Namibia: Baby Steps

DISCLAIMER
The contents of this blog are mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Namibian Government

Someone once said that every great adventure starts with a step. I’m sure I’ve mangled the exact wording, but you should be able to understand the sentiment. Movement forward is progress. It doesn’t matter how fast or how far you move, but moving away from your current position in life is progress.

Progress is an interesting word, it denotes an advancement, a change in position that’s usually or at least anticipated to be positive. But moving forward does not always result in finding yourself in a better position. In fact, it could be pretty much the same as the spot you left, or a whole lot worse.

Joining the Peace Corps, coming to Namibia, and now approaching my first real day at work I find that the house that I’ll call home and the office from which I’ll work for the next two years are not very different than my home in Florida or the office I left when I retired. Just as my Florida house did and still does, my Namibian home needs work. My office offers a computer, phone, and the typical tools one uses to get the details of business done, just as my old office did.

It might seem that I’ve gone through months of training and travelled half way around the world to do and be exactly what I did and was before I started this journey. At least, it may seem so from a casual glance.

Namibia, and more succinctly, Arandis, needs the ideologies of business management and the technical support associated with such in order to grow. There is so much potential here, and a matching desire by the constituency to realize that potential. Everyone is eager for progress, but few know how to get things moving. That’s why the Peace Corps is here, it’s presumably why I’m here.

As I learn more about my intended role in aiding Arandis, I can’t help but feel more than a bit overwhelmed. Where do I start? How do I start? What makes sense and what doesn’t? And while something may make sense to me it may be completely counterintuitive to my hosts, partners, and supervisor.

If there’s one thing I learned in the nine weeks of Peace Corps training, it’s patience, not just with those around me, but also with myself. Our American culture rewards quickness, boldness and efficiency, and frowns on subtlety, measured movement, and the inclusion of all ideas. Here in Namibia progress is measured by consensus and by a holistic yardstick. Relationships are just as important as tasks. So, I must give myself time to observe, learn, and build the relationships I’ll need to get and sustain progress. Take it slow and easy. Baby steps.

To that point (and in an attempt to lightening this post), I made a trip to Swakopmund this passed Saturday. By all accounts it is a touristy seacoast town and what I saw validated those accounts. There are sizable dunes to the south and the cold Atlantic to the west. The architecture has heavy German influences and there are only an occasional reminders that you are in Africa and not some town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Typical of the architecture in Swakopmund

 There are lots of shops, restaurants and plenty to see. Even the trip in town, which takes about 30 minutes by cab, was captivating.

The terrain in the western part of the Erongo Region is arid. Old mountains seem too tired to rise any further above a nearly barren landscape. Fog from the Atlantic hung thick and low, clinging to the old mountains like white fur stoles draping the sagging shoulders of old women. The combination and contrast of soft fog and harsh rock in the morning light was a photographer’s dream. Expect more photos from this area.

Rossing Mountain draped with fog


The fog also gave the coast a surreal quality.

Fog lifting from the coast


I didn’t get a chance to see the dunes, but then I have two years ahead of me to make that acquaintance.

There’s so much here. I’ll relay to you as much as I can, in baby steps.

Stay tuned.

Vern Seward

Namibia: Whirlwind Week: A Catch-Up Post

(There was so much happening since Luderitz that this post will only hit the high points. I hope you don’t mind.)

I had just gotten back from Luderitz and had no time to rest. Market Day was the next big event and it was scheduled the following Saturday. More language studies, seminars, and other PCV stuff filled the week.

And, of course, I got sick. I don’t mean, “Geez, ya know, I don’t quite feel myself” sick. No! I mean losing my breakfast, lunch and dinner over the span of 6 horrible ‘get personal with porcelain’ hours sick! I threw up so much I may have hurled a lunch I ate two years ago. At 2 AM I was still hugging the commode and my host mother was sure I was dying. I wasn’t so sure I was not. By 3 AM I called the Peace Corps Medical Office. They suggested a few things, but I decided to ride it out. Luckily “out” was one last upchuck away and things settled down. As per PC instructions I took my temperature and was dismayed to find it hovering around 100 degrees. It was a low grade fever and prolly a side effect of the earlier sickness, but PC suggested I take the day off. That suggestion I took and slept the whole day. When I woke my little fever had broken and I was mildly hungry.

