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A Notebook from Namibia: Window on Windhoek: Experiences of a student-volunteer

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By Harrish Thirukumaran

Part I

The First Embrace of Namibia

Stepping out of the plane, breathing in the Namibian air and witnessing its relatively distinctive environment; all of those instances were impactful factors that constructed my first impressions of Africa. In which, I had first built the foundation of T.I.A. – “This Is Africa”.

Children of BNC-pic by: Dan

Children of BNC-pic by: Dan

After taking three separate grueling flights to the continent, it felt absolutely relieving and refreshing to finally be able to set foot on African soil. In addition, for the first time in awhile, there had been a reverse role where my Brock group and I were the foreigners in the cultural land. Thus, began my personal journey to truly understand the African specifically Namibian lifestyle. Those accompanying myself were my Brock leader, Christina, assistant, Geraldine and 12 other Brock students differentiating in years and program studies.

Once checking out of the airport, we were able to meet two of our main contacts in Namibia, Shaun Awaseb and Claudius Tickey. They in a way performed in a tour guide capacity to assist us in learning about Africa. Aside from that, the activities also helped the group to grow close together along with our Namibian contacts. Shaun is a Namibian by birth and entrepreneur who runs a business known as Wadadee Adventures; as well as that, he runs the Wadadee House that acts as a tourist business to an extent that also provides accommodation to various volunteer groups and non-governmental organizations that seek to help communities all around Namibia. Tickey is a multilingual Zimbabwean who acquired a job as a tour guide through travelling where he settled into Namibia for about 19 years. A very wise man some might say with an extensive knowledge on the African wildlife, Namibian itself, and the social and political life of his native Zimbabwe. It felt unique and great to learn of Shaun’s knowledge to Namibia as well as how his business intertwines both politically and economically. By having the business components it is able to boost the tourism industry coupled with a commitment to increasing human development in the country.

1)	Sam Nujoma  (born 12 May 1929) was the first President of Namibia from 1990 to 2005. He is seen here in this file picture (courtesy of Namibian Sun), with former South African President Nelson Mandela

Sam Nujoma (born 12 May 1929) was the first President of Namibia from 1990 to 2005. He is seen here in this file picture (courtesy of Namibian Sun), with former South African President Nelson Mandela

Once our group was well acquainted with the individuals we headed off to Windhoek, the Namibian capital city and location of the Wadadee House. During the drive, it was amazingly stunning to see the wide-open landscape decorated with continuously vast mountain ranges, and tall, brownish green grasslands. The trip to Windhoek had also first demonstrated Shaun’s stern ability as a tour guide as he explained small facts and the various sights of Namibia. An example is the nation is identified with a strong meat culture and is the least densely populated out of Africa. Transitioning further into topics such as the country’s political life and speaking mainly about Sam Nujoma, Nambia’s first president; along with current leader, Hifikepunye Pohamba. Economically, it had been also stated that the main sectors that prosper are agriculture, mining, and tourism.

Intersection of Nelson Mandela Drive and Sam Nujoma Drive

Intersection of Nelson Mandela Drive and Sam Nujoma Drive

Upon reaching the city, it established a contradiction of major rural inhibition within Africa. Passing through the city helped to see African urbanization that can be comparable to urban areas such as Toronto or New York. In comparison, it has a similar sense of economic and cultural power that regularly fuels proper Namibian living. It was also fascinating to see the city within a colonial context such as the German architectural structures and streets having prominent German names. To this day, German is known to be a regional language as well. It was interesting to also examine that many of the road infrastructure of Windhoek were named after exceptionally significant African leaders and Germans. Nelson Mandela Avenue, Robert Mugabe Avenue, and Sam Nujoma Drive were typical streets harmlessly displaying the continent’s political influence.

That appreciation in my view shows the people have genuine patriotism for Namibia extending into anti-colonial ideals. Essential free market intentions of the economy are also very well constituted in the city such as Namibian-based corporations: Bank Windhoek and Pick N Pay.

The designated location of the Wadadee House was found in a small Windhoek township called Katutura. Presently, Katutura is often associated with stiff accusations as a horrendous, crime-ridden area within Namibia by many local’s opinions; which historically resulted from a significant aspect of the apartheid laws imposed by South African colonization in the form of affordable land settlements.

Within the 1915-1966 South African time frame, Katutura meant “The place where people do not want to live” in the Herero language. This was due to the South African Administration forcibly settling various tribal groups from Old Location into one area altogether. It was especially cruel due to the residents not being able to retain ownership of the land, which was transferred to the municipality itself. In a sense, it is interpreted as racial segregation by placing all ‘black’ or ‘coloured’ into one area away from the ‘white’ settlements. Due to this apartheid-rooted hostility it has created ignorance against interpreting Katutura as a hopeful place for social progress or economic growth. This should soon change by people evidently experiencing its diversified culture through a growing tourism refinement.

