Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

I can still remember the day of my initial interview with my Peace Corps recruiter. It was a cold and snowy March morning in Colorado. The driver’s side window of my car had been broken by some intoxicated college kids the night before, and the plastic trash bag I had duct taped to the opening flapped in the frigid wind as I drove I-36 from Boulder to Denver. Trusting the butterflies in my stomach (which, I like to believe, are only there to reassure me that I’m doing something I really want to be doing), I made my way to Peace Corps’ regional office.

My recruiter, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer himself, was tall and had a kind smile. “Africa,” he said as he paged through my application. “Africa is a tough assignment. If you want to change your mind, now is the time to do so.” I smiled and told him I was sure. “All right, Africa” he said, “pack your bags.”

Almost four years later, I find myself here, in Africa, trying (and failing) to find some way to say goodbye to this remarkable place that has been my home for the past three years. When I left the states in 2005, a two-year contract sounded so incredibly daunting. My dear friend Samantha, trying to ease my trepidation, reminded me that when I returned George W. Bush would still be president. I’m not sure if that made the two years appear longer or shorter. But now, on the brink of 2009, I can say that it indeed has been a long time.

And it has been a “tough assignment” as well, as I think all PC assignments are. I would be lying if I said it hasn’t. Though my good days certainly outnumbered by bad days, some of those low points were so low, it was hard to remember the good. Many days, I wondered if anything I was doing was making any kind of positive impact on this country. After committing to a third year of service, I spent weeks wondering if I was completely crazy to want to stay and do this for another year. It’s very difficult to evaluate your impact when doing this kind of work, and with no one reassuring you, that innate self-doubt permeates one’s mind.

But this experience has changed my life in ways I cannot articulate. What I gained professionally during my three years with Peace Corps is definitely tangible, but what I experienced personally means far more to me. I was a wide-eyed 22-year old when I left for Africa. I’m coming home a different person (not to mention 26).

And yes, some days, the suffering and sadness were tremendous. The media has certainly taken advantage of the human tragedies and wars and famines that do, in truth, wreak havoc in many parts of Africa. But that idea of Africa being “dark” is not what I will remember about this continent, and the suffering and the sadness are not the first things I will think of when I think of Namibia. What has stood out the most for me and made the greatest impact on my life here have been the people. And that is what I will remember most about Africa. The people.

I will remember the genuine smiles on people’s faces when I spoke to them in their mother tongue. I will remember the overwhelming kindness of strangers. I will remember seeing intense gratitude for the most simple of things. I will remember the angelic voices of singing children. I will remember hospitality of a level I have never experienced before. I will remember their honesty. I will remember seeing hope in the face of true despair. I will remember real smiles, products of pure happiness. These are memories I will carry with me forever. And having these memories makes experiencing all those low points of this “tough assignment” completely worth it.

I wonder how Africa will remember me.

Long ago, I abandoned the noble ideals that I had joined the Peace Corps hoping to fulfill. Whether they were unrealistic or whether I just failed completely at meeting them, I don’t know. And I don’t really care. Somewhere during this experience, I subconsciously decided that the best I can do here is put out more positive than negative, do more good than harm, make more smiles than tears, and foster more hope than hopelessness. I think I succeeded in doing these things.

And I hope when Namibians remember me, they will remember a person who did the best she could, where she was, with what she had.

Tomorrow, I leave Namibia and embark on the long journey home. The problem that keeps nagging me is this notion of “home.” The idea suggests a comfortable, familiar place that one can easily slide into. I’ve been to the states to visit twice during my tour of service, and neither time did it feel like an especially comfortable or easy adjustment. What is ridiculous is that I’m absolutely a product of America; I’ve spent the majority of my life in the states and there’s no reason I shouldn’t feel “at home” there. But as much as I’d like to think otherwise, I know that reentry will not be easy for me. It’s hard to go back to a place that you know so well only to find yourself feeling like an outsider. Even former volunteers who hated their time in Namibia struggle to adjust to life back in the states. No matter how much you resist, it’s impossible not to undergo some deeply profound changes after living in a culture foreign from your own for an extended period of time. For those of us who embraced this culture and found true happiness in Namibia, going home and trying to somehow fit back in where you used to is even more challenging. But I know it’s time. I’m willing to give it a try.

This will be my last blog post, so don’t bother checking back for the “oh-my-god-where-am-I?!” culture shock post. I like the idea of preserving this blog as a kind of time capsule of my time in Namibia. I started this blog to keep in touch with family and friends back home and to share my experiences in Africa with those I care about. It turned out to be more therapeutic for me than I had anticipated. And though I recognize that it’s been a feeble attempt, I hope this blog helped portray Namibia as the beautiful country that I’ve experienced it to be. Namibia is now a part of who I am, and I will carry it, and its’ people, with me always.

