Alex Brooks was the Grinnell Corps Namibia fellow for 2008-2009.
Alex Brooks' Reports
Alex Brooks, Grinnell Corps: Namibia 2008-09
Report 1Alex Brooks
Battling the Big One and All the Small Ones - IT at Gobabeb
Having read the reports written by the previous Gobabeb Grinnell fellows, I entered the IT part of my job with much trepidation. I was convinced that like JohnG (as John Guittar, my immediate predecessor, is known around Gobabeb), I was destined to experience a massive computer meltdown on my first week on the job. Entering the world of an IT professional, my computer administration credentials rested squarely and not so securely on a "Computer Tech" course I took in my sophomore high school, a class in which honesty would compel me to admit that I had spent more time shooting pool on yahoo.com than studying computers. I was just hoping to survive long enough without any catastrophes to get my feet fully on the ground. Well, I made it to week three: A sunny, warm Wednesday, when right after a delicious lunch of tuna fish salad, a co-worker knocked on my office door and mumbled: "Alex, um the Anti-virus software keeps popping up, something about a virus".
"a virus? AHH!! A VIRUS! That's it, I'm done for", I hysterically thought while rushing to the scene, straight across the hall. Pausing at the door long enough to take a deep breath, I gathered my IT wits, burst in, and took immediate command of the situation. "Let me take a look," I ordered, making sure to add an arrogant touch of that obnoxious authoritative tone reserved for addressing the technologically unworthy (gotta make it seem like I actually do IT, right?). Immediately realizing the computer was indeed infected, I leapt into damage control mode - ordering the room sealed off and the computer quarantined from the network, I plopped down in the cushy office chair and got down to business. First I needed to find the source of the infection. After some quick searching, I came upon a suspicious attachment downloaded from an email written in German. The computer's user, a non-German speaker, confirmed she had downloaded it just before the problem started. She had made an innocent albeit slightly naÐ¿ve mistake, thinking it was document about accommodation reservation, when really it was a VIRUS! AHH.
Named DROPPER.gen, I soon discovered it was no simple common cold; it was going to take expertise and skill to rid it from the system---neither of which I had in much supply. The virus was a rootkit virus, meaning, in simple terms, it was hiding somewhere from my antivirus software, creating new viruses faster than I could delete them. Getting frustrated by its clever tricks and lacking personal experience in such matters, I turned to the next best thing: the collective experience of the web. My savior was of course good old google.com. Of course, out here at Gobabeb even googling is no easy thing. Our satellite internet connection at Gobabeb is only slightly faster than a 56k modem, spread out over the entire computer network of the station, twenty odd computers or so. This makes surfing the web a dreaded ordeal.
Five frustrating hours later, after scanning tens of forums and downloading a whole slew of virus cleaning software one byte at a time, I started to make real progress. By 2 AM, well past my usual bedtime of 10:00, the tide of the battle had turned and I was confident enough of my success to turn in for the night. By nine the next morning, I declared a triumphant victory, did a dance, and took a victory lap around the station, reveling in the glory of my victory with anyone who would spare the time to listen. Then after a stern warning on the dangers of unknown emails, I turned the computer back to its grateful owner, just in time to begin the work I had been planning to get done the afternoon before.
The hard part of IT work here is, perhaps surprisingly, not the frustration that is inevitable in my being a novice in this line of work. I find that frustration is balanced by the high I experience when a problem is solved, especially when I then get to walk into James' office and announce in a deep dramatic superhero fashion, as James rolls his eyes, "Another day, another IT job well done" or "And the citizens of Gobabeb are safe for another day".
No, the hard part is that no matter whether the problem is large or small, it is almost always unexpected, and invariably interrupts whatever else I am supposed to be doing and have planned. Worse yet, when the problem is large or difficult, it often becomes a time black hole, relentlessly absorbing hours of time from my workday as I have to go through the often-tedious steps of problem solving. Before one can even begin the slow crawl across the web in search of answers, there is the equally time-consuming task of troubleshooting and diagnosing the problem, that inexact science of fiddling with cords, playing with settings, and when all else fails, banging on the machine. Then of course there is the almost inscrutable language of Linux, the operating system of our server, in which, even after two months of language immersion, it would be generous to say I spoke the equivalent of baby talk.