Junior and I (Harrish) in Namibia-(pics by Dan)

Junior and I (Harrish) in Namibia-(pics by Dan)

In Namibia, the main tribal groups contained are predominately the Ovambo, Damara, Nama, Bushman, and Herero peoples. The primary majority of the country is stemmed from the Ovambo population where interestingly enough are a community that lives around southern Angola through northern Namibia. However, one of the minority groups, Damara is seen as the indigenous people in the land.

After quickly settling into the Wadadee, our group had to set up a
group member agreement to ensure the learning effectiveness of this international volunteering participation. Some of these statements that required abidance were indefinitely reasonable. For instance, phrases like “Respect the host’s view of religion” and “Respect my trip leaders and their decisions.” However, there were deeper sayings that really pertained to visually and mentally studying the country. Statements such as “Travel in spirit of humility and with a genuine desire to learn more about the people of your host country” and “Cultivate the habit of listening and observing, rather than merely hearing and seeing.”

Those statements, in my view, were basic fundamental purposes to understand while in Namibia because not only did I contribute my knowledge to the country but also I had become the student myself. The student in which, I had reinvented my perceptions of the third world namely Africa against usual media shaping influence. This awareness has nevertheless given answer to realistic phenomena of theories of media or political bias.

Meeting the BNC Children

Towards the first evening in Namibia, we met the coordinator of our principal volunteer project, Marybeth ‘Mary’ Gallagher. In which, she explained her intentions in the country. She is a US-based volunteer who had been an integral person in running the Bernard Nordkamp Centre (BNC) in Katutura for the last seven years. An after school program centre where primary and secondary students are able to attend for a firm educational process and for sports and musical activities. She came by to introduce herself to our group and her life goals for the youth in Namibia. In addition, she told us we were able to meet a majority of the children at an outdoor pool facility where they are able to enjoy recreationally during the holidays. As specified through Mary, we were assisting at the BNC during the student’s holiday break. Notable facts she told us about the kids is to overly sympathize with them with sorrow as they are able to hold their own. Also acknowledging they have crucial street smarts they can use to their advantage to gain that sympathy. She even went onto to explain how they are curious about every possible thing occurring in everyday life such as getting cut and noticing blood. She went into more touchy subjects expanding into contemporary African issues such as rape, murder, and alcoholism and how it can affect the children psychologically. Furthermore, she also acts as a disciplinarian to prevent the children from slipping into common “street children” by reaffirming the meaning of an education to many of the especially young children.

a Mural at BNC

a Mural at BNC

Afterwards, Shaun stood up and spoke to us about the socially oriented reason for the Wadadee House. He emphasized the meaning of Wadadee as “All of ours.” Basically, he addressed that the Wadadee requires all of us to do our part to keep the house a continuously sustainable place to live, where everyone are to effectively look out for each other. He also preached excessively the idea that the members of Wadadee are to be embraced as family members by feeling integrated in this new culture. In addition, to release a meaningful social emphasis to ensure everyone can feel inclusion. That was indeed the case when living together with Norwegian and German volunteers at the Wadadee. From my perspective, Shaun’s introductory speech is his view of disconnecting from the prospect of alienation of Wadadee because of its location in Katutura. I believe he hopes to strive to erase stereotypical attitudes of anti-sentiment towards Katutura to educate positive social values of the township by simply exploring the area to really understand its complexities. That can necessarily be done through Wadadee-sponsored tourism opinionating the locals and visitors to disassociate the many ignorant beliefs.

In addition, to comprehending the duties of international volunteers who can also seek to improve the Katutura community for the better for generations to come.

For the remainder of my time in Namibia, I had developed a mindset of being used to a regular routine at Wadadee and preparing myself for the various projects. I had felt the first Sunday in the country was a good introduction in getting to know Katutura and the type of work we would be doing. First, we headed off to the municipal pool facility located within a considerable distance within Katutura to meet a few of the BNC children. During which they were able to join in swimming activities and normal basic pool fun on Sundays at the area. It was an established tradition at the BNC where it was one of many opportunities for activeness offered for the children during vacation breaks. Once arriving, we were able to spot a few kids waiting outside near the entrance before it was opened. The first interaction I had with children was with a boy named Dino, who was a 12 year old, 6th grader at the BNC. I remember the first thought he said when he first saw me was “I like your hair.” My reaction was incredibly genuine for his general compliment on my appearance in which I thanked him for it in which he returned with a wide smile.

After our ride left, we got our chance to actually get to know the children who were patiently waiting for the swimming pool to open.

View from Wadadee House

View from Wadadee House

Something I had noticed when first arriving at the area was seeing that the children were clearly unsupervised by an adult chaperone. It looked like they had been waiting in the parking lot alone since the sun came out. I felt that observation very much got me to understand Mary’s suggestion of treating them as an equal. The children there were so small and seemed to be around 11 or 12. In addition, they didn’t visually looked nervous or scared of their surroundings or if a problem would occur. They were just acting very casual and just playing around with each other happily outside in the lot. From this idea, I see these children as immensely independent children who could probably extensively look out for one another. Seeing the children by themselves is something I have definitely not experienced growing up in North America or to this day.

