Peace Corps Volunteer Teaches Green Living in Namibia
Seated across from me is a gentle, silver-haired woman. She speaks in soft tones, gesturing slightly from time to time. Her manner is warm and welcoming. You could easily call her mild-mannered. But don’t let her appearance fool you. Miriam Kashia is a force to be reckoned with when there’s a job to be done. And that’s just the spirit with which she tackled her recent Peace Corps assignment in Namibia, home to some of the world’s most impoverished people.
Joe and I have been friends with Miriam Kashia for a few years. We had heard something of the difficult decisions she wrestled with while weighing a two-year commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer against a full, active life in our community and a thriving psychotherapy private practice. In November of 2005, she accepted the opportunity to make a difference in the larger world and embarked on a two-year adventure that many people nearly a third her age find arduous and challenging.
Kashia returned to the United States a year ago, in January 2008. She’s had time to reflect on her experience, and to see from a distance the effects of the work she did half a world away. I interviewed her in her Iowa City home. What follows is Part 1 of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: Describe your Peace Corps assignment.
KASHIA: I was assigned to Namibia, which is on the west coast of Africa just above the country of South Africa. It’s been a democratic country since 1990, when it gained its independence from South Africa following a 30-year war. As a point of interest, Namibia is the only country in the world that has environmental protection written into its constitution.
My job there was to work in a small community of about 6,000 people, counting the surrounding settlements and farms in the countryside. I was called a health worker, which could look many different ways. For me, it meant I was assigned to an organization called CAFO, the Church Alliance For Orphans, under the Namibian Council of Churches. Because Namibia has an HIV infection rate of 22 percent of the population, there are a lot of orphans and vulnerable children in the country, so that was my primary assignment. It was very challenging, as the Peace Corps almost always is.
BPGL: In what ways did your work relate to the environment?
KASHIA: As in most places, there are a lot of environmental issues. In Namibia, the issues mostly tend to have to do with water. I lived on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, in the south of Namibia. They used to have wildlife roaming free there — giraffes, elephants, and lions, etc. They’re long gone, partly because they were hunted, and partly because it’s too dry for them there now. The country’s becoming increasingly drier, and there’s a lot of drought.
The water tables are falling, so even though the water in Namibia is probably just about the best in Africa — it was safe to drink in almost the whole country — it’s becoming more scarce. So, drought is an increasing environmental problem.
Something that contributes to the drought is a process called desertification, which is an expanding problem in Namibia. Desertification is caused sometimes by natural causes, such as less rainfall, and by global warming. It’s being exacerbated by the practice of African people cooking over open fires and cutting all the brush and trees in order to have fuel. Not only does this create a big problem with (mostly) women having to go further and further out into the veldt (savanna or desert) in order to find something to burn for cooking, but it depletes what few plants there are, and it increases the desertification problem. That results in less and less water. It’s a problem that is increasing exponentially as we speak.
BPGL: What other environmental problems did you see?
KASHIA: Litter is a terrible problem in Namibia, as I believe it is in most African countries.There’s just not much consciousness about that. It’s a visual problem, but it’s also a health problem. Everything gets dumped anywhere. Especially around the towns, there are just thousands and thousands of wrappers, packaging, broken glass, and plastic bags. If a goat eats a plastic bag, it will probably die, because the bag plugs up its digestive system. Since a lot of people’s livelihood depends on raising goats, that’s an economic problem as well. Litter looks dirty and is dirty, so that’s a health problem, which also affects tourism.
BPGL: Do the Namibians not care how it looks? Are they not aware of it?
KASHIA: My own understanding is that the development in African countries, and probably elsewhere in the world, happened very rapidly. They went from no packaging to all this modern packaging in a generation or two. They don’t have the resources for adequate garbage pickup or adequate garbage cans. Nor do they have the mentality that you don’t throw things on the ground. So, one of the projects that I undertook there was a litter cleanup project. But, in truth, it was like removing water from the ocean with a thimble, to try to and make a dent in that.
BPGL: Did you change any minds about litter?
