Notes from Namibia — Waiting for Elephants

The writer waits for elephants to cross the road in Namibia. Photo: Kami Lee

The writer waits for elephants to cross the road in Namibia. Photo: Kami Lee

As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in Namibia, it never occurred to me I would be intimately involved in human-wildlife conflict: I consider having to wait 40 minutes for elephants to cross the road before driving the last hundred yards to our campsite pretty intimate.

But does this really come under the heading of human-wildlife conflict? Not for me anyway! I found it terribly exciting and only lamented the fact that I couldn’t get a really good photo through the windshield of our Land Rover.

It is sobering, though, to realize that year after year, people where I work lose not only crops but sometimes their lives to wildlife.

Changing Focus

Until the third year of my Peace Corps service in Namibia, I’d never even heard the term human-wildlife conflict, and now I find it pops up constantly.

As a health volunteer in West Caprivi, even though my primary focus is HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, I have learned that it is impossible not to get involved in human-wildlife conflict.

Kami Lee poses with a friend from the San tribe. Photo: Courtesy Kami Lee

Kami Lee poses with a Nyemba friend from her earlier Peace Corps work in Shambyu. Photo: Courtesy Kami Lee

My site this year is Bwabwata National Park (BNP) – an area of approximately 6100 km² in the northeast corner of Namibia, bordered on the south by the Kavango River and on the north by Angola. The land is owned by the Namibian government and managed jointly by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Kyaramacan Association, a legal entity representing the park residents.

Historically, the park was a strategic area, a base for the South African Defense Forces during the war of independence. Shortly after Namibia gained independence in 1990, West Caprivi was declared a national park.

Approximately 5,000 people live here: 87 percent are Khwe, a marginalized San or Bushman group; the rest are mainly from the Mbukushu tribe.

According to the 2008 health survey carried out by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, Namibia as a whole has an HIV prevalence rate of 17.8 percent. However, the Caprivi region has an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of close to almost 32 percent —  the highest in the country, which is why they requested a health volunteer.

Initially, my work focused on HIV/AIDS awareness through information sessions and workshops. However, everyone I talked with seemed to know about HIV, and it soon became apparent that poverty was as much a factor as unprotected sex in the spread of AIDS.

Gradually the emphasis shifted to learning about livelihood, food security, how people live and what they need to survive, and supporting income-generating projects. Inescapably, this led to human-wildlife conflict.

Bwabwata National Park

Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), the Namibian NGO I work with, is a pioneer in the southern African region in a development strategy known as community-based, natural-resource management (CBNRM), a national program that addresses both sustainable natural-resource management and socio-economic development.

Trophy hunting is one means of income for the San people. Photo: Kami Lee

Trophy hunting is one means of income for the Khwe people. Photo: Kami Lee

Few Bwabwata Park residents have access to formal employment, and their sources of cash income are limited to the sale of rare surplus crops and livestock; government pensions; and the sale of handicrafts, mostly baskets. CBNRM offers a way for a people living in a specific area to increase their access to cash by jointly managing their resources in order to benefit collectively.

In other words, members of the group (in this case, Bwabwata National Park residents) learn that their future is inextricably tied up with that of their natural resources, including wildlife. As long as there is abundant wildlife and natural resources, their economic future is viable; however, if wildlife populations decrease, so will their economic benefits.

Understanding the value of wildlife and its importance to their economic stability through tourism — including trophy hunting, which provides access to cash benefits, employment opportunities and, in the case of the latter, meat distribution, motivates community members to protect wildlife and the natural resources in the area.

Until Bwabwata was proclaimed a national park in 2007, the Khwe did what they had always done: They hunted and gathered. They still gather to some extent, using wild fruits, berries, and nuts as food supplements and/or as natural medicine. But it is now illegal for them to hunt and, much as they love meat, former hunters, now working as community game guards, are committed to collaborating with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to protect the park wildlife from illegal poaching.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

But what happens when there is conflict between the park residents and the very animals they are helping to protect?

A water buffalo mother and child cross the road, while a driver waits. Photo: Kami Lee

A water buffalo mother and child cross the road, while a driver waits. Photo: Kami Lee

Animals roam throughout Bwabwata and it is common to see elephants, kudu, an occasional cheetah and even a wild dog or two, when driving along the B8, a beautifully maintained paved road otherwise known as the trans-Caprivi highway. For tourists — and for volunteers and other outsiders working in the area — these sightings are always thrilling. For the local people, they are often reminders of crop damage and/or human death.

