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  
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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)

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)

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My 5: Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer

January 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Iowa, My 5

Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer, Namibia. Photo: Courtesy Miriam Kashia

Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer, Namibia

Blue Planet Green Living asked former Peace Corps volunteer Miriam Kashia, “What are the five most important things we can do to save the planet?”

  • Make changes that reflect your increasing knowledge and concern, and tell people what you are doing to inspire others.
  • Join and support some of the excellent environmental activist organizations (NRDC, Sierra Club, a local group, etc.).
  • Stop waiting for “someone else” to take care of the problem (the government, big business, environmental groups, “Tree Huggers,” and so on).
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Restore.
  • Be ready to make so called “sacrifices” to save the planet. This means me and you. We may discover that sacrificing complexity and excess has intrinsic rewards.

Miriam Kashia, Peace Corps Volunteer (2005–2008)

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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