Friday, April 10, 2009

Week 9: Up North

Abi, Britta and Sam

This was by far one of the busiest weeks the group has had since Johannesburg. We met with scores of speakers and drove for hours (a special thanks to our amazing driver, Passat). Therefore, the three of us could not possibly dedicate the space to reflect on everything we did, but here are some of our favorites. Enjoy!

Our time in the North was a totally different experience than anything we had done in prior months in my mind (Sam). The North has been plagued by flooding for weeks due to the runoff of heavy rainfall in Angola. The damage to small and large businesses as well as homes and farms was certainly devastating. When similar scenarios hit the U.S., there are scores of good Samaritans stacking sand bags and quickly cleaning up the damage. What we saw in the North were tens, if not hundreds, of locals fishing in the flooded plains and setting up tents and makeshift homes along the road. I (Sam) was amazed and intrigued by the way people were going about their daily lives and looking at the situation as one to make a profit off of by selling fish. I couldn’t help but wonder what measures the government was taking at that moment to ensure the area would not flood again the next year, as this is year two. Regardless, the communities seemed to be pulling together once again to make light of a devastating event. Your browser may not support display of this image.

Here in Namibia they have managed to keep many traditions alive despite the continuous modernization of the country and its people. We experienced an example of this social contrast when we were visiting the North. We were lucky enough to be able to meet with King Kauluma, the king of the Ovambo tribe Ndonga. Typical of Namibian time, even though we were late, we waited for the king for close to half an hour. Something we all found interesting was the rule that the king himself could not speak to us, but sat there as two of his council members answered all of our questions. It was a little difficult to figure out whether you should address your question to the king, even though he wasn’t the one who would answer you. We learned that the king and his council members have a very active relationship with the current government and that they manage to keep a pretty solid balance between the two.

The next day we visited the Red Cross at Onandjokwe Hospital. It was very inspiring to hear what the Northern branch of the Namibian Red Cross is doing. One of their largest programs is their home care system for people suffering from HIV and AIDS. A person who is a part of this program receives assistance with daily care from Red Cross employees and volunteers. Services include help with medications or common household tasks. It is always uplifting to visit an organization that is clearly doing a very good job to help those in need.

We were also able to witness what the Ongwediva Rural Development Centre (RDC) does for local constituents. The RDC serves as an educational and entrepreneurial facility. Local inhabitants are able to attend training courses at RDC ranging from water table horticulture to sewing to jam making to craft production. Locals who attend these courses are then able to turn their training into a skilled profession. I (Sam) found this part of the RDC to be rather empowering for men and women who know to utilize the facility. The second part of the facility was a workshop in which latrines, among other things, were manufactured and for sale. While this was an impressive process, I (Sam) couldn’t bring myself to understand why the RDC would not teach locals the process of making their own latrines and allow them to use their workshop. Instead, the latrines were manufactured by a few locals employed by RDC (which is great, don’t get me wrong) and in turn sold for a pretty penny. Regardless, it was very interesting and informative to visit a center that promotes rural empowerment and development at a grassroots level.

The group also visited the Ruacana Dam, the location at which NamPower does its utility generation. The dam is located right next to the Angolan border near the well-known Ruacana Falls. NamPower is the largest power utility in Namibia and the vast majority of employees are Namibian. The types of jobs available at NamPower range from engineers to manual laborers who perform heavy lifting and maintenance on the generators and other machines. Visiting the dam raised a number of questions for the group. For one, it seems as if NamPower has very little competition in Namibia. Coming from the United States, this can be perceived as a negative aspect for the consumers. How do prices stay competitive when such a large and wealthy company exists without significant threats? Many households do not have electricity at this time. If they wanted it, could they afford to pay for NamPower’s services?

It was also an interesting dynamic between the current flooding of many northern towns and the use of the water in the dam to make electricity. While we saw the devastation that massive amounts of water caused, we also saw productive use of water intended to improve people’s lives. The students discussed later how perhaps some of the dam employees had to return to flooded homes after their day of using water for a benefit. The complex impacts of an abundance of water helped us to gain perspective on the different ways in which people may relate to the land in northern Namibia- it can be a resource, a tool for production, an unpredictable and destructive force, or a natural part of the ups and downs of living in the region.

Since we stayed so far north, we were also able to go to the border between Namibia and Angola at Oniipa. This border crossing location is particularly busy and crowded with chaotic stores, border control officers, and people crossing from side to side. When we arrived, we approached the border towards “no man’s land” in order to watch the goings on around the crossing point. However, we were promptly asked to leave. On the way out, scores of people started running to cross the border back into Angola. The police ran after some and tried to hit them with batons. The runners were experienced though; they carried mattresses on their backs so as not to get hurt from the baton blows. Most of the runners made it to Angola safely.

It was interesting how commonplace these events seemed. While the guards were there and carried weapons, it seemed like their presence was just an illusion of border security. We learned later that the reason so many Angolans cross into Namibia every day is because goods are extremely expensive in Angola. They use the U.S. dollar but wages cannot keep up to this currency rate. Once Angolans buy the goods cheaply from Namibians, they sneak them back over to avoid claiming their goods so they can sell them for higher prices in Angola.

On the way out of Oniipa, we had a number of discussions about why people would choose to cross illegally, why the guards do not seem to care, and why the governments of either country have not done anything to prevent this everyday occurrence. It seems as if this practice would be detrimental to the economies and both countries would want to prevent it. Coming from the United States where the border is generally very secure, it was extremely interesting for us to see the opposite in this town.

Overall, our experience in the North seemed to be quite opposite of what would have happened in the U.S. under similar circumstances. Regardless of the chaotic border and the immense amount of water the group encountered, our week in Northern Namibia was educational, as always, and on the whole a good time. Needless to say, after a week of tireless travel, everyone in the group was ready to enjoy Spring Break!

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