Hippos, for example, are notoriously aggressive and territorial and are responsible for more loss of human life than any other mammal. Just last month a 39-year old Khwe man was crossing the river in a wato (local canoe made from a hollowed-out tree limb) when a hippo surfaced nearby rocking the wato and throwing the man off balance and into the river where he was bitten by the hippo. He managed to make it to shore where he was found by neighbors and taken to the hospital, where he died five days later.

The tribal authority, members of the village council and a representative from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism met to decide on compensation to the family. Two weeks later, the offending hippo (I’m curious as to how they knew which hippo was the one) was shot by an MET ranger, and the meat was given to the man’s family.

On land, cases brought before the tribal courts are never as clear cut. In fact, sometimes no retribution is possible.

Fighting to Save Crops

After an informal HIV/AIDS information session in Mashambo, one of the most remote villages in Bwabwata National Park, not much more than a cluster of mud and clay huts with a one-room school house made of sheets of tin, I spoke with participants about their crops. It was early March, the season in West Caprivi when farmers are beginning to look forward to harvesting the maize and mahangu (pearl millet) – the staples of their diet.

Community resource monitors attending a training in the Bwabwata National Park. Photo: Kami Lee

Community resource monitors attending a training in the Bwabwata National Park. Photo: Kami Lee

Mafuta Sakoye, the 47-year old chairman of the school board, told me about his conflict with elephants. This year he planted three hectares of maize, sorghum and beans. For more than two months, he and the other villagers have left their homes several nights a week to chase elephants away from their crops. As in past years, large portions of his field (he estimates 40%) — fields that took weeks to prepare and four days to plant — have been destroyed by elephants — in a matter of hours.

In Sakoye’s words: “The elephant knows when to come. People plant, he comes and sees nothing and goes away. Later he comes back, and when he sees the plants are higher, he eats the leaves. Then he waits maybe three weeks and comes back again to eat the new growth.”

Kamine Deudeu is Sakoye’s grandmother. He doesn’t know her exact age, but she collects a monthly government pension so he assures me that she is over 60. This year her field — one hectare planted with maize, mahangu, pumpkin, and ground nuts — was totally destroyed by elephants that started coming mid January, when the crops were over two feet high. Now she’s sitting at home. With no crops to tend, her days are endless and her economic future bleak.

The principal method used to chase elephants away is noise: People beat drums, shout and clap, making as much noise as possible. They don’t use fire because, according to Sakoye, “fire will make the elephant come to you.” Sometimes there are three elephants, sometimes four — “you have to beat the drums before they taste the plants, then they will leave. After they taste the plants, it’s too late, the noise will not deter them.” During these crucial months, many villagers don’t sleep much. Ngala Musheka, a young teacher, joins us and adds that just last night elephants entered three neighbors’ fields, wreaking havoc on the young crops.

Chili Bombs and Other Remedies

I remember having read something about the effectiveness of chili bombs in keeping elephants away and ask Sakoye and Musheka if they have heard of this method and/or tried it. Neither has, though Musheka attended a training offered by IRDNC last year. Using chili bombs involves planning ahead – something that doesn’t come naturally to these hard-working people, used to surviving day by day. However, due to this year’s heavy losses, both say they are now ready to try anything to save their crops. The loss of so many crops is more keenly felt this year, because there was no income from trophy hunting last year, and farmers have no reserves.

Dominic Muyema prepares a chili bomb of elephant dung and chili powder. Photo: Kami Lee

Dominic Muyema prepares a chili bomb of elephant dung and chili powder. Photo: Kami Lee

According to Dominic Muyema, the IRDNC human wildlife conflict manager I visited after leaving Mashambo, elephants are sensitive to the smell of chili and, in some parts of the country chili bombs or chili fences have been used to keep elephants away from the crops with great success.

Chili bombs are made from a mixture of dried elephant dung and crushed chili powder, which is then shaped into a lump and stored until the time when elephants are most likely to forage close to where people live. Typically, when a farmer hears elephants approaching (trust me, the noise they make crashing through the bush is unmistakable!). He rouses the family, and all rush outside to light the chili bombs, which have been placed 50 meters apart on the perimeter of the field. The smoke — and the loud clapping — drives the elephants away. Unfortunately, only to come back another day. During growing seasons, many farmers never get a full night’s rest — they must constantly be on the alert against marauding elephants. Chili fences operate on the same principle, except pieces of cotton soaked in petrol and crushed chili power are hung 50 meters apart on wire fences surrounding the fields.

