Monday, 1 October 2012

Saying Goodbye

The time had come to say goodbye.  We'd wrapped up our projects and handed them over, arranged our leave and the flights were booked.  It was our last few days in Namibia, and we still had a lot to do.

We'd been able to say goodbye to Dickson and a few others at the penultimate VSO'ers meet up, where we also played a few games to help evaluate and discuss our time at our placements. It was a useful day, and it helped to have some closure knowing that we were leaving.

VSO'ers meet up in Windhoek: Paul leads a game on evaluating placements

Both of our work placements had organised a leaving party for us. When I arrived at Friendly Haven the day we came back from Luderitz, everyone was eating, Carolina from VSO was present as was Kat!  Alex had also been invited, but the LAC had chosen that afternoon to hold his farewell do too. The Friendly Haven staff and board members gave some lovely speeches, we ate together, and then they presented me with a voucher for a free night's stay in a lodge in Windhoek, to say thanks for my work in the year - and thanks to Alex too, who during the year had also helped out at the shelter, taking the kids out (to the park or the cinema), helping to wire up the telly, sorting out the combi van.  We also sang some songs, and I gave them all some gifts too: I had to blink back tears, which threatened all day. I didn't take any photos during the leaving do as I was having so much fun, but it was an afternoon that I won't forget - a really sweet gesture on their part, and a lot of work had gone into it. That evening, Alex and I met the VSO'ers at the Wine Bar, and some of my colleagues came too.

This isn't from the actual leaving do, but a picture from a previous outing at the wine bar, with Lisiana, Amelia and Charmaine - but since I didn't take any pictures at the leaving do either, I thought this one would do instead.

That night, we ate, drank, and sang more songs with my colleagues, who I'll miss dearly. Now, writing from Paris, I can say that I think of them every day and wish them well. Amelia is getting married next month, and is recovering from an operation - my fingers are crossed for her everyday!  Lisiana is now pregnant, and Charmaine's little boy is growing up very quickly.

The following night, we had our night in a lodge, thanks to the voucher from Friendly Haven.  What a treat!   Since we'd been moving most of our stuff out of our flat, it was a bit stark and bare, and we were pleased for a little luxury. We sank into the fluffy duvet and pillows, watched TV (we didn't have a TV all year in our flat, so watching Namibian news was always a novelty) and had dinner, just the two of us, in O Portuga, nearby - the restaurant that VSO had taken us to on our first night in the country.  With full tummies, we watched a film and had a fantastic night's sleep.  Alex's favourite meal is breakfast - he could have it any time of the day - and he made full use of the buffet breakfast in the morning, as well as the good coffee.  We were now ready to go home and do the final packing - tomorrow, we were leaving.  

That night, we watched the closing London Olympics ceremony on TV at Sue's house - Kat picked us up and we were able to hand over a few promised items to her, before heading over and enjoying the wine and jacket potatoes that Sue had whipped up. Spending our last evening with Sue, Paul and Kat was great, and took our minds off the fact that we were facing a 24 hour journey tomorrow (14 hours of which would be spent in planes.  How much fun for someone who's afraid of flying).

Sue was kind enough to take us to the airport, and had been kind enough to help us the previous week with some more deliveries of our various bits to other people. Cecilia, our cleaner, stood on our porch as we drew out of the driveway, crying and saying "I thought I would die without knowing my name, but now I know my name," referring to the reading and writing lessons that Alex had given her.  Our dog Snowy sat there watching us with doleful eyes.  She was always grumpy when we packed the car to go anywhere, and this morning she seemed particularly so.  

The drive to the airport was stunning - another clear blue Namibian day. We left Sue and went through customs.  Crying in public isn't usually my thing, but this time some tears slipped through. The flights were hideous - British Airways usual customer mis-service - and when we touched down at London Heathrow, I wasn't sure what to think about the grey, cloudy skies.  It reminded me of Chalabi's book 'Late for Tea at the Deer Palace,' where she describes how her Iraqi family first felt about living in London - describing it as like living in a grey, cloudy, lifeless limbo.  I could certainly understand what she meant.  Having lived under Namibia's bright skies for a year, London felt heavy and choking.

