Rescuing a Young Bird

June 10, 2010 by  
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The frightened bird gets help from human hands. Photo: Julia Wasson

Recently, while Joe and I were visiting his brother, Jim, a neighbor rapped insistently on the front door. “Have you got a ladder?” he asked, breathless after hurrying across the road. “There’s a bird hanging by its leg from the eave of my house.”

Jake grabs the strand and prepares to cut the bird down. Photo: Julia Wasson

As it happens, Jim does have a ladder. So he and Joe and the neighbor, Jake, headed over to see what they could do to rescue the poor creature. I grabbed my camera and tagged along.

At Jake’s house, we looked up to see a dark gray bird dangling upside down from the roof. It was held there by a string so thin that the bird appeared to be suspended in a rather crazy-looking, head-down flight. It was struggling to free itself, but there was no hope that it would succeed unaided. And with its wild wing-flapping, the young animal was in danger of having the string cut through its leg.

Jake climbed the ladder and cut the string, then carried the bird down. Back on the ground, he reported that a mother bird had made a nest inside the eave, where the soffit vent had come loose from the fascia. (You can see the loose soffit vent in the photo above.)

While Jake cradled the bird in his gloved hand, Joe carefully tried to unwrap the strand of what appeared to be a thin strip of Tyvek or other polyethylene material. He couldn’t remove it all, so decided to he had to cut it. This was a delicate operation, as the strand was tightly wound, and Joe was using a pocketknife to make the cut.

Moments later, the little bird was free, hobbling across Jake’s yard and flapping its wings for short flights. Although it was young, it seemed to be old enough to survive on its own — something it would have to do, as it wasn’t yet strong enough to fly back up to the nest.

After untangling the strand as much as possible, Joe prepares to cut it and free the bird. Photo: Julia Wasson

We can’t know where the strip of Tyvek (or similar product) came from, but the material is ubiquitous in building construction. I’ve seen workers gather up large pieces of polyethylene to dispose of it (hopefully to recycle it, but I wonder). But do they use the same degree of care for the tiny strips like the one that nearly killed this young bird? Not likely. They’re paid to get a job done, not to search for miniscule scraps.

It’s easy to overlook the tiny pieces of debris left behind by all sorts of human activities. It might seem harmless, for example, to snip off a tangled piece of fishing line and drop it into a lake or river, but some animal could mistake it for a meal or get caught in a longer piece and be unable to free itself.

Maybe, like me, you’ve broken off bits of Styrofoam from a cup. You pick up the larger pieces, but the little ones are hardly noticeable in the grass or gravel. You may think, as I once did, that it’s no big deal to leave such small pieces on the ground. Yet those tiny pieces of indigestible plastic foam could look like food to a small animal — and they might just be its last meal.

Freed from one tangled strand, this young bird finds another threat: a kite string. Photo: Julia Wasson

My point is this: While it’s certainly necessary to pick up large pieces of litter to make our landscape beautiful, the small pieces are especially important to remove. Birds, fish, turtles, frogs — all sorts of wildlife — are in peril when we are careless with even the tiniest bits of trash. So, next time you see a small bit of litter, please stop and consider whose life you might save — then put that scrap in a trash can.

What became of the bird? I’d like to say that it is fine, that it has a healthy life and is growing strong. But take a look at this photo, taken after the bird had hopped and flown across the street to another home. I took it from a distance, and couldn’t see till it was on my computer screen that the bird is sitting on a discarded kite, with kite string all around.

Maybe it was luckier this time and got safely away…. Maybe.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Notes from Minnesota: Return of the River Otter

After 35 years, river otters are becoming plentiful in the Cedar River once again. Photo: Joe Frisk

On a frigid February afternoon, I walked the path around the Mill Pond in downtown Austin, Minnesota. A recreational area with a bike path, skate park, and swimming pool, the Mill Pond was formed by damming the Cedar River in the early years of the city.

As I crossed a bridge spanning the river, movement out on the ice caught my attention. For a moment, it looked like a sheet of black tar paper, waving in a non-existent breeze, but a closer look revealed an otter! A big guy, he was greedily devouring a fish.

