fishing grounds, to train our own engineers to add value to the minerals we take from our land, farmers to grow our food and doctors to care for our people.” Interestingly, although he no longer has any direct role in Government he suggested to the Minister of Education, who also attended the event, that this year he felt spending on education should be a minimum 6% of GDP. Something tells me it will be.
After his speech some of the school pupils attending, all of whom called him ‘Tate’, meaning father, asked Sam Nujoma to dance. To their delight he did, holding his clenched fist aloft as he swayed to the sounds of the Old Location Band, some of whose members where older even than the Founding Father himself.
On Friday I met with another leader, this time a musician, Leonard Zhakata, the King of Zim Rumba. He plays “a fusion of Zairian rumba, traditional Zim rhythms and township grooves all stirred in with a little love, brother, a little soul” In 1995 Leonard set the record for the first Zimbabwean recording artist to sell more than 100,000 copies of an album. A record broken just two years later when 150,000 copies of an album was sold by ……..Leonard Zhakata. For the last ten years or so, he and his band have been working with youngsters from the informal settlements around Harare and in the rural areas, teaching kids who previously had only played homemade instruments how to play electric guitar and how to compose music. Selecting the most talented he works with them to make demo tapes which he sends on to record companies. Of course they listen to tapes recommended by Leonard Zhakata and in this way he has launched the careers of dozens of young Zimbabwean musicians. He had heard about OYO and now wants to work with us. Next month he’ll perform with some of the young people we work with at a performance in Cape Town, to parliamentarians from all the southern Africa countries. When he left for the airport on Friday I offered him my hand holding my right elbow with my left hand, the traditional way of showing respect and deference to another in Namibia. Leonard responded by clenching his left hand over his heart as he shook my hand. “We are all brothers now” he said.
Have a good week everyone.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

After a particularly hard week at work, we loaded up the camping gear for the first time since our big Christmas/ New Year trip and headed off for a weekend of R&R.

We found a lovely shady camping spot at Arnhem Rest Camp, some 2 hours away from Windhoek. Well off the beaten track, we did not pass a single other vehicle other than one donkey cart in 160 km of gravel road. Arnhem is known for its nearby cave system, the sixth largest on the African continent and home to over a million bats, so we duly booked what we though was going to be an hour tour to give us a taster.

Both our guide Basun and Cameron got a little carried away in their mutual enthusiasm for us to find as many of the 6 resident bat species as possible, so we spent a good three hours underground exploring 2 km of very dark passages. The echolocation ability of bats has always fascinated me, but to experience hundreds of bats flying around our heads and not a single one touching us, was quite impressive. The overwhelming ammonia smell built up after hundreds of years of guano (batpoo) deposits was not quite as enchanting. The guide told us stories of the Germans mining the guano to use in biological bombs and we could see the evidence of the mining operations for ourselves in the upper section of the caves. It was unanimously agreed that this was not a job any of us would aspire to and could not imagine anyone living long in such appalling and dangerous conditions. "It was pre-independance" added Basun, as if he needed to.

Trying to clean away the dust and smell in the shower afterwards, it did cross my mind that some women may have been whisked off to Paris, or wined and dined on finest gourmet food for their Valentine's weekend, meanwhile, as I emerged scrubbed clean and smelling fresh again, Alan had the site filled up with woodsmoke as he struggled to light the braii and cried "did you pack any grub, Joey?"

havering- Feb 1

We are all familiar with Tony Blair’s mantra “Education, education, education” and here too in Namibia education is an important political issue. National elections were held in November and in SWAPO’s (South West Africa Peoples Organisation) election campaign, the party still synonymous with liberation, twenty years after independence, showed posters of school children, black and white, “safe in our hands”.
There have been huge strides in education over the last two decades, all schools are now mixed, the apartheid segregation swept aside, and many new school buildings, even in the ‘informal settlements’, shanty towns, where people live in houses of tin. But there are two sides to education of course, the provision and the desire to learn.
Soon after arriving in Windhoek I sat up late into the night talking to my friend Etta, keen to learn more of him and his country.
As a young boy Etta wanted to go to school, “I had a hunger to learn” he said, pressing the flat of his hand against his belly as he spoke, but his grandmother, whose house he lived in, told him it was his responsibility to look after the goats and tend the fields. “How can you do this when you are at school?” she asked.  When Etta ran away from the house each morning to go to lessons, he would be punished on his return by not being fed, not just one meal but no food at all. “How can we feed you Etta when you don’t do your share of the work?”. But Etta was determined to go to the school and so he stole the food he needed from other houses. His grandmother recognised his determination, knew that compromise was needed. And so it was agreed that each morning Etta would be woken at 2 a.m. when he would go to the fields and work by moonlight, attending school at 7am as he desired. This way he fulfilled his responsibilities ..... and he got fed.
On Saturday Jo took me up to the school where she'd been working. We drove through Katatura, the huge township from apartheid days and still home to most of Windhoek's population. The tar ran out and we drove along dirt tracks. The small brick houses gave way to tin shacks, tin shacks as far as the eye could see. We drove on and young eyes began to recognise the car, the children waving excitedly. And there in the middle of the 'informal' settlement is the school, a beautiful new school built by the government after independence. And in the dry dust grounds, under the unrelenting sun, is the vegetable garden Jo has been working on with the school kids. And it's beautiful. Raised beds filled with sweet smelling compost, newly planted seeds and seedlings lovingly tended under white shade netting, draped to look like a marquee. And the kids just love it.......they should, after all, it was they who built it. And it will be these children who will grow their food here. Nothing will be wasted, for the children are hungry……
Have a good weekend everyone.
Take care