And so I dedicate this blog to them, my Namibian friends and family….

who brought color and richness into my life…
who helped me see myself, and the world, as they truly are…
who challenged my spirit and broadened my horizons…
who taught me the values of patience, strength and genuine humanity...
and who, most importantly, showed me how to find beauty in all things.

You will all be dearly missed.

“The good experiences will enrich her mind, the people and the land will give joy to her soul, and the difficult times will teach her who she truly is.” –Barbara Jean Myers

Monday, November 24, 2008


After living and working for so long in a developing country, it’s easy to get discouraged. And after getting involved with countless projects and watching them fail time after time, one starts to wonder if there’s any point. While I could point to some small accomplishments by the end of my second year, my Peace Corps service was filled with far more trials and errors than success stories. And that is the nature of the beast. Hopefully, if we try 100 different projects in 100 different ways, something will stick, something will work and someone will benefit. However, with so many failures under my belt, the beginning of this third year left me wondering if there was any real benefit to me being here.

And just when you begin to doubt, out comes the sun.

This year, in the rural northern region of this desolate country, I stumbled upon the most inspirational and hopeful project that I have witnessed at work in Namibia. Oonte OVC Organisation is a non-profit organization based in Ondangwa that serves the neediest of this country—orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC). Oonte’s goal is to reach out to children and provide them with spiritual, physical and psycho-social support. Oonte is involved in numerous projects. They offer after school programs for children that focus on health, personal hygiene, goal setting and leadership. They have a feeding program that allows them to offer the children three meals a week, one on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. For most of the children, this is the only meal they eat on those days. Oonte provides skills training in trades such as glass making and construction for vulnerable young adults. At the site, they have a large garden where the children learn how to harvest food and take care of animals. Oonte also makes house visits to the most vulnerable households to check on the living situations of the children and to see where they can offer help. The support offered by Oonte is support that these needy children could not find anywhere else in their lives.

Some of Oonte's regulars

Small kids with big watering cans, working in Oonte's garden

The heart behind Oonte is Ms. Petrine Shiimi, or meme Petrina as she is known by nearly everyone in this community (meme is Oshiwambo for mother). A teacher and businesswoman by trade, in 2004 meme Petrina found herself troubled by the growing number of orphans in Ondangwa. With a population of just over 2 million people, Namibia has just under 200,000 registered orphans, 60% of whom live in the northern regions of the country. Now bear in mind, when I say “registered orphan” I mean that this child was able to provide his or her parents’ death certificate(s) as well as his or her own birth certificate to government authorities, in order to be entered into the official OVC database. It goes without saying that the majority of children in any circumstance would not be able to come up with these documents on their own. So, on top of the 200,000 registered orphans, we have even more unregistered children who have lost one or both parents, as well as thousands of children who, though one or both parents may still be alive, are nevertheless living in very vulnerable environments. That’s a lot of need.

Maria (an Oonte volunteer), meme Petrina, me, Albertina (another volunteer), and my colleague Jay

Meme Petrina and her husband have taken in and provided care for countless children throughout the years, but in 2004 she could see the need for something more growing in the community around her. So in December, she decided to throw a Christmas party for the children of Ondangwa. Collecting donations from local businesses, she was able to offer a small Christmas meal to more than 300 children. Saddened to know that this was the only way these children would be celebrating the holiday, meme Petrina decided to do more. She rented out an old, abandoned building, filled it with toys and educational materials, and opened it as a day centre for children. She decided to call it “Oonte,” which in Oshiwambo means the rays of the sun, as she sees it her mission in life to bring rays of sun and hope to needy children. And over the past 5 years, meme Petrina has done just that. Saying that she has saved hundreds of lives would not be an overstatement.

Cooking for the children in Oonte's "kitchen"

The children, trying to find some shade to enjoy their meal

I was introduced to meme Petrina by one of my Peace Corps supervisors. When I told her that I would be in Ondangwa all year and would love to help where I could, she gave me a long hug and looked at me with tears in her eyes. “We need your help,” she said.

I started coming to Oonte whenever I could spare time, usually on random weekday afternoons and on the weekends. Along with two young Namibian girls who were volunteering at Oonte, I helped organize boys and girls clubs as well as a young achievers club. In clubs, we talked about puberty and sexual violence and the importance of making healthy relationships with one another, and we taught the kids about planning for their futures, setting goals and how to work towards those goals. The kids were great and had so much energy. All of them came from destructive environments where they had never been given the opportunity to discuss these important things. Their questions were often times heartbreaking, but were honest, and I was encouraged by their drive to learn. After helping to get the ball rolling, after a month or so I left the clubs to the Namibian volunteers to facilitate, and today they are the most popular activities offered at Oonte.

