Sunday, 31 July 2011


"At least I introduced my boyfriend to my family before announcing we were getting married" the young woman behind me in the queue complained to her friend, "my sister did not even do this. She just comes to the house one day and tells us this is him, they are getting married."
"No, she didn't?!!!" her friend replied incredulously, shifting the enormous basket of weaves they were buying from hip to the other. It was the last Saturday of the month and I'd made the mistake of choosing the day after pay day to go food shopping. After 20 minutes in the queue, I was nearing the front finally, and was now listening to the young women behind me for entertainment.
"It's sooooo disrespectful, nee?! And worse still... he didn't even pay anything to the family."
"Nothing at all."
"He didn't pay anything?!!!"
"He paid not a thing."
"He gave you nothing?!!"
"But why?"
"My sister says she will not be sold. She says it's like we want to sell her or something."
"But lobola is our culture, it's our tradition, it's not selling a woman."
"I know. But she says she wants it like that, and that's how it was."
"I know [dramatic pause] She is not our family any more."

The issue of lobola - we might call it a dowry, except that here in Namibia the future husband pays it to the bride's family - came up often during the week of training at Childline in Windhoek. It was a heated issue, and Eveline and I had watched wide-eyed as the other participants debated furiously over the moral and cultural rights and traditions associated with lobola, in particular in relation to women. Some said that paying lobola meant that women should work for the man and be subservient - that women's rights were, in fact, imposed by the West and not actually wanted by Namibians. Some replied that lobola was meant as a sign of respect and gratitude towards the bride's family, and that if women gain their rights, then it doesn't mean losing culture too - just swapping some harmful cultural practices for good cultural practices. Eveline and I didn't contribute much to this discussion as we felt the precariousness of our position, but appreciated the insight into the complexities of the country we would be working in.

We had then watched a video from South Africa, about a woman called Mtlakala, who was in an abusive relationship. Eventually, the abuse became so bad that their priest and parents were called in to mediate. The abusive husband said that Mtlakala was cheeky and that since loboloa had been paid, she must do his bidding. The priest, however, said that in his time lobola was meant as a way to bind families together, and not to create an excuse to beat women - and that, in fact, in his culture, a man who beat a woman was a coward. The husband was duly chastised and made to apologise. After the video ended, there was a pause for contemplation. Those in the room said they had been very moved by the story and that, actually, the idea of 'culture' was often misused to excuse bad behaviour towards women - that somehow, the instant someone says 'it's my culture', then you can no longer pose questions - which is a position often abused by those who want to subjugate women. The effect of the video was of relief and a lightening of the atmosphere - culture and women's rights can co-exist side by side, even promote each other.

Having finished the training at Childline, I was very impressed by the issues raised and the quality of the work and the exercises done. I know I can take a lot of this learning back to the UK to contribute to the work we are doing there. And I'm really looking forward to seeing how best to use it over the next year here. I begin work again at the shelter tomorrow and until then, Alex and I are enjoying walking along the street enjoying stunning sunsets and jogging each morning to breath-taking sunrises.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


I’ve just had my second day at work and am at home relaxing with a glass of South African wine.  

This weekend involved lots of socialising with other volunteers and we also went to a church service. Namibia is 90% Christian, and has the highest percentage of Christians in Africa. Faith runs through every part of the social fabric of the country: Friendly Haven, where I will be working, for example, was set up by a faith-based organisation. Other volunteers had said that church services here were really quite amazing, and invited us to go to a service at a church in the south of Windhoek, called His People. The first hour consisted of a live band (complete with bass, guitar, keyboard and backing singers), singing, dancing, flag waving and conga-lines in the audience. The service itself was energetic and interspersed with prophecy for Namibia – that its future was bright. The deep sense of community and spirituality in the room was palpable.

On Sunday night, we bid adieu (for a while) to Anneke, one of the fabulous Dutch ladies who trained with us last week and is now off to her placement in Rundu, in the north of Namibia. It’s about 700km away from Windhoek, so we’ll next see her at the second part of the in-country training, ICT2 which will take place in September about 300km north of Windhoek, a mid-way point between volunteer’s placements in the north and Windhoek. Apparently we’ll be camping – and they’ll have the opportunity to tell us all about the things that bite in Namibia. Alex and I have already killed/captured and released several spiders from our apartment and we’re not sure if we want to know what exactly else is out there.

Alex has some time before his post at LAC begins on 22nd August, and so he decided to venture into Katatura and volunteer his time at the Catholic Aids Action after-school for children in the area. The place is run by Mary-Beth, who is something of a local celebrity, having set up the school single-handedly in 2005. Alex’s first experience was being asked to lead a class on long division – it was the longest two hours of his life. He’s enjoying it though and feels his first few weeks will be put to good use working there. The pupils are delightful – in Mary-Beth’s words, ‘little bundles of happiness’.
Monday, I started work at Friendly Haven, a women’s shelter in the north of Windhoek. It’s a secure location, which means I’m not allowed to divulge the address or many other details about its physical location, in order to be able to protect the women who are staying there. I won’t be posting any photos of the outside of the building either, but might be able to pop up some of the inside of my office (which could be an office anywhere in Namibia). In any case, client security and confidentiality come first, and I’ll be checking everything with my line manager, Jacky. Jacky’s fantastic – she’s a really dynamic woman who is the beating heart of the organisation, and with whom I’ll be working closely. There will also be another VSO volunteer from the Netherlands, Eveline, who will be working with Friendly Haven around their HR policies and issues. We’ll be sharing her with the Namibian Football Association which is running a programme called ‘Galz and Goals’ for young women, but for the first month we are lucky and have Eveline all to ourselves. I will be focusing on mainstreaming HIV and AIDS issues (especially in how it relates to gender-based violence, or GBV) into all of Friendly Haven’s policies and programmes, which will mean supporting programmes and staff in the implementation of programmes and helping staff integrate HIV into them, training staff around HIV and AIDS issues, strengthening links with other HIV and AIDS organisations.

