Monday, 31 October 2011

Amani lodge

The view from Amani Lodge, just outside Windhoek

A few weeks ago, we decided to have some relaxation time and go and have a weekend away at Amani Lodge, 25km out of Windhoek. It's amazing how you don't have to travel far out of the city to feel totally away from it, and enjoy some quality R&R.

The city of Windhoek, nestled in the dip, seen from the lodge

We picked Amani lodge because of the promise of seeing cheetahs, lions and the owner's son, who poses on the website in a rather revealing Tarzan outfit (the owners are French, what can you say)...

Although Tarzan was nowhere to be seen, we decided to go on the champagne sundowner game drive in the lodge's grounds. The lodge works with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, helping to rescue Cheetahs and rehabilitate them, and release them back into the wild.

Then we saw some lions wandering over the hills...

And finally, we went back and were introduced to the cheetahs who had been brought up tame before they were rescued. One of them decided she liked the look of me and nibbled at the back of my shorts... although she was only playing, the sensation of smooth teeth sliding against your skin is enough to remind you that these animals are never really tame...

And finally, with a glass of champagne in hand, we watched the sunset before heading into dinner.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Horovats and Haircuts

In Armenia, they call barbecue 'horovats', with a slight growl on the 'h'. They love their meat, in any shape or form - especially a famous Armenian dish served at special parties, where cows hooves are boiled for over twelve hours in a mushy soup and served with so much vodka that you can't taste anything (probably a good thing, really). It serves to keep out the cold, and consolidate friendship.

Here in Namibia, they share a similar love of meat. Not to keep out the cold, of course, but because culturally it's important. If there isn't any meat, then it isn't a meal. I wonder if it partly stems from the fact that it's hard to grow anything in this dry, arid country. Meat is then an important staple food.

So is it hard being veggie here? No, actually, it's quite fine. Our proximity to South Africa means I can buy imported veggie burgers if I want (quite expensive and not like the veggie burgers back home, but so good in the microwave when you don't want to cook), but I'm also able to get lots of different veg, rice, soup and pasta too - so really, it's fine. Of course, I haven't yet travelled beyond the 'red line': the famous line that divides most of Namibia from the very north, where roads disintegrate into gravel and you can't drive at night for fear of the elephants, animals and people crossing your path. Alex and I will travel beyond the line this Sunday, to Rundu in the north, and then into the Caprivi strip to Katima, 5km from Zambia. So we will see then just how easy it is to eat veggie throughout the country.

The reason we're travelling is two-fold. When I popped into the VSO office a few weeks ago, a staff member asked if we would be interested in undertaking a gender research project into male involvement in Community and Home-Based Care: what motivates men, what keeps them doing this work, what kind of care work do they get involved in, etc. Eventually, a report will be written and published to make recommendations on how to get more men involved in CHBC. The issue of CHBC is fraught in Namibia. Policy-makers feel that care workers should do it for free and give of their time. What they don't understand is that these workers are fulfilling an essential health service - essentially a service that government should be undertaking - and doing it for free. This is very convenient for government, who say 'fantastic, do it for free, you know you should' - and then spend their money on extra cars for their ministers. How many of us would do our jobs if it was for free? We are motivated, hopefully, by passion of course, but how are these care workers supposed to eat?

Alex and I visited Dordabis last week, a village on the outskirts of Windhoek, primarily Damara speaking (the click language) with Catholic AIDS Action, who support a group of care workers there. The men in the group were kind, softly-spoken, and described how they are motivated by the thought of helping their communities and families. One man walked 20km each way to see one client. It will be interesting to see the difference in perceptions of male care workers between Damara groups and more traditionally 'macho' groups such as the Hereros, who reside principally in the North.

The workers in Dordabis receive N$50 a month (about 5€) for the work they do from Catholic AIDS Action, not even the government (although the government has pledged to support care workers with between N$250-500 a month). Bear in mind that most prices here are comparable to European prices and you can see that this money might buy some soap and bread but nothing else. The workers told us how when they are given soap by Catholic AIDS Action, they cut each little bar into seven pieces to give to the people they care for, and they give them mealie-meal out of their own houses. It's a case of the poor helping the destitute.