With the Young Achievers Club at my farewell party

With a fellow PCV, I worked to organize weekend workshops on HIV/AIDS education as well as children’s rights. It was fun to see the kids in this environment. They felt so important, like they had been invited to a very professional meeting, and they participated openly and honestly. In the health trainings, we were able to separate the boys and girls and talk with them about puberty and sexual health, something very few of them had ever been given the opportunity to discuss with adults before. While sessions with the older girls focused on more serious issues such as when is it sex and when is it rape, the younger girls could not get past topics like puberty and menstruation (none of the younger girls had gotten their periods yet, and many of them were convinced I was lying to them about what was coming in their near future). While it was encouraging to know I was providing them with important information about their own bodies and lives, it was also saddening to see how neglect had sheltered them and placed many of them in dangerous situations.

Meme Petrina handing out certificates (and hugs) at a weekend workshop

Today, nearing the end of 2008, Oonte has registered over 500 OVC. Over 500 children between the ages of 0 and 24 are receiving care from Oonte. While I think it’s fair to say that all of these children come from troubled homes, not all of them are orphans. Some of them live with one parent, and others live with a grandmother or other extended family. However, there are some who live in the most vulnerable of ways you can imagine: child-headed households. In Namibia, a child-headed household is defined as one that is led by a child under the age of 18. This child takes on the responsibilities usually carried out by parents, including providing care for any other children in the house. Some of these houses are led by children in their late teens, but others are led by children as young as 10-years old. Imagine a child the age of 10 carrying out all the responsibilities of running a house, including cooking for his or her siblings, cleaning and upkeep of the homestead, as well as finding some way to provide food and other essentials for his or her siblings. One of the services provided by Oonte is house visits to these child-headed households. Oonte was lucky enough to receive a handful of unexpected monetary donations this year. With that money we bought food bundles, consisting of bread, soup mix, dry porridge, cooking oil, pasta noodles, soap, toilet paper and candles and matches, and delivered the bundles to these child-headed households. Because we were never sure when such deliveries would be possible, the children were to ration these provisions and make them last as long as possible. Sometimes during these visits we would find the kids left with a little porridge or cooking oil, but often we would find that they hadn’t eaten a real meal in days.

Thomas and his brothers, happily receiving a food bundle

Thomas' kitchen

Even when there isn’t money, meme Petrina makes a point to visit these households regularly, just to check on their health and their current living situation, and to spend some time with them. As far as I'm aware, she is the only adult who has contact with these children.

Working with these children has to be the saddest work I have ever done in my life. The conditions that they are living in are unbelievable. Many of them sleep outside or on the ground in old, weathered huts that are on the brink of crumbling down on them. None of them have shoes or proper clothes or access to running water. Some of the houses face harassment and danger by people looking to take advantage of them, especially the houses headed by young girls. None of the children have any idea where their next meal will come from, or of when it will come. They are truly in survival mode.

Elifas and his baby brother

Elifas' outdoor kitchen. You can see where he cooks on the fire.

The house where Elifas and his siblings used to sleep. It crumbled during the recent rainy season. Oonte was able to build them a new structure which they now use as a bedroom.

Yet when they see us coming up to their homestead, their faces light up. They run to meme Petrina and hold on to her for extra long hugs, and as I watch this encounter I think it’s probably unlikely that these children have been hugged by anyone since meme’s last visit to see them. As we walk with the kids around the homesteads, meme asks them about their school or how things are going for them, and she checks them over for any visible signs of sickness or abuse. We check their sleeping areas and their cooking areas, both of which give a good indication of how they are coping without adults around to look after them. And after a short chat, we leave them and watch them wave and call out goodbye as we drive away.

These house visits are my hardest days. I don’t think there is anything sadder in the world than this.

Giovanni and his small brother-- the youngest child-headed household

Small kids, grateful for small things

How these children still have hope is beyond me; few could have survived in those circumstances. Yet they are surviving, and I know for a fact that it is in no small part due to meme Petrina and Oonte’s care. The food bundles do help them, but I think it’s more than that. The kids know that it’s not always possible for us to come with gifts of food. I think more than anything, these visits remind them that the world hasn’t completely forgotten them, and they are able to find some comfort in that.

Though meme Petrina does get some funding from UNICEF, there is simply not enough to cater for the many needs of such a large number of young people. So much of what meme Petrina does for these children comes out of her own pocket, and while that has worked thus far, the growing number of children coming to Oonte or seeking Oonte’s services means that it won’t be long before her personal funds will run out. And I’m not really sure what more we can do. Oonte has worked very hard this year to fundraise and find grants that fit their projects, but fundraising is never easy, especially in Africa where everyone is wary of trusting these small, community-based projects led by local people. It’s frustrating to watch because in my opinion, there is simply no project in Namibia more worthy of funding than Oonte. I have never seen such a successful grassroots project at work like this before. Everything that Oonte gets goes directly to the children. Their work is truly felt by the neediest of this community, which is more than I can say for any other NGO I’ve seen working or been involved with in Namibia. I know that Oonte will succeed with their vision because I know that as long as children are suffering, meme Petrina will never give up. I just wish things would come a bit easier for her.

