So I'm stuck. Really trapped. In a bathroom. In Namibia. And there are seventy high-school students that I am supposed to be teaching about desert ecology milling around outside, wondering what happened to their instructor. I look at my watch and see that I was supposed to meet them about fifteen minutes ago. I give a solid kick to the freshly varnished wooden door before slumping, dejected, against the wall. How?!? How did I come to be in this position?
Let's go back to the small town of Grinnell, Iowa, where Alex Brooks and I are applying for the Grinnell Corps fellowship in Namibia. I am applying because: A- I have never been to Namibia, but would like to go, B- I want to learn a little more about the developing world, and C- I think I would like to work in the field of environmental studies. Grinnell says, "OK, we'll send you." Alex and I are given different jobs- he is the IT and Research fellow, while I am the Training and Outreach fellow.
Next thing you know, we are on an airplane headed for Johannesburg and then Walvis Bay. Our plane lands before I can finish my in-flight movie, "P.S. I Love You," which is strangely engrossing- I still haven't found out how that stupid movie ends.
A tremendously bearded John Guitar, the previous IT and Research Fellow, picked us up at the airport in an old teal-and-white bakkie (the Afrikaans word for "pickup".) We slung our luggage in the back and rumbled our way over to the Ñber-German Probst CafÐ¹. Over herrings and schnitzel, John gave us the thirty-minute introduction to the nation. The Lonely-Planet types, apparently, call Namibia "Africa Lite", and after three months you can start to see why. Although poverty and under-development are rampant, the desert nation is better off than many of its neighbors (like poor Zimbabwe), which lack Namibia's relatively stable government and flourishing tourism industry. Additionally, many Namibians speak good English, and it is generally easy to survive here as a white Westerner. I have no experience in a Sierra Leone or a Mali or a Sudan for comparison, but it is clear that the US, Germany, and the EU pump aid money into this nation largely because of its promising, teacher's-pet, post-independence success.
John drove us to the station that night. Despite the rattling of the bakkie as we drove over the heavily corrugated gravel roads, both Alex and I fell asleep against the windows. We pulled into the station, which was by night a large collection of dark buildings and trailers with a few brightly lit windows. We were conducted into the warm atmosphere of Old House, a pleasantly slummy communal building with a kitchen, two dinning rooms, a TV, greasy spots on the walls, and plenty of outgoing people and cockroaches. Groceries were unloaded (only half of our ice cream survived the trip in a solid state), introductions were made, and we were part of Gobabeb.
By the insanely intense light of day, Gobabeb is an airy and expansive place that looks both modern and outdated at the same time. The space-ship-like tank of the water tower looms as the most recognizable feature for miles in every direction, and a wire fence surrounds the perimeter of the station (mostly to keep out the marauding donkeys.) There is "the station" itself: a whitewashed complex of offices, computer rooms, garages, closets, and labs, which open out onto courtyards or shade-netted loggias. On most days, this space is pretty quiet, with everybody either crunching away quietly at their keyboards, cloistered in meetings, or out in the field.
From here, the ground slopes away towards the river where you find the "accommodations"- a string of bungalows and large lecture-type halls for visiting schools, researchers, or conference-goers. Most of the people at the station, however, live in rusty trailers, tents, or silt-brick flats on the higher ground east of the main station. To the north, there is the severe landscape of the gravel desert, lightly covered with blonde Stipagrostis grasses after the year's good rain. To the south lies the swollen and endless Namib sand sea; mountain-sized orange dunes mottled with black steaks of magnetite. Demarking the boundary between the two is the westward-flowing !Kuiseb river, a dry sandy strip of riverine forest that only flows with above-ground water a few times a year.
By my count, there are thirty-four full-time Gobabeb employees who make up the core community of the station. This breaks up into eight or so people in the "management level" jobs (which includes three black Namibians and five white people, including me and Alex.) There are another twelve interns and students, a mix of Namibians and internationals. Two researchers also live in the Old House community- a Zimbabwean soil scientist and an Afrikaans oceanographer studying seeds and wind. There are also twelve "laborers" at the station, who are either Topnaar or bi-racial Basters. The Topnaar, a race of light-skinned Africans who, along with other Khoisan tribes, have lived in Southern Africa longer than anyone else, are the original inhabitants of the Kuiseb area and live in settlements just a few kilometers away. Except for the laborers and our director, Dr. Joh Henschel, the population at Gobabeb is always shifting and changing: most of the people working here now were not here when I arrived.