I wonder how scathing of government we can be in the report we'll eventually write?

The second reason we are travelling to Rundu and Katima (although maybe I should say the principal reason) is that Alex, his colleague from LAC - Gabes, and Kat, another volunteer working at NANASO, are travelling there to give follow up training and support on advocacy work to NGO's in the area. VSO staff suggested that I hop into the car and go with them to save on costs as the budgets for both projects are tight and conduct my research at the same time. Conveniently, Alex is working on both projects (or maybe inconveniently as it means double the stress and organisation for him). Since he has a PhD, he is overseeing the research methodology for the project and has created some fabulous question matrix and we co-wrote the concept paper. My colleague Loreen from Friendly Haven will also be involved - she will come with us when we visit Rundu and Katima for a second time in February as she currently has her social work exams at the university. So this visit, I am hoping to set up the relationship and visit some groups, and the second time do what I missed the first time. We will also be visiting Walvis Bay on the coast, Ongwediva, and Karas region in the south. I've contacted Catholic AIDS Action in each of these areas and they've been amazingly helpful. So fingers crossed it all goes well...

Otherwise, we've had a few quiet weeks in the last month, spending a lot of time skyping families as important anniversaries have come around and gathering our thoughts. I've had a haircut and it wasn't nearly as scary an experience as I thought it might be. The shelter gets new clients every other day and old clients move on. It's sad seeing the little ones go as we become fond of them, but I remind myself it's not about me, it's about them.

We're also planning what we'll be doing over the few weeks at Xmas. Now we've decided not to return to the UK over the winter period, we've decided to hook up the car and go camping for a few days in Botswana, and then up through Zimbabwe into Zambia and back. We're really looking forward to it - so we're putting the car in for a full service while we're in the North. Minimum disruption for us, maximum benefit for the car. It took AGES finding a decent garage here, that does both car electrics and mechanics, and has Isuzu car parts.

We've also had some good news - my mother and sister are visiting in November-December! I am so beyond thrilled that they're coming. They booked their flights and will visit during the Friendly Haven gala. I'm using some of my overtime to take them to Etosha National Park, Swakopmund, and Omaruru. I'm really looking forward to seeing them and showing them what I'm up to here. Roll on the next couple of weeks - exciting times ahead!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


A few weekends ago, we decided to visit Etosha National Park, a huge tract of land in the north of Namibia. We'd been told by other volunteers that it was a great way to spend three days, watching the animals in their (mostly) natural environment. So thanks to a friend of Eveline's, we had a great deal on a lodge just outside the park and one for a night inside the park, and booked ourselves in for three nights.

Giraffe on the road

Day 1, breakfast at 6am, in the park by 6:30am in time to catch the morning water-hole visits. Our first sighting of animals inside the park: giraffes, zebra, oryx, kudu, springbok and lions!


Zebra at the Chudob waterhole

Generally, the idea is to drive up to a waterhole, turn off the engine and wait. Take water - lots of water - and hope you don't need to pee just as it's getting exciting.

Zebra, Kudu and Springbok (the small ones)

After watching the activity for a while at Chudob waterhole, we decided to move on and spotted a herd of elephants walking along through the trees. We thought they might be headed to a nearby waterhole, and so pulled up to wait. Ten minutes and a cup of tea later...

The elephants arrive... about 60 of them, with babies!

We watched them bathing and dousing each other with water for about two hours

One elephant stands guard so we don't go too near the babies

We then took a break from the heat of the day and eventually returned to the Chudob waterhole where we found all the animals standing as far away as possible from the approaching lions...

Lions and cubs drink by the waterhole

This lioness decides to camp out by our car, as her mate makes his way to the water

Day 2: we drive right through the Etosha park to the west side, passing by the famous Etosha pan, until we reach the lodge situated inside the park at the western side.

Jumping on the Etosha pan

Zebra at the side of the road

Ostrich and their little ones

We spot some lions making their way to a waterhole and lie in wait for them around the corner.