I pulled out my camera and began to shoot video as a second otter appeared from under the ice. This was the first pair I’d seen since those I’d observed in Austin’s Sutton Park back in the mid 1970s. After 35 years, the river otters had returned.

The River Otter

Weighing 18-30 pounds, otters are powerful and sleek swimmers. Photo: Joe Frisk

The river otter is a member of the mustelid family, a group that includes mink and weasels, and is partly aquatic. Its streamlined build and semi-webbed paws help it hunt fish. In fact, an otter can match a trout in maneuverability. Northern river otters can reach — and even exceed — 30 pounds and five feet in length, with males being larger than females. Otters were once the most widely distributed mammal in North America and Canada, but pollution, habitat loss, and unregulated trapping resulted in huge population declines.

In southern Minnesota, water pollution and loss of wetlands took a heavy toll on the otters, and they all but disappeared. In spite of spending countless hours fishing, trapping and bow-hunting along the Cedar River, I saw no otters. Yet, healthy populations remained, hiding out in more remote regions, such as the swamps of Louisiana and the lake country of northern Minnesota. These regions would provide the seed animals for restocking efforts.


Pollution threatens the well-being of acquatic wildlife, such as otters. Photo: © RbbrDckyBK -

The loss of wildlife and habitat helped spur action in Minnesota and around the country. Wetland restoration efforts ensued and the Clean Water Act of 1972 began to improve our watersheds.2 Strict laws on farm and industrial pollution took effect, benefitting our water and preparing the way for the reintroduction of otters.

According to Dr. John Erb, wildlife biologist with the Minnesota DNR, about 20 otters from northern regions of Minnesota were released on the far upper reaches of the Minnesota River. Otters did not have to be reintroduced in extreme S.E. Minnesota, as natural re-colonization has occurred along the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries.

Dr. Erb conducted a study of this population from 2001-2003, implanting some otters with radio transmitters. He found most females were going up into the bluffs to have their litters, likely in order to avoid losing their young to drowning during floods. The downside is that some females were killed trying to cross the highway to and from the Mississippi.

In Iowa, a total of 325 otters were brought in from Louisiana, beginning in 1985, and released at 25 sites throughout the state. In spite of straight-pipe pollution and heavy runoff of hog manure, the otter population has been increasing by 7% per year. Statewide, numbers are now estimated at 6,000 to 8,000 animals. With equal or better water quality in Minnesota, it’s likely some of the Iowa releases have made their home here and will be on the increase.

In 1989 and 1990, a total of 23 otters, 12 males and 11 females, were released along the Cedar River by the Iowa DNR. The release occurred about 14 miles south of Austin near Otranto, Iowa. They also released a dozen otters into the Shellrock River, a tributary of the Cedar. I believe the otters I saw at the Mill Pond came from the Otranto releases, as they love to roam and can easily cover 25 miles in a week.

The Eagle and the Otters

Around four years ago, an amateur photographer went to check on an eagle’s nest three miles south of Austin. He left his camera at home, believing he would not see much. It proved costly, as he feels he missed the shot of a lifetime. Walking back to his car, he noticed an eagle perched in a tree near the roadway and staring intently at something along the riverbank. Peering over the side of the bridge, to see what the eagle was eyeing, he spotted a family of five otters eating a carp. The eagle was trying to figure out a way to steal the carp.

This incident showed that otters were here by the middle of this decade, but most of us did not see them. The gentleman returned, many times, and never again saw the otters. In an email, Jaime Edwards, a wildlife specialist with the Minnesota DNR, commented, “Most of the time you see signs, but not the critters!”

A DNR Survey

The city of Austin can be seen at the top of this map courtesy Dr. John Erb, MN DNR. Otter sign is indicated by the red dots, showing the otters had made it upriver from the Iowa border (dark line near bottom of map) to the city by 2001. Map: Courtesy of Minnesota DNR

Donna Kolb lives near the Cedar River in Austin and has observed adult otters for around six years, watching them play in her yard and in a park. When she first saw them, she called police, not knowing what they were and worrying they might attack children. Fortunately, the police, also unsure of what they were, left them alone.

