Monday, March 30, 2009

Week 6: Not Such a Tourist

Ben Averill, Leann Vice-Reschel, Yedidya Tabanpour

From political science papers and development guest speakers to the dusty pits of the Rossing Uranium mine, from the lush tourist attractions to the sandy floors of the informal settlements in Swakopmund. This was the experience of our trip to the coast.

As any other week would be at CGE, week six has been heavily packed. With religion papers due along with a political science creative project, as well as internships, many scrabbled to get work done before our trip to the coast. For some of us our bags were barely packed minutes before it was time to leave. The kombi ride reunited the group as some say all you need for a vehicle is four wheels and a radio. We listened to the usual Julio Iglesias that Passat, our driver, loves so much. CD’s changed along with the vibe in the car. Some sang, others danced, and a few slept from the long, tiresome night before. At the half-way mark the scenery became bland, dusty, ere and desert-like. The plains stretched far off into the distance and we began to wonder what lie ahead.

Swakupmund is a small town near the coast of Namibia. We in stayed in apartment-like dorms where we would be staying for the next couple of days. It was nice to look forward to the vacation that lay ahead. Little did we know that we would be getting up at six or seven in the morning getting ready to visit the Rossing Uranium mine, a fish factory and various organizations. Although we had a lot of group activities planned, CGE made sure to make the trip unique for each individual. First, we received a packet of N$500 or the equivalent of over $50 US. Not much many would think, but quite enough for our basic needs.

Each morning the group split off for breakfast, in the afternoon for lunch, and then again at night for dinner. The evenings held the biggest adventures for many; we tried a vast array of foods from fish to pizza. Nighttime activities ranged from skinny-dipping in the ocean to dancing at a local club.

The two most influential parts of the trip took us to the informal settlements and the Rossing uranium mine. On the first full day in Swakupmund, the Township Tour Company took us around to various organizations and homes within the Mondesa Township. While we were sleeping comfortably in a beautiful and comfy guesthouse only a couple miles away, families of sometimes five or more were sleeping cramped into one room in the Mondesa Township. This was a reoccurring theme that we had previously seen in Katatura and Kliptown. Yet, unlike Katatura and Kliptown, the streets of Mondesa were clean and resonated a relatively safe feeling. Similar to our tour of the DRC school there were a few awkward moments of feeling invasive while on the tour. The use of the tour company was a display of our privilege. As informative and touching as the tour was there was a sense of invasion of privacy and social boundaries on our part. Some of us could not help but to wonder if the locals were scared of us or have become immune to the presence of tourists.

The Rossing Uranium Mine is located in Arandis. During our visit we learned about the mine’s operations and its role in Namibian society. The key speaker at the mine broke down many of the misconceptions that we had gained over the years about the human rights abuses, the mines labor practices, and environmental regulation. We had the opportunity to see a short film about how Rossing works and what exactly it does. Rossing uranium mine is one of the world’s largest uranium mines and produces mainly uranium oxide. Rossing employs around 3,000 Namibians and serves as a major employment source for the town of Swakopmund.

I found it pacifying but deceiving that Rossing says they are doing a lot for the community. On our tour we learned that Rossing is trying to give back to the community by preserving the natural environment around the mine, creating a healthy work environment for its workers and serving as a major employer in Swakopmund. Rossing says that it does all this and much more. This leaves me to wonder why the mine is seen in a negative light by environmentalists, trade unionists, and other activists.

Rossing Uranium mine tries to do well, and does as well as any uranium mine can in helping its workers. Rossing built and maintains a housing facility in Arandis for its workers. These facilities are adequate, but not the best houses. They seemed to be more structured towards small families and single workers instead of permanent family homes. They were probably made in this fashion to create a housing structure that wasn’t too expensive in its construction cost.

Rossing also seems not to care too much for their workers long-term health care, since most workers leave after a few years of service. Even though they stated that they are working for the community it’s hard to tell how much investment is actually brought into Swakopmund. Although it is a source of income for locals and the Namibian government, much of the wealth is taken abroad by the Rio Tinto Group, by the Iranian government and by other private owners.

After looking at the full picture of the Rosssing uranium mine I left still unsure of the role it plays in daily Namibian life. Is it a good thing that the mine is there to give some form of employment to a town that is teeming with a large unemployed population? Would it be better if there was a more permanent large-scale employer with better working conditions? What will happen when the mine closes down when the uranium deposits are depleted? With my mind spinning from these questions we left the mine to head to a different organization.

During our free day and time away from academic papers and guest speakers we all ventured out in different directions seeking adventures and relaxation. For the first portion of the day we all took advantage of the tourism aspect of Swakupmund. One group of daredevils jumped out of a plane over the desert, while another group took advantage of the natural beauty of the coast and kayaked with the marine life. At the same time a larger group bravely tried their hand at the extreme sport of sand boarding while an additional group hiked up Rossing Mountain to slide down the Flying Fox cable slide. While all of these tourist attractions were thrilling and created what will be life-long memories, it was difficult to partake in these activities without realizing the privilege we have as Americans. Coming from a first world country the majority of us come from relatively wealthy backgrounds, in comparison to the majority of Namibians. Trips ranged from N$ 300 (US$ 30) to N$ 2,000 (US$ 200). For a Namibian working in Chinatown it would take one months pay to go sand boarding and seven to go skydiving. If we were a group of local Namibian students it would be a rare and special occasion to get to participate in even one of the previously mentioned tourist attractions. Tourism in place such as Walvis Bay and Swakupmund is merely a source of employment and income for locals; and merely another story for foreigner to tell friends and family back home. In general it was difficult to look past the excitement that was bubbling within us as we embarked on our free day. Yet, at the end of the day I could not help to have a slight feeling of guilt over the amount of privilege I just exhibited.

The trip ended back in the kombi with all twenty students reflecting on the events of week 6. Many questions had been answered, but many more are yet to come.

1 comment:

Megan Lee said...

I'm so glad to hear you all went skinny dipping.(is that awkward?) Good times at the coast.