Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Advocacy on the Coast

We recently spent a week in Walvis Bay, on the western coast of Namibia, training an action group from the Walvis Bay multi-purpose centre about what advocacy is, and how to do it. It was really nice to get out of Windhoek for a bit, especially since Winter has set in, and it's FREEZING at night and in the morning now.   Surprisingly, on the coast, it was still quite hot.  Taking off our coats for a week was welcome relief.

The 'Erongo Action Group', as they call themselves, had realised that the issue of domestic violence is HUGE in the Erongo region, and had decided to do something about it.  Exactly what they were going to do, though, they weren't sure of - and that's where the LAC and NANASO stepped in.  Alex and his colleague Gabes from the Legal Assistance Centre, and Kat from NANASO (Namibian AIDS umbrella organisation) had been giving training on advocacy in many regions of Namibia - which I'd accompanied them on to do my gender research. In Walvis, they'd applied for an extra budget to help this particular group further, by giving more hands-on training and support. I'd been asked to go along as a representative of Friendly Haven and an 'expert' on domestic violence. 

The group was really lovely and fantastic to work with, and were very patient with the fact that we needed to translate each English sentence into Afrikaans and Oshiwambo (some participants understood English, some didn't and Gabes communicated with them in their local languages).  Translation meant that each exercise took a LONG time - but it gave us time to assess the group and to make revisions to our plan as and where necessary.

Gabes discussing what advocacy is - it's a tool for positive change!

Having discussed advocacy and what it can be used for, I gave a session on the cycle of violence.  There were some really heartbreaking stories of how the police in Walvis Bay treat victims of violence, for example, waiting three hours before responding to calls, or telling a victim to "go and get" her abuser and "bring him to the police station" herself.  This is in clear contravention of Section 26 of the Domestic Violence Act 4 of 2003 in Namibia, which states that police response to domestic violence cases must be prompt, prioritised, and give protection to the victim.

The cycle of violence

Alex and Kat then led the groups through an exercise exploring the 'roots' and 'results' of domestic violence, using the image of a tree.  This gets participants thinking about where an issue comes from, and the problems it can cause. The following day, the results of this exercise were presented during a big community meeting that they'd organised, gathering together the local governor's office, police, NGOs and other organisations.  Everyone made a commitment to undertake action after the meeting, and Kat and I wrote down their specific  action-promises in a plan for the group.

At the community meeting, presenting the results of the tree exercise

Following the meeting, the group were fired up about the possible avenues that they could take for their advocacy campaign - it was time to help them focus on what angle they would like to take. Dividing them into groups, we asked them to choose one thing they would tell the police commissioner about domestic violence.  One group worried us a little as they chose to say that "we must tell women not to withdraw cases".  Now, of course, we can't tell people what they should campaign on.  But this was missing the point - telling women not to withdraw cases neglected to address the reasons WHY they withdraw cases (police incompetence and intimidation, threats from the family, economic independence, etc). Fortunately, the other groups had thought of things like 'police should talk to victims in local languages' and 'police must adhere to Section 26 and treat victims better'.  In the end, everyone voted on which angle they would take for their campaign, and chose 'Police must adhere to Section 26: prompt, prioritise and protect'.  We pointed out how, if they did this, it would encompass the other concerns too, so everyone was happy with that. 

Discussing which angle to take

Of course, being near to Swakopmund, a bustling coastal town, meant that after work one evening, Alex and I drove the 30km with Gabes to sit on the beach and have dinner at the lovely Tug restaurant. Gabes went to see his cousin, and we bought fantastic coffee and watched the sun set over the water. 

On the beach at Swakopmund

Alex still working

Me not working

The sea air works up an appetite!

Gabes and his cousin joined us for a beer at the Tug, and then went to eat with family while we watched the sun dip into the ocean, imagining what Rio would be like at this time of year.

Sitting in the restaurant, having a sundowner

The beach looking South

The work undertaken with the group over the next few days included practical advocacy tasks, such as working on how to write a press release, how to write a petition and gather signatures.  After everyone had written their petition, we typed it up, printed it out and divided them into three groups: Gabes, Alex and I each accompanied a group as they went into the community to gather signatures.  My group had walked to the local Owambo market, and gathered signatures there.  Any shyness was quickly lost as they got into the swing of talking to people about their cause.  As the only white person in the whole market, I rather stood out - any hopes of discretely observing and supporting my group were quickly dashed. One drunken man swayed over to me and attempted to pull me into a huge bear hug - all the ladies in the market standing near tutted at him as I extricated myself, whilst the men smirked and laughed. "This is what I mean about the men here," said one of the women collecting signatures "they don't respect women and they don't think you can say no."  She and the others started taking signatures again, whilst I chatted to some of the women selling white spinach patties. Within an hour, everyone had collected nearly 300 signatures and were feeling very proud of themselves.  This is advocacy in action - and they realised that it can be that simple.

Discussing a press release

Near the end of the week, we discussed what further support we could give them, and when one of the women said she wanted to do a computer course, we offered to pay.  She was thrilled, and we managed to sign them all up (when Kat called the chairperson of the group the following week, she said that they'd had their first lesson and had learnt what a computer is and how to turn one on - they were even getting email addresses.  It was so lovely to hear).  And, finally, our time had come to an end. Gathering for a final photo, we said goodbye to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund - the last time that Alex and I would go there - and drove back to Windhoek.