KASHIA: Yes, I did. And that brings me to another topic, a secondary project, which is optional for Peace Corps volunteers. We’re invited, if we see a need, and it corresponds with something within us — an interest or a passion — to create a project of our own.
So I started a club for learners, which is what students are called in Namibia, an environmental club. We called it the CLEAN Club, which is an acronym for Club for Learners on the Environment, AIDS, and Nature. Every fourth week, we focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and education. And the rest of the time, we did environmental projects and environmental education.
BPGL: How many students participated?
KASHIA: It was made up of between 25 and 35 high school kids. They joined because they wanted to be in it, and they attended very regularly, which is pretty much a huge success story. I had very little in the way of support for running this club, because I was doing it on my own. So, I had to be there every week, and I had to do all the preparation. I didn’t have access to email.
There were no environmental resources to speak of in the schools or the library, so I sort of had to work from what I knew in my head. But I think the kids learned quite a bit about environmental issues, such as population, water use, and alternative energy. I also called in local people, such as a science teacher, who talked about the water table and desertification. And I invited a businessman who had a private business setting up windmills and solar energy on some of the larger farms. They came in and talked to the kids.
BPGL: What was the response of the students?
KASHIA: I tried to make it fun, and they were very interested. They’d never been exposed to this information. Keep in mind, Namibia is a country twice the size of California, with a population smaller than Iowa. Population as a problem doesn’t resonate with them. So when I talked about the world being overpopulated and that being a problem — one of the core problems behind environmental degradation — that was news to them.
BPGL: What activities did the CLEAN Club do?
KASHIA: I took them on two environmental trips, which were funded entirely by my friends and family here in the U.S. That was quite wonderful for the kids. It’s very expensive to travel, and I had to hire a bus to do it. We went to NaDEET, which stands for the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust. It was started by an American woman about seven or eight years ago for the sole purpose of educating young people in Namibia about the environment and environmental concerns.
NaDEET is an amazing camp. It’s entirely off the grid. The kids learned about preserving water and did all the cooking with solar ovens and stoves. They had a lot of creative projects and interesting forays into the desert, including a night scorpion hunt! The kids loved it and learned a great deal. I also loved it and learned a lot. I wish we had camps like that for kids here. The whole thing was run on a sustainability model, with a focus on learning about Nature so we can protect it.
The other trip I took the kids on was to the Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia. It’s the second-largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon. We arranged to stay at a fancy tourist lodge there, which graciously and generously housed and fed 23 kids, myself, and one other adult. They loaned us their tourist guide to take us around. He taught the kids about the canyon, about the environment, and about plants and animals in the vicinity, which was just great. Most of the learners in the CLEAN Club had never been more than a few kilometers away from our small community of Karasburg. So, these trips were an enormous experience for them.
The CLEAN club also did some litter cleanup projects in our community, which I mentioned, so I know their consciousness got raised. And I know they started talking to other people about it. It was gratifying.
BPGL: What role, if any, does the Peace Corps take in protecting the environment of Namibia?
KASHIA: Most of the Peace Corps volunteers in my group of 60 were teachers. they had the option of including environmental and AIDS awareness in their curriculum. The group after mine, who came a year later, in 2006, were all given solar stoves by the Peace Corps to take to their sites all over the country. These were to be used personally, as well as to demonstrate and teach people how to use them. So that’s a very positive effort which can help reduce desertification. They bought the stoves from a company in Namibia that makes them and gave them to the Peace Corps volunteers.
We made a solar oven at NaDEET, when we did small-group projects. We divided into small groups to do projects. We used cardboard boxes, newspaper, a piece of glass, tape, and black paint. We put the boxes one inside the other, with newspaper in between for insulation. We painted it black, then got a piece of glass, like window glass, to put on for a lid. Put some meat and rice in it, put it in the sun for a couple of hours, and you have dinner!
The problem with getting people to change their technology in terms of fuel and cooking resources is that it tastes different. They’re used to cooking in one of the classic African, three-legged pots over an open fire. Food tastes different when you cook it in a solar oven. People have to get used to the idea that then they don’t have to spend two or three hours every day going far afield and cutting brush to burn. Maybe when they have a chance to observe it over a period of time, they will get the message.
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