"The copper is sent to us from Bulgaria. It comes on the ships and unloads at Walvis Bay. Then it comes by freight train to Tsumeb, here to the smelter. We smelt it. And then it goes back to Bulgaria. I don't know what happens from there."
Copper being smelted in Tsumeb
We were on training in the north of Namibia, at the second part of the in-country training that VSO provides volunteers. The newly-arrived group of volunteers were joining us, even though they'd been in the country for only a week (usually ICT2 is attended two months into the placement, once you've got to know your job a bit better). Since VSO is in the stages of closing down in Namibia, they decided to combine the two groups. First stop, Tsintsabis, to sleep at a campsite in tents and learn more about the local San people and the bush vegetation.
Our campsite, Treesleeper
Watching how fire is made with nothing but sticks and willpower
Our second stop was in Tsumeb, an old mining town about 430km from Windhoek. The copper mine had closed back in 1998 after the 1996 copper price crash, but plans were underway to reopen it. Next door, the copper smelter was still going strong. The visit to the smelter was organised in order to give us a better idea of the economic activity of the country - and the idea was that it wasn't good. Namibia has very little domestic production and therefore, much food and many of its goods are imports from South Africa (i.e. expensive and out of reach for most local people), meaning that many of the things that we take for granted in Europe are considered luxury goods here. For example, bread. Here, it's twice the price as in Europe, and people earn 90% less. Clothes are only marginally cheaper than in Europe. Cars are twice the price here. And countries like Bulgaria send copper to be smelted somewhere that doesn't have the high regulations demanded by the West for the fumes and waste created by the process, even if it means shipping it around the world and back.
Luckily, we had masks
We also visited Lake Oshikoto, once a mountain that collapsed into the ground to reveal the water running underneath it. It's very spherical, which makes it a bit of an oddity to see.
The more I travel, the more I think that the high standards of living enjoyed by the West aren't 'normal', and it makes me wonder how sustainable it is. When Alex and I travelled through Armenia and Georgia earlier this year, this same thought struck us. We really appreciated, for the first time I think, that the vast majority of the world's population don't live as well as we do. It's something you read in development documents all the time, but not something you actually take on board until you see it for yourself. And actually, I play a part in the institutions and infrastructure that perpetuates this inequality. Where I choose to shop, what food I buy (where's it imported from?), what I throw away. I'd like to think that I consider all these things all the time and make good choices, but in reality I'm going to kick my butt more to make the effort.
There were, of course, less sobering moments of ICT2: like the moment when Alex and I were elected to have the one tent positioned in the trees (woohoo! Except it was nearly exactly like sleeping on the ground...), opening the door to our hotel room in Tsumeb to find that the previous guests had thrown a yoghurt party that had obviously lasted some time, sitting around the campfire, and then the last night when generous amounts of alcohol convinced the group that it was a great idea to sing national anthems and cheer on as VSO's beautiful staff member Carolina attracted every Boer gentleman in the hotel. But hey, what happens in Tsumeb stays in Tsumeb, right?