Kate Wolf's Reports
Kate Wolf, Grinnell Corps: Namibia 2001-02
Report 1Kate Wolf
Windhoek is about the size of Des Moines. It's a quiet town with restaurants, bars and clubs enough to keep one entertained. Not the most thrilling place on earth. And yet when we pull of the B1, driving in from out of town, I am coming home.
We seem to have inherited last year's fellows' friends who are an amiable bunch of expats mostly doing development work. I never thought I would be one to spend so much time with other foreigners, but I am slowly making Namibian friends as well. The city is small enough that we don't often go out without running into someone, whether it's the supermarket or the cafÐ¹ at lunch. Helen, the Australian who has a two-year position at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Frank and Metta, the Danish couple who used to teach in the north before all the problems up there. Charlie, the Namibian who did his Ph.D. research at Gobabeb.
The DRFN is usually a chill place to work with small bouts of panic cropping up from time to time. In the beginning, I searched for things to keep myself occupied one moment and ran from meeting to meeting the next. Lately things have been insanely busy and I have been tied to my computer between lunchtime meetings. But it's quieting down again and there is always time for tea at 10:30 and 3:30. Life is not so different from any summer job I've had. Go to work, take a quick lunch, stop at the store on the way home. Out for drinks or dinner with friends. Reading in the evenings. The Afrikaans Scrabble set. F is worth 8 points. The weather is finally getting warmer and I no longer wear my fleece around the house. I look forward to the weekends and then waste them away. We go to movies at the Franco-Namibian Cultural Center. I brush up my high school French for the subtitles translated from some other language.
Things take awhile around here. Scene 1: We go out for dinner with a bunch of people around 7. We wait til 9:30 to see our food. We head home at 11. Scene 2: We are going to spend Sunday afternoon at Sharon, my boss' place just outside of Windhoek. We are supposed to be at Sharon's around 12:30/1ish. The drive should take about half an hour. We are picking up three other co-workers and one of their babies on the way. We leave at 11.30 to collect everyone. We actually leave Windhoek at 1. I enjoy the spaces between things here.
The exoticism of Africa seems as removed from Windhoek as it is at home in New York, but I like it just the same.
The drive down to Gobabeb is incredibly beautiful. The road goes straight out of the city past UNam, past dry low brush that reminds me of the Australian outback. It continues this way for several hours until we hit the mountain pass. The Gamsberg Pass slides through a huge escarpment and suddenly there are crests and ravines cascading over the landscape. We arrived at the pass around sunset and the light caught each detail of the land precisely. The road winds down the escarpment along the edge of losing-your-stomach drops into the ravines. We can see the road below as we pass in and out of shadows.
When we finally arrived at Gobabeb -Rauna greeting us as she ran from the station "Meme!"- it was dark and it wasn't until the next morning that I could see the station and the land around it. The station is situated on the Kuiseb riverbed where water only flows about 3 days a year, but the trees surrounding it are still very green. From a distance the green fills the riverbed and it almost looks like a river of trees stretching into the distance. The river divides the gravel plains from the dunes, both of which stretch endlessly in their respective directions. The gravel plains are grey sand and fairly flat. The roads are faint tracks in the gravel and unless you look closely, they don't seem to exist at all.
The dunes are a red-gold color depending on the exact angle of the sun. They climb up toward the sky and the patterns of the wind are displayed across each face of each dune. The dunes run north-south and there are areas of flat sand called interdunes or roads by the optimistic. The dunes can move up to 100meters a year, just from the force of the wind. The sand in this part of the Namib has been blown along the Orange River all the way from Lesotho. The many species of desert beetles are constantly scurrying about; here lives the beetle that survives off the water it catches from the fog that rolls in from the sea in the early morning. There are a few acacia species and the indigenous !nara plant which produces a funny cucumbery melon and also some other grasses. There are snakes and scorpions as well, but neither of which I saw this time. *gulp* Every so often, we drive out into the dunes in a 4X4 for a sundowner - drinks on top of the dunes as the sun makes a last dash toward the horizon. As the sun goes down, the color of the dunes turns a brilliant red and only few seconds pass as the sun falls behind the distant dunes. If you turn around to look behind you just then, you can see a small pale grey strip below the pale pink clouds. It's the shadow of the earth creeping across the sky before dark. You are sitting on top of the world's biggest sandcastle.
Becca, Shannon and I decided to sleep out in the dunes one night. While it was still light, we could see 40km across the gravel plains to mountains rising in the distance. As the sun goes down and the light begins to change, I almost believe I can see the Atlantic Ocean, 60km beyond the dunes. We dragged the braai (BBQ) out to the dunes in the 4X4 and after sunset cooked our dinner, digging our toes into the warm sand next to the grill. Once the night comes, the sand becomes quite cold and we can hear the barking geckos in the distance. From on top of the dune, we can see the lights of the station and the torches of people moving around but suddenly it all seems terribly far off.
The last night I was at Gobabeb, we had a big braai for one of the staff members who was leaving. There was tons of food and drink and music and everyone was drawn in. There even dumbolo music (fast Congolese dance music) which they always played while I was in Kenya and everyone had a blast. There were several Topnaars (local tribe) from the village down the riverbed who despite their 60-something years were getting down with the rest of us!