Other than that examination, the first few kids at the pool were Dinno, Junior (6th grade), Albertes (2nd grade), Alpertino (2nd grade,), and Berta (5th grade). Before entering the pool, we got to know these kids and briefly playing some small games with them. I had first learned from Dino that two of his favorite subjects were math and science and I believe some of Junior’s were social studies, English, and math. After hearing that, I talked about how I actually found social studies as one of my favorite subjects as well and how it inspired me to study it in college. Though, he may have understood that it felt nice having a small connection with him on that note. Most of the children’s favorite sports were basketball, soccer, and tennis. Sports that were cleared upheld at the BNC during the holidays.

Once hearing tennis was one of Dino’s favorite sports, it felt extraordinary in my view as back in New Jersey I used to have a strong attachment to tennis as I played from kindergarten through 11th grade in high school. He even asked me if I liked and watched tennis. In which I responded in his favour because of my history with the game. He had even told me his favorite tennis player was Serena Williams who famously enough recently won the 2013 French Open.

Things that were really interesting about the BNC youngsters also were that they were never afraid to show their own natural talents.

Physically, such as Junior demonstrating to our group how he was able to do a flip and back flip, which was very cool to see. The kids would also love to get us to play with them and would hug or embrace us in anyway possible which gave way to their rapid appreciation of us before we actually volunteered. A game we played to burn out time until opening was a name game, where we tossed a Frisbee around to each other in a circle yelling the person’s name we threw it to.

Through a few tosses the group was able to perfectly get the kids’ names with the same being reciprocated. In addition, the games also setup the strong athleticism sense inhibited in the kids, which was widened further when getting to know all students.

Afterwards, the pool opened where all the enthusiastic children ran inside and jumped into the pool. Even though I wasn’t part of the pool splashing festivities it was great seeing the sheer happiness of the children frolicking around in the water with one another. In addition, to seeing they approach me and the group for some small talk or with questions such as “Aren’t you going to come into the water?” even to the point where they were physically eager for us to come into the water. It was superb day weather wise as well. However, strange enough since Africa is located Eastern Hemisphere it has a differing seasonal standard compared to North America. Currently, North America is in contact with its summer season whereas Namibia had actually started its winter season. This fact being amazingly peculiar in my opinion as it felt like a hot summer day and the kids were spending their time in the cold ice pool water. Yet, as a North American namely Canadian when hearing winter I would mostly think of cold or snow. That was certainly not the case in Namibia. However, the Namibian nights had often exemplified the cold winter weather.

The highlight of their pool fun also came from them rushing out of the water excessively and lie down to dry themselves off in the warm sun. It was hilarious seeing the children just sit and dry while they shiver happily from the freezing water. Their energetic personalities were definitely introduced on the pool day where they were always ready to take advantage of a good day. Other children I had met during swimming were Christy, Macalla, Dixon, Innocent, and Armando.

'Made Friends, Made a difference'

‘Made Friends, Made a difference’

Wadadee.com ~ ‘Made Friends, Made a difference’

Dixon was actually an 11th grader attending a separate high school. He wasn’t part of the BNC program but came to the pool, as it was not open exclusively to the BNC. He was originally from Angola and told he wanted to study law in university. We also had a closely similar taste in hip hop music, which I found interesting also, he knew of acclaimed hip-hop musicians such as Tupac Shakur. Another high school student I met was Solomi. She frequently attended the BNC for extracurricular activities and favored Biology and other Science courses as part of her learning curve. She was also a fantastic singer who sang vocals related to certain mainstream music like Beyonce. I and another volunteer member, Dan even played some hide and seek with Macalla, Albertes’, and Junior, which they never really engaged in before. Yet, we were happy to teach them the rules of the game. While with Armando, I remember talking with him about his day so far and his attitude toward the BNC. I even taught and did some handshakes with the 2nd grader that we used every time we saw each other.

Next, we played a game with the kids where we gathered into a large circle and sang a rhythmic tune and when it landed on a person they would have to answer a random question asked by the previous person.

One was where Innocent asked someone to spell out his name where the former answered correctly. The questions were very useful to the children’s knowledge where categories ranged from Basic English to math. Others and I soon handed out apples to the kids afterwards as a healthy snack upon their good exercising from swimming and playing in the pool. It was also cool to see the many talents of the children who were openly expressive about it. Soon after, it was around 2 pm and it was time for us to leave so we ended up giving our goodbyes to the new youth we have met in Namibia. Though it seemed like a downer, it was great to get a firsthand debut of the plentiful amounts of attraction and friendliness exerted by the children whom we had just met. After leaving it was entrancing that multiple children were very thin in weight content. They were skinny to the point where they imaginatively resembled stick figures. In a way it added to their fitness while playing in the pool. These physical traits might have also asserted the factor of hunger as that common recurring problem.

However, I noticed that it didn’t necessarily bother them as by any physical or verbal indication. So it may have given me the impression that the issue is overly emphasized than it needs to be. [To be continued]

(Harrish Thirukumaran is entering second year at Brock University, Ontario in fall 2013)

~ Please note that reader comments are open for this article:

Part II: Children Achieving Prosperity by Prioritizing Education: Namibian experiences of a student-volunteer

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