Kolb’s sightings are backed by the findings of Dr. Erb. He mapped otter signs for a survey he conducted along the Cedar River in the winter of 2001. Dr. Erb and his team searched by helicopter for otter slides and tracks in the snow along the riverbanks, starting ten miles north of Austin and continuing to the Iowa border.

Otters love to play and slide down muddy or snowy banks leaving telltale markings behind. No sign of them was found north of Austin, but signs turned up right in town and south on the Cedar, evidence the Iowa otters had moved upstream.

My sighting also corroborates their presence in Austin and that of amateur naturalist Bernie Anderson puts them north of town. In late fall of 2009, Bernie observed a pair of adults three-quarters of a mile north of the Interstate 90 bridge, just north of Austin. One had caught a frog and Bernie also found evidence they had been feeding on freshwater mussels.

Larry Dolphin, Director of Austin’s J.C. Hormel Nature Center, has received several reports of otters in the area. In the spring of 2001, there were otters on Rose Creek just east of Austin. A year ago, otters were spotted on Wolf Creek to the northeast of the city. Dolphin believes the otters in our area most likely came from the Iowa stockings, being well within their normal range of travel.

A Bright Future?

If we protect the rivers from pollution, we'll see more and more river otters returning to our waters. Photo: © Janice Barchat -

With no trapping season in this part of Minnesota, and with continued improvements in water quality, I believe the future of these curious and playful animals is bright. Otters are still being accidentally trapped and some have been hit by cars, but they have few natural predators in southern Minnesota. Coyotes are the main predatory threat here.

Pollution is still a problem, with farm runoff raising nitrate levels and muddying the rivers. High nitrate and silt levels lower water quality and decrease the likelihood of otter survival. Otters need clean water. So far, they seem able to shrug it off, but pollution must continue to be addressed by farming and other industries. Industry will often pollute if they believe they can get away with it. This has to stop if we want otters to stay around.

All of us who care about our water should keep an eye open and report incidences of abuse. We can make a difference. Cleaning up the river here in Minnesota benefits all communities along the entire 329 miles of the river.

The return of the otters to the Cedar River was an event I was fortunate to observe and record. With continued work and perseverance, otter sightings could well become a more frequent pleasure, here and around the nation. We have to put an end to using our rivers as open sewer systems. We owe it to all who have helped to restore our waterways and wildlife.

Joe Frisk

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

For More Information

Grandfather Mountain

River Otter Resurgence in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed

William Clark, “Wildlife Population Dynamics- River Otter Landscape Ecology” Iowa State University

Iowa DNR Wildlife

Susannah J. Bedford

Minnesota DNR

Ecotourists Save the World

Cover photo from Ecotourists Save the World. Photo: Courtesy Penguin Books

If you could help save wildlife and their habitats from destruction, would you do it? What if it involved traveling to a far-off location to live in relatively primitive conditions, work long hours, and complete difficult, sometimes dangerous, tasks? Oh, and you might have to pay to do it.
Is that your idea of a good time? Then Ecotourists Save the World is a book you’ll want to read.

In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, writer Pamela Brodowsky has compiled an extensive resource of volunteer opportunities to protect wildlife around the world. You’ll find, as the subtitle says, “More Than 300 International Adventures to Conserve, Preserve, and Rehabilitate Wildlife and Habitats.”

In the introduction, Brodowsky writes,

Did you know … one in three amphibians, nearly half of all turtles and tortoises, one in four mammals, one in five sharks and rays, and one in eight bird species are now considered at risk of extinction? Habitat destruction, exploitation, pollution, and climate change are taking their toll on our world’s species and the places that they inhabit.

The cool thing is, you can do something about it. (We all can.) In Ecotourists Save the World, you’ll learn about opportunities to volunteer doing a host of interesting tasks in amazing places, like Brazil, Bolivia, Scotland, Thailand, Fiji, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Greece, Peru… And, in North America, you can serve in British Columbia, Manitoba, California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and more.

A Fee for Your Service

In all locations, you have to provide your own transportation to get there.

Some groups charge no fee participation at all. In exchange for your service, you may get accommodations (though these are not described in detail, so be sure to ask if comfort and amenities matter to you), meals, ground transfers, and sometimes “in-country emergency support” — and let’s not forget training.