Some happy kids at Oonte

I’ve wanted to write about Oonte for a long time, but I struggled to find the correct words to describe what this organization is doing for needy children in Ondangwa. Even re-reading what I wrote now, it sounds hokey and exaggerated and too good to be true. At least that’s what the cynic in me would probably think if I were reading this at my home or office desk in America. I know Oonte will survive on its own, and we have some very exciting projects coming in the future that I think will really benefit the organization as a whole, so my only real goal in writing this is to expose more people to this amazing project. Working with these people has added so much happiness to my life this year, I figure a blog entry is the least I can do.

If extending for third year meant giving me the opportunity to meet people like meme Petrina, then that alone made this year absolutely worth it. Knowing that this project exists gives me hope for Namibia’s future. And if it took me three years to find a project as promising as Oonte, that means that it is possible that more projects of this nature are at work in the rural, forgotten corners of this vast country. It’s something I try to remind myself when I begin to doubt.

I’m sad to be saying goodbye to meme Petrina and the beautiful children of Oonte, but I know it’s not forever—I couldn’t forget these people if I tried. As my contract is coming to an end, I’m thankful that I’m leaving Namibia with the memory of this noble organization so fresh in my mind. Sometimes the sadness of life here gets so overwhelming that it stomps out any optimism you may be clinging to, which is why finding a project like Oonte is so valuable. The benefit of me staying for a third year was not so much what I could give this country before leaving, but rather what this country would send me home with. Becoming part of Oonte’s world renewed my faith in the strength and compassion of the Namibian people. And that is what I will go home remembering.

And that is why I'm luckier than most.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Did!

I have been awake for more than 30 hours now, but I couldn’t feel better. I will never forget last night or the early hours of this morning. The election coverage was translated into 5 languages on Namibian radio alone, and people throughout the country spent the night listening and waiting. We received the official results at about 6am in Namibia, and Namibians began rejoicing alongside those of you in America, as well as so many others around the world. My phone has been flooded with congratulatory calls and text messages from Namibians and other friends all over the world. And as I walked through the village today, everyone stopped me, huge smiles on their faces, so excited to talk to me about this historic day. Today I felt proud to be an American, something I haven't felt in a long time.

Well done, America. You've made the world proud. After spending the past four years in a political depression, today I am feeling so happy and hopeful :)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Family Life

Mealtime in Owamboland is a unique experience. I was aware of culturally appropriate etiquette before this year, but living with a family has forced me to once again familiarize myself with all those random cultural norms that I know someone told me about during my training, but that I had long since pushed to the back of my mind. Cooking and eating in my own house is one thing, but cooking and eating with my family requires me to bone up on what things, words, actions, etc. are (and definitely aren’t) culturally appropriate during meals.

I eat dinner with my family, not every night but once in awhile. Yes, we do have the occasional frog or mopane worm with our meals (and yes, I gulp them down like the rest of them) but our evening provisions generally do not stray from the norm: oshifima (traditional porridge that gets pounded into meal from mahangu plants), omboga (traditional fresh spinach) or ekaka (traditional dry spinach), either ondjuhwa (chicken) or ohi (fish), and some kind of sauce. Depending on the season, there also may be some type of vegetable like pumpkin or beans. But oshifima is the staple. Ever night, regardless of the season, it’s there. My 17-year old host sister never lets a meal pass without exclaiming, “Oshifima again?!” Complaining of her dinner options is, it seems, every 17-year old girl’s right of passage.

I’ll be honest: oshifima is not my favorite food. Aside from the fact that it’s pounded fresh from the field and is riddled with dirt and sand, it sinks to the bottom of my stomach like a rock and fills me up after only a few bites. However, probably the first rule of eating etiquette in Namibia is that when offered, you never refuse food. If someone offers you food, it means that that food is being taken from the mouth of someone who is probably more in need of it than you are, and it is therefore, understandably, quite rude to turn away this offering. My dislike of oshifima gets compounded by the fact that when served, I’m not given a measly helping; my plate comes complete with a heaping serving of the stiff porridge. But since I know what it takes for my family to offer this, I accept it graciously and eat until my stomach swells.

Unless it’s exceedingly cold (which is rare in Owamboland) we eat our evening meals outside around the fire. Meals always begin with a washing of the hands, and a bowl of water along with a cup are passed around to do so. Sometimes someone pours water over my hands to wash them, and sometimes I do it myself. Then we sit, sometimes we pray (last week we prayed for an Obama victory), and the eating begins.

