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Namibian Long Weekend

Last month a few other VSO volunteers – two Brits, two French Canadians, one regular Canadian and one British-Australian-American-Canadian hybrid – and I went on a trip to Waterberg and Etosha national parks. We had a great time! We saw lots of animals and had many good laughs together. Photos are here: http://picasaweb.google.com/jkarlic/NamibianLongWeekend

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I don’t want to turn this blog into a platform for spreading ideas I agree with through content that isn’t mine, but this TED talk really touched me so I wanted to share it.

First month of VSO Namibia

I guess it’s about time I updated this old blog. I’ve been meaning to do it since day one in Namibia but have been really lazy busy doing VSO stuff. It also seems to me that although I have been quite busy here for the past month and have done a lot of things interesting to me, I doubt that any of it will be all that interesting to anyone else reading this (if there is such a person). So to avoid a reputation as an absolute blogger bore I will tell you to stop reading now try to give you a brief summary of the past four weeks.

Week 1 – I arrived in Windhoek, Namibia and experienced intense “reverse culture shock”. After 3 months in east Africa, in countries that have absolutely nothing in common with the country I live in, I was now in a typical “western” city – in a land of paved roads, traffic lights, malls and people in shoes. It was really weird. It was also really great! I finally had a clean shower and a washing machine! I got to go to malls! I found myself almost dancing around the Wal-Mart like “Shoprite”. It was wonderful.

Week 1 was also the week that I met the other new VSO Namibia arrivals, the local VSO office staff and some of the Windhoek based volunteers. The new arrivals and I had our “In country training 1” for the first four days where we learned some useful Namibia/VSO type things. Week 1 also involved many evenings of eating socializing with the other VSO volunteers and staff.

Us in the Afrikaans newspaper

Us in the Afrikaans newspaper

Week 2 – This was a great week! This was the week that I had absolutely nothing to do. My future roommate Gisela, who I now share a house with in Khorixas, had some problems obtaining her visa and was therefore delayed in arriving in Windhoek by a few days. I was asked to stay in Windhoek and wait for her to arrive before heading up north to Khorixas. This was absolutely fine by me as it gave me time to go shopping for household items, enjoy “civilized” Windhoek for an extra week, and to have many naps. I spent a lot of time in grocery stores that week (not unusual for Joanna) stocking up on food that I was told would be unavailable in Khorixas. I’m glad I did because:

Week 3 – We (Gisela and I) finally moved up to our tiny little town Khorixas and into our new Namibian home. We live in a pretty big house – 3 bedrooms, giant living room, big kitchen and huge yard. (Maybe I’ll describe the house and add in some pictures in another post.) The town is very, very small. There are two small grocery stores, a gas station, a bank, a post office, a bakery, a few other buildings, and little else. The grocery stores are fairly well stocked with canned goods, sodas and toilet paper but few things with actual nutritional value. Stocking up in Windhoek was a great idea. I also started work that week. Highlights included meeting my boss Mr. //hoesep (the pronunciation of ‘//’ will take some work) and having high speed internet all day.

Week 4 – After a hard week at work VSO thought that I needed a week off, so they sent me and the rest of my new arrival cohort down to a luxurious lodge in the south of the country. We spent the week learning more about Namibia in our “In country training 2”. We learned about things like culture, land issues, HIV/AIDS and other political, social and development issues. We worked hard and learned lots but we also had time for fun and socializing. There was a watering hole on the premises (by “watering hole” I mean for animals, though there was a well stocked bar for us too). There we spotted various horned animals and one giraffe. We went on a game drive. We visited a big sand dune which we were told was the start of the Kalahari desert. We ate a lot – things on the menu were meat, meat and more meat. (After the second day a few people were eyeing my vegetarian dishes with jealousy.) We also had a lot of time for general socializing, drinking, playing games and all around becoming BFF’s. It was a fantastic week and a great way to cap off the first month of my VSO placement. Here are some photos from our week at Lapa Lange lodge in Mariental.

A few minutes after Spain scored their winning goal the sound of the TV’s in the crowded bar I was in went out. Even though there were still about 5 minutes left in the game people started filing out. I wasn’t giving up on the Netherlands that quickly though so I sat and watched the end of the game, in silence and with now only a handful of people around me. Then I saw that the group from my hostel that I had come with were all outside ready to leave. Thinking they might ditch me I ran out of the bar after them. I walked to them through the crowd that had now formed outside and was told “bombs have been going off around bars in Kampala. We have to get out of here.” What?! It shocked me, it still does, and all I could think was: Shit, I’m in Africa.

On the way back in the cab no one really knew what had happened or where, but we knew that crowds of World Cup viewers were the targets. I was picturing the bombing sites as just a big mess with some blood, but then, when almost back at the hostel, I was told that people had actually died in this. Again it hit me that yes, I’m in Africa. Here sad and shocking and scary things can and do happen, even in places considered safe, like in this great city Kampala.

BBC’s report of this story: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/10593771.stm

Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are home to the last remaining mountain gorillas. There are only about 800 left in the world so a chance to see them in their natural home is an amazing privilege. It’s an expensive privilege – it costs $500 to spend just an hour with them but for anyone who loves and respects animals and nature it’s definitely worth the price.

First, here’s some background on “gorilla tourism”. Gorillas live in family groups of something like 5-30 members. Each national park that has gorilla tourism has several habituated tourist groups and each day allows up to 8 tourists to visit a group for 1 hour. Trackers monitor where the gorillas are each morning and the tourists then hike through the forest for anywhere from 15 min to 4 hours to find the gorillas. My hike, luckily only took an hour. Prior to tracking the group a guide gives the visitors a briefing about the rules that are to be followed when with the gorillas: don’t talk too loudly, don’t eat or drink, don’t use flash photography, and stay a minimum of 7 m back from the gorillas (the last rule was repeatedly broken by the gorillas themselves who thought that 1 m was enough distance).