It was very strange having a leaving do for the two of us, when we'd been to so many other people's leaving do's. Finally, the adventure was at an end.  We were both grieving for our time there, and excited by the future. I think it's only over time that we'll understand what this period in our lives has done for us.


The day that Alex finished his work, we packed the hire car and set off for our final trip to the South of Namibia. We were going to see Luderitz, on the coast of Namibia, and the ghost town of Kolmanskop nearby.

Luderitz is not visited all that often due to its isolated position.  From Windhoek, you travel 500km South to Keetmanshoop, not too far from the South African border, then turn right and travel West for another 300km until you hit the coast and the small town of Luderitz. Flanked on either side by sand dunes of the Namib desert, Luderitz was founded in 1883 when Adolf Luderitz, from Germany, bought the land from the local Nama chief. When diamonds were discovered in the area in the early 1900's, the town enjoyed a sudden boom, which, of course, ended the minute the diamonds dried up.  What is left is a pretty town with a lot of quaint German architecture, and deserted mining towns nearby that are slowly being taken over by the shifting sand dunes of the desert.

Since I had a sprained ankle from a trampoline-related injury whilst back in Europe for two weeks, I couldn't drive the hire car at all.  Alex and I therefore decided to stop off on the way there in Keetmanshoop, a town we really liked, and in Mariental on the way back.

Keetmanshoop, a Nama town where we'd done a research trip previously, was as dusty and dry as we remembered.  Pulling up in our hotel, we drove over to the township to drop off some copies of the research reports (that had, by that time, been printed and published) for the caregivers groups.  The supervisor at Catholic AIDS Action chuckled as he saw the photos inside the report.  "Ah, that one is in Walvis Bay now," he chuckled, pointing at one man in a picture "I will tell him this is here."

The church in Keetmanshoop

The drive to Luderitz is a dusty 300km through parched land that slowly turns into desert. We only saw one other car on the road the whole time.  We were pleased we'd packed extra water, just in case. 

Kokerboom tree

The road to Luderitz

Wild horses roam in this part of Namibia

The ever-blue Namibian sky

Alex did all the driving and I put my feet up

The land turns into desert

Finally arriving in Luderitz, we pulled up to our hotel. The owners only spoke German - mixed with Afrikaans - and so we chattered until our simple German gave up (which was quite soon).  The town itself was very reminiscent of German architecture - as though a small Austrian village had been picked up and transposed to the desert.

Hot, sticky and dusty - in Luderitz, the view from our hotel over the water.

Wandering through the town and comparing prices of boat rides, we decided to call our hotel and ask the owners to book a boat ride for us (as they'd offered to do earlier) for the next morning.  That sorted, we went and enjoyed rice, wine, cheese and pizza as the sun set over the sea.

The next day, following a good night's sleep, we went very early to catch the boat ride and set out to see the dolphins and penguins that frequented the area.

The harbour

Luderitz from the harbour

Ships, and desert in the distance

Chatting away with some German tourists on the boat, the Captain came and sat with us, interested to hear that we were living there.  He knew Alex's boss who worked at the LAC, Toni. "What do you think of the Namibia?" we asked him, and he lamented the decline in education and hospital standards. Asking us to say hi to Toni, he soon had to tend to the boat again, and we turned our attention to the penguins who'd sprung up and were swimming by the boat.

On the boat

Jackass Penguins


Enjoying the waves

The sea has an incredible calming effect.  Whilst I don't enjoy flying much, the lurch of the waves doesn't make me feel sick - on the contrary, I find it very soothing. Sitting with Alex on the boat, warm in our jackets and sipping hot chocolate prepared by the crew, watching the birds and dolphins as we skimmed over the water, I wished we'd booked the day-long ride. It wasn't possible, however, as the opening times for Kolmanskop meant that today was our only day to view it. So when the boat docked at 11am, we quickly drove over to the museum entrance to catch the 11:30am tour. 

Kolmanskop, the deserted mining town, has been turned into a museum.  Tourists here aren't very numerous, however, as Luderitz is still comparatively off the map for most coming to Namibia, who focus on Sossusvlei and Etosha. So even though it was 'very busy', there were still only twenty in our tour group.  When we divided into different languages, there were only five left in our English-speaking group. Seeing the museum was, therefore, a lot of fun, very free, and we were able to ask all the questions we wanted.