We eat with our hands on the homestead, no forks or spoons or any of that nonsense. Surprisingly, there is actually some technique required when eating traditional food sans utensils. It can be perfected, but it requires close observation of host family or friends (read: constant scolding and correction by the same people). Oshifima is to be eaten with the right hand only. The left hand is used in the bathroom, the right is used at the table. Eeno. A piece of oshifima is broken off and rolled into a small ball. Using one’s thumb to make a small indentation in the ball, it is then used to scoop up some meat or fish or spinach or whatever, then dipped into the sauce and plopped into one’s mouth. This process is performed rapidly and requires some agility as a slip up anywhere will result in the ball plopping, instead, on the ground, your leg, your shirt, or some other unintended destination, making the dogs happy and everyone else laugh at your blunder. Silly oshilumbu.

There are a number of other arbitrary cultural rules that are to be observed during mealtime in Nam: no singing, no smelling of food, no passing of food or drink behind another person’s back. Additionally, when offering homemade food or drink to a visitor, the chef, in the presence of the visitor, is supposed to taste whatever is being offered before handing it to the guest, as a sign that the offering is of good quality. However, on my homestead there are no senior males. The girls who do the cooking are between 15 and 21-years old (and as a rule, like to disobey their cultural norms as much as possible) and the boys are all under the age of 17. My meme and her sister-in-law are the only adults who live on the homestead full time, so the flow and attitude of the house is largely dictated by the young women. Hence… we don’t really follow most of those traditional rules. Most nights, Akon is playing from my ipod in the kitchen and my younger sister has turned the logs surrounding the fire into a catwalk and is outside practicing her model strut. When my tate is home or the eldest son is visiting things are a bit more rigid around the house, but with the girls it’s pretty lax.

I try to either make something for my family every week or bring something home to contribute to the meals, though I will admit that some weeks my schedule does get away from me. But I attempt to make up for that with quality. My aim is to bring home things that offer some variety to our standard meals: fruits like mangos or paw paw or watermelon cause excitement at the homestead and are served as the dessert course of our meals. If I make something, I try to get creative: homemade banana bread or pizza or sugar cookies with powdered sugar icing that I dye with blue or green food coloring. Portions are usually based on seniority, with the oldest getting the best picks, followed by those in their higher levels at school, followed by the small kids. But whether it’s one cookie or five, everyone appreciates the change up these gifts offer their standard fare.

My American family ate dinner together every night at 6pm. In fact, missing dinner was one of about three completely random things that guaranteed a grounding from my mother (not folding the family’s laundry was another sure-fire way to get locked in, though I think I was the only one of the three of us who ever got that punishment). Though my American family and my Owambo family differ in nearly every way you could imagine, the evening dinner ritual seems one commonality that links the two families. And even though it does seem a bit hokey (do families really do this anymore?), this evening tradition is one that I really appreciate. Every night when I walk home through the bush, thousands of fires are lighted on homesteads all around me as families gather to cook together. For some reason, I find that comforting. That soft glow that lights the path on my walk home will be, oddly enough, one of the things I think I will remember years after I leave this continent.

Food means more here than it does in the states. Here, it’s offered as a sign of welcome. In Owambo culture, guests visiting a homestead for the first time are at least supposed to be offered drink, if not food or an entire meal. When my mother and my friend Cindy visited my homestead, my meme and sisters spent an entire day preparing a full traditional meal for them. Preparing a meal this size requires a lot of work and is therefore only done on special occasions. It is such a treat that that evening both of my sisters set places for themselves and enjoyed the meal with us, taking advantage of this rare opportunity.

As my time in Namibia begins to end, I’m thinking often about how thankful I am for the many unique and lovely experiences I’ve had here. Living in a traditional manner with a local family is certainly near the top of that list.

At the end of my first two years here, I felt I had a pretty good grasp on the different cultures in Namibia. But it wasn’t until this year, as I was completely immersed in this culture, that I truly appreciated and learned from the differences between myself and Namibians.

And though I would hardly call my American-ness a “culture,” I do hope my family learned something from me as well. If nothing more, they have certainly recognized the value of things such as homemade pizza with goat meat and feta cheese, 80’s-themed dance parties while working in the fields, and fingernail painting sleepovers. Now if that isn’t positive cultural exchange, I don’t know what is.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Kids being kids

Something I've been working on... sorry if you can't read all of them.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Lure of Namibia

AS the first rays of the sun pierce the thick darkness of the Namibian desert, sinuous ridges of quartz sand ignite in a firestorm of seared orange. Then the sky lightens to the new day, revealing the sea of sand mountains, their crisp edges and perfect curves wrought and polished by the expert chisel of the Kalahari and Atlantic winds.

With the tracks of yesterday’s visitors to the Sossusvlei dunes burnished by the breeze, you can’t resist trudging — perhaps plodding or crawling — up at least one of the pristine hills, some towering to 1,000 feet, instinctively looking for shimmers of water. But from the top, there’s no sign of the sea; it retreated millions of years ago, back when continents were drifting wildly.

