Thursday, December 20, 2012

Namibian Road Trip!

I loved Namibian mornings.  Compared to most capital cities, mornings in Windhoek dawn quietly - there's not much traffic to crowd the streets, and the colors of the sunset slowly moved across the cityscape as if God were pulling back a blanket.  Our hotel was across the street from the Namibian Supreme Court, so it became the morning landmark I gazed at to watch the progress of the sun.  Well okay, "gazed" might be a little generous...mostly, I squinted sleepily out the window and then got tea as quickly as possible from the spot downstairs that quickly became my favorite coffeeshop/home decorating store on earth.
 
You think I'm kidding about the greatness of this place, but I'm not.  Even their milk pitcher promised great things!
 
 
Our next morning in Namibia didn't allow much time for watching sunrises or sipping cappuccinos, however - it was road trip time!  The trip from Windhoek (in the middle of Namibia) to Swakopmund (on the coast) was about five hours and I was determined not to sleep for a moment - this was the only real wildlife-watching opportunity we'd get!
 
One of the countless dirt roads stretching into the Namibian wilderness.
 
The thing no one tells you about Africa is that it's not easy to see the animals.  On PBS it seems they're everywhere - I've never even noticed African foliage because the only thing you see are the cats, elephants and giraffes.  In real life, you've moved past the animals before your brain even registers their presence.  I'm sure it's different in a safari jeep than it was in our van rushing along a highway but the principle seems similar: the trees, brush and colors designed to blend with the natural wildlife?  Yeah, it actually blends with the wildlife.  My contact lenses repeatedly dried into crunchy plastic on my eyes as I stared at the landscape so hard I forgot to blink.  Face pressed to the glass, camera ready, eyes alert...and thankfully, it was not wasted effort.  The camera part was wasted effort, though - all I got was this blurry photo of a warthog.
 
 
I finally gave up on photography and just enjoyed seeing the animals for myself.  Babboons, warthogs, lots of springbok and other antelope-like creatures...I got to send them my split-second greetings as we flew past.  My travel pals had a giraffe sighting but I missed it.  And really, wouldn't you?!
 
Eternal gratitude goes to Ardy, who managed to take this photo AND added the red arrow.  Without it I'd never even be able to pretend I could see the giraffe.
 
These coveted animal sightings were infrequent during the long drive, but watching Namibia sail by was very entertaining anyway.  The landscape looked so much like Arizona, it gave me an odd sensation that somehow I was traveling in time and had arrived at home.  Plus, there were lots of less popular wildlife sightings, like these interesting nest-like baskets that hung from many of the trees:
 
On the left of this photograph, hanging from a branch...many trees had so many of these that I lost count.

And then there was my personal favorite, the termite towers.  Absolutely phenomenal from a scientific and/or architectural perspective but the thought of it will make your skin crawl!


Like most other countries, Namibia's empty spaces were dotted with glimpses of civilization.  We stopped at a couple but mostly we just glimpsed these small communities through the window.  None of them reflected the African tribal culture I'd seen portrayed in documentaries about the nation; each of these roadside societies shared the heavily German vibe we'd seen in Windhoek.

 
I didn't know it then, but the transition from trees and bushes to this desolate desert meant the ocean was near.

 
Unfortunately, we hadn't left the townships behind in the big city - overcrowded, underprivileged areas surrounded Swakopmund, as well.  Colorful laundry hung from crumbling plywood shacks made semi-waterproof only by black plastic tarps.  Mothers walked with small children in dusty streets, and men lounged in doorways of makeshift businesses.  It was bitingly cold, with wind that embraced you with chilling discomfort as soon as you stepped outdoors.

 
After the reality of the township, the perfection of our hotel seemed inappropriate and even distasteful.  I was in no way ungrateful for the lovely accommodation and loved every moment we spent there, but was thankful the simple and comfortable rooms did not live up to the exterior's grandeur.
 
 
Swakopmund (pronounced Swa-KOPE-mund) was founded in 1892 and is home to approximately 42,000 people.  Those Germans didn't show a lot of creativity in their naming process - the name simply means "mouth of the Swakop," since the Swakop River runs into the sea there.  This Arizona girl has a hard time processing the fact, but it's true: this ocean town is in the Namib Desert.
 
We didn't get to see much of the town but from what we did see, it felt like a very small town.  If you like German food, it could be a great vacation spot: Beach? Check.  Sand Dunes? Check.  Well-kept, lovely community? Check.
 
We had only been in Swakopmund for less than an hour but we were already scheduled to leave for a discussion panel. We rebelled just a tiny bit, squeezing in a lunch break at this amazing restaurant on the Swakopmund Jetty before the 45-minute drive to our meeting. 
 
 
 
 Because nothing says "I'm in a beachfront vacation town" like a business suit and heels!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mission Accomplished!

Thank you to everyone who helped raise money for water.org's new wells in Haiti!  They reached the $100,000 goal before their deadline...now I hope you win some of the cool prizes. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Better Than A Letter from Santa

It's the end of a long day in an even longer week, but by force of habit I checked my mail before collapsing on the couch.  And wow, am I glad I did - look what was waiting for me!
 