A cup of tea while waiting for the lions

An elephant crossing the road to get to a waterhole

Watching the rhinos at night at the waterhole by our lodge

Giraffes cross our path as we leave the park

A lovely taster of the wildlife of Namibia, and definitely somewhere to take my mother and sister to when they visit at the end of November!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A la recherche d'un père perdu

It seems fitting that I've been in perpetual Winter since Dad passed. October 19th 2010 was cold, and rainy, interspersed with sun bursts that threw rainbows over the garden and fields behind our house. They did little to warm us, but did remind us to hold on through the Winter: which was very cold, and very bleak.

Then Alex and I went to Armenia and Georgia for three months, during their snow season. The people, very friendly (and very excited that two Europeans were learning Armenian instead of Russian) told us: Welcome! It's wonderful that you're here. But why in Winter? Come instead in Summer. ("Amarra, amarra"). The cold was biting: Alex and I lay in hotels at night with no heating, watching our breath draw shadows on the cold, and didn't remove our ski trousers for weeks.

Then we came to Namibia in July - the beginning of the European summer (but where was it this year?!) and realised that here the seasons were reversed and we'd landed in the middle of Winter. I didn't remove my coat for the first four weeks and we slept in our sleeping bags underneath duvets.

I didn't really mind the cold though. It felt good to be as physically uncomfortable as I was emotionally.

And now? The first anniversary is drawing near, and I am now re-living that awful month last year when Dad was very ill. Tomorrow (12th October) will mark the year anniversary of my last conversation with him, before the tumour haemorrhaged and he fell into a coma overnight, not really to return to consciousness. The last time I spoke to him, just as my parents were settling for the night, he told me that he was very proud of me, and held his hand against my face and said "and you're musical." I replied that he'd inspired my love of languages and travel, and joked that from Mum I'd got all my practical skills like budgeting. "Charming!" Mum replied, "all the romantic stuff she gets from you and the boring bits from me". Dad laughed. I told him then that Alex and I were going to have children in the next five years and that he'd definitely be there to see them and meet them - that we were going to fight the cancer and we weren't going to let it win. The doctors were wrong about their timelines - what do they know anyway? He smiled and said "God I hope so!"

I felt like I'd betrayed him when the doctor told us the next day that he wasn't going to wake up, like I'd given him false hope. I see now that being positive is good for patients but at the time it was cold comfort. A month after losing Dad, we started getting calls and emails from well-wishers saying they hoped we were 'getting back to normal now'. 'F*&$ off' we thought, you have no idea. Alex and I discussed how as soon as you mention you've lost a parent or had cancer in the family, you can see people visibly recoiling from you, like you're tainted. It's opened my eyes, for sure. When Alex lost his father, I tried my best to support him, but it's only now that I really understand what it must have been like for him - and his experience has made him the most amazing support.

I feel almost angry now that the anniversary is near, like with the passing of the 1 year mark, I'll somehow have moved past my Dad. That it's disrespectful somehow to start feeling less raw. Alex reassured me on that one: a year after his father had passed, he moved on somewhat from his grief, but not from his father. It's never going to be something that he'll feel good about, and he's always aware of an extra dimension of happiness that he can't access, but that it doesn't stop him enjoying his life fully and absolutely. It's a strange thing, losing a parent. Who else in the world loves you absolutely, totally, unconditionally? Dad told me that he didn't want me to be sad, but how am I supposed to feel good about losing him?

So, nearly a year on, am I 'better'? No, of course not, though I can now cope with my grief and intellectualise it, and appreciate the time I did have with my father - and I really realise that not everyone has a great father. The children here at the shelter testify to that, as do the marks on their backs and faces. So I know how lucky I am to have had my parents present in my life, giving me a great childhood and supporting me throughout. Dad's advice often sustains me now, though every time something goes wrong with the car, Alex and I both say we wish we could send him a text or give him a call.

It's Spring now in Windhoek, and it's absolutely stunning. The flowers are in bloom and the weather is getting hotter every day. The sky is always immaculately, breathtakingly blue.

I still feel a little in the cold, but I'm sure I'll warm up soon.