All said, last time I checked at least, our Internet was still working, our server runs on, and the invading hordes of viruses are being kept at bay, which is leaving me feeling pretty good about the whole thing.
But kids, you may want to stay tuned for next week, for every IT hero knows evil never sleeps and nobody knows what IT disasters tomorrow may bring.
A Rambling Essay on Mining, EIAs and Gobabeb
Setting: I'm furiously typing this section of my report in a small office, hoping to have it done on time (in reality, it won't be even close). Outside the window is a fenced-in camp, full of temporary buildings and tents. Beyond the fence is the awe-inspiring desolation of the Namib Desert. Rocky valleys and steep hills, small hills, and flat plains, stretch for as far as one can see. A bumpy 2.5 hour drive from the nearest town, through river canyons and rocky plains, this camp houses the workers of one of Namibia's newest uranium mines - and for the last 10 days, it's housed me, along with a small team of scientists and students, all working on an environmental impact assessment for the mine.
One of the foremost issues of environmental work in Namibia is that this large sparsely populated country, boasts not just incredible natural beauty but also incredibly rich deposits of natural resources such as diamonds, copper, and uranium. Even at the environmental "oasis" of Gobabeb, way out in the desert and inside one of the largest national parks in the world, mining is no stranger. Just drive minutes outside Gobabeb's gates and you'll see ugly zigzags of tire tracks throughout the pristine plains, left by the trucks and drilling equipment of Reptile Uranium, who own a license to prospect for uranium in a vast area that was at some ancient time a river bed. With the current worldwide boom in the prices of natural resources, this type of prospecting is happening all throughout the Namib-Naukluft Park, under licenses from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and this activity is sold to the public as a part of the economic answer to the country's high unemployment, rampant poverty, and extreme income inequality.
Soon after arriving, I realized that mining's influence at Gobabeb goes a lot deeper than just ugly tracks outside our gates. If you look closer at the finances of Gobabeb, you realize that in an effort towards achieving some semblance of self-sustainability, the cash-strapped institution has made a choice to form an uneasy alliance with the mining companies: Those same Reptile workers who drive all over the plains, are paying good money for accommodations at Gobabeb's bungalows. Gobabeb's small conference center hosts many workshops from organizations with such names as Rossing, Langeh Henreich, and again Reptile, all mining companies. Hell, even the hat I'm wearing right now comes from mining. The soft comfortable desert tan hat, reads NAMDEB, the name of Namibia's diamond giant. Besides providing nice plush hats, NAMDEB funds several Namibian interns and subsidizes the cost of training courses at Gobabeb for Namibian schools and universities. The station, of course, brings in money from many other diverse sources, but it is clear that the booming mines and their social responsibility organizations are quickly becoming an important component of the station's plan for financial stability.
The other component of this unlikely alliance is where my current stay at the mine fits in: Gobabeb, along with its partner the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, sells its professional environmental expertise to the mining industry in the form of carrying out environmental impact assessments, EIA's in short. In the environmental world, everybody knows these EIAs are where the big bucks are to be had. The mines are required to have them done by the government and, even if they were not required, they likely would still provide them, as it's become an important part of their public relations efforts to demonstrate that they care about the environment. Of course, having an EIA done and having it done correctly are two different stories.
Take, for example, the mining site, at which I am now working. Currently it is headed towards the end of the exploratory phase of mining. At this stage, they've drilled hundreds of holes, have analyzed core samples from each and have decided it's economically viable to mine the uranium in a big open pit. Having applied for a mining license, they are just putting the last touches on drilling and figuring out where exactly it makes the most economic sense to begin blowing the place apart. Now, before they began, like all the mines they had an EIA performed, and like countless others EIAs here in Namibia, it was a rush job by outsiders, riddled with flaws and mistakes, infamously even suggesting evidence of the presence of the golden mole, a unique animal that lives only in the Namib Sand Sea, several hundred kilometers to the south. When all these mistakes came to light, Gobabeb was hired to make the assessment right and put the mine's environmental record back on track.