What’s left is a dazzling geological display of possibly the world’s highest sand dunes, extending for 400 miles along the coast and more than 80 miles inland. Those naïve enough to believe that a dune is a dune is a dune are faced with a dizzying array of sand configurations: parabolic dunes with dynamic slip faces, long and narrow transverse dunes, dunes petrified by ancient climate change, and star dunes formed by winds that buffet them from all sides.

It’s the sort of environment that evokes foreboding, although the greatest danger is probably a broken fan belt or a serious case of hysteria induced by the appearance of an enormous dancing spider. But for miles around — 13,000 square miles, roughly the size of Maryland — there is no radio signal to relieve the silence, no town to break up an empty plain with a horizon so horizontal that it fades into a mirage. Only the skittering of the occasional hardy gecko suggests that you’re not the last vestige of life on a seared and waterless planet.

Such a forbidding panorama hardly seems the stuff of a compelling journey. But Namibia, a country of stark beauty and riveting contradictions, should be at the top of any serious traveler’s want-to-visit list.

The landscape is otherworldly, from the ocean of blood red crests along Dune Alley at Sossusvlei (pronounced SOSS-oo-vlay) to the gravity-defying rock formations and petrified forest of Damaraland, in the country’s center. Even beside the main highway, there are enough elephants, giraffes and springbok to satisfy those who can’t imagine a southern African trip without big game.

And the mind-boggling juxtaposition of women draped in skins that covered animals a week earlier against shopping malls offering a full selection of Ray-Bans, or of face powder ground in a mortar and pestle cheek by jowl with shiny Hummers, leads you into the heart of a modern Africa tangled by time, defined by the collision of centuries and traditions.

Namibia isn’t easy, especially for travelers whose notion of a vacation is dashing from one sight to another, or for urbanites who need regular fixes of bright lights and noisy streets. Except for those with pockets deep enough to arrange chartered flights between the dunes and the Damara homesteads, it demands patience with corrugated gravel roads and mile after mile of what poets are fond of calling terrible beauty.

“LOOK, a different kind of nothingness!” exclaimed my husband, Dennis, his New York candor more prosaic than poetic, as we drove around Namibia last January. The austere landscape had shifted from barren scrubland to enormous jumbles of rocks that looked as if God had forgotten to straighten them up.

Yet there is something beguiling about the bleakness of this place that you miss if you bop across the country by air, from warthog to lion, from sand spout to watering hole. Namibia is as much about the environmental and human interstices between sites as about the sites themselves.

By far the most mesmerizing of those sites is in the northwest corner of the country, in Kunene. This is not tourist Africa, which is fast becoming one gigantic game park, or the show Africa of tribesmen and women who dress up like their grandparents for visitors but go home and don jeans before heading out to the local disco. This is dusty, chaotic Africa, where donkey carts are more common conveyances than buses, where animals are killed for clothing as well as for food, and where words like globalization and the Internet have not yet entered the popular vocabulary.

All the paradoxes of modern Africa seem to be concentrated in that remote corner of Namibia, and they are at their most glaring inside the OK Grocer, on the edge of the dusty town of Opuwo, just 100 miles south of the Angolan border. There on a morning in late January, two Himba women, their breasts bared, their waists draped with multilayered goatskin miniskirts, ogled the rich German-style cream cakes on display. The glass of the showcase was already streaked with red from the mixture of fat, ash and ochre-colored mud with which Himba woman coat their bodies and hair, their homemade version of Clarins Hydra-Wear.

In the adjacent aisle, a stout Herero matron examined the meager selection of vegetables. Decked out in her traditional garb — a long-sleeved and long-skirted dress that could have been a costume for a Victorian period drama if not for the hat, an oversized, cloth-covered pan with what appeared to be a baguette sitting on top — she culled disapprovingly through a bin of potatoes and harrumphed before she hiked up her prodigious skirts and walked out.

At the checkout counter, a Timba teenager waiting for the clerk to ring up a pile of cooking oil, salt and beans sported the beads and brassiere that distinguish her from her Himba cousins, although one of her breasts was hanging out, whether as a fashion statement or because she’d gotten up late, it was unclear. Behind her, a young white woman flicked her ponytail impatiently; all she was buying was a single jar of cocktail olives.

Outside, two bull-necked Afrikaners sipped tea in the garden of the adjacent coffee shop, and a Himba man in a Cal State T-shirt and a two-panel skirt — short and gathered in the front, long and straight in back — distractedly herded goats down the main street while chatting on his cellphone.

I seemed to be the only person in town who found the scene noteworthy.

On a continent where centuries of European encroachments have inexorably eroded tradition, Africans who cling to outward manifestations of their culture are the rarest of sights. And there’s perhaps nowhere in the region where outsiders can mingle with them more easily, more casually, than in Opuwo.

