Friday, 30 September 2011

In-Country Training: Part 2

"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

Going up into the trees

On a walk through the local greenery

Watching how fire is made with nothing but sticks and willpower

Around the campfire

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?

N is for Namibia

"So every letter is having two names?"
"Each letter has its name, but also might sound different when it's written in a word. So for example, the letter 'h' is pronounced 'aitch' but in a word, we say 'huh'. For example, 'H' is for 'happy'. 'C' is called 'seeee' but in a word it might be a 'seee' or a 'kuh'. For example, 'Cecilia' or 'cat."
"Ah. This reading is a little strange. But it's nice."

We have a young woman who cleans for us. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but we do. The lure of a wonderfully clean house, and washed and ironed clothes magically appearing in the wardrobe every week, was too much to bear and we cracked. We justify it to ourselves by saying it's job creation, we're nice employers who leave out drinks and snacks as well, but there's always that niggling voice in the back of one's mind saying 'nah, you just don't want to do the ironing.' Fair do. We love not cleaning. We LOVE not cleaning. And we LOVE not ironing. Our weekends are suddenly for us again, and filled more with walks and talks than scrubbing and rubbing.

The young woman's name is Cecilia. She's got a fantastic smile and biceps that any athlete would be proud of (hey, no-one said ironing was easy). One day, I wrote her a note as we left the house earlier than usual for work, passing her on the road just as she came in: "I've left a note" I called, as we drove off, giving me a second to register the look of panic that crossed her face. Next time I saw her, Cecilia said to me "Mefrou Linda, I'm sorry I could not see the note. I left school at the age of 12 to work for my parents. I had to marry when I was 17 so they would not have to support me. I had to leave the house, and marry, with a man. So I cannot read, and cannot write. And it's hard, because if you want to write a text message, it's difficult. I cannot do any other job." Cecilia is 24 and has two children. One is 7 yrs old, the other 1yr. I felt awful that I hadn't thought about the literacy issue when I wrote the note. And I thought, well, we can definitely help. At work, we're not supposed to do 'service delivery', but we're in our own home here.

"Cecilia, we will teach you to read. Every Friday, when we come home from work and you have finished your work, we will sit down for an hour, have some tea and teach you to read and write." "Mefrou Linda, really?!" Cecilia's bright eyes became wide.
"Yes, not a problem. Let's start next week. And please don't call me Mefrou, it makes me feel old! Just call me Linda."
"Ok, Mefrou Linda."

That was three weeks ago, and as I write, Alex is sat with Cecilia at the dining table and she is tracing the alphabet. Alex has gone through the alphabet with her to learn the sounds over the last few weeks, and now Cecilia is starting to read 'c is for cat' and 'd is for Dad'. She's very keen to learn and is picking it up quickly. She does her homework religiously. Alex told her that she would be reading some small books in six week's time if she keeps going like this. Cecilia laughed and replied "Really, you think it is possible? Ah, I will not eat that day!"

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Income generation

Since donors are leaving in droves, the shelter is looking to fund itself through income-generating projects. A good idea, one might say - well, yes, in theory. Being able to fund oneself without the need for donor support is a great idea, but in a country where government spending on the NGO sector lies at about 0.1%, it's not easy to generate enough and ensure it's sustainable - where are the human resources to come from? How to get the start-up capital?

Friendly Haven has three income generation projects: the food van, the garden and the sewing project. The food van involves the caretakers baking bread, popcorn, meat and make juice to sell at the Women and Child Protection Unit every day. Mary would drive Martha up to the Unit each morning where she would stand in the baking sun all day selling these items - bread for $2 each, a cup of juice for $1 each, popcorn for $1 a bag. The money would barely cover the costs of buying the ingredients and the petrol, let alone the electricity bill for baking (which had increased by $1,000 last quarter since the food van had begun production) and the fact that the caretakers had spent more time baking than looking after the clients and the shelter. In addition, Mary is the only woman apart from myself, Jacky and Eveline at the shelter who has a driving licence. Mary is going back to Kenya at the end of October, and so the question remained - who would do the driving after her departure? As Jacky is the Shelter Manager and incredibly busy, I ended up doing the driving one day when Mary was on leave: it took all morning and some of the afternoon as they ran out of food, forgot to take items, or left the key with someone else, which meant I was behind the wheel instead of my deadlines. It was subsequently indicated to me that since I'd done such a good job I should take over the duty of driving when Mary left. I called a meeting and said that I wasn't prepared to do the driving on a regular basis as it would seriously impact on my ability to do my own work and VSO hadn't flown me over from the UK to be the shelter driver. I was, of course, more than happy to help out occasionally if the driver was sick, for example. Martha has since quit her job and without someone to sell the products, and with no money to hire a driver, the food van has dropped.

The garden faced similar problems. The food that comes out of it is amazing - I've bought a big bag of spinach for $5, and two lettuces for $5 each and they taste fantastic, having just come out of the ground that morning. However, gardening on this scale isn't making them money when you factor in the salary of the gardener, the cost of the water and the lease of the land. Competing against giant chain supermarkets like Spa and Shoprite was never going to work as you have to sell the products at a very low price to be competitive, which wipes out your profit margin if you're working small-scale.

