This weekend it rained for the first time since I have been in Namibia. Kate, Shannon, and I were at home spending quality time with the TV/VCR we borrowed from friends who are out of town. We were watching the DRFN's copy of Eternal Enemies, which is a documentary on the social rituals and constant fighting of lions and spotted hyenas over kills and territory. Meanwhile the sky opened up overhead and unleashed what seemed like metres of rain but was actually only a few millimetres. It took us all a few minutes to realise that we needed to close the windows of the house. We wandered outside and turned our faces up to the grey sky in amazement of the cold rain falling to our very warm surroundings. In a few minutes it was all over-- the grey clouds parted and the sunny blue sky returned. It is now the start of the rainy season. In a few months the hills around Windhoek will turn from dull brown into lush green, spotted with flowering trees. Or so I am told.
A month ago during a holiday to Etosha I witnessed the same lion and hyena conflicts that were featured in Eternal Enemies. The hyenas grouped around and taunted the lions in order to provoke an attack, which came in the form of a female lion's paw swatting recklessly at the gathered hyenas. The hyenas would then scatter, laughing loudly, while members of the lion pride would start getting up slowly from their naps by the waterhole in preparation for a fight. The strength and grace of the lions was unbelievable to watch, while the hyenas' laugh echoed across the plains. The interaction was by far the most amazing thing I have seen in this country.
Unlike Namibian lions and hyenas, the conflicts and struggles between the people of Namibia are not nearly as transparent or straightforward. For example I have two female co-workers at the DRFN-- Angi is a white British Namibian and Margareth is a black Angolan-Namibian. They sit around at morning tea, smoke their cigarettes, joke about men. In a discussion last week of how truly dangerous Katatura is, Margareth insisted that white people are safe walking the streets in her neighbourhood. Kate and I maintained that as two young white single women, we would never be safe moving to the almost all-black former township. Margareth then declared "I'm telling you-- reconciliation will have truly occurred when Angi moves to Katatura!" Angi did not find the joke funny. Why? Because Margareth was implying that Angi was not working towards a racially harmonious Namibia? Because Angi felt she had nothing to be ashamed of as a British Namibian? Because Angi felt she was being singled out because of her skin colour? I am still not sure.
My knowledge of the Namibian environment has increased tenfold since I arrived here. My education has been found both in the office and by getting out of Windhoek and seeing the land with my own eyes. I continue to be amazed by the geographic variety of this country-- I have seen elephants, lions, sand dunes, the chilly Atlantic coast, rock formations, bushmen paintings, the lush green of the north, the Kavango river, many camel thorn trees, and several completely stunning sunsets. Yet I have also edited and compiled updates, occasional papers, and brochures on issues that are pertinent to the conservation of the Namibian environment. I find it a good mix of learning tools. It is unfortunate that more of my work does not involve actual fieldwork, but I realised that this was a Windhoek-based position last year when I applied.
It is amusing to me that I have learned so much about the Namibian environment in a matter of months, whereas I know so little about environmental concerns in in Iowa and I lived there for 18 years. I also believe I have already succeeded in seeing more of Namibia than I have of Iowa.
Is this Africa?
This weekend Maerua Mall in Windhoek opened its new renovations, which include a Brazilian cafÐ¹, an adventure shop, a music shop, clothing stores, a print shop, and a fancy soap shop. I sat in a coffee shop watching the shoppers wander around the mall. In that moment it was so easy to forget that I am in Namibia. I felt like I was at home. I was telling a friend that if I were to take my family straight away to Maerua Mall from the airport when they come to visit me, they would not believe that they are in Namibia. It is hard to reconcile that Maerua Mall, with all of the white faces wandering around with wallets in their pockets, is Namibia. Namibians do not need to be speaking Nama-Damera, catching fish in the river, living in mudhuts in order to be Namibians. Namibians work in office buildings, wear designer clothing, and carry cell phones. Yet when you get out of Windhoek you realise that Namibians, most Namibians, really do live in mudhuts, walk to fetch water, and cook over a fire.
All of these differences make it difficult to find a way to talk about Namibia in a neat and convenient manner. Within Namibia's borders there are uninhabited deserts, hot springs, black rhinoceros, seals, game farms, fisheries, diamond mines, and a stormy coastline. The people of Namibia move in and out of office blocks, modern supermarkets, informal shacks, high-rise apartments, mudhuts, and glittering shopping malls. They get from place to place on foot, in donkey carts, and by driving BMWs. Among the people there are Namas, Dameras, Hereros, Ovambos, Caprivians, Afrikaners, Angolans, and Germans-- each with very different cultures, customs, and languages. To declare any of these things more "African" than the other would be not only untrue but would also be denying a true part of the country simply out of want for simplicity and easier comprehension.
Change is inevitable
This week I was notified that there will be two Grinnell Fellows in Namibia rather than three, and they will both be based in the Gobabeb rather than in Windhoek next year. It was a big surprise, a change II had not foreseen. My first reaction was sadness that I am not passing on my experience to another Grinnellian. I also irrationally felt that I was being fired. But at the same time I realise that this program is young and evolving, and I am confident that my work can be done here by the DRFN staff in the communications department. With some soul-searching by this year's fellows, last year's fellows, Doug, Kathy, Peter, and Mary, I am confident that the new fellowships will provide valuable experiences for two Grinnellians. It is also sort of nice knowing that Adrian and I were the only Grinnellians to do this, that is will be something special and unique.
I still look forward to showing next year's Grinnellians around Windhoek, as they will certainly spend time here during their year in Namibia. If nothing else it will be a much-needed break away from life at Gobabeb. I view Gobabeb much like I do Grinnell-- it is an amazing and challenging place where the work and opportunities are abundant. It is also a spectacularly beautiful place where you can sit atop a dune and ponder life for hours. But it certainly not a place to get lost in a crowd, eat ice cream, go out dancing, or shop for new shoes. Just as Grinnellians desperately need to get off campus at least once a month, so will next year's fellows need to escape Gobabeb in interest of their mental health.
The process of losing my fellowship to the reshuffling of the Grinnell Corps Program makes perfect sense when put into the context of my experience in Namibia. When you work at the DRFN you see people come and go constantly-- projects start up and end due to funding cycles, people finish up their research and leave, and someone is always away at a conference or in the field. Kate, Shannon, and I go for months at a time without seeing eachother. Most of my friends in Windhoek are foreign volunteers and are leaving the country before me. 'Goodbye' is a word I will be very familiar with by the time I leave Namibia.