Elephants are not the only culprits — baboons take their toll too. According to a villager in Mautu, the baboon is even more clever, “he waits until the mealie seed (corn) is dry, then he watches from a tree until the owner of the plot is busy (for example, the woman is occupied pounding mahangu). Then he runs into the field and steals the maize. He also likes very much the pumpkin and the tsama melon.”

Livestock Deaths

Human-wildlife conflict in BNP is not limited to destruction of crops, however; livestock is vulnerable as well. Since I’ve been here, lions have killed at least five cows, and leopards have carried off two goats. The cows had been left to graze and wander at will throughout the countryside; the goats, however, were taken from inside the kraal (a southern African fenced enclosure for livestock).

As the sign warns, humans are wise to watch out for wild animals. Photo: Kami Lee

As the sign warns, humans are wise to watch out for wild animals. Photo: Kami Lee

I never heard if anything was done to compensate the villagers for the loss of the cows. I do know that villagers in Mutc’iku took matters into their own hands and shot the leopard that had returned for another goat. My counterpart and I happened to be working in the village that day and came upon a farmer skinning the leopard. Shortly after, two MET officials arrived on the scene. What — if anything — was done to the farmer responsible for the death of a leopard — an elusive animal rarely seen by tourists and for that reason a highly valued sighting — I never learned.

Is there a permanent solution to the human-wildlife conflict in Bwabwata National Park? Probably not. Chili bombs and clapping may keep crop damage to a minimum, and fencing livestock in at night will certainly keep all but the hungriest and most determined predators from eating cows and goats. But, from what I’ve seen, human-wildlife conflict will — to some extent anyway — continue to be an integral part of life in Bwabwata National Park for the foreseeable future.

And, I can’t say that I’m sorry. On the contrary, I hope there will never come a time when vehicles entering the park don’t have to wait on occasion for elephants to cross the road.

Kami Lee

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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November 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Africa, Kami Lee, Namibia, Peace Corps

Kami Lee at the entrance to Bwabwata National Park. Photo: Courtesy Kami Lee

Kami Lee at the entrance to Bwabwata National Park. Photo: Courtesy Kami Lee

Before joining the Peace Corps, Kami Lee lived in Guatemala for more than 30 years, where she married and raised two kids. She was an independent consultant, working with development agencies and schools. She also did community organizing work.

Kami is finishing up her third year in Namibia, having extended her service for a year in order to be the first Peace Corps Volunteer to work directly with the San People (formerly called Bushman). A fourth-generation Californian, her home base is now Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA.

Kami Lee

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Namibian Research Project Leads to Unforgettable Adventure

Washed out roads and flash floods challenged Kieckenbush and colleagues.

Washed out roads and flash floods challenge Kiekebush and colleagues. Photo: Elsita Kiekebusch

When Elsita Kiekebusch agreed to conduct an environmental awareness campaign for Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN), she expected to face challenges. After all, the Namibian landscape can be harsh and inhospitable at times, and she would be driving across some of the most remote and desolate areas of the nation. While the results of her survey proved unspectacular, the journey itself contained surprises that made it an unforgettable adventure.

Miriam Kashia, international editor for Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), interviewed Kiekenbusch by email to find out about both her experiences and the work that sent the young woman on her remarkable journey.


BPGL: What type of work have you been doing for IECN?

KIEKENBUSCH: I’ve been focused on a coastal awareness campaign along the Atlantic coast of Namibia. My co-workers and I have interviewed approximately 250 local citizens and members of affiliated institutions — such as the provincial Councils and environmental Conservancies — to assess the impact of the campaign since its commencement a year and a half ago.

As the entire western border of Namibia is the ocean, you can imagine the incredible distances that we had to cover in order to carry out the survey. In one week, we went south to the small German-style port of Lüderitz, stopping at various sites along the way for the interviews. Then last week, we headed out into the unbelievably remote Kunene Region with the IECN land cruiser packed full with jerry cans, food, camping equipment, 2 spare tires, a toolbox and more.

BPGL: I understand you had quite an adventure. What are some of the more memorable experiences you had along the way?

With the Jeep's battery dead, Kiekebusch is stranded — but cheerful.

With the Land Cruiser's battery dead, Kiekebusch is stranded — but cheerful.

KIEKEBUSCH: We experienced bad roads like never before. At times sandy; at times stony; at times wet, steep, and muddy. It seemed like our car had seen it all, when we drove straight down a dry riverbed composed solely of boulders. We had to race to catch up with our translator-guide, who enjoyed driving his Government-owned truck as fast as he possibly could. (I’m talking 75 mph on gravel roads!) And this was just the first day.

