The women erupted into claps and laughter. It had taken a full ten minutes to teach us this simple meet-and-greet phrase in Ovambo, and we'd finally executed it to their satisfaction. We had spent three days in Ongwediva, in the heart of Ovamboland, and were now travelling to Grootfontein to take part in the VSO Caregiver's Conference that was to be held there.
In Ongwediva, we'd arranged through a VSO volunteer from Germany, Nina, to interview a group of volunteer care-givers who were supervised by the organisation she worked with, TKMOAMS. I drove out to the village with her colleague, Paulus, to find the women sat in the local school building to shelter from the rain. Rainy-season starts in December, and we'd certainly hit it. The village was far into the bush and the roads were quickly becoming difficult to navigate. The group, however, was wonderful, with two male volunteers and the whole group very willing to discuss their challenges and what they enjoyed about their role.
The TKMOAMS volunteer group
We had tea together, before Alex and Gabes, his colleague at the LAC, came to pick me up. Gabes is from Ovamboland originally and so was able to speak to Paulus in their own language to ask for directions: turn left at the yellow water-tank and continue for 2km. Turn right at the village with the green roofs and then go on. You can't miss it, Paulus assured them. 30 minutes later and very low on petrol, they finally found me having asked several people for help along the way. At one point he and Alex had stopped en route to get directions at a village school. A janitor had given them directions and returned inside one of the schoolrooms. Still within earshot as they drove away, a colleague asked the janitor in Ovambo who he had just talked with. 'Oh, just a person and a white guy'. Gabes laughed as he translated the exchange for Alex: in Ovambo, being white does not qualify you for personhood.
Ovamboland bears scars from years of warfare, and there are still air raid shelters everywhere. When you say hello to people as a foreigner, they often stare back at you silently. As one returned VSO volunteer had warned us - 'in Ovamboland, they hate white people'. Fortunately, it isn't quite as stark as that, although locals have every reason to distrust the white ghosts who visit. In Ovamboland one feels the racial divide even more keenly than elsewhere in Namibia as the area was badly bombed by the SADF (South African Defence Force) from across the border in Angola from the 60s to the late 80s during the Angolan Bush War (when Namibia was still the South African client state known as South West Africa). SADF, allied with Angola, fought Ovamboland's home-grown independence fighters, SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organisation), who were supported in their struggle by Cuba. Like the ANC in South Africa, SWAPO continue to be the strong majority political party in Namibia today, a fact which, given Namibia's heterogeneous mix of tribes, is a little controversial. Namibians from the Herero or Damara tribes complain of the excessive sway of the 'Big Nation' people - their name for the Ovambos. There is a running joke that, in any kind of uniform, an Ovambo will start acting too big for his boots. Refreshingly, Ovambos are often the first to make this joke.
The next group to be interviewed had been arranged by the regional manager of Catholic AIDS Action in Ongwediva. He had called his male volunteers to come to the office itself, and had picked up many of them from their villages so that they could attend. This was a wonderful opportunity to speak to a male-only group. I let Alex run the meeting (a men-talk-with-men kind of thing), while I went to buy them some mealie meal to take home to their families as a thank you for giving up their time to come and talk to us. They are only given N$50 a month (about £4.50) for their care work, which is only enough to buy some bread for a few days in Namibia, so we felt it was the least we could do to help.
Alex took the group through a semi-structured discussion of their priorities as male care providers while Gabes gave what seemed a highly elaborate translation (the ratio went as follws: Alex says a sentence in English - 10 seconds; Gabes gives an ornate Ovambo rendition accompanied by frequent bouts of laughter - 3 minutes). It was, consequently, a long meeting, but good humoured and insightful.
We drove down to the VSO-sponsored Caregivers Count conference at Grootfontein, taking Nina, Gabes and three TKMOAMS volunteers down with us. This meant that, to the surprise and delight of the volunteers, Nina, Alex and I sat in the boot the whole four-hour drive down so that the volunteers - middle-aged ladies - could sit comfortably in the cabin of the Toyota bakkie. It probably did more good than the whole of Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to improve race relations. At least for the three ladies inside the cabin.
The Caregivers Count conference is one of VSO's big ideas for Namibia. The point is to say thank you to a small, representative sample of the 10,000 largely unpaid caregivers in Namibia, and to start to instill an awareness of their shared concerns, and the rights they should demand from the Namibian government (chiefly: proper equipment, training, remuneration). Alex and I had been asked to participate, giving a couple of sessions on various themes: self-awareness and self-esteem; the law and caregivers' human rights; and on getting men involved in home-based care. VSO was excited that two female MPs had come to attend, both of whom seem potential champions of caregivers' rights.
Gabes gave a clear and energetic account of caregivers' rights under Namibian law, and urged Namibia's policy-makers to commit resources to caregivers to be trained and remunerated.
A children's group from the north performed traditional dancing
I'd been asked by VSO to give a session on self-awareness and self-esteem. Many caregivers experience burn-out, stress and depression because of the work they do and the lack of emotional and psychological support given. The purpose of my workshop was to introduce them to some simple techniques to help them relax and focus on their own well-being.
The senses star, an idea developed by Jo Adams in the UK. The group loved discussing what they enjoyed seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing and touching. One of the MP's told everyone, without irony, that she liked listening to the sound of her own voice. Some things are common across cultures.
Despite appearances, this is not a conga. It's group massage. And it's legal.
Another activity involved people naming their good qualities, and telling everyone in the room one quality they have. It's surprisingly hard for many people to do - to stand up and assert that they have good qualities. But it's important for our self-esteem.
Alex then ran a workshop on the new government policy for caregivers, which accords them certain rights. VSO are sponsoring a comic to explain caregiver rights - LAC are producing it, so Alex tried to elicit some ideas from the group about how the comic could best communicate key points of the policy.
Alex explaining the policy and the task
Discussions in the groups
One of the groups presents what they've come up with for the comic
One of the suggested scenes
One of the Friendly Haven caretakers presents her group's suggestions. VSO volunteers joke that without post-it notes, VSO's work would grind to a halt.
There was occasionally much heated debate on the proposed comic
Finally, Alex and I ran another session to discuss male involvement in home-based care. Debate was fierce during the workshop, as we watched the room debate the role of women in the home and at work, the reasons why men are involved, and how to get them involved.
Group discussion using the picture ranking tools we'd designed
Groups feed back
At the end, the MP's presented certificates to the participants, and even gave out their cell numbers and email addresses. Speeches, songs, and a packed lunch followed before everyone departed for home. VSO's Carolina was whacked after months of organisation. Only one more to go before VSO Namibia shuts up shop!
Amelia, one of the Friendly Haven caretakers, receives her certificate.