What made me sick? That’s still a head scratcher. A few others also got sick to varying degrees that week. Might have been a stomach virus, who knows. I just don’t want it again.

Because of my illness I missed a talk given by the U.S. Ambassador to Namibia, Thomas Daughton. My group mates said it was an excellent talk and that the ambassador will be at our swearing in ceremony. Sorry I missed it, but it couldn’t be helped.

I didn’t miss Market Day.

Market Day is where we showcase our small business partners who we’ve been mentoring for several weeks. It’s also a celebration of small businesses in Okahandja. It has a fair-like atmosphere with music, bounce house and face painting for the kids, and lots of food.

Kids and everyone else had a blast at Market Day


My small business partner was Dominic, proprietor of a graphics design business. His display highlighted some of his work and gave him a chance for others to not just see what he does, but talk to him for possible business in the future. He gave out business cards and got several leads. In fact, many of the small businesses that our group coached expressed delight with the Market Day turnout and exposure their businesses saw.

Dominic in front of his display


The food vendors and some of the other vendors sold out, the kids had fun and by all accounts Market Day was a great success.

But we didn’t get a chance to rest on our laurels, with Market Day behind us we then had to focus on the end of training interviews and language tests. Yes, a very stressful period. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that all 14 of us passed and will become card carrying Peace Corp Volunteers on June 15, 2017.

That’s where we are right now, prepping for one final presentation to our new Namibian site managers, packing, and trying not to get too anxious.

To that end, several of us decided to take a hike to Pride Rock, a small peak to the north of Okahandja. I’m sure there’s a Namibian name for the peak, but Pride Rock seems to fit.

Many of the other volunteers had climbed it before, but this was my first opportunity. I’m glad I went.

I have to say that sitting on my butt for 8 weeks took its toll, when we got to the steep part I had to stop once. (I gotta get back in shape!) Once at the top, however, I could not help but be awe struck. Take a look at the photo and you’ll understand what I mean.

5040 ft up on Pride Rock!


After chillin and wallowing in awe we returned to more mundane pursuits. I had laundry to do.

This will likely be my last post as a Peace Corps Trainee. Next stop, swearing in and the start of my assignment in Arandis, Namibia.

Yes, I am VERY excited.

The adventure continues.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: All Part of the Adventure – Luderitz: Part 2

Before I get into the next part of my Luderitz adventure I should give my host, Travis, his due. After reading through what I wrote in Part 1 it occurred to me that it might seem as though my time spent in Luderitz was all fun.

Well… it was, but that doesn’t mean Peace Corps work wasn’t accomplished and that I didn’t learn a lot, which was the purpose of my visit to Luderitz.

Shadowing is when a PC trainee follows around a PCV in the field for several days so that the trainee can “…see how it’s done…” up close and personal. One of the many lessons trainees are taught is to integrate into the community to which we are ultimately assigned. But what does integration mean, and why bother?

Integration basically means to immerse one’s self into the fabric of the community, to become part of the community and allow the community to become part of you. In doing so a PCV increases his/her effectiveness on many fronts including being better able to get tasks done, increase his or her safety, and, of course, create new and meaningful relationships where real cultural ideas can be exchanged.

It’s not as easy as it may sound. In the States, if you move into a new neighborhood there are many things you take for granted, like being able to speak the local language and understand the local customs (unless you move to New Jersey, Rhode Island, or Texas then all bets are off). Here everything is different. People may not speak your language and even if they do they may not completely understand you, or you them. Customs are different, foods are different, smells, sights, sounds are all new and different than what you are used to. Overcoming all of that and your own ignorance of local ideologies, protocols and so on and still make friends can be a daunting task for many.

Travis is a master of integration. He was dropped into Luderitz in a less than ideal situation and he managed to immerse himself so well that the people I was introduced to all think of him as a local. In effect, he is. Each person I met was a well known figure in the community and they all thought highly of Travis and the Peace Corps. So, the time we spent meeting and greeting was time effectively spent, and I’ve learned valuable lessons. I can only hope I can pull it off as well as Travis did and is doing.