That night found us camped next to the beautiful Hoanib riverbed. We were up late, because we had decided to blend in with local culture and slaughter a goat for dinner. By dinner, I mean that we ate the meat for the next three days straight. We were unable to buy purified water anywhere, but beer was available everywhere, so we drank that for three days straight, too.

The food and drink put us in high spirits even after we discovered that our car battery had died when we left the lights on in the dark, and we had no jumper cables. The next morning, we found ourselves stranded in practically every way you can think of.

Our translator-guide had awakened early in the morning. He drove across the riverbed, and went to the nearest small settlement, Purros, to find jumper cables. When he didn’t return, we suspected the worst — if he wasn’t dead or maimed, then we figured he was drunk and gone forever.

Water rages across

Water rages across a road in the Kunene Region, near Bergsig in Torra Conservancy. Photo: Elsita Kiekebusch

But soon we realized that the dry river to Purros had flooded overnight, so our translator-guide couldn’t have returned even if he wanted to. It was the flash-flood season in Namibia — a country with no permanent rivers within its borders — so in the rainy season, dry riverbeds in the desert can suddenly fill with water from rainfall miles away.

Certainly, the Hoanib was no calm stream that morning! It had become a raging torrent about 100 feet across, with rapids, rocks, unreliable sandbars — altogether impassable by any sort of vehicle.

So that was how we found ourselves trapped on the wrong side of the river from where we had to go next. Our car battery was dead, the petrol (gas) was low. There was no cell phone service. And we had no food, as our goat-meat and pots were in the back of the truck that our guide drove — and he had gone AWOL.

Somehow, we made it out of there. With the help of some tourists, who were also stranded at the campsite, we jump-started our car. A nice British lady fed us breakfast and directed us to a nearby lodge where we could buy petrol. And then there was nothing to do but wait for the water level to drop.

Around 3 p.m., we heard honking across the river and looked up to see our guide on the other side. He gestured wildly, and somehow managed to communicate to us that we should go to another spot further downriver. We felt we had no choice but to attempt the crossing before any new afternoon rains could catch up with us.

We put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive and ventured forward. The roar of the engine clashed with the sound of rushing water, as she swayed perilously from side to side. Somehow she finally made it across, and we were able to continue on our way towards the coast.

Dunes in Namibia make travel difficult and treacherous. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Beautiful wind-sculpted dunes in the Namib Desert of Western Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

I’m pleased to report that we ultimately survived the trip. We had a nice few days at Swakopmund on the coast, and we’re now back in Windhoek, where I’m writing up a final report.

BPGL: You mentioned that you work for IECN. Tell me about what they do.

KIEKEBUSCH: Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN) is a private consulting company in the environmental field. It focuses on capacity building and sustainable development, basically applying the science to environmental issues. They do multiple consultancies (short-term projects) for many organizations, including the UN, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the Namibia Polytechnic, and University of Namibia.

This consultancy — the one for which we did the project — was for the Namibian Coastal Management Project (NACOMA), which was developed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. NACOMA’s main goal with this research consultancy is to develop a legal framework by writing a white paper for the sustainable management of all of Namibia’s coast. The project has been ongoing for five years.

NACOMA wanted to have civilian input during the process, so they also began a coastal awareness campaign in 2007. They worked in four coastal regions of Namibia (Kunene, Hardap, Erongo, Karas).

The group distributed informational pamphlets, produced educational materials, worked with schools and youth groups, produced various media communications — newspaper articles, went on radio talk shows, television interviews, etc., about the white paper development process. They also addressed general issues of concern, such as quad-biking, which is a serious threat along the fragile coastal environment.

BPGL: What is particularly special about this coastal region?

A view of the Namibian desert. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The Namib Desert has biodiversity not found anywhere else on Earth. Photo: Miriam Kashia

KIEKEBUSCH: The harsh Namib desert all along the coast is where the cold, wet air from the South Atlantic polar currents meet the hot and extremely dry air of the desert.  That confluence has resulted in a unique ecology and biodiversity not found anywhere else on Earth.

The Namibian coast contains many different types of natural resources. They need to be used wisely and in a way that one type of resource does not damage another. We need to plan how to use resources and protect them at the same time.

BPGL: Aren’t there laws that protect the area?

KIEKEBUSCH: While Namibia has a comprehensive draft set of environmental laws applicable to the entire country, there is no specific coastal legislation or national coastal area policy. Laws dealing with coastal management issues are currently outdated and totally inadequate. They’re also reactive, rather than proactive, in achieving integrated coastal area management objectives that meet our current ecological, economic and social needs.

