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...
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.