At other sites, you’ll pay significant fees in addition to volunteering your time. But if you were planning a vacation, you’d have to budget for food and accommodations, anyway.

If you’re wondering why someone would pay for the privilege of volunteering, consider this: There are significant costs associated with training, feeding, and housing people. For every dollar a refuge or wilderness program has to allocate to support volunteers, that’s a dollar taken away from the work they could be doing to help the animals.

Choosing a Project

Take a quick flip through Ecotourists Save the World, and you’ll find volunteer opportunities galore. But it will take much more than a quick flip to decide on the one that’s right for you. Each entry provides the following details to help you make a considered decision:

  • Contact
  • Location
  • Category (conservation, preservation, or rehabilitation)
  • Cost
  • Dates & Duration
  • To Apply
  • Field Notes

The Field Notes section is especially useful, as you’ll learn “whether the project is suitable for families, groups, and/or solo travelers; any age restrictions; special skills or other requirements needed to participate; cautions or warnings for safety and comfort; and, in some instances, recommendations of local sites to visit and activities to enjoy while in service.”

Just a Sampling

Following are a few of the 300 projects you can choose from. If any of these whet your appetite, pick up the book to learn the details. (It sells for US$18.95/$23.50 CAN.) But before you make any plans, read the warning on the copyright page. In essence, the message is: There are potential hazards; for the best experience, be prepared and be careful.

A group of black rhinos recline in a road. Photo: © markoflaherty -

Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos: “Volunteers manage the local vegetation — the main food source of the black rhino — and observe the animals to improve further conservation efforts…. Location: Nairobi, Kenya…. Cost: US#2,850 for 15 days. Fee includes accommodations, meals, and training…. Field Notes: Participants must be at least 18 years old…. in good physical condition and be able to walk long distances.”

Lost World Expedition: “Participants assist scientists with fieldwork, conducting observational surveys to determine [the jaguar’s and the puma’s] distribution patterns in one of earth’s most threatened ecosystems… [and] conduct interviews in local communities… Location: Curitiba, Brazil…. Cost: US$1,690 for 12 nights. Fee includes accommodations, meals, training, and in-country emergency support…. Field Notes: No specific skills are required. The program is open to all ages. Participants must feel comfortable hiking through mountainous terrain. Positions are suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers.”

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge: “Volunteers help with research projects focused on endangered animals, conduct surveys of local bird populations, and help with sea turtle recovery projects (including nest relocation efforts and species inventories)…. Location: Rio Hondo, TX [USA]…. Cost: Free in exchange for service. Full RV hookups are provided…. Field Notes: Positions are suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers. All ages are welcome.”

Kilauea Lighthouse at Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge: “Volunteers help replant and maintain native coastal plants, and work on public educational campaigns that focus on wildlife conservation. Participants may also lead tours…. Location: Kilauea, HI [USA]…. Cost: Free in exchange for service. Accommodation is provided…. Field Notes: This project is suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers.”

Elusive and Unknown Cat Project: “Participants help record leopard sightings and collect data on the distribution of leopards and their prey throughout the region. Volunteers also help document interspecies interactions among the leopard, wolf, and striped hyena…. Location: Dhofar, Oman…. Cost: US $1,950 for 12 nights. Fee includes accommodations, meals, ground transfers, project orientation, training, and support…. Field Notes: There are no specific skills or age requirements that need to be met for participation int this project, but volunteers must be able to walk great lengths and over mountainous terrain. Positions are suitable for adult groups and solo travelers.”

Volunteers at the Elephant Orphanage bathe and care for baby elephants. Photo: © Gail Johnson -

Elephant Orphanage: “Participants assist with daily elephant bathing duties, cleaning and maintaining enclosures, and hand-feeding of the extremely young. The Elephant Orphanage is home to many young elephants that are lost or abandoned by their mothers. Here the elephants are fed, nursed, and taken care of by professional handlers and volunteers. This project is a rare opportunity for those interested in working with elephants….. Location: Kegalle, Sri Lanka…. Cost: US$650–$953 for 1–3 weeks; extended stays are available for an additional fee. Fee includes accommodations and three meals per day. Airport pickup and transfers are additional…Field Notes: No special skills are required to participate. Positions are suitable for adult groups and solo travelers.”