BPGL: What are some of the threats to the ecological integrity of the Namibian coast?

KIEKEBUSCH: The Namibian coast is sparsely populated, so overpopulation isn’t the primary environmental threat. The significant threats to this fragile area come from several sources:

  • Uncontrolled activities in protected areas, such as mining, tourism, off-road driving, and recreational fishing
  • Land reclamation for urban and commercial development
  • Marine pollution from the fishing industry, mining, oil and gas extraction, and harbor activities
  • Overfishing and over-harvesting
  • Introduction of invasive alien species through mariculture development
  • Excessive water exploitation for mining and consumption
  • Environmental variability and global climate change
Namibia's coastal region is a sensitive ecosystem. Photo: Elsita Kieckebusch

Namibia's coastal region is a sensitive ecosystem. Photo: Elsita Kieckebusch

These activities have a cumulative impact on the coastal environment, causing steady degradation and threatening not only the environment, but the economy and health of all Namibians as well.

BPGL: What did you discover with your research survey about the environmental impact of the coastal awareness campaign in Namibia?

KIEKEBUSCH: We traveled to the four coastal regions of Namibia and interviewed members of the public and members of related institutions (Ministry of Fisheries, Regional and Town Councils, etc.). Our survey tested knowledge of coastal issues and knowledge of NACOMA and its goals.

We traveled as far as Lüderitz, Opuwo, Terrace Bay (Skeleton Coast Park) and, of course, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. The results weren’t amazing. Our main conclusion was that NACOMA had spread itself too thin during the awareness-raising process, so we recommended that they target certain interest groups more than in the past. We also recommended that they stay away from the more inland areas. People in these areas were less informed and had less of an interest, because they don’t live near the coast anyway.

BPGL: To what degree has the campaign succeeded in its goals so far?

KIEKEBUSCH: We saw increases in environmental awareness in some areas. We also saw a large increase in the usage of the website, which was another thing we were evaluating. That was a good sign. NACOMA certainly completed many different communication activities that they intended to, and I think they got a lot of public interest in the white paper process. People came to the discussions to give input. Involving various shareholders in this process is a key to its success.

BPGL: I understand that Namibia is the only country in the world that has environmental protection written into its constitution.

KIEKEBUSCH: Yes, Namibia is one of the only countries that has a phrase in the constitution something along the lines of “every citizen has the right to a healthy and clean environment.”

This coastal management process is certainly something that should be commended — in fact, the whole of the Namibian coast at the moment is being considered to become a national park. It’s hard to provide environmental protection for a large and diverse area of land such as Namibia, particularly with limited resources and staff.

Tourists climb a giant dune in the Namibian desert. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Tourists climb a giant dune in the Namib Desert, the largest dunes in the world in the oldest desert in the world Photo: Miriam Kashia

One of the biggest problems faced along the coast — our area of concentration for this study — is the destruction left by holiday-makers during the Christmas/New Years holidays. People have been leaving trash and driving around the desert in off-road vehicles, which is very damaging to the environment. 2007 was a particularly bad year, but serious measures were taken to control that destruction in 2008, and it seems that they were successful in limiting the damage.

BPGL: Earlier, you mentioned “quad-biking,” and now you’ve just mentioned the use of off-road vehicles. How are quad-biking and off-road vehicles threatening the coastal environment?

KIEKEBUSCH: Quad-bikes are also called ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). Imagine a motorcycle with four wheels. A big problem is holidaymakers (mostly from South Africa) coming up to Namibia in December to do a lot of off-road driving in the dunes and gravel plains of the desert. These are very vulnerable areas. Track marks disrupt the soil micro-environment and leave scars on the land that take many years to go away. They also run over small animals and bird eggs along the way.

BPGL: Now that the research project is finished, what’s the next likely step in your career?

KIEKEBUSCH: Actually, I have a new job. I recently joined the staff of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in the Namib Desert. The centre is basically a research station/environmental education institution. My project, in association with NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency), is a study of bacteria capable of living underneath rocks in extremely arid conditions. We are hoping to inform the search for life on Mars.

Miriam Kashia

International Editor

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Miriam Kashia, International Editor/Contributing Writer

Miriam Kashia, international editor and contributing writer. Photo: Julia Wasson

For 18 years, Miriam Kashia worked as a psychotherapist in private practice. She also has a long history of doing social justice volunteer work. In 2005, Miriam departed Iowa for Namibia, where she served two years in the Peace Corps. While in Namibia, she was a community health worker with orphans and vulnerable children in a rural area.