As part of the EIA, our job at the site is to continue a study begun in May on the vertebrate and invertebrate populations in the area. Spending hours digging up burrows, flipping rocks, checking bucket traps and scrambling after (or away from) lizards, spiders, and even the occasional scorpion is great outdoor fun, and a great break from the office grind. (We are also looking for snakes but soon discovered searching for them is pointless; they only show up when you almost step on them.)
But there comes a point, pretty much everyday, when I look out over the hills and catch a glimpse of the clouds of dust rising from the drill rigs or when the winds carry the mechanical shrieking of their whirling parts, that I wonder what exactly is the point of us being here. Sure we can discover and provide some information on the local species, perhaps suggest mitigation measures that maybe will save the occasionally lizard or snake, but nothing besides perhaps a collapse in the international uranium market is going to change the fact that this landscape, its animals, plants, and eco-systems included, is fast approaching a destiny sealed by millions of years of geological process - to be blown to bits by dynamite in search of a yellow pollen-like powder known as yellow cake that is produced from the uranium ore and which sells abroad for around $30/L.
You might sense I'm rather critical of mining, but I've actually got mixed albeit skeptical feelings on the issue. On the environmental side, my feelings are clear: while the damage done can be discussed as mitigated and minimized, mining cannot be described as anything but an environmental catastrophe. But what about the economic benefit of the mines? On a recent tour of mines, I heard a figure that the new mines opening up are likely to provide 40,000 new jobs in the coming years. In a country of 3 million, that is a staggering number. It could bring many new and real opportunities to a country struggling to find new sources of jobs and prosperity. But even in the economic realm, I remain largely a skeptic. In my limited experience of the mines, the vast majority of management personnel are white and the majority share of ownership is exclusively international. Who is really benefiting, then? To me, more than anything, that is the biggest concern of all. If Namibia chooses to blow up parts of its national heritage for a chance at prosperity, well I'm not sure I can blame them. But if, as it appears may be happening, Namibia is allowing the destruction of its pristine land and not ensuring its own people's betterment, well that is far more sinister.
As for Gobabeb and my role in all this, I'm headed back to the mine twice more in the coming months to finish the studies on the animals and plants and also to attempt a first-of-its-kind relocation project for a rare plant located onsite. It's exciting to think I'll soon get to return and stomp some more around these wonderful hills, studying and appreciating their natural beauty. But it is sobering to think that on my next visit, I very well may be among the last who ever enjoy tranquility and beauty in this isolated place.
Falling into Authority: Supervising GIST
Taking a quick glance back, I caught a glimpse of James, just a step behind me. His face contorted in a grimace, his arms wildly swinging at his sides, I could see he was falling behind, struggling to stay in control. Behind him, I caught sight of the three GIST students, still near the top, descending the dune at a leisurely pace as they curiously watched the bizarre antics of the two crazy Americans racing down the steepest part of the dune. Turning my attention back to my own descent, I felt confident, victory was soon to be mine. One day perhaps I would be a legend, the fastest dune racer ever to live. Enjoying the thought, I sped up, letting the rush of wind in my face blow the stresses of the day away.
It had been indeed been a stressful day, the first workday for the GIST students, and my first, as their mentor. GIST, short for Gobabeb In-Service Training program, brings 3-7 Namibian university students at a time to Gobabeb for long-term training. During their stay, usually lasting around five months, the students design and pursue independent scientific research projects which culminate in a final report and presentation at the end of their stay. In addition, each student works as an intern, participating in a variety of station duties in pursuit of so-called real world work experience, including tasks such as digging through insects stuck in bucket traps (long-term beetle monitoring), quantifying cloud cover levels (manual weather measurements) and giving tours of the station. Through these activities, the program aims to build important skills including working independently, expressing oneself clearly in writing and speech, and thinking scientifically about the world around them.