The next day, I left to return to Windhoek. This time we drove out to the coast to take the tar road back. As you approach the coast, the landscape seems to change in an instant. The gravel plains fade away and you are surrounded by white sand dunes, turned in all different direction by the changing winds. The road along the coast is caught in between towering white dunes and the Atlantic surf dancing up towards them. As we turn away from the coast, the water pipe follows the road inland for kilometres and kilometres. Once again we come into the highlands of central Namibia with low brush and acacia trees. This time, the land looks filled with life after the dunes.
I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to leave Gobabeb to return to Windhoek, but once I got home to our small house and sat on the porch drinking fresh lemonade, I was glad to be back.
Into the Field
Early Tuesday morning, I left for the field with Petra and Gabes. Keith said we wouldn't leave on time, but we were only 20 minutes behind schedule. A Namibian miracle. Petra's hyper-efficiency can almost combat generations of African time. Petra is a German woman who is helping the communities to prepare for the Desertification-2002 conference visits and Gabes is a Namibian man who knows the communities and acts as our translator. We first drove to Damaraland, the area where Gabes is from which is northwest of Windhoek. The drive took about six hours and during that time, Gabes taught us some Nama-Damara, the language spoken by both the Nama and Damara tribes. The language is part of the Khiosan group and has four different clicks. Think "The Gods Must Be Crazy" bushman language. I've semi-mastered the different clicks. The problem comes when I try to talk and click at once.
We arrived at the first community late afternoon and began the rounds, saying hello to Gabes' friends and the locals involved in the conference. We drove out the other side of town toward the Grootberg mountain which is where the #Khoadi //Hoas (the # and // are two different clicks) or Elephants Corner Conservancy is. The area around the conservancy is quite beautiful with much denser vegetation than I've seen in other parts of Namibia and there is a series of mountains strewn along the horizon. Most of the trees are Mopane trees which are used for firewood and construction. There's a grub that lives on the trees which is traditionally dried and eaten by the people who live in the area. Gabes says the mountains look like someone has chopped their tops off and in fact, they are mostly plateaux. The mountains were created when Gondwana broke up and Africa began drifting north, causing the glaciers to melt and starting a period of volcanic activity. At one point the entire area was covered 2km thick with lava, giving the earth a distinct ruddy color.
We spent our in time Grootberg creating a schedule for the D-2002 visitors and visiting some of the sites the visitors will see. In order to use cell phones around here, one must climb to the top of a small mountain to receive a signal. We drove past Ervee, a nearby town that consists of little more than a cool drink stand alongside the dusty road, and went on to visit Atlantapost, a small farm where a biogas system had been installed a few years back as part of a development project. The system combines cow manure and water to release methane, which provides the house with enough power to run a cooking stove and lights. I greet the farmer in Damara -"Marisa?"- and he smiles, not responding. Later Gabes tells me that no one expects a white woman to be speaking Damara. They think I'm talking in English and don't respond. Only one white woman learned to speak Damara and that was after she married a Damara man. After leaving the farm, we took a "drive" (new meaning to the words off-road) through several river beds and over some serious rocks and then a short hike that brought us out by quiet perennial springs where Gabes says they swam as kids. The springs are completely isolated from the villages in the area, although the elephants come often. The guide from the conservancy showed us the difference between male and female elephant footprints. The area is still full of wildlife and one night while we were in our tents, a jackal ran screeching through our camp in the middle of the night.
We came through Windhoek again on Friday morning and I went to the Ministry of Home Affairs to try to get a multiple entry visa for Namibia so I could visit the final community in South Africa. This was over an hour of futility, getting passed from person to person and having conversations that went beyond nowhere.
"Is it possible for me to get the visa?"
"What can I do?"
"I don't know. Is there anything that can be done?" I'm not the one who works here.
"What can I do?"
"Is there some way to get around this?"
"I don't know. What can I do?"
"Can I get another visa?"
"You have to talk to immigration."
"Okay, who do I talk to?"
"Who should I talk to there?"
"I don't know."
In the end, I was told that it was possible that if the committee met on time and reviewed my application, I could have the visa faxed to South Africa. This sounded entirely too sketchy for me, so I leave without the visa.
We headed south, leaving several hours late (Petra cannot always succeed in hurrying Africa) and made it to Gibeon in Namaland just after dark. There we met Sara Bock, whose farm campsite we stayed at. Sara has been instrumental in initially local development and income generating projects for the area, which is fairly impoverished. She and another woman, Maria, are two of the main contacts locally for the D-2002 conference. The next day we went to meet Maria who helped organize the conference schedule and showed us some of the projects in the area. The contrast in landscape between Damaraland and Namaland is astounding. Namaland is very flat with a few small river canyons and hardly has any vegetation growing naturally. You can see across the land to each farmstead that stands and beyond that to the distant horizon. As we drove, Sara told us about the six different groups, almost all some part of the Nama tribe, who live in the area and now vie for power over development efforts. Many of the conflicts that currently exist are still left over from the fight for independence about ten years ago. Finally, we visited the traditional authority's house to tell him about the conference. He has a laughing face and plays with his kids in the small yard. He sells cool drinks and beer out of his over-sized freezer. Nowhere else is open on Sundays.
When Petra and Gabes continued on to South Africa, they left me in Keetmanshop, one of the larger towns in the south. They dropped me at 9am (we'd already been on the road for 1 Ð hrs) and the combi (minibus, matatu, whatever you feel like calling it) was supposed to leave around 10. But this is Namibia and we left around 12:30. The ride was supposed to be a little over 4 hours but somehow by the time we got to Windhoek it was 6:30. Total exhaustion.
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