Throughout her adult life, Miriam’s major passion has been various adventures in wilderness and the out-of-doors. She’s been on numerous canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area of Northern Minnesota, including a recent solo trip. (It’s rare to see women in the BWCA and rarer still to see anyone alone.) She’s been on RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), camped and backpacked in many wilderness areas, and kayaked in the ocean. Her lake cabin along the backwaters of the Mississippi River affords her the opportunity to kayak and canoe in the Mark Twain National Wildlife Area.

Though invested in the political process, outdoor adventures, and causes for social justice, Miriam recognizes that saving our planet is the most important work to be done. Unless we reverse the tide of global climate change, all other concerns are moot points.

Miriam recently took on another volunteer position as Blue Planet Green Living‘s international editor. She is also a contributing writer, when she has time between her extensive volunteer and work activities.

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My 5: Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer

Seeking Sustainability in a Harsh and Beautiful Land

Namib Dunes in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Namib Dunes in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Miriam Kashia, a Peace Corps volunteer who returned from Namibia one year ago, recently spoke with Blue Planet Green Living about her experience. What follows is Part 2 of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


BPGL: I’ve heard, over the years, about problems with poaching of African game. Is that an issue in Namibia?

KASHIA: In almost all African countries, there’s been a lot of poaching of the wildlife. And most animals now only live in the game parks. There are very few left just roaming wild. There are still many varieties of antelope and, depending on where you are, a few others. But most of the more exotic animals now live in game parks or on game farms, actually. When I say farm, I’m talking about what we would call a ranch. Because it’s a desert, it takes thousands of hectares to support their livestock of goats, sheep, cattle, and wild animals.

BPGL: When you talk about the game farms, or ranches, are these private properties?

KASHIA: Yes. And there are many of them. They raise livestock for market and wild game to promote tourism. This has to do with Namibia’s government and what they’re trying to do, which is to promote economic development, as well as preserve the natural resources. Some of the ranches — in fact, a lot of them — bring in tourists from Europe or the United States, who then hunt on these farms. It’s in their interest to keep the wildlife balance healthy. Some of them are lodges that have wildlife areas for people to visit, like on a mini-safari. Some of these farms have grown into projects to help save rare animals from extinction. The cheetah is an example of that.

There are also a few large national game parks. Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is one of southern Africa’s premiere parks.

The government has also supported the development of constituencies, as they’re called, which are run by local settlements of tribal people in various parts of the country. They set up campsites or other points of interest and preserve them to attract tourists and share their cultural traditions. I stayed at one of those a couple of times, when I was on holiday, traveling. It was far more interesting than staying in a very Western-looking tourist lodge.

Endangered desert tortoise. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Endangered desert tortoise. Photo: Miriam Kashia

These constituencies are a very positive project funded by the Namibian government — probably underscored by our government as well — to bring financial resources into these communities. Making a living in a poor, developing country in the middle of the desert is not an easy thing to do. And at the same time, they then realize that conserving the beauty, the wildlife, and their cultural practices is to their advantage.

BPGL: Is saving the environment and culture a recent effort in Namibia?

KASHIA: I think that, probably, some people have recognized the importance of conserving wildlife for a long time, but it’s hard, very hard, in a country where people don’t have enough to eat sometimes, to tell them not to hunt. I don’t think there are too many problems left in Namibia with poaching and killing endangered wildlife. Ostriches, for example, are protected. There are eight species of desert tortoise that are all endangered and protected, as well as wild dogs and the rare desert elephants.

Rare desert elephants in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Rare desert elephants in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

BPGL: Tell me about your HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention work.

KASHIA: It’s a male-dominated society. Unfortunately, the gender inequality issue is one of the factors that drives the HIV rate. There are very, very, very many female-headed households, at least where I lived, though I think that’s true in general. Historically, under colonialism, in order to get jobs, men had to go work in mines or along the farms near the rivers on the north or south borders, and they had to leave their families behind. This undermined the family system and helped to spread the AIDS virus.

There’s a long list of reasons for the spread of HIV in Africa. There are probably 20 factors that I felt contributed to the HIV infection rate. Although, thanks to the United Nations, the USAID, and the Peace Corps, it isn’t because of ignorance anymore. Research shows that 95 percent of the people in Namibia do know what causes HIV and how to prevent it. So, the information is out there. But getting them to change their behavior is a whole other issue.

A female-headed Nama family. Photo: Miriam Kashia

A female-headed Nama family. Photo: Miriam Kashia

There are also a lot of myths and stories that undermine the information about HIV/AIDS. One is that condoms cause AIDS. Another is that AIDS doesn’t exist. And another is that sex with a virgin will cure a person of AIDS. A lot of the AIDS prevention work that I did was giving accurate information to young people and talking to them about behavior change.