Dolphin Conservation Project: “Participants … work alongside marine biologists in teh Ionian Sea. Volunteers contribute to a research study of the behavioral patterns, ecology, and conservation status of the aresa’s dolphin population… learn and contribute to all aspects of fieldwork, including observation techniques and photo identification procedures….. Location: Greece…. Cost: US$850–$1,000 for 1 week. Fee includes accommodations, meals, ground transfers, orientation, training,and in-country emergency support…. Field Notes: Participants must be at least 18 years old…. in good physical condition and have the ability to speak English. This project uses inflatable boats for observation needs and sun exposure is at a maximum. Positions are suitable for adult groups and solo travelers.”

Cone flowers at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Photo: Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: Volunteers help collect native seeds for replanting in an effort to recreate the pre-1800s prairie ecosystem. Participants also work to maintain the park’s hiking trails and assist with general refuge maintenance projects…. Location: Prairie City, IA [USA]… Cost: Free in exchange for service. Housing is provided…. Field Notes: Training is provided on-site. Positions are suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers.”

If you do head off to an ecotourist, volunteer adventure — whether one described in this book or another you’ve found on your own — please write and let us know.

The Small Print

Blue  Planet Green Living received a complimentary copy of Ecotourists Save the World. Other than the review copy, we received no compensation or incentive for reviewing the book. No one influences the content of any of our reviews other than the writer. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.

Blue Planet Green Living is an Amazon associate. If you choose to purchase this book or anything else by clicking on our Amazon link, we receive a very small percentage of your sale, which goes toward the operating expenses of this website.

For more information about our review policies, please visit the Policies link in our top navigation bar.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Good-bye, Mr. Rabbit

June 17, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Iowa, Leisure, Wildlife

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Mr. Rabbit. © T L W -

Time. There never seems to be enough of it. I am always running late. Too many things crammed into too little time.

A few months ago, in a hurried sprint to my car, I noticed a rabbit in my backyard. Nothing unusual about him, he was just one of those run-of-the-mill, brown rabbits. He kept a wary eye on me, but he made no effort to run away. He just stood there next to my little trellis garden, peacefully munching on grass. He seemed to be mocking me. I was the one scurrying off to a consulting appointment, all suited and tied, my watch in hand, saying, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

As I drove away, in my usual multitasking manner, part of my brain was in chaos: practicing my presentation, checking my briefcase for handouts, balancing my coffee cup with one hand, driving with another, checking the speed limit, and watching for traffic. The other half of my brain was remembering Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I ran the plot through in my head, the strange characters and stranger situations. I couldn’t help but think that rabbit had changed places with me. I should be the one lounging in my backyard, munching on greens. I retired last year — though you’d never know it.

That evening, after dinner, I pulled a deck chair out into the yard and just sat. I got reacquainted with my backyard wildlife. The rabbit was still there. He had taken a liking to a particular spot under the trellis in in my new vegetable garden. I considered chasing him away, knowing he would soon be enjoying a smorgasbord of fresh peas and bean sprouts.

But I didn’t chase him away. I guess it was because he had done me a favor. He had shown me that I was running too fast. I was missing the experience of my backyard, my garden, and my new trellis. I breathed in the fresh air, and we both watched the grass grow.

Over the next few weeks, Mr. Rabbit and I had many similar encounters, some not so friendly. Yes, he ate all of my peas and bean sprouts. Then I replanted and put up a rabbit fence. The rabbit taught me that I should not personify a wild rabbit in my backyard as a new friend, especially one courteous enough to leave my peas and bean sprouts alone. On occasion, his presence reminded me to water my garden and to pull the weeds. I could tell he was not happy with my new rabbit fencing.

It’s funny what simple messages can be learned from a rabbit. I have not seen the rabbit for a few days. I noticed his absence right after I heard two new owls talking to each other at night in the pine trees next to our house. I hope he’s okay; but if he is not, then he has taught me another lesson. Perhaps this is the most important one of all: Life is short. Don’t take it for granted.

I have been spending a lot more time in my backyard lately.

Joe Hennager

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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