This train took fresh water from Cape Town to Luderitz, as there's no fresh water supply nearby.  It would then also carry the ladies - in their huge dresses - around town.

Going into some of the abandoned houses.

Quite a view!

That night, we enjoyed another fantastic dinner of pasta and wine, and sat by the water watching the world go by.  The sea air felt clean and healthy.  It was nice having a break before what we knew would be a hectic period - moving back to Europe and then settling into new jobs.  This would therefore be our last holiday this year.

The following day, back up to Mariental, on the way to Windhoek.  We stopped for lunch in Keetmanshoop and said one last goodbye to the town. Reaching Mariental just as night fell, we settled into our farm house lodge and cooked ourselves a tomato and pasta dinner, washed down with whiskey. Getting back to Windhoek the next day was easy, and before we returned the hire car, we used it to drop off with friends some of the kitchen items that we couldn't take back to the UK. We were ready to start packing and saying goodbye. 

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Comic Sans

Alex popped into the VSO office one day in August 2011 to get a refund on our electricity bill, when the programme manager called him into her office.  
"Alex, would you like to get a head start on your placement?" she asked - Alex wasn't due to start his placement until 22nd August 2011, to end 21st August 2012.  
"Sure" he said.  He'd been doing some voluntary teaching at an after-school club, but was keen to get going on his placement at the Legal Assistance Centre. 
"Great" came the reply "we'd like you to do a simple translation of the government policy on caregivers. It would be great if it could be written and published in a format that's accessible for the majority of caregivers in the country.  VSO has the budget to publish this simple guide in English and four other Namibian languages.  How does that sound?"

Alex was excited about the project - coming from a publishing background, he had the technical expertise to project manage the production of a simple guide on the policy, and was looking forward to creating a publication that would be of real benefit to the 10,000-20,000 caregivers in the country. But where to start?

Looking at the policy was a snore-fest. Written in 'international English', it was difficult enough to read for a native English speaker, let alone a caregiver sitting in their wooden hut in the rural north of the country, whose first language was not English. Alex had his work cut out for him. Spending hours pouring over the text, he finally managed to write a text that encapsulated the main points of the policy - without all the fluff and bad grammar. 

Now came the more interesting task - turning the text into a comic. Alex decided this wasn't something he should do alone - the caregivers themselves should decide how they would like the comic to look. He conducted several focus groups with various caregivers, at Friendly Haven, and then at the VSO Conference in Grootfontein, November 2011.  In our second round of research sessions on male caregivers, conducted all around the country, we'd joined forces with our colleague Tricia who was researching the level of implementation of the government policy - after her questions, we took the opportunity to ask the participants which aspects of the policy they would most like to see explained in the comic.

Alex at the Grootfontein conference, introducing the idea of a simple guide comic

Working with different groups, who came up with suggestions on the comics

Group 1 presenting their ideas

A potential 'scene' for the comic

Group 2 (group 'apple') presenting their ideas

Group 3 describing what they considered to be the important parts of the policy for the comic

Group 3's contribution

What was apparent from all the consultations was that most groups liked the idea of the policy being described in a dialogue format - one character telling another/others about what the policy contains.  They also wanted the comic to focus on parts of the policy that explained remuneration, including remuneration of expenses, supervision, the home-based care kits and their replenishment, and transport issues.

Alex now had enough to go on to start creating the comic - which would start with the story and dialogue. Creating a skeleton dialogue, Alex circulated the draft script first to colleagues, and then to his focus groups. Many caregivers commented on the script, the characters, and the issues dealt with. VSO's Carolina made some good points regarding the use of Namibian versus British English.  The rest of us added a little colour  gleaned from our time in the country ("Oh my sista!").  And finally, a script took shape... 

Alex sent the script to the artist most commonly used by the LAC, a talented man called Dudley - a Brit married to a Namibian and settled in Windhoek. He'd done cartoon comics for the LAC many times before, and they are a popular method of communication and advocacy in Namibia, covering a wide range of subjects, including 'How to Register the Birth of Your Child' to 'What is Domestic Violence'. So when his first design came back, it was beyond exciting to see how the comic had taken shape. A few drafts later, the English version was ready to print!  The link is provided below...