The project with the most potential seems to be the sewing project. Johanna makes beautiful items and is branching out into clothing too. Whilst production is not a problem, selling is: no-one at the shelter is prepared to spend every Saturday at the markets selling the sewing items. Which means still no income.

When we arrived, the volunteers were briefed by VSO not to take on 'gap-filling' activities, as we are here to capacity build and not take a job that could be filled by a local person. Essentially, we are here to enhance the work already being done, not to fill a role. If we fill a gap, then what will happen when we leave? The same problem re-emerges and the organisation does not move any further on. In essence, by 'filling gaps', you don't contribute to solving the problem, you just defer it until later. So there is no point saying 'we'll do the selling' or 'we'll do the driving' because when we leave the same structural problems will occur. Of course, sometimes it's hard to sit back when you're normally pro-active and genuinely want an organisation to succeed. Organisations have to find their own solutions to problems. I wonder if VSO considered this angle before they decided to close the Namibian office, especially since VSO Namibia consistently delivered on targets and budgets, and had the largest number of external donors.

Monday, 5 September 2011


At the end of August, we made our first trip outside of Windhoek, to Sossusvlei. This beautiful place on the edge of the Namib desert is renowned for its landscape: dunes that melt into mountains, springbok and oryx wandering across roads, and vast empty spaces. A perfect choice to get to know the country a little better.

On the way down to Rehoboth

Organising the trip wasn't easy: the long weekend thanks to a public holiday on the Friday meant that most hotels were already booked, and those with spaces left were over £200 per person per night! After endless searching, Eveline and I stumbled upon Betesda Lodge, which was much more reasonably priced (£63 per person per night, Bed and Breakfast) and conveniently located.

Stopping to take photos

Mathieu at VSO had given us some excellent advice regarding travelling in Namibia: carry lots of water, and carry extra petrol. The roads are long and empty, and if you break down it will be some time before the next car appears to help you: you therefore need to have enough water with you to last a while, some food to keep you going, and if you run out of petrol before the next garage appears (which is entirely possible) then you need to be carrying some spare. Alex had a lot of fun going to Bushwackers and browsing through all the boys' toys before buying jerry cans for spare water and fuel.

Gravel roads, and the dust that is thrown up behind them. Beware overtaking cars!

The Friday morning we set off with Eveline and Nienke in the back of the car and enjoyed the drive down south. We'd taken some (bad) advice from our landlord on which roads to travel on, so the journey down took around 8 hours (it should've been about 5), but it was so beautiful and interesting we hardly noticed the time and really enjoyed the trip. From Windhoek to Rehoboth, and then a little further, was a good tar road, but beyond that were gravel roads. Driving on gravel roads is very different - a huge cloud of dust is thrown up behind you as you drive, and you have to drive very carefully, especially on corners. The speed limit here is 120km/h for travel on the long roads outside of cities, but Mathieu had advised us to only go around 70-80km/h on the gravel roads. Drive in the middle for the best 'track'. He was right, of course - and we haven't had any chipped windows so far (touch wood).

Enjoying the view

It was around 3pm when we arrived at Betesda Lodge (having set off at 8am that morning, with frequent stops along the way) and at 4:30pm set off for a sundowner trip with our guide, Smittie. Smittie drove us along the paths in the surrounding hills up to a spot where we could overlook the whole valley and watch the sun set over the sand dunes, drinking a glass of wine and cool spring water.

After a great night's sleep, we woke at 5am and were given coffee and rusk biscuits, before our breakfast was wrapped up in boxes and loaded into the car along with lots of water and supplies for the day. Driving over and into the first part of the park, we saw lots of Springbok and Oryx, and mountains that gradually turned into the sand of the desert.

Walking up dune 45, one of the more accessible dunes

The wind was quite fierce at that time of the morning, and whipped the sand up and off the dune.

View from the top of the dune

In the back of the car eating breakfast while Smittie drove

From Dune 45, we drove through the 4x4 track (I'm so glad we bought a 4x4!) over to Dead Vlei - dead valley - which is a vast space in between the dunes where some trees grow, but is so parched that everything looks absolutely dead. Once a year, this valley becomes flooded with the rains when it turns a lush green - but for the rest of the year, you wouldn't know that anything could grow here.

Dead Vlei

In front of Big Daddy Dune

The parched and cracked ground

Alex and Smittie

View of Dead Vlei from half-way up Big Daddy

After climbing some of the way up Big Daddy dune, we took the car over to Sossusvlei, and looked at the mud which the sun had baked into hard clay, before heading out to Sesriem Canyon, so-called because it took six lengths of leather to fall from the top to the bottom (Ses-Riem). We were so glad we'd taken 20litres of water with us that day - by the middle of the day it was baking hot and we'd drunk nearly all of it!

And then it was a hard couple of hours sitting by the pool at the lodge, with a glass of wine, before dinner...

Our journey back the next day involved a pit-stop at Solitaire to taste the famous apple pie baked at the lodge there, and then through various shallow streams/rivers through the mountains, which had stunning scenery and was absolutely worth the 5 hours drive back.