BPGL: Did they believe you?

KASHIA: I think so. These were high school kids who knew us and came to our workshops. It was virtually impossible to get older adults to come. Not talking about sex is a cultural norm. So, when we talked openly and honestly to young people about their bodies, about sex, about HIV, it was the first time anybody ever had. In school, they got the bare essentials. The parents don’t talk to the kids about sex. It’s embarrassing for them. It’s like this country 100 years ago.

BPGL: Did the kids tell their parents what they learned?

KASHIA: The ones who really felt like they couldn’t talk with their parents about it probably didn’t tell. More importantly, though, I think it opened the door for young people to talk with one another about sex and about using condoms.

Southern Girls' Conference attendees. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Southern Girls Conference attendees. Photo: Miriam Kashia

One of the things I participated in was a workshop for high school young women, called the Southern Girls Conference, which the Peace Corps started several years ago. About 60 young women — mostly 10th and 11th graders — from the two regions in the southern part of Namibia (a region is like state) attended a three-day conference to empower young women.

I taught a course on reproductive health, which was a smashing hit, because I wasn’t afraid to talk to these young women in very frank, honest terms about their bodies and men’s bodies, pregnancy, preventing pregnancy, and preventing disease. They were just spellbound. It was quite thrilling for me.

BPGL: What was your primary focus as a Peace Corps volunteer?

KASHIA: My focus was working with orphans and vulnerable children. My job — what I thought my job was when I got there, was to support an organization that was helping the children. When I arrived, there really wasn’t an organization, which isn’t all that uncommon with the Peace Corps. So I spent the first eight months trying to figure out what I was doing and which people I needed to work with, and going through quite a bit of difficulty with that.

I wrote grant proposals and got money from CAFO to support educational efforts for the kids. When I say, “the kids,” I’m talking about orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). In Namibia, OVC is a technical term. OVC are eligible for government grant money, which is like welfare support for these kids. It’s the equivalent of $30 US a month per kid. That doesn’t go very far.

Nama children with new sweaters from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Nama children with new sweaters from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Education isn’t free there. You have to pay for it, you have to have a school uniform, and you have to buy your own supplies. There’s usually one book for 5 kids, and there may be 50 kids to a classroom. In addition, we provided blankets, shoes, winter coats, toiletries, an after-school program, and food programs.

The committee that I helped to create was a group of Afrikaner people, who are the white people, working with the Nama people, who are the very poor, local tribal group. I got them sitting in the same room, working together, talking about how they can help the kids. It was very gratifying. I served as a kind of a bridge.

There are 13 cultural, ethnic, tribal groups in Namibia and 28 different dialects. English is the official language. It was adopted in 1990 at independence. The little kids and old people don’t speak it. They speak “Namlish,” a combination of Namibian and English. It took me a year to be able to understand that, much less Afrikaans.

BPGL: How do the Nama people make a living?

Kashia with a 92-year-old ouma and the grandchildren she is raising.

Kashia with a 92-year-old ouma and the children she is raising.

KASHIA: I tried for two years to figure that out. The cultural expectation is that people help each other. I knew many women without jobs who were trying to raise their own children plus the orphans of deceased relatives. Very basic needs, food, and clothing are a big problem.

When you turn 60 in Namibia, you automatically get a pension, the equivalent of $85 US. The old people, whether they’ve ever worked or not, automatically get this pension. A lot of the oumas, the grandmothers, are trying to raise their grandkids, whose parents have died or are missing, to support themselves, and to send the kids to school — all on this money. Many of the costs there are as much as here in the U.S. They can’t raise crops in the desert. They can’t support themselves. It’s really very difficult. A few can get some domestic work or jobs clerking in shops, but that’s pretty much it.

Nama women perform a traditional dance. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Tswana women perform a traditional dance. Photo: Miriam Kashia

BPGL: What hope is there for their economic future?

The Nama culture is disappearing. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The Himba culture is disappearing. Photo: Miriam Kashia

KASHIA: Namibia is a land of stark contrasts, beauty, and diversity. Fortunately for Namibia, because of that, it is attracting a fair number of tourists now. The cultural and natural and geological diversity are a plus for Namibia. But a lot of the tribal groups are rapidly losing their cultures. Their languages are disappearing, and their tribal customs and traditions are, too, because of Western influence.

BPGL: What are the goals of the Peace Corps program?

