Thursday, April 28, 2016

Week Ten: Confronting Contradictions

by: Sydney Wipperfurth, Rich Wehman III, Emily Simpson

Following our rewarding weeklong rural homestay, the CGEE students were off for another Namibian adventure! Our group had the privilege of visiting Etosha National Park, which is located in northwestern Namibia and widely considered to be one of the world’s finest game reserves. In the company of Ovambo traders (who probably discovered this region before the Europeans, but who writes history amirite?), Europeans Charles Andersson and Francis Galton “first discovered” the region in 1851 ( Etosha is loosely translated as “Great White Place” in the Ovambo language because of a massive mineral pan, part of the Kalahari Basin that covers around 25% of the national park. Renowned as one of Africa’s finest conservation areas, Etosha serves as a refuge for large herds of plains’ animals, several rare and endangered species, and richly diverse birdlife. This beautiful national park has a plethora of springs and waterholes where an abundance of wildlife typically congregates. The animals of Etosha are of the southern savanna plains of Africa, and large herds of springbok, zebra, gemsbok, blue wildebeest, giraffe, and elephant roam the plains. The numbers of animals can vary considerably depending on factors such as migration patterns, the condition of the veld, and the availability of water. 

One highlight of the trip would have to be when our group visited the Okaukuejo waterhole, noted as one of the best watering holes during the dry season. All of the students saw elephants, springbok, Burchell’s zebra, and giraffe, amongst others, during our short, yet eventful visit to the site. Perhaps the most exhilarating moment of the game drives occurred when the group spotted a cheetah far off into the distance. Although Namibia boasts one of the world’s largest populations of free roaming cheetah, there are a relatively small number of them found in Etosha. Our group was fortunate enough to witness this beautiful animal gracefully trot towards our vehicle, truly a breathtaking experience!
Etosha National Park during the drought in Namibia

After our game drives, we arrived at the Mokuti Lodge, where we would be staying for the night; our group was welcomed with wet towels and glasses of grape juice (the wet towels were welcome relief from the brutal heat making us feel like we were melting). After entering the front doors, we discovered the lodge was outrageously extravagant. A vast juxtaposition to our experience a week prior, when we got off of the vans in Outapi, Namibia to the warm and welcoming smiles of our rural host-families. This juxtaposition stemmed from the extreme differences in resource availability and resource accessibility. Our rural homestay families, while there was variance, had significantly limited access to basic amenities like running water or electricity, if any at all. The Mokuti Lodge had air conditioning, running water, electricity, television, a pool, and a full, expensive, buffet for dinner, to name a few.

The differences in these environments stirred many conversations, questioning and critiquing the privilege that each of us possess. Although we understand that the program usually stays at a campsite in Etosha and that there were no spots open, the fact that we had the ability to stay in the lodges shows the mobility and privilege we have access to. We were able to choose to live the life of our families in rural Namibia, however, a week later, were able to leave that environment and exchange it for a much more excessive lifestyle in Etosha. The ability to make this transition felt heavy as we reflected our incredible experiences at our homestays and on the stark contrast between the two lifestyles we were living. 

Richard taking a little nap
so he has enough energy to
look at the beauty of
Etosha National Park!
Furthermore, our stay at the lodge highlighted an excessive use of resources, namely water, providing a dramatic contrast between our previous week at our homestays. For instance, during our homestays, many students noticed that their families use water extremely sparingly, ensuring that every single drop is being used. Given the current drought that is affecting Southern Africa, our families did not have much of an option for their water use. However, we were surrounded by water when we arrived at our lodge. All of our rooms had large, luxurious showers, seemingly enticing all visitors to take lengthy showers (tip to the folks back home: shorten your showers!) Additionally, the lodge had TWO pools, filled with the same water that had been so precious and valuable to us just one day ago.

However, we did not experience a dramatic ecosystem change from our homestays to Etosha. If anything, Outapi, with its green grasses and trees, seemed to have more water than the dry landscape of Etosha. So where was all this water coming from? I cannot even begin to imagine how much water is consumed per day at the lodge, and consequently how quickly the groundwater is being depleted. Given everything we have learned about the drought severity in Namibia, this groundwater depletion is especially concerning. Yet this resource depletion is the reality for many tourist destinations, where lodges are focused on ensuring that visitors are comfortable- even at the cost of the environment. 

An intentional community of elephants in Etosha National Park
In the context of Etosha, this reality is especially frustrating, since Etosha provides visitors with an opportunity to appreciate nature and all the wildlife diversity it has to offer. Etosha itself is notable for its conservation efforts, and yet visitors oftentimes live in a contradictory manner. This inconsistency makes it seems as if we are only focused on protecting ecosystems when it is for our own benefit, such as the recreational opportunities provided by game reserves.

These spaces we were existing in were complicated and contradictory. They forced us to reflect on and complicate our environment. But doing so is never an easy task. Although our environment was physically comfortable, confronting these contradictions is extremely uncomfortable and emotionally heavy. But it is also important to acknowledge these feelings, so that we are better able to understand our role in this world.

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