However, the tricky step was to come... translating the comic into Afrikaans, Rukwangali, Damara-Nama and Oshindonga.  The choice of only four was tricky, as there are many official languages in Namibia that  the text wouldn't be translated into - or example, Oshiherero and Silosi to name just two, which meant that the Caprivi strip was effectively being ignored.  Whilst English does cover most of the country, the limitation of funding meant a choice had to be made: Oshindonga to cover the populous Owambo tribe, Damara-Nama to cover the South of the country and the Central West, Afrikaans to cover most of the country, and Rukwangali to cover the Kavango region in the North. 

A colleague of mine from Friendly Haven, Lisiana, translated the comic into Afrikaans and Damara-Nama, and Alex managed to find two others to translate the text into Rukwangali and Oshindonga. The problems started when it came to proofing the texts.  Any translation publications must be proofed at least twice to ensure the text is free of errors and 'literal translations'.  None of these other languages, however, are centrally-controlled or have authorative versions of the language. The English-speaking world can consult the Oxford English Dictionary on questions about English - Oshindonga, however, could have many interpretations and is, itself, a dialect of a larger language family.  In Afrikaans, Alex was offered no less than 10 different possible words for 'caregiver'.  Proofing took months, and months.  And even when the Afrikaans version went to print, the printers (Afrikaaner-owned) returned the text with corrections angrily scribbled all over the galley proof.  Once the Caregivers' Conference was over (where the Minister for Health,Richard Kamwi, launched the English version of the simple guide), Alex spent his last month furiously working on these texts, finally handing them over to Kat, our VSO colleague at NANASO, to finish during her last six months. We're excited about the final versions coming out and being made available to the thousands of caregivers across the country, so that the text may be read in their native languages.  

Monday, 30 July 2012

Advocacy, Lobbying, and the Caregivers' Conference

I'd always believed in the proportional representation system until it came to working with Namibian MP's, who say they owe their position and power to their party, and not - directly - to the people. Lobbying, therefore, needs to be undertaken differently here.  If we wanted to advocate for the rights of care providers in Namibia, we would have to demonstrate why this would be worth it for the party and the individuals within it - it wouldn't swing it to say "you have an obligation to your constituents, who elected you."  

Liaising with parliamentarians has been an important part of our advocacy work with VSO on the issue of care providers in Namibia.  If we want to make any lasting, important changes for the care providers, then we'd need to go to the decision makers themselves. 

VSO had arranged a lunch date with two MP's - Swartz and Kavetuna - who'd been previous allies of VSO on the issue of care providers.  Swartz had, herself, been a care provider with Catholic AIDS Action down in the South of Namibia, in the Karas region. During the lunch date, which was attended by LAC, NANASO and VSO as well as the MP's, we discussed which organisation might take on lobbying of the issue after VSO departs Namibia, and asked the MP's who they could bring to the table for VSO to talk to. Whilst they gave some interesting ideas and names, afterwards we felt quite dispirited.  It looked like no-one would be willing to advocate for the care providers after VSO's departure: NANASO is facing financial issues thanks to trouble with the Global Fund, and the LAC only takes on projects that donors pay for - issues and lobbying are, therefore, donor-driven.  We'd have to get as much done before March 2013 as possible if we wanted to make any lasting change.

One fantastic suggestion given by Kavetuna was to meet with two standing parliamentary committees (Gender and Human Resources) the following week, to present the case for effective government implementation of the care providers' policy, which would drastically improve conditions for the care providers. Preparation took the whole week, with emails between Friendly Haven, LAC, NANASO and VSO pinging back and forth on division of subjects and coordination. On the day itself, the numbers were impressive: 10 MP's and 9 representatives of civil society attended (2 from NANASO, 2 from LAC, 1 from VSO, 1 from Friendly Haven and 3 VSO volunteers).  NANASO discussed current policy implementation and the need for government to take over the funding of the care provider programmes in the face of donor withdrawal, LAC discussed male involvement in care, and Friendly Haven talked about the experiences of care workers on the ground and the importance of support.

