By Christy Allan, Kimberly Hanson, and Elisabeth Preisinger
Ever since our beloved intern, Kristin, described her rural homestay as one of her favorite experiences during her own study abroad in Namibia, we had been very excited to start ours. Also, before most of us got to Namibia we had heard of its famous Etosha National Park. This week, we got to do both!
Approximately thirty kilometers from our host farms is Khorixas, one of the most well known towns in Damaraland, in the northwestern region of Namibia. It is the closest many rural peoples in the area can get to a grocery store, bank, or post office. We stayed at our host farms for five days, two of which we toured Khorixas, visiting organizations, speakers, and a school.
We were given the opportunity to eat lunch at the Cornelius Goreseb High School before we were given a tour and allowed to visit with the learners who boarded at the hostel there. Many of the students were from farms both near and far from Khorixas. It was interesting to see how similar the students' experiences were with others that we have met from more urban areas such as St. Martin’s in Johannesburg, South Africa and how excited they were to chat with us. Although located in different countries, these schools struggle with the same issues: lack of funding, decrepit buildings, minimal resources, limited classes, and few, if any, extracurricular activities. In addition, the schools struggle with community issues resulting from HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, and alcohol abuse. We have found it particularly upsetting that twenty-five percent of the Namibian GDP goes towards education and, in addition, the students must pay tuition, yet they are still in need of so many things. It was encouraging, however, that these children have very high goals for themselves. Of those we met, many wanted to go to university to become doctors, pilots, accountants, etcetera.
We were also given the opportunity to meet with the mayor of Khorixas, Matheas Tsaeb. He gave us an official welcome and described the obstacles that Khorixas has conquered since independence and the obstacles it is still facing. The lack of employment seems to be causing the most problems for the community. We spent the prior week learning about foreign direct investment’s (FDI) largely detrimental impact on less developed countries. This prompted us to ask the mayor for his opinion. He was very enthusiastic about it, assuming it would only help to alleviate poverty and unemployment, although it has proven to not be sustainable in many cases.
At our farms, our hosts did their best to welcome us entirely into their families. This meant participating in daily activities that many of us have never experienced; such as milking livestock, herding goats, riding in donkey carts and cooking over open fire. Many of us were also unable to imagine what living without electricity and indoor plumbing would be like and were surprised to find it less uncomfortable than we may have first believed it would be. The families' innovative methods of farming were very impressive. Many of the farms were operated communally where different families took on different obligations necessary to run a productive farm, and shared in the profits of their labor. They often used the small amount of resources available to them to their fullest. For instance, the small rooms that most of us stayed in were made from tree branches and cow dung, providing reliable shelter in an economically and environmentally friendly way. Many families have small vegetable gardens and earn money by selling their crops in town. The families were nearly completely self-sustainable and only needed to go into town once a month or so. This made many of us question our western perceptions of what wealth is and what is necessary to live a happy life.
Kimberly had an excellent conversation about development with some of the younger men on her farm. She got upset because they made assumptions about her reasons for being in Africa and actions once she leaves. They also made assumptions about her opinions about Namibia, itself. From there they engaged in a long discussion about how the Western world may consider a village like Khorixas to be extremely impoverished, but how the people who live there are satisfied with the way they live and can meet their basic needs. Many of the students encountered individuals on the farm who would not choose to live anywhere else. They may not have easy access to communications, information, sewage, running water, or even jobs, but they utilize what resources they do have efficiently. The men discussed how the North has an advantage due to much of the leadership of the country hailing from that region. They said that it was in the South where the real poverty existed. Kimberly wondered, though, if there would be agreement on the part of the people in the South on their own poverty. Yes, we lived in houses made of cow dung, had little, if any, access to refrigeration, and used the outdoors as our toilet, but we learned to adapt to this lifestyle and realized that once you’re living it and surviving, it’s not so easy to consider it poverty.
During the rural homestays it was very interesting to observe the position of many women on the farm. It was clear that women were seen as the head of the house, particularly as they got older. Women were in charge of preparing and serving food, and rarely left their homes. However it was interesting because these women catered to the men on the farm. The men did all the work with the livestock, and some of the female students were expected to fulfill the stereotypical female role. It was not uncommon to hear the men say things like “I can’t do that, I’m a man!” The men may be ordered around by the female head of household, but they are also given a lot of freedom to do as they like. This gender dynamic helps to further the Khorixas farms’ reputation for being more traditional.
On Saturday morning we said goodbye to our host families and headed to Etosha National Park for two days. We went on game drives through the park looking for wild animals. We saw giraffes, zebras, springbok, oryx, ostrich, hyenas, wildebeest, dik-diks, birds, an elephant, and a lion from a distance, as well as full views of gigantic rainbows. When we were traveling, the Etosha Pan was flooded again, after flooding already once this year. Considering that this used to only happen once every fifteen years, the park staff has become concerned. It was impossible not to consider global warming and environmental pollution’s impact on this conservancy.
We also learned about the history of the park from a speaker from the Environmental Education Center. The land was originally occupied by the San people. This tribe was forcefully relocated when the Germans established Etosha as a national park in 1907. Many of the students had mixed feelings upon learning this because, while it is unfortunate that the San were forced to live elsewhere, the park, as the country’s top tourist destination, has generated substantial amount of income for Namibia. In addition, we were informed of the controversies between the park and the surrounding rural communities. Conflicts arise when animals get outside of Etosha’s fenced boundaries and disrupt the farms nearby, whether by preying on livestock or endangering human life. There are strict penalties for killing one of Etosha’s animals, even if outside of the park itself. There has been discussion, with no resolution, about compensating those people whose property (specifically livestock) has been damaged. This is yet another example of how the colonial legacy continues to impact the social and economic dynamics of communities in Namibia.