I got to track the Kwitonda group in Parc National des Volcans, which is where Dian Fossey of the real “Gorillas in the Mist” did her research. I was really lucky to get this group because it is the second largest group in this park. It has about 20 members including 2 babies: a 1 year old and a 3 week old. (It’s hard to get much cuter than that!) Apart from it being a large group it was also an entertaining group. I’ve heard that some gorilla groups are a bit boring because they just sit there doing nothing, but ours was constantly up to something.

The stars of the show where the three “juvenile” gorillas (about 3-7 years old). They were active and rambunctious, as most kids are. They loved to wrestle with each other, either on the ground or on a big fallen over tree. Wrestling on the tree involved a lot of jumping off, climbing back up and occasionally pushing the others off. “Take that brother!” They ran back and forth a lot. One even swatted my leg as he ran past – I was told it was an invitation to play which I unfortunately had to refuse. And they all loved to beat their chests to show off how tough they were, which is really comical coming from 2 foot tall gorilla kids.

The funniest moment of the visit was when “dad” gorilla, the dominant silverback of the group, dignified and distinguished leader, fell off the tree he was sitting on when it broke from under him. CRACK! and gorilla plunges down through the bushes and disappears in a flurry of leaves. We didn’t see him again for at least 15 min; we all figured he was too embarrassed to come back.

Silverback at the end of the tree, prior to falling off

Other highlights were seeing the babies of the group. The 1 year old was supercute (see below) and was awkwardly walking around about 2 m in front of us. We also saw a female carrying her 3 week old newborn. I wasn’t able to get a very good photo though because she seemed to be hiding her infant from our cameras, completely understandable of course.

1 year old baby

Mom with 3 week old baby

Then, as if on cue, all the gorillas left the area and we were told that our 1 hour was up. We had a short hike back to the truck and the highlight of my Africa trip was over. It was a really wonderful experience and definitely worth every penny.

More of my gorilla photos are here.

“I love Canada!”

This exchange is very common:

Man following me in the street: “From what country?!”
Me: “Canada”
Man: “Canada great country! I love Canada!”
Me: “Yes, great country.”

Or sometimes, if I’m in a good mood:

Me: “Why do you love Canada?”

My favourite response so far:

Man: “Me, I love Canada! Because I have many t-shirts with Canada flag!”

Meeting the Locals

It hasn’t been very easy to get to know the local people in Africa. I meet and talk to lots of people every day, but most of those conversations are very shallow. I don’t feel that I’ve connected with many people on a personal and intimate level. There are some specific reasons for this.

It’s very hard to make friends with the women here. I mainly only meet women in situations that are not really conducive to socializing such as while riding buses or being served by them in restaurants or markets. In bars and clubs, where friends are more likely to be made, few women are found. The crowds in these places generally look like this: a small handful of mzungu (white) men, a slightly smaller handful of mzungu women, 3-4 local women, and the rest all local men. The inbalance of local males to females is very striking and to me very, very odd. It’s a bizarre feeling to look around a crowded bar and mainly just see men. Coming from where I do I’m completely unused to such a division of the sexes. I don’t know where the women are in the evenings. Maybe they have their own secret club or bar where the male-female ratios are reversed, but realistically they are probably just at home cleaning, cooking and taking care of the children while their husbands/boyfriends/brothers/fathers are out drinking beer. It’s sad that in the “fun” places in Africa there are so few women.

On the other hand, it’s certainly very, very easy to meet local men. It’s actually almost impossible for me to go anywhere in Africa without having at least a short conversation with a man. They don’t believe in leaving anyone, especially a mzungu woman, alone. When approached in a public place I’m usually not in the mood to engage in a lengthy conversation. When I’m out socially however, I do enjoy a conversation with someone new – man or woman, tourist or local, and even though I’m there with other people. I’ve met some interesting guys this way. Many of them have told me interesting life stories, expressed surprising opinions and were all around intriguing to talk to. Meeting people like this at home would mean new and interesting friends. The problem in Africa though is that there is no such thing as “friendship”, in the platonic sense, between a man and a woman. So any man I show interest in by conversing with assumes that I’m interested in him for the purpose of eventual marriage. The concept of just enjoying a conversation with someone, with nothing else following seems completely inconceivable. I’ve tried to explain this idea a few times but it’s futile.

So this leaves me with a dilemma with no solution. One of my options is to not talk to any local guy at all and only talk to the westerners I came with, but this results in accusations of me “hating Africans”. The other option is to keep up the conversations with the local men and just ignore the inevitable “you’re so beautiful” comments and make excuses over and over about why I won’t be able to go to dinner, the beach, or the local bar with them tomorrow. This makes me very uncomfortable though and even sometimes leads to the guy getting angry at me.

It’s a frustrating aspect of African culture. I simply can’t imagine a life like the people here have where relationships between sexes are limited to familial, marital, and professional. I feel that by not being able to interact socially with each other the people here are missing out on learning about almost half of their fellow humans.

I’m sure that once I start my volunteer placement in Namibia things will be different. Once I’m settled and living in a place I know I’ll be able to find and meet more women who I’ll be able to get to know. There will probably also be some older and married men that I might be able to have some good talks with. I suspect that I will still have to keep the single guys at a distance.