I find it incredibly difficult to think that I have been here at Gobabeb Training and Research Centre for (almost) three months. It seems like a different person who arrived at the tiny airport in Walvis Bay in July, totally exhausted from the journey and changing time zones. All of us Grinnell Fellows (including Christine, Nathan, and David), compared it to a planet seen in one of the Star Wars movies: blowing sand, barren, and isolated-there were no forms of life or civilization in view outside the confines of the airport. My naïve brain and eyes, as yet untrained to really see this landscape, noticed nothing but the emptiness and desolateness that the surrounding landscape had to offer. But that’s not to say I was not immediately struck by the beauty of this landscape, however devoid of life it initially seemed to be. I was especially in awe of the contrast between the ocean and the desert; the ocean, so obviously full of living wealth abruptly ends to be replaced by the barren sands which do not simply end at the beach but stretch away across the road into the vast sand sea of the Namib.
It is through this supposedly barren landscape which one must drive to get to Gobabeb, nearly one and half hours away from the nearest town of Walvis Bay. It is not long, however, before you are able to see that this desert is capable of supporting vast quantities of life. One glance at the gravel plains will make it impossible to describe this land as barren; rather than a desolate desert landscape, the plains are almost savannah-like upon first glance. The previous rainy season has not been unkind to the organisms brave enough to colonize this landscape. Upon closer scrutiny of the landscapes around Gobabeb, one will find that these grasses are not alone in their obstinacy to make this place their home. The Namib Desert is full of life! From lichens, to beetles and ants, to birds and gerbils, and even up to ostrich, gemsbok and oryx, animals have found many unique ways to adapt to these environs. The Namib is the oldest desert in the world, meaning organisms have had plenty of time to adapt to what many others would find to be an impossible existence. All forms of life in the Namib are truly extraordinary and not even a lifetime spent amongst them would be enough to thoroughly explore everything.
Besides being constantly in awe of the natural beauty and wonders this place has to offer I do actually have to work. I am officially called the TAOS (Training and Outreach Support) fellow. Thus far, the Training part of my name holds to be much more accurate than the Outreach part. I work in the newly dubbed Training and Education section at Gobabeb. Training mostly means environmental education and consists of working with learners and students at all levels, from those still in primary school up to those who have made it up to the tertiary level. However, our philosophy is not to simply spit out information about the environment, however interesting it is. We focus on showing them how to do science so that they can eventually learn to discover things on their own. What is the scientific process? What are some of the steps taken when carrying out a science/research project? These are the things we are hoping to impart upon the learners and students who visit us by getting them outside and using this unique and exciting environment as our classroom. Hopefully they are also able to take away an appreciation for this beautiful place and the importance of using it sustainably as well as the tools to find out how that is possible.
In my first three months I have mostly been working with primary school learners. One of our current projects is to support the founding of Enviro (mental)-Clubs at primary schools in the Erongo Region (where Gobabeb is located), although currently just in Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. Our amazing liaison officer on the coast, Kela, plays a big role in supporting the teachers to start these clubs as well as hold weekly sessions with the learners who are members of the Enviro-clubs. They are also funded to come out to Gobabeb for a weekend of training with the goal being to connect what they are learning in their Enviro-club sessions to what they learn during their visits to Gobabeb. Thus, the learners are getting constant exposure to environmental issues that are current and relevant to Namibia. This program is not the only source of primary schools coming out to Gobabeb. However, the location of Gobabab, the harsh gravel roads, and the state of many of the schools’ buses often makes their trips difficult and have thus far been sparse.
Tertiary students are also fairly common. Although one UNAM (University of Namibia) undergraduate course had to cancel, there is currently a UNAM Masters course here consisting of six individuals carrying out individual research projects among other assignments. They say the best way to learn something is to teach and I must say I have been scrambling to remember everything I’ve learned about statistics and project design. Although a bit frightening to be mentoring masters students, it is certainly a good experience. All of my experiences teaching here, whether primary or tertiary, has given me a much more profound respect for teachers! Not that I ever thought teaching was easy, but it certainly brings with it many unique challenges.
The Training and Education section is currently going through a bit of an overhaul in which we are trying to improve and formalize our training programmes. This will include improving our work with community groups which has thus far been admittedly and regrettably minimal. There is a university group here now from Germany who will be focusing on working with the local communities rather than on ecological research. I hope this will be a good first step towards working closer with the local communities.
All in all I have loved my first three months here and have no doubt of equally loving the following nine. Right now, the thought of returning to the United States in nine months is not something I look forward to. I am in love with this place, my work, and the people I work and live with. Admittedly, long stretches of office work and meetings can get a bit tedious, but it is nothing my porch and a good book can’t cure!
I am constantly humbled by this ancient desert and the wonders it holds. And though the miniscule amount of time I will be here is nothing in the life of this desert, it has already proven to be a significant part of mine.