My role in all of this is to be the supervisor of the program. My responsibilities are wide-ranging and include organizing workshops and presentations on topics such as writing, scientific methods, and statistics, day-to-day supervision of their projects and work, and doing the administrative work needed to keep the program running and financed. Only a month into my stay at Gobabeb, the idea of being responsible for this seemed daunting and I was nervous particularly about my first impression on the students.
A few seconds and two somersaults later, I landed with a skid and a thud - my legs unable to keep up, the momentum sending my upper torso flying forward, I toppled and spun, ending up as the dust settled, with my face a half a foot under the sandy surface. Lifting my head and shaking the sand from my face, I saw that James, further up the dune, had fared no better. He was struggling to his feet after taking his own nasty fall. Meanwhile, the GIST students kept descending slowly, saying not a word as they reached my sandy sprawled out form - just staring with bewilderment at the sight of their new supervisor amid the scene of his freak sand dune racing accident. Eventually I rolled over, spitting out mouthfuls of sand as I stared up at the last reds and oranges left in the darkening sky. Pondering the ridiculous first impression I had just made on my new students, there was nothing for me to do but start laughing.
With a degree in Political Science, little experience in teaching, and even less in scientific research, there are some days when working with GIST feel, well a lot like that first day with my head buried in sand while my students look on. It is easy to list reasons running GIST can be challenging and/or frustrating. To name a few: the students are my age or older, their English abilities are widely varying, the time I need for GIST is taken up by my other station duties and often I find my own knowledge is inadequate to be ready to teach others. But as I look back on the first 2 months of GIST, the day-to-day stresses of the job give way to a realization that as imperfect a mentor I may be, each student has somehow made progress. One student has turned his study on biological soil crust into a collaborative project with an international expert from NASA. Another has successfully gathered information from interviews in nearby local communities, the first time he ever has done social science research. All three current GIST students submitted interesting essays last week on mining in the national park that had solid organizational structures, thesis statements and topic sentences. And even more rewarding than reading coherently structured paragraphs, is the feeling that I am making progress on developing relationships, both personal and professional, with the students.
I should note that talking about progress is, of course, a discussion dealing in relativity. Progress can feel deceptive, especially when on a weekly basis I run into another hurdle or challenge with the program. There was, for example, the day when my students walked out of one of my stats workshops looking shell-shocked and confused, that I turned around to see that, what I had thought were clear whiteboard explanations of histograms and t-tests, from a distance took on a surprisingly strong resemblance to incoherent kindergarten drawings. Who knew penmanship one day would actually be so important. Or there was the day in the first when I was to hold a beginners typing lesson, only to having to postpone and reschedule it five times in two months before finally finding time to have the class. You should have heard the sarcastic groans every week when I would bring it up as on the schedule.
But all doubts and problems aside, if there is one thing I've learned so far from GIST, it is that it can actually be quite rewarding to occasionally get my head well stuck in the sand, because beyond the obvious thrill of spectacular flying double-somersaults, it provides me the chance to get up, laugh, think it over a little, and tell my students we'll try it again the next day.
- Social Commitment
- Grinnell Corps
- Fellows' Reports
- Anna Day
- Noah Fribley
- Christine Grummon
- Laura McElroy
- David Montgomery
- Nathan Pavlovic
- Ari Anisfeld
- Michelle Fournier
- James Anderson
- Alex Brooks
- Jaimie Adelson
- John Guittar
- Julia Bradley-Cook
- Laura Chesnut
- Sarah Evans
- Mark Gardiner
- Natalie Davidson
- Gerald Walther
- Mark Lundgren
- Thomas Parr
- Nadia Manning
- Emily Westergaard
- Shannon Anderson
- Emily Larson
- Kate Wolf
- Becca White
- Fellows' Reports
- Nanjing, China
- New Orleans
- Past Programs
- Post-Graduate Service Opportunities
- Scholarships and Fellowships
- About Us
- Grinnell Corps