OK, back to fun…, I mean work.

On Friday after my arrival at Luderitz Travis and Phil took me to Kolmanskop, a town that the desert is reclaiming.

Nature wins in Kolmanskop


Kolmanskop was established in the late 1800’s by Germans when diamonds were found literally lying around on the ground. Germans claimed the land and built a lavish town complete with it’s own icehouse, public rail system, schools, and bowling alley. Remember, this is in the Namib Desert. There’s nothing around for hundreds of miles but rock, sand, more rock and sand, and some distance to the west, ocean. They had to import everything including water. Yet they lived a lavish lifestyle, at least until the diamonds ran out.

Phil taking a ghost bath in a ghost town


Sometime during the early 1920’s larger diamonds were being dug up further south and Kolmanskop was ultimately abandoned. With no one to maintain it time, sun, wind and sand took its toll on the structures, making for surreal photo ops today.

After Kolmanskop Travis and I went to his office in the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and Industry where we went through some of the projects he was working on. Its a small office, but then the town of Luderitz is small. Still, a lot gets done and Travis has made great efforts in expanding the presence and role of the Chamber of Commerce in Luderitz.

After spending the afternoon in the office we bought gear for a local fishing event the next day then went to a local pub for dinner. There I was introduced to even more people whose names I can’t hope to remember, but all knew and appreciated Travis’ and the Peace Corps’ presence in Luderitz.

To my surprise there was live music. A local who makes unscheduled appearances sang old rock tunes while strumming a guitar. I could have been back in Orlando at any number of watering holes on a Friday night, but I was in Luderitz, and that made it memorable.

We had to turn in early because Travis got us a spot on a boat (he knew the captain of the boat we were on! Again, integration!!!). The event was an annual snoek fishing contest. I hadn’t fished or been on anything that floats larger than a kayak in many years, so I was a bit concerned about getting seasick.
The morning was cold and everyone was dressed like they were mates on an Alaskan trawler. I had on a pair of jeans, two shirts and a jacket. I felt woefully underdressed. But the fishing gods smile upon me and the sun was warm and the winds, at least in the early morning hours, were light.

Maybe I’m a seaman at heart. Maybe not.


Catching snoek (snook) is not done with a rod and reel, at least not off the coast of Namibia. You use a length of heavy line, a lure that looks like a small squid that covers a hook that would seriously annoy Moby Dick. When the captain tells you you throw your lured line out and let it sink, then slowly pull it in. If you get a strike then you pull in the line using gloved hands as quickly as you can. I got two strikes, but lost both because I didn’t pull in fast enough. There were far more experienced snoek fishermen pulling in fish almost every time the boat stopped. It was exhilarating to watch.

Those better at catching snoek than me


Snoeks are not small fish, they are cousins to barracudas and have teeth that can easily take a finger or two off.

While I didn’t catch anything being on the water off the coast of Africa was an amazing experience. The water was sapphire blue, the sun was warm, and the salt air invigorating. I felt at once at home and completely out of my element and loved every second of it.

Travis, on the other hand, spent almost the entire time lying on deck trying not to chum the water. Poor guy.

Travis puts of a brave face as we head back in


Once we made landfall he spent time recovering while I met up with Janet and ate some of the snoek that was caught earlier. The evening was spent chatting with new friends and drinking a local brew call Savannah Dry.

Unfortunately, I had to turn in early to rest before my trip back to Okahandja.

My return trip was painful. It took 12 hours to complete and most of it was done crammed on a small makeshift seat next to a van door I was not entirely sure was completely closed. Still, I was next to a window facing west and I watch the sun turn a dry savannah golden.

The savannah as I head back to Okahandja


Yes, I had an amazing time in Luderitz and learned so much from Travis that I’ll never be able to adequately thank him.

Today is June 7 and I have 8 days left in my training period. I’m so far behind in telling my story so far because there is simply too much to tell. What I will have to do is pick the stories and hope you find them interesting.

I’ve got a language test tomorrow so there’s studying to do.