Our first morning, Eveline and I arrived at the shelter and everyone sang hymns together, clapping and harmonising expertly. Later that morning, I was able to go with Mary, the Business Advisor, to sell soup and bread at one of the Ministry offices, as part of an income-generation project for the shelter. Like most shelters, Friendly Haven is really strapped for funds: some funders have promised funding but haven’t been delivering the promised sums, and funding for key posts is done only on a year-by-year basis by one of the international organisations. This means less security for the shelter in terms of their personnel and also a two month insecurity period every year where, while accounts are finalised, they don’t know if funding will continue or if a post will be cut suddenly: what a Damoclean sword. 

This morning, Friendly Haven sent Eveline and I to the Childline offices in Windhoek to begin the week-long training commissioned by the Ministry of Gender on working with men and boys around gender, gender-based violence, HIV and sexual and reproductive health. It’s been an excellent introduction to the Namibian context and institutional landscape. During my research and in-country training, I was struck often by the apparent similarities between Namibia and the UK in terms of HIV and AIDS development issues around multiple partners, condom use, gender-based violence and healthy relationships. Whilst on paper the issues could have been copied and pasted from the same development texts, however, Namibia is, of course, different. For example, the issue of coercive sex, grooming and cross-generational sex is present in both the UK and Namibia. In Namibia, this is often played out in teachers coercing students into having sex in exchange for grades. Young school girls are also targeted by older men who offer money, phone credit, etc in exchange for sex. The young women apparently call them the ‘Ministers’ – the Minister of Transport takes you places in their car, the Minister of Communications buys you phone credit, etc etc. The sexual undertone to this ironically na├»ve name-calling hit me as being particularly awful. I’m enjoying the training, and particularly the information on the country it’s providing me with - it will continue this week and I hope to then cascade the learning into Friendly Haven.
So much to do and so little time!

Thursday, 21 July 2011


"It's pronounced veeeeeendhoooook" replied the official at Johannesburg airport, as I told him where we were heading onto.
"Ah... thanks," I replied
"Is that your guitar? Can you give us a tune?" He motioned towards the case I had tucked by my side.
Having not slept much for the 10 hour flight, I doubt that I could've found the E string at that moment if you'd reminded me there were two on the guitar. So I said the only thing I knew would put him off hearing me play.
"I do a stunning rendition of Kumbayah."
"Kumbayah is over-rated" he replied, quickly handing back my passport and waving me through.

It's been a fabulous week so far: arriving in Namibia was an amazing moment after spending 26 hours travelling from Cardiff. Stepping off the plane into the heat and the stunning Namibian landscape brought the same excitement as seeing India for the first time as fresh-faced 19 year olds. We were met off the plane by VSO and brought to our apartment in Windhoek, given coffee and breakfast items, and then went out for dinner with the other volunteers who had also just arrived: three lovely Dutch ladies and a gentleman from Uganda.

Having lunch at the guesthouse

The VSO training has been comprehensive. So far, we've been briefed on security, culture and working relations, and the infamous 'drop-off': volunteers are dropped off in the middle of the Katatura district with a list of three locations we had to visit and people to talk to, before making their way back to the VSO centre. If the VSO staff were annoyed that my group took over three hours to complete the task (2 hours longer than planned: we were having a lot of fun talking to
people and getting to know the area), they didn't show it, but calmly explained that we might have to condense the next sessions. The VSO staff here at VSO Namibia are amazing, amazing people and we feel very supported.
Coming in to VSO Namibia's base

So we've finished our first week of in-country training and tomorrow are heading to our placements to meet our colleagues and see where we will be working for the next year. Alex and I are a little nervous, of course, we want to make a good impression. I will be starting work full time next Monday, Alex will start mid-August, and we both will work for a year. After not working for the last nine months - which has been both necessary and allowed us time to travel - it will be great to return to work.

We've also been introduced to Namibian food - very meat-based but I've been really pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian options. Windhoek is very well supplied by supermarkets so I've
had no problems with getting vegetables and other bits to cook at home. Even at the barbecue held at VSO, staff very kindly made me a lovely feta, peppers and mushroom dish. In the middle of the week, the VSO volunteers already based in Windhoek organised an evening out, which gave us a chance to meet them: all very passionate about the country and their placements, and full of useful information. We've started looking for a car to buy, as there's little public transport to many areas, and many volunteers testify to how useful it is to have a car here.

Alex and I have also started learning Afrikaans and we're hoping to get a tutor or do a course. We've also popped by the Goethe Institute here in Windhoek in the hope of continuing our German courses. Windhoek is a very modern city, and there isn't anything you can't get here. What is noticeable is the high prices for many items, which are imported, relative to local salaries.

It looks like the next year will be busy and challenging! We're really looking forward to getting started now that we've managed to kit out our flat a bit and have settled in.

Of course, we're thinking of family and friends back home too - we hope you're all well and ok! And thanks to those who are organising coming to visit already...
Our flat in Windhoek