The Action Group

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Anniversary and VSO Rundu event

Since most of the volunteers had left in March, and there are no more VSO'ers coming to Namibia until VSO Namibia closes in March 2012, a few days in Rundu, north Namibia, had been organised for everyone to discuss strategy for the remaining year, logistics for leaving and the this-is-it feeling.  VSO international was funded mostly by DfID, until budgets were slashed along with other austerity measures.  VSO Namibia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Mongolia were told to shut down as a result, and VSO Vanuatu will follow in a few years' time.  In accordance with UK foreign policy, however, VSO has been directed to open in other countries regarded as 'fragile states', where the UK has, seemingly, a bigger interest.  VSO will open in oil-rich South Sudan in the not-too-distant future, for example (I should reiterate here that the views of the author do NOT necessarily reflect those of VSO - of course).  Whatever could interest the Foreign and Commonwealth office there, I wonder...?  

Maybe it would be fair enough for them to dictate the global strategy if they still the funders to VSO that they once were.  The reality, however, is that the British government is cutting VSO loose and it is now increasingly the reponsibility of volunteers to fundraise and pay their way - which will, in the end, cut off the possibility of doing a VSO for many who cannot afford it, turning international volunteering into the preserve of the more affluent.  Since VSO is, for many, a vital way of gaining the required 5 years'  international experience before a career can be launched, this also cuts off an important route into international development work. And, since apparently the best way of gaining volunteers is through past vols raving about the experience, VSO will also, slowly but surely, cut off its best marketing method by cutting the support and benefits that volunteers currently enjoy. 

Anyhow, VSO buckled the Windhoek VSO'ers into the combi and we raced into Okahandja where Alex and I were able to leave a handbag at the Municipality, which had been left in our car by a hitch-hiker, after the municipality had been able to telephone and let the owner know it was there.  Back in the combi, long-term VSO'er Paul regaled us with tales of his time in Papua New Guinea and Malawi, and the seven of us debated policy, VSO and Namibia long into the afternoon.  The seven hour drive went by very quickly!

What constitutes 'lots of traffic' in Namibia

Once in Rundu, which lies on the Angolan border, we went to the lodge, settled in and enjoyed a drink while catching up with fellow VSO'ers based in other parts of the country.  At dinner, we tucked into steak and chips or quiche and chips whilst the Ugandan VSO'ers told us ghost stories about evil spirit prostitutes with arms and legs that can extend as far as the light switch...

At dinner

The next day, a walk by the river with Anneke before our big VSO meeting was in order, and we stared over to the other side, where Angola awaited.  However, if we venture into Angola, our VSO vol status is immediately revoked as the country is considered not stable enough.  So, for the moment, it's look but don't touch. 

Alex and Anneke, Angola in the background

On Rundu beach

The VSO meeting was intense, but very useful, allowing us to discuss modes and methods of support for the next eleven months, as well as practical issues such as selling cars, getting money and luggage home, and closing bank accounts.  VSO'er from Kenya, Joel, suggested that VSO book flights home via Dubai, as they cost the same - or frequently less - and the volunteer gets to see another country.  VSO'ers heartily agreed and named a few other places that VSO could consider booking our flights to pass through.  The office staff didn't look that keen, though.

In all seriousness though, it was useful to be able to discuss some serious issues with the VSO staff, and also to spend time with other VSO'ers since we are, effectively, our own support network now.  VSO Namibia has only four staff members - Irene (country director/exit manager) Carolina (HIV programme), Jacky (logistics) and Dee (finance).  In terms of emotional support and some logistical support, whilst VSO Namibia is closing down, it's going to have to be the vols themselves who make an extra effort to support each other and lend a hand. 

That afternoon, we asked Anneke, who is based in Rundu, if we could see her project.  Anneke is currently project-managing the building of eight kindergartens in the area, giving children a proper environment in which to learn as many had previously only been schooled underneath trees and in shacks. So, where previously there had just been space and tin lean-tos, Anneke has managed to have proper buildings and kitchens built.  We were able to see four of the six which are ready, two more of which are still being built.  It was enormously inspiring to see the buildings, and to see how well Anneke has done in very difficult and often stressful circumstances. She's also making sure that the teachers are getting further training, and so is building their capacity to teach the children.  We're really proud of her!

Anneke showing us the first kindergarten

The play area

With Anneke and Dickson

A market stall in Rundu

This lady was quite bored - no customers

Children play by the remains of the structure that was the previous kindergarten (the wooden beams in the foreground) 

Just like Mum... a young girl carries her lunch box on her head

The interior of one of Anneke's kindergartens

The view of the local community

The last of the VSO Namibia staff and volunteers

The VSO combi gets stuck in the sand and everyone has to push it out - to the amusement of the local community

That night, since it was our 2nd wedding anniversary (5th June), Alex and I suggested we all go for a sundowner drink at the Kavango River Lodge.  No-one took much persuading, this lot are a bunch of hardened drinkers, I think.  We finished off the night with a Braai, political debate and more ghost stories as we all warmed our feet by the fire.

Namibia on the left, Angola on the right

With Anneke and Paul

The last of the July crew (we all arrived 17th July 2012 -  Dutch vols Eveline and Nienke have already left).
Left-Right, Alex (UK), Dickson (Uganda), me (Wales/UK), Anneke (Holland)

Monica (Uganda) and Jacky (VSO Namibia)

Fred (Uganda) and Paul (UK) look over the water

The next day was already time to go home, and once again we piled into the VSO combi for the trip back. Alex took the time to catch up on the latest news whilst I had a quick snooze.

The highlight of the journey back was, of course, a side-trip to VSO Jacky's family farm. We met her father, who had fled Namibia as a refugee during the conflict many years ago and worked in Poland and Sweden before coming home when Namibia was again stable. Listening to him was absolutely fascinating, and watching Jacky's dog picking up the kittens and re-arranging them was absolutely gorgeous. 

The view from Jacky's farm

Overall, the VSO event was a huge success and Alex and I are sorry we won't be there in September for the last trip out. It helped leave us more inspired - which will certainly help us get through the last month or so before we leave the country mid-August.