There’s more to come so…

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: All Part of the Adventure – Luderitz: Part 1

DISCLAIMER

“The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Namibian Government”

Just so I don’t keep you hanging in suspense, I did find that glass of with my name on it and it was surprisingly good! (Jon Kheer Private Cellar Pinotage 2012) More on that latter.

As I mentioned in my last Quick Update post, I’d made it to Luderitz and got settle in and got some food in me, and was able to stretch my legs, which felt amazing.

The morning after arriving Travis took me around town, and since it was a holiday and with the power out in his office, we wound up spending the whole day out and about.

First stop was a brisk walk to Shark Island, oddly name since it’s a peninsula and not an island. The Island is a manicured campground with an old lighthouse standing sentinel. It nicely laid out and, when Travis and I visited first thing that morning, we could see that it was well used. But there’s a very dark history associated with Shark Island, a history you won’t find referenced on any placard on the campground. In the early 1900s the Island was the site of the first concentration camp where hundreds, perhaps thousand of Herero and Namaqua died at the hands of Colonial Germany. In fact, lessons Germany learned from Shark Island were later used with horrifying effectiveness in the Jewish death camps during World War II. Not seeing at least a reference or something that speaks to the memory of those who died there made for a somber start to the day.

Lighthouse on Shark Island


Travis and I continued our morning with breakfast and a hike up a hill that might have been a high point within the town of Luderitz because there were water tanks and phone towers there. From that vantage point I could see all of Luderitz, and, like seacoast towns everywhere, I could see that the houses closer to the water belonged to the more affluent residence and the further a house is away from the water the more modest it was.

After verifying that the power was still out in Travis’ office, we were about to head back home, but was stopped by a guy in a large tow truck. I was introduce Boyd, a local resident and owner of several businesses in and around Luderitz. Boyd drove us around through some of the poorer neighborhoods and, since it was nearing lunchtime, stopped at a kapana stand. (Kapana stands are everywhere in Namibia. They are small grills where marinated meat, usually beef, is chopped up and cooked while you wait. The meat is sometimes served with finely diced tomatoes and onions in a vinegar sauce and reddish-orange seasoning powder that is savory and spicy. It is eaten by hand and usually shared with anyone who happens to be standing around. It is VERY tasty and I intend to bring the recipe and eating style home with me.)

Boyd


On an impulse, Boyd took us up into hills just outside and to the north of Luderitz to a site where the first large scale wind turbines in Namibia were being installed. The current project calls for three turbines, enough to power all of Luderitz. Only the massive bases of the turbines were install, but it was an impressive site. Even more impressive was the view. To the north I could see where the Namib Desert blew its sands into the air and waters of the Atlantic, seeding storms that can cause so much beauty and damage in the Caribbean and Florida. To the west was the blue Atlantic. To the south, Luderitz and to the east was more desert stretching as far as the eye could see. The sky was so blue, the desert so stark, the sun so bright that it felt like I was top of the world. It was a feeling a pure, unfettered joy and I reveled in that moment.

You might think that after experiencing such moments anything afterwards would be anticlimactic, and you’d be right, but this is Namibia! This is Luderitz! Earlier, while he was showing me around, Travis stopped in a shop owned by Liz, a sweet little German lady who stood behind the counter of a shop full of Namibian trinkets, art, and other merchandise. Liz was wearing a large moonstone suspended around her neck by a simple chain. It was clearly the best object in a shop full of wonderful objects. I asked where did she got it. Liz explained that she gets shipments of stones from The Crystal Market in Arandis. Turns out Arandis and working with The Crystal Market is my duty assignment! (Friends and relatives, prepare to get stoned!!!)

Later that day Travis and I ran into Paul, a fascinating man who has sailed around the world several times and claims to be a, “…collector of useless trivia.” We met Paul as he was leaving his “workshop”. To call it a workshop is like calling the Queen Mary a boat. The workshop’s yard, easily the size of a football field, is littered with salvaged boat and ship parts. A half of hull here, a cabin there, all were wrecks pulled from the sea. He reuses the wood and other parts. Some people want stuff for decoration, others have more practical purposes in mind.