But Namibia is nothing if not unpredictable, and just a day’s drive from the OK Grocer, you can find yourself among meticulously coiffed Germans shopping for springbok-skin photo albums, handcrafted silver jewelry encrusted with malachite or mandarin garnet, and elephant-hide belts in the elegant boutiques of Swakopmund, a surreal seaside town that feels like a cross between Brighton-by-the-Sea and Bavaria.

For decades until 1914, Namibia was a German colony, South West Africa, and even 94 years after Germany lost it as the spoils of defeat in World War I, the Teutonic imprint on Swakop, as locals call the city, remains unmistakable. The standard plats du jour are schnitzel and bratwurst; the architecture of the old prison, the train station, the jail and dozens of other structures is late 19th-century Munich; and the streets are so tidy that Kaiser Wilhelm, for whom the main avenue was named until the government changed it six years ago, would be proud.

The only clear sign that the town is actually in Africa is the throng of black workers who pick up the trash before it can hit the ground. Blond children scoot around on bicycles, elderly German couples take their evening constitutionals along the waterfront and teenagers who look surprisingly like California surfer dudes guide tourists through an utterly un-African extreme sports scene: sand boarding, sand sledding, sand skiing and sand sailing — none of which includes a dune lift, so all of which demand repeated uphill slogs through the sand and the inhalation of lungfuls of Namibian dust.

With its traffic lights, pubs and trendy restaurants, Swakop provides a delightful respite from the grinding isolation that is most of the country. But the illusion of Europe embedded deep in the heart of Africa vanishes barely a mile from the center of town.

Minutes beyond the city limits, it’s hard to recall that chimera at all. The scene becomes a panorama of desolation, of rocks and scrubby trees, lava fields and herds of goats. The occasional Damara and Herero homesteads bear no trace of the Germanic penchant for order; they are tiny mean huts cobbled together from sheet metal, elephant dung, car doors, truck canopies, straw and whatever else is at hand.

This is a wild land of enormous skies, nomadic herders and vast farms with the thinnest possible veneer of modernity. For decades, the Skeleton Coast, north of Swakopmund, buffeted by impenetrable fog, perilous cross currents and treacherous reefs, has been a graveyard for ships, and Kaokoland, the ruggedly inaccessible northern mountains shrouded by the mists of the Atlantic, wasn’t fully explored until the second half of the 20th century.

Where Namibia meets both Angola and the sea, hunters and gatherers still wander remote mountains. In a country twice the size of California but with just two million inhabitants, the major cities, Swakopmund and Windhoek, the capital, feel like prefabricated alien entities plopped down without any local roots.

EXPLORING the back roads on our own in a rented 4 x 4 truck, we found ourselves drag racing with ostriches — and discovering that despite their awkward gait, they usually win. And we wound up eating lunch at the old German fort at Sesfontein that looks so much like part of a movie set for a film like “Beau Geste” that I couldn’t help but wonder whether Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and their pals from the French Foreign Legion were about to ride up on their camels.

In Damaraland, we wended our way around the Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain (8,440 feet), and lingered at the gallery of 6,000-year-old San petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein. If you’re as lucky as we were, a desert-adapted elephant will saunter by before you check in at a luxurious lodge where the wine is always at a perfect temperature, and a much-needed massage may be available.

Namibia might have a lot of nothingness, but that nothingness can be viewed with sundowners from the verandas of any of dozens of high-end lodges and tented camps or at one of the plethora of guest farms that provide a glimpse into what feels like the last redoubt of white colonial Africa.

While the game-viewing at Etosha National Park and along the Botswanan border is among the best in southern Africa, Namibia is one of the few countries where visitors are likely to see serious game outside of a park. So you don’t merely check off animals or the sights marked in guidebooks as “highlights.”

You can be waylaid by the unexpected baboon sitting atop a fence post by the side of the road, by the odd shovel-mouthed lizard, or by the huge haystacklike homes of sociable weaver birds. After a week, it felt ordinary to spot an elephant tusk as we drove down the road or to glimpse a giraffe chomping on a tree when we pulled over for a sandwich or ran into town for milk.

But when I dream of Namibia, it is not of the Big Five, or the little antelopes and warthogs, but of the OK Grocer. As I wandered out of it on my first day in Opuwo, my mouth still agape from the richness of clanging cultures, a Himba woman approached me, covetously eyeing the sleeveless short dress I’d bought at Banana Republic and offering to sell me bits and pieces of her own outfit — a necklace or two, a beaded ankle bracelet, a woven container of the ochre mixture she smothers on her hair.

I was more covetous than she was. I would get an original; she would wind up with off the rack. But even as I purchased a fabulous ankle bracelet made of metal beads wrought from melted wire, I flashed back to the women inside the supermarket and their obvious hunger for the most untraditional of cream cakes, at least in Himba terms, and couldn’t help but wonder how soon the woman in front of me would trade in her goatskins for clothes like mine.