KASHIA: The Peace Corps has three goals:

  1. To accept an invitation to help a developing country. We only go where we’re invited and where it’s stable and politically safe to go.
  2. To teach people in our host country about the U.S.
  3. To teach people in the U.S. about our host country.

BPGL: Is the work you started in Karasburg continuing?

KASHIA: I’ve been getting emails from my Afrikaner friends, who say it’s been very hard for the Nama people, but they’re carrying on, and they’ve still got projects going. I’m very glad, because I didn’t know if it was going to be sustainable.

Kashia wrote a grant to buy this herd of goats. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Kashia wrote a grant to buy this herd of goats. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The last grant I wrote was to buy goats so that there would be some sustainable income for continuing to help the children when the grants dry up. Most of the current grant money comes from the U.S., through USAID. Somewhere in Namibia, there is a herd of goats that is busy making more goats to help provide for the needs of these kids. We had about 300 children on our roster, but there were many others. They weren’t all orphans, but they were all vulnerable children.

USAID provides funds to CAFO, which are then distributed through grants to local projects for helping children. You have to meet strict requirements to get the money. They have to approve your projects, and you have to send in monthly reports. I spent a lot of time writing reports. And I had to train my replacements (volunteers) to do that, to write grant proposals and fill out the monthly reports, including receipts. It’s just like running a business. It was very well monitored. That’s called capacity building. The Peace Corps is huge on sustainability, and it’s really, really hard to do that. Where I lived, agriculture wasn’t a viable option. There were no raw materials to produce products to sell. And there were no local markets because of the poverty.

So goats were about the best option. We bought a herd of goats for meat. The goats pretty much raise themselves. They can survive in the scrub better than cattle. When the goats are mature, the people sell them. And the goats keep making more goats, so you can sell them too, and have money to help the children. They’re the wrong kind of goats for milk and cheese. And there’s not enough water; if you’re going to produce milk from goats, there has to be enough water. There’s enough water, generally, for them to survive, to give milk for their babies, but not enough to make cheese. And maybe it’s a cultural thing [to not eat milk or cheese].

BPGL: What do you see as your biggest accomplishment during your time in Namibia?

Children with their new blankets from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Children with their new blankets from CAFO. Photo: Miriam Kashia

KASHIA: One of the things that I’m most proud of and that I think was probably the biggest contribution that I made in terms of its overall impact, was that I co-created, with another Peace Corps volunteer who was an IT specialist, a database which is now being used throughout the country to track the OVC (orphans and vulnerable children). It also tracks their caregivers, and information about children, their needs, and how their needs are being met. We’re helping to gather better data about how many of these kids there are, who’s taking care of them, and what their caregivers’ resources are.

We implemented the database just before I left Namibia. UNICEF provides computers for CAFO groups that are running programs for OVC. We set up a training program for gathering data and using the database. And now they’re doing it on their own. So they have better reporting and better tracking of the children, and it’s just more efficient for everybody.

The Namibian government spent a lot of money for five or six years trying to create a database, and it never happened. We gave them this one for free. So that’s something very sustainable that I feel very good about. It’s going to have a large impact and help a lot of kids.

Part 1: Peace Corps Volunteer Teaches Green Living in Namibia

Part 2: Seeking Sustainability in a Harsh and Beautiful Land (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts:

My 5: Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer

Children Raising Children: Documenting Africa’s AIDS Crisis

Peace Corps Volunteer Teaches Green Living in Namibia

Peace Corps volunteer Miriam Kashia with art she purchased in Africa. Photo: J Wasson

Peace Corps volunteer Miriam Kashia with art she purchased in Africa. Photo: J Wasson

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?

Serious drought is exacerbating the spread of desertification. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Serious drought is exacerbating the spread of desertification. Photo: Miriam Kashia

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?

Litter is a serious environmental problem in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Litter is a wide-scale environmental problem in Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

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?

The CLEAN Club picked up litter in their community. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The CLEAN Club picked up litter in their community. Photo: Miriam Kashia

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?

The NaDEET environmental camp. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The NaDEET environmental camp. Photo: Miriam Kashia

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 students baked bread in solar ovens at NaDEET. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The learners baked bread in solar ovens at NaDEET. Photo: Miriam Kashia

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!

Women carry firewood for cooking over long distances. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Women travel long distances while carrying firewood for cooking. Photo: Miriam Kashia

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.

Part 1: Peace Corps Volunteer Teaches Green Living in Namibia (Top of Page)

Part 2: Seeking Sustainability in a Harsh and Beautiful Land

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

My 5: Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer

Children Raising Children: Documenting Africa’s AIDS Crisis