Paul


The actual workshop is a huge warehouse divided in two. The front half had been cleared and is to be a movie set for a project I didn’t quite get the gist of. The back half contained at least three sailboats and catamarans in various states of disrepair, one of which had to be forty feet, four cars and a sundry of other nautical and nice hardware and equipment.

What I like about Paul is that he likes conversation, which is different than those folks who talk just to hear themselves. Paul likes to tell tales, but listens to others tell their stories too, then adds appropriate commentary which makes for great conversations.

After interviewing one of the many small business owners in Luderitz, Travis and I ambled over to Liz’s home for dinner. To describe her home as beautifully eccentric would be an understatement. Like Paul’s workshop, Liz’s yard contained a collection of this and that with a boat and the part of another dominating the scene. Plants were everywhere. It was like an oasis designed by a wayward seaman.

Liz’s Yard


At Liz’s I met Janet, an ex-PCV recently returned from the The Republic of Georgia. She liked Luderitz so much that she decided to stop in for a bit before heading back to the States. Paul and his significant other, Ingrid, and another couple whose names I forget were also in attendance.

Dinner was fantastic. Like her yard and her house, Liz’s dinner table was set with a huge collections of tasty dishes and guests just sat around chatting, eating, and chatting some more. It was great to chat with intelligent, witty, and unpretentious people! Such a grand time!

Dinner At Liz’s


Though I was beat, Travis had one more event planned, a ‘braai’ (barbecue) on the beach.

Though I was looking forward to it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luderitz can be very windy and its late Fall here. I sincerely doubted there’d be frolicking bikini clad beach babes, nor was I expecting to be huddled around a huge bonfire roasting bits of meat on sticks, drinking some local alcoholic concoction and singing Kum Bah Ya (which, after several weeks of language training, sounds suspiciously like Afrikaans).

As it turned out, there was just three guys, Travis, a guy named Phil who drove us and built the fire, and I. It was very dark when we arrived, and very windy. Phil managed to get a fire started in one of the standing concrete braai-pits and soon we were roasting meat. It seems that building and maintaining a fire in adverse conditions is part of the DNA of every Namibian I’ve met so far. Most don’t bother with store bought charcoal, they make their own with scrap wood, of which there seems to be plenty of.

Phil manning a wind whipped braai pit


I said it was dark when we arrived, but the quality of the darkness was so deep that though the fire was bright, nothing was illuminated by it more than a few feet away. It was like the air was sucking the light and warmth from the blaze.

And in the darkest there were stars. AHHH, the stars!!!! I really wish I had a way to take a photo of that tiny fire against the backdrop of a sky full of stars. Even the memory fills me with awe.

So, what do three guys do while standing around a small fire, drinking beer, and waiting for meat to cook? Campfire philosophy, of course! More great and fun conversation fueled by alcohol and mellowed by roasted beef.

What a day!

This is getting long and there’s lots more to tell.

AND I have 12 days left in training!!! In less than two weeks, if all goes well, I will be a bonafide Peace Corp Volunteer!

I write Part Two later this week so…

Stay Tuned!

Vern

Quick Update: Luderitz!

I guess there’s no rains down in Africa 


After nearly 9 hours sitting on a cramped bus we arrived in Luderitz! Travis, my travel partner and shadowing host, got us off the bus early so we could walk and I heartily thanked him for it.

Our transport 


Crowded


And no leg room 


Turns out we were about a mile from his flat and the hike was welcomed.

It was dark when we arrived so I couldn’t see much, but high on a hill, proclaiming its location with somewhat less enthusiasm than Hollywood’s, were large lit letters spelling out ‘LUDERITZ’.

Luderitz!!!


So, I’m here and I’m tired, dirty, hungry, and would pay real American dollars for a decent glass of wine. At least I got to eat, shower, and rest. I’ll find that glass of vino with my name posted above it in lit letters, like Luderitz’s but with a bit more gusto, tomorrow.

Stay tuned

Vern

Quick Update: On my way to Luderitz !

I’m heading to Luderitz in a few hours! Because of the distance (685km!) it will take 8-9 hours to get there. I’ll be going by bus and my more experienced travel partner in Travis, the PCV I’m shadowing. 