Go soon to Namibia. The rhinos will always be there, but Banana Republic might be as well.

As seen in the New York Times
August 24, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

It Takes a School, Not Missiles

A good article, in case you missed it. Also a good book to read-- if you're unsure of whether or not one person can make a difference in the world, read it.

It Takes a School, Not Missiles
Nicholas D. Kristof

Since 9/11, Westerners have tried two approaches to fight terrorism in Pakistan, President Bush’s and Greg Mortenson’s.

Mr. Bush has focused on military force and provided more than $10 billion — an extraordinary sum in the foreign-aid world — to the highly unpopular government of President Pervez Musharraf. This approach has failed: the backlash has radicalized Pakistan’s tribal areas so that they now nurture terrorists in ways that they never did before 9/11.

Mr. Mortenson, a frumpy, genial man from Montana, takes a diametrically opposite approach, and he has spent less than one-ten-thousandth as much as the Bush administration. He builds schools in isolated parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, working closely with Muslim clerics and even praying with them at times.

The only thing that Mr. Mortenson blows up are boulders that fall onto remote roads and block access to his schools.

Mr. Mortenson has become a legend in the region, his picture sometimes dangling like a talisman from rearview mirrors, and his work has struck a chord in America as well. His superb book about his schools, “Three Cups of Tea,” came out in 2006 and initially wasn’t reviewed by most major newspapers. Yet propelled by word of mouth, the book became a publishing sensation: it has spent the last 74 weeks on the paperback best-seller list, regularly in the No. 1 spot.

Now Mr. Mortenson is fending off several dozen film offers. “My concern is that a movie might endanger the well-being of our students,” he explains.

Mr. Mortenson found his calling in 1993 after he failed in an attempt to climb K2, a Himalayan peak, and stumbled weakly into a poor Muslim village. The peasants nursed him back to health, and he promised to repay them by building the village a school.

Scrounging the money was a nightmare — his 580 fund-raising letters to prominent people generated one check, from Tom Brokaw — and Mr. Mortenson ended up selling his beloved climbing equipment and car. But when the school was built, he kept going. Now his aid group, the Central Asia Institute, has 74 schools in operation. His focus is educating girls.

To get a school, villagers must provide the land and the labor to assure a local “buy-in,” and so far the Taliban have not bothered his schools. One anti-American mob rampaged through Baharak, Afghanistan, attacking aid groups — but stopped at the school that local people had just built with Mr. Mortenson. “This is our school,” the mob leaders decided, and they left it intact.

Mr. Mortenson has had setbacks, including being kidnapped for eight days in Pakistan’s wild Waziristan region. It would be naïve to think that a few dozen schools will turn the tide in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Still, he notes that the Taliban recruits the poor and illiterate, and he also argues that when women are educated they are more likely to restrain their sons. Five of his teachers are former Taliban, and he says it was their mothers who persuaded them to leave the Taliban; that is one reason he is passionate about educating girls.

So I have this fantasy: Suppose that the United States focused less on blowing things up in Pakistan’s tribal areas and more on working through local aid groups to build schools, simultaneously cutting tariffs on Pakistani and Afghan manufactured exports. There would be no immediate payback, but a better-educated and more economically vibrant Pakistan would probably be more resistant to extremism.

“Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country,” says Mr. Mortenson, who is an Army veteran.

Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.

The Pentagon, which has a much better appreciation for the limits of military power than the Bush administration as a whole, placed large orders for “Three Cups of Tea” and invited Mr. Mortenson to speak.

“I am convinced that the long-term solution to terrorism in general, and Afghanistan specifically, is education,” Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda, who works on the Afghan front lines, said in an e-mail in which he raved about Mr. Mortenson’s work. “The conflict here will not be won with bombs but with books. ... The thirst for education here is palpable.”

Military force is essential in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. But over time, in Pakistan and Afghanistan alike, the best tonic against militant fundamentalism will be education and economic opportunity.

So a lone Montanan staying at the cheapest guest houses has done more to advance U.S. interests in the region than the entire military and foreign policy apparatus of the Bush administration.

As seen in the New York Times
July 13, 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008

My day (in photos)

Sunrise over my homestead-- there is no better sight at 6am.

It's colder here than it looks in this picture, and using the outdoor latrine at 6am leaves one with shivers.

I greet my meme.

and my sisters

and my dog.

Some days, I visit child-headed households.

Some houses with four or five kids

...some houses with more than 15 kids

...and some houses with attitude

Many days I do work at Oonte, a centre for orphans and other vulnerable children

...these pictures represent the best part of my days

We look up new words in the dictionary

And talk about things like peer pressure

And make collages of the things we love

Some days we even have meals

And then everyone is happy.

And as I walk home, I watch as the sun sets...

...and the moon rises.

...and I agree, "it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world."

-American Beauty