Friday, 2 September 2011

"Some build palaces, while others build shacks"

We saw a wonderful theatre piece at the National Theatre of Namibia a few nights ago, where a choir sang about different religions, and compared the distinct lines drawn between 'saved' and 'unsaved' in each religion to segregation. Apartheid still existed, essentially, and not just because the political and social infrastructure in Namibia favoured some over others, but that fundamentalism and fanaticism was also a kind of religious apartheid. The point was, that your God is in your heart. In essence, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists... all worship the same God but with different rites. There should be no discrimination based on between colour, race, faith. The piece was beautiful, and the singing wonderful.

Being here now for over six weeks means that I'm learning more and more about the old system of apartheid and how it still impacts Namibian society today. Namibia only gained independence from South Africa 21 years ago, and old systems and institutions die hard. Although Namibia is classed as a middle-income country, the wealth of the country is still concentrated in the hands of a few (usually white) people. And yet, due to its middle-income status, international donors and organisations are leaving in droves. And yet the problems are still there - there are areas of Namibia that are some of the worst HIV affected areas in the world: in the Caprivi region, it's around 33% of the population. In the UK, those living with HIV amount to around 0.2% of the population. So I think it's a mistake that VSO, too, are leaving Namibia. Lots of programs are ending next March, and the HIV program will only continue until 2013.

A colleague of ours, who has been giving us language lessons, was telling us that it took a lot of time to get used to talking with white people after Independence - to eating with them, being able to touch them, working with them. She said that the war had made her very afraid, and after Independence she was still afraid as she did not know what would happen - and then good things were promised and everyone was happy and expectant... but that they are still waiting for the good things to happen. People are asking what the government is doing, exactly.

Our teacher at the Goethe institute is from the north of Namibia, and was telling us what life was like under apartheid. Her father had work in Windhoek doing manual labour and was given housing in a hostel-type residence with lots of other men. However, this hostel was 'single' living room only, and she and her mother hid in the room to stay with him. They would sneak out every day at 3 o'clock to hide in the bushes nearby so that the people checking the rooms wouldn't find out they were living there. But for many families, living together in this way was not an option - and so families were split up and often only saw each other three times a year. Our teacher says she remembers the traffic on long weekends from Windhoek up to the north of the country was enormous - lines and lines of cars travelling to see family. And yet this separation of families has become now an alternative form of family life, and it has become almost a norm that a man will leave his partner to bring up their children, while he works elsewhere and has other girlfriends. Scholars call it 'post-traumatic slave syndrome', whereby the institutions (family, marriage, etc) of a whole community have been damaged and changed by apartheid. The repercussions are enormous in terms of the transmission of HIV - multiple partnerships are one of the drivers of the HIV epidemic here, for example, compounded by gender norms that reduce a woman's ability to negotiate sex and relationships that suit her.

The Namibian government is currently buying land off the white farmers at market value and giving it back to the black communities - a policy that differs vastly to that of neighbouring countries. Relations are easier for it - and yet, there is still a huge amount of distrust on both sides, and no easy solution. When looking to buy a car recently, Alex and I pondered over a Mitsubishi Pajero, until the garage owner came over and said "Ah, you're volunteers? Wonderful. You'll love it here, it's a beautiful country. You just have to get used to the blacks. Me, I'm born African, but you can see my genetics are European." As we walked out, mouths open, he called after us "Of course, there are some nice blacks too!" Even if he'd had last year's BMW for £500, we wouldn't have stayed. We got our Isuzu Trooper from a different garage.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Baby steps in Namibian advocacy

My desk has been snowed under with brochures and manuals, and my computer desktop with pdfs about the work of the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. I'm finding it only starts to make any sense and take concrete form when I arrange to talk with my new colleagues about what they have done.

So, after over a week of fairly solitary reading to try and catch up with the various concurrent programmes run out of my AIDS Law Unit, I emerged today with my first solid offer of work. It will be with a colleague who has been leading on an UN/International Labour Organisation-sponsored project to reduce child labour in the selected districts of the rural north.

Child labour is very common as farming is the dominant means of subsistence, and is naturally very labour-intensive. Since primary education is not free in Namibia, this makes school retention harder. Children from the poorest families are supposed to be able to have their fees paid for by the state, in a process that is rather bureaucratic. In short, they need full documentation to prove they are Namibian citizens.  But most of these children don't have birth certificates, as to obtain a birth certificate requires the presence of two parents before a registrar.  In Namibia, as elsewhere in the world, many fathers just don't stick around that long.  My work will focus on developing an advocacy strategy to make it easier for children without full documentation to be enrolled in schools.  The target is the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration - specifically the Minister herself, Rosalia Nghidinwa. What I heard today is how difficult it is to reach ministerial level, even as the country's top public interest law firm. More normally one can reach only so far as the divisional director or maybe, at best, the Permanent Secretary to the Minister.  So I will need to set the ball rolling by researching this issue that has arisen through the work of the ILO in the North, and also by exploring some potential ways of securing a meeting at an effective level.
The ILO project centres on the Oshikoto region, in the North (labelled as the Etosha Pan in this map, Tsumeb being the regional capital)