The Peace Corps put me up in a really nice hostel and I was able to (finally) take a shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. 


Just woke from a great sleep and now need to get ready. 

Stay tuned!

Vern

Namibia: Full of It

DISCLAIMER
“The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Namibian Government”

The view from Gross Barmen


This passed week may not have been the busiest week I’ve had in Namibia so far, but it certainly was the fullest. Let’s see…

We kicked off the week hosting a 4-day Small Business Workshop that was so well attended that we literally had standing room only. I was expecting 20, maybe 30 people showing up, to my surprise we had well over 50! And people kept coming!

Better still, the folks we hosted found the information we presented useful according to the feedback we got.

I have to say that though the Peace Corps group I’m in is small by group standards ( there are usually 30 or more volunteers per group, there are only 14 in our group) my teammates are exceptional people! The Peace Corps did an excellent job picking these folks and I count myself extremely lucky to be among them. The presentations I’ve seen and was part of would have been well received anywhere in the world.

The workshop sessions were in the mornings from Monday through Thursday. Our afternoons were fill with language studies and other cultural information sessions. Friday, however, was different. That was the day we ( the trainees) learned our duty assignments.

As you might imagine, the days leading up to Friday was so full of anticipation that it was hard to focus on the job or study at hand, and our trainers seem to enjoy stoking our emotions. The morning sessions on Friday covered the site selection process, which is pretty involved. I knew the Peace Corps provided our housing at our assignment sites, but I didn’t know how much went into it.

When you think about the places that Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) wind up images of mud huts, thatched roofs and dirt floors may come to mind, and there certainly are some of that, but each location is check 5 ways to Sunday for safety, access to clean water and so on. So, a PCV could be living in the aforementioned hut while another PVC in the same country might have more modern accommodations complete with indoor plumbing, electricity and even WiFi!

Every one of the 14 in our group would care less whether we wound up in huts. We are here to help and the best way to understand what is needed is to become part of our environment. That means we must live as the people we are here to serve live. So, for example, if we need to train local women whose families have historically lived off of raising cattle in the nuisances of business management it is better received if we do so by going to where they live, living as they do, understanding their lives in intricate detail before we teach anything.

Back to Assignment Friday. There apparently is a tradition, at least in Peace Corps Namibia, where there is a small ceremony when assignments are revealed and that tradition was carried forward on Friday. The trainees are all blindfolded and stood before a large outline of Namibia. Placards with the names of our assignment sites are placed in the approximate geographical locations within the outline. Then the trainees are all led to their assigned placards and handed an envelope. Blindfolds are removed and everyone learns where they will spend their 2 years of service all at once.

We got our assignments!!!!


It was a lot of fun, and everyone was happy with his or her assignment. I would up Arandis, a small town near the west coast of Namibia built by an Australian mining company in the late 70s to house the uranium miners and their families. I don’t know the details of my job yet, but I do know I’m replacing a PCV who is transitioning out.

In one of the sessions leading up to our assignment ceremony it was stressed that regardless of our assignment description it is actually up to each PCV to define his or her job for the next 2 years, and we are encouraged to take on secondary assignments, especially in areas that may need addressing, but may not be currently getting enough attention. AIDS/HIV awareness is one. Though great strides have been made in controlling the AIDS/HIV epidemic in Southern Africa the disease is still present and spreading. Education is a key tool in reducing the spread of the disease and that is one area the Peace Corps has historically helped.

So, whatever my primary duties are, I will likely take on other projects while in Arandis. I will, of course, write more about this later.

After our assignments were revealed our trainers turned us loose early to allow for some much needed celebration. Many of us wound up at a local sabeen (bar) and had a few beers while chatting about our assignments. It was an exceptional day and evening, and one of the best I’ve had since coming to Namibia.

Celebrating!


Today (Saturday) our trainers sponsored a “team building” event at a local spa called Gross Barman. It’s a hot springs made into a resort with cookout spots, pool and other amenities.

We had a blast!

Steaks, chicken, sausage, kabobs and more. We ate and played until we were full of it all. What a great way to end a great week.

MEAT!!!!


Ok, getting tired and need to sleep. This really is an adventure.

Stay tuned.

Vern