The MP's were clearly pleased with such a slick presentation and asked pertinent questions, eventually asking us outright "so if the government took on financing and implementing the policy, then this would help to address many of the current issues?" "YES!" was the resounding answer.  The MP's asked if they could attend the VSO Caregivers' Conference the following week, and promised that they would lobby the Minister for Health, Kamwe, about the issue - it would be politically beneficial for him to demonstrate that he was proactive in protecting Namibian's rights and health systems, since he'd had a lot of bad publicity recently.  We left Parliament feeling jubilant. NANASO, seeing the huge potential in continuing to lobby for this issue, also indicated that they would be willing to take on the campaign following VSO's departure.  

The following week, VSO held the annual Caregivers' Conference (Alex and I had facilitated at the conference the previous year, and were thrilled to be back). From our travels around Namibia, Alex and I were able to invite more groups of caregivers to this conference, since groups from the South hadn't been present at previous conferences.  VSO did a fantastic job of inviting the Minister for Health, Kamwe, to attend and give his support as well as launch the simple guide of the government policy on caregivers - this guide was project managed by Alex at LAC, and was published in the form of a comic. It's designed to explain the government policy simply so that caregivers would understand what rights they have and what support they should expect to receive. Alex had worked really hard on it, and was pleased to see it in print.

Kamwe launching the Simple Guide

The conference opened with the National Anthem (for those who haven't heard the Namibian national anthem, here it is: and was followed with speeches from Swartz, Kavetuna and MP's from Zimbabwe and Malawi, and lots of song and dance from the Maranatha Singers.  Gabes, Alex's colleague from the LAC, and Sandie from NANASO, gave a fantastic joint speech on the two research reports that we'd done, on the caregivers' policy, and male involvement in care. It went down fantastically well, and Alex, Kat and I could, from that point, breathe slightly easier.  The reports had also been printed and were distributed to everyone. 

Maranatha Singers

The presentation on the research we'd done

Swartz's speech

Carolina from VSO commenting on proceedings

The National Coordinator for community and home-based care programmes then also stood up and gave a speech about how well the government was doing in its implementation of the policy - despite all facts and indicators to the contrary.  It was enormously frustrating, sitting there and knowing that what was being said wasn't true.  Fortunately, the MP's found their voice and challenged him on nearly every point, and questions continued for so long afterwards that the next performance act had to be cancelled.  The caregivers were very excited, and told us they were thrilled that they could finally have their say, and talk directly to MP's about their experiences, and challenge them too.  And they could see that organisations like VSO did care about them, and were working for them.  "We feel more valued" one woman told us, before we headed out of the room for tea and coffee.

Delightful MP from Malawi gives a speech about the challenges facing care providers in his country.

The following day, Alex, Kat and I had big plans.  Whilst VSO and LAC were taking the MP's into another room and discussing lobbying and next steps with them, the three of us, plus Gabes from the LAC, were taking all 50 caregivers, dividing them into two groups, and giving a day of training for them on what advocacy is and how to do it - with some self-care activities added in. 

Friendly Haven care givers and the LAC AIDS Unit Lawyer enjoy the activities

'What is advocacy' activity

At one point, the MP's, who'd finished their discussion in the other room, joined in with our activities and then gave the caregivers half an hour to directly talk to them about their issues, concerns and questions.

Kat's group with the MP's

Continuing discussion

Alex and Gabes' group - Gabes provided an essential translation role, translating into Afrikaans and Oshiwambo

A 'living web' activity on the Namibian political system, demonstrating 'who influences who' and how the 'average Namibian citizen' fits into it all.

A role play on approaching and lobbying political figures

Gabes and Alex in discussion

A self-care activity on 'saying no'.

Amelia, my colleague from Friendly Haven, translates into Oshiwambo when Gabes has to step out

Certificates followed the next day, and bags made by Friendly Haven staff were given to everyone. The big smiles on the faces of the caregivers and MP's was well worth seeing.

The conference was exhausting, but well worth it - and it was with some sadness that we realised that the final VSO Namibia conference had just taken place. We ended it with seven of us from VSO and GEMSA (South Africa) drinking wine around a table while the hotel staff cleared up the room around us.