So Gobabeb is a great place, beautiful and dynamic, but I'm still stuck in the toilet, remember? Yes, and the students are still waiting outside. For some reason, the inside key won't turn in its lock, and my closet-sized Alactraz has no windows. I give a couple loud shouts and a few ineffective pounds on the brick walls. It is towards the end of lunch-time and there is a distinct possibility that no one will pass within earshot in the next four hours. I get the curious idea that kicking the door close to the lock would be a good idea. Maybe, I reason, I could loosen up the lock and turn the key. Of course I miscalculate the trajectory of my foot and snap the key in half, the little brass nub tinkling merrily to the floor.
I sit on the sink for a good half hour before I hear footsteps outside. For lack of something better to say, I shout "Help!" I hear Mitch, a Namibian intern and a very reliable fellow, give a hesitant "James?"
"I'm stuck in here," I holler.
Mitch lets out an awed expletive.
"Could you take care of the Onampadi School and tell Hans to get help out?"
"Yeah, no problem, I'll go right now."
In a few minutes the cavalry has arrived: my trusty American friend Alex and our site manager, Hans. "Don't worry buddy, we'll have you out of there in just a minute" they reassure me. After I tell them about how the key simply broke off in my hand, they employ a number of strategies to set me free. Unsuccessful: using another key from the outside, trying to take out the screws from my side, and (most terrifying) having Alex kick down the door. Successful: having Alex pull a whirly ventilator off of the roof, break a small hole through the ceiling and hand me down a chisel and hammer. As I emerge, blinking like some cave-dwelling rodent in the dusty light, I see the school bus pulling away with the interns waving after them, satisfied at having a quality, if James-less, course.
Back to Work
I don't want to repeat anything that you could just as easily read in the past fellows' documents, but what sort of a report would this be if I didn't talk about the job? I remember, when I was first considering Grinnell Corps, that my early ideas of the fellowship were defined largely by the location. Namibia! Sand dunes! Endless hours of hiking through the African bush! And though, to some degree, the location does determine what we do here, I predictably underestimated the role that "the job" itself plays in the fellowship.
The most immediately demanding task is the coordination of Gobabeb's training program. Most of the time, this means preparing programs for school groups. In the four months I have been here, I have been responsible for delivering knowledge about desert ecology to 616 students and individuals. Some of them were sweet little Namibian kids. Some of them were German master's students. Some of them were government officials. Most, I think, came away with some new understanding of the desert.
Of course, all of the Grinnell Fellows in the job before me did the same kind of things. Thankfully, they have also documented their work and compiled an impressive array of educational materials. Whenever a group contacts the center, I can dip into this nice pool of knowledge and pull out something appropriate. The previous fellows have done an outstanding job, but nothing will ever take the challenge out of teaching a week-long biology course to university students (especially when you were an English major.) This component of the job is immensely rewarding, and you can learn as much as you can fit into your head, but is tough when there are few qualified scientists at the station to double-check your work.
Then there is the job of managing the internship programme. The interns themselves are diverse and interesting people: Ottilie, a Namibian agriculture student; Daniel, a young German; Jeannete, a Topnaar community member; and Steffen, a geography student who is older than I am, just to name a few. Each intern has station duties (weather readings, data collection, helping with the school groups) but also an individual project that is supposed to benefit the station. Supervising these projects, which can range from measuring the tracks of the golden mole, to interfacing with community members, to creating a pictorial beetle guide is incredibly interesting, although there never seems to be enough time to supervise it all properly. I would strongly recommend this fellowship to any students interested in developing their management skills; this is a crash course extraordinaire.
A great advantage of Gobabeb is its international flair. The station attracts a greater number of interesting people than one could ever hope to utilize or keep track of. One minute, you are talking to some minister from the capital, the next; you are talking to a local farmer, who is just as interesting. There are inevitable culture clashes, misunderstandings and tensions (such as the communal television, which the Namibians like and everyone else doesn't) but most of the time everyone get along OK. If you make the time for it, you can really dig your teeth into the community experience here.
It is hard to believe that the first quarter of the fellowship is past and gone already. The numbers of ups and downs in my experience here have already been astounding. Thankfully, Gobabeb is the sort of place where the ups are far more numerous. Despite the stress and work pressure, the position here is one that you can exert a great deal of control over- you must make your own opportunities and set your own limits. There is an amazing potential to acquire new skills and learn new things (I have finally to stop pronouncing "Grinnell Corps" like "Grinnell corpse)" Ultimately, at the end of each day, you are able to go back to your desert flat, tired and satisfied, knowing that you have done something new and different.