In the Dirt—PAY and The Farm
Right off the bat getting to Namibia we got involved with a local NGO called Physically Active Youth (PAY). PAY was run by a woman named Ursula, who was the kind of woman you could tell had a lot of passion for the building and children she cared for. During conversations we had she constantly talked about hopes she had to improve the conditions of PAY by adding a fence for safety, or finding ways to revive some of the old programs like the garden. I originally came to Namibia in hopes to were with another children’s group out in Khomasdal, but I found myself drawn to the energy and pace of PAY, and in particular to Ursula’s passion project—the Garden. Years ago I had done environmental education work with the youth of Atlanta doing things like gardening and other outdoor activities, and I always found the kids enjoyed getting their hands dirty and seeing the results of their hard work. The conditions of the garden at PAY upon our arrival had shown that the garden had not been attended to in months, there were weeds that needed pulling, holes in the netting that needed repairing, and overall need for some genuine TLC to get the place up and going again. When I learned that the garden served the purpose of contributing to the food the children were served at PAY, immediately knew I wanted to spend the next two weeks reviving and expanding that space as best I could.
The plan I put into place for this space was to get a team of students at PAY together to take ownership of the garden. With the help from Ursula, we found the fifth to seventh grade girls were going to be the ones most invested in this effort. With the team in place, I made the plan of showing and teaching the girls how to care for and maintain the garden for after I was gone by first repairing the holes that allowed birds to get in and destroy the plants, removing the weeds which were killing some of the plants, harvest some of the already growing vegetables, and reorganize the garden to make space for two additional beds of food. As part of my contribution to the PAY garden, I decided I wanted to buy supplies that could help them maintain the space over time, such as some tools and extra netting to repair holes. In addition, my attention was to buy a couple sprouted plants such as spinach and strawberries, so the garden had more than just seeds waiting to sprout. A humbling experience for me was realizing that there was a) only one main agricultural store that people could buy from, 2) how little variety of vegetables and fruit there were, and 3) once the vegetable was sold out there is no telling how long it will be before it is restocked. There was not another local Lowes or Home Depot you could just go down the street to, to find what you were looking for. While gathering supplies for the garden, I learned quickly from Ndako that almost every item I was looking for was across 3 to 4 different stores. The convenience of stores like Walmart in the USA, which is a one-stop shop for most of your needs, is non-existent in Namibia to mine and Ndako’s knowledge. I think it was at that point where I initially began to realize “convenience” is very much a privilege of the space I live in, and very much embedded into our American culture.
During our first weekend in Namibia, we spent time out of the city of Windhoek and drove out to a farm where a Damara Nama family lived and maintained a German-owned farm and hunted local animals such as Kudu, Spring Bok, and Hildebeest to sell. On our drive out, again we saw the wild animals that we saw on our drive in, and again I was still awestruck over the sight of them. As we worked our way to the farm, I noticed roads disappeared and became dirt, and then quickly the sight of other cars and people disappeared. Along this journey I learned about a question I have always wondered about traveling across Africa—what happens if/when you get a flat a tire. Well, you do not call triple A, or a tow-truck. The answer is, you always have food, water, and a spare tire when traveling. And when that fails, you wait, and you can wait hours. Again, I thought here about “convenience” and how we have many systems in place in the USA that eases friction for people to get things done in a fast-paced manner. This experience had me think about in that moment how fortunate we were to a) be together as a group, b) have the resources we needed, and c) have access to technology that enabled us to call for help. But I had to think this cannot be the reality for everyone here, which to me, with a lack of survival skills, was scary. I quickly realized though through conversations with my friends that this was a reality for people traveling outside of Windhoek and into more rural areas, and with this reality they have means of planning around it. I was told this is why most people do not travel alone when making these trips, and that it’s not a matter of you should have water in your car, it’s that you always have water in your car. It was neither scary, or a problem to anyone a spoke with, just a matter of a reality they prepared for.
Outside the tire fiasco, staying at the farm opened up my experiences in a hands-on and exciting way—I was happy to immediately jump in. I helped create and maintain a fire, I spoke with the Herero women about their cooking traditions, I was learning from Dario how to say different greetings in Oshiwambo, Afrikaans, and Nama, and I was observing just how the day to day life of those running the farm went. The men were mostly gone during the day hunting, the women were home taking care the children and preparing food. To me it came off very traditional in terms of gender roles, but I had no impression that any of them were bothered by this—it was just tradition.
What was not tradition, from what I gathered from our group, was the inter-mingling of certain groups of people. In particular, our group had a mixture of Black, Colored, and White people. In addition to just color, we had both Herero, Oshiwambo, and Nama people in once space. Because of the history or apartheid, the intermingling of groups I had observed was still extremely rare—you won’t find Black people in a Colored bar, you won’t see interracial couples, and even in Katatura certain streets or blocks were for different Tribes of people of the same race. But at the farm, and in those moments, that racial divide was gone and I did not sense any hostility over it. One of the highlights of that trip for me was when we had a cook-off between the Nama and the Herero women for our last meal of that trip. We invited everyone together for a fire and meal, and enjoyed each other’s company. I learned from the Nama men how valuable song is to their culture, even though they were too shy to sing at the fire. How one of the men in particular always loved to keep music playing on a speaker everywhere he went. The language barrier to some extent made interactions awkward, but I sensed it was all good natured as everyone stayed for hours eating and drinking together. That moment I drank in as an experience and example of how despite the historical separation that is so apparent in the city of Windhoek still, at the end of the day people can and willingly connect without speaking, over social commonalities like food and drink.
When we got back to Windhoek, the concept of separation by tribe and race was still sitting in the back of my mind. After what I experienced, I was thinking that yes we can get people to connect despite cultural differences, but there are still so many barriers to that in the city where the majority of people reside. At PAY I heard from some of the young girls “trash talking” each other about what race they looked like, and how “looking Herero” so one girl was an insult. When I asked how they knew someone was Ovambo vs. Herero, the simple response I got was “Color.” From Naita’s daughter at one point I also heard her talking about a girl in her class and referring to her as “the Herero” girl. It became apparent that the consequences of apartheid are still being cultivated n the youth, particularly within educational spaces. I felt this was no different than what you see in the USA—how parents and teachers alike teach kids certain values regarding culture, such as choice in language, clothing, and aesthetics. Working along with our partners at NID, I began to share with Pandu my impression that these issues regarding race and racial discrimination are in fact an issue of civil rights, and how maybe NID could make space to address some of these issues in their civic education. Still even after being back in the USA, this idea has been sitting with me, and though I do not know how to address it yet, I hope to continue my partnership with NID to work towards an opportunity that opens up my chance to commit to working on a project that can contribute to exploring ways to repair some of the repercussions of apartheid on the way the youth think about “others”. At the moment I am still not sure I am the best person to try and tackle this social issue, but one of the biggest take-aways from this trip for me has been what I learned from both Ursula and Naita—it’s that sometimes no one else can or will do it, so either you do it or it doesn’t get done.