 
It's the postcard that I sent myself from Havana more than four months ago!  I'd mailed it as an experiment since I knew mail service was unpredictable - it's only 90 miles between the U.S. and Cuba, but that distance is filled with decades of resentment and accusations.  Both countries have used mail service as a way to punish each other for political or security actions taken.  Seriously, the more I learn about the embargo the more I'm convinced it's exactly like two small children holding their breath until they get exactly what they want.
 
But in spite of all that, there it was - this amazing piece of paper waiting patiently in my mailbox.  I'd really love to know its story.  Did it just sit somewhere for all this time, or was it shipped around without logic?  There's no hint on the card itself - not even a postmark on the stamp, just a piece of heavy paper slightly worse for the wear with this message from July Beth to December Beth:
 
 
If you know me, you won't be surprised to learn that I hugged that postcard.  Thank you to the postal services, boats, planes and fickle political dynamics that allowed this to come find me again.
 
 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another Day in Namibia: Kaffee, Red Paint and the University of Arizona

We all needed to mentally transition out of the hospital experience into the much-anticipated grip-and-grin opportunities that would fill the rest of our day, so we squezed in a quick trip for a cup of coffee and a conversation about Cuban cigars at the amazing store/coffee shop in the mall downstairs from our hotel.  It was then that I learned a very valuable lesson from Laura: even small acts of generosity help you feel less overwhelmed by the gross injustices of the world.  (Thanks for the tea, Laura!)
 
 
Coffees in hand, we waited for our van driver Ulf.  Another lesson learned that afternoon: in Namibia, there's "now" and "now NOW."  Once we called Ulf to tell him that "now" had quickly become "now NOW" (our next meeting was in 10 minutes), he quickly reappeared and we headed toward the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 
 
The Ministry has the status, if not the history, of the U.S.'s Department of State, and we were privileged to meet with the Deputy Minister for the Americas.  Niklaas Kandji was charming and eloquent, and became even more interesting when I learned he had just returned from serving as Namibia's ambassador to Cuba for three years.  Our meeting wasn't long enough but he walked us out to the van so I got to get his thoughts on Cuba's economic reforms.  He is more optimistic about the pace of change than I am, but still, it was amazing to find a kindred spirit in a foreign land.  (Not that this was unusual.  I saw more than one Cuba t-shirt on Namibians - evidence of the nations' shared history, and of their ability to travel to Cuba without government permission.)
 
 
Another van ride and whirlwind trip around Windhoek and we arrived at one of the loveliest restaurants I've ever seen...fittingly named "Nice."  Namibia's numerous minority political parties were happy to meet with listening ears, especially since we offered to buy them lunch.  I'll admit that I went into the meeting with a little skepticism about the diversity in political parties, and I felt even more that way afterwards.  The parties are based on personalities and the complicated, competitive nature of politics.  South Africa had clear policy differences between the ANC and the DA - differences that could be defined and marketed - but Namibia's parties are seemingly based on disappointments and relationships.  Parties were too often formed by leaders who did not achieve the high leadership positions they thought they deserved in SWAPO, so they were based on a history rather than a policy.  No one could ever articulate a real policy difference between their party and SWAPO...though to be fair, we didn't have much time to discuss it with them, and they really were nice people.  I was especially impressed with Libolly Haufiku, a former leader of the Rally for Democratic Progress Party and even more formerly a leader in SWAPO when Namibia was establishing its independence.  He has traveled and lived all over the world (including Cuba!), and is the kind of person who could provide interesting commentary for days.
 
Yes, I'm short.
 
You know those pictures people take at lunch meetings, where everyone is in various stages of akwardly eating or talking?  I got too many of those at lunch, so I'll share this one instead:
 
Yes, those are pots and pans they're holding above their heads.

The restaurant was full of these uniqe scenes, the result of a photo shoot in the Namibian desert with the chefs.  It was the most joyful, creative way I'd ever seen of portraying both national beauty and a restaurant's impressive combination of culinary skills.  I loved every one of them.

We moved from politics to scholastics after lunch with a visit to the Polytechnic of Namibia, a respected institution that focuses on the use of technology to manage knowledge and globalization.  It was a beautiful campus, with that optimistic vibe that always makes me want to get a new notebook and dream up big ideas or cram for a big test.  This trip did not provide the burden/opportunity of playing unnoticed student, however - we were whisked across campus and into the private office of the university's rector, Professor Tjama Tjivikua. The room was one of my favorite spaces I've ever seen, with the sloped ceilings that come with upper-story rooms tucked into corners.  Maybe I just like them because tall people have to bend over to walk near the walls - it's like short people's revenge for all the times we got stuck in the back of photo opps (see above) or have to stand on chairs to get things from shelves.


Professor Tjivikua made me feel like a celebrity when he walked in and immediately asked which of us was from Arizona.  He lived and worked in my home state for several years, in addition to time at many of America's prominent universities.  And no, I didn't tell him I went to ASU...especially after I saw this on his shelf of the most notable gifts he'd received in his career. Among them was a vase from Rwanda and a small photo of the U of A...that's a pretty impressively well-rounded collection.
 
 
The university's newspaper put an article about our visit on their front page - to read it, and other interesting Namibian news, check it out here.
 
 
The thrill of meeting with a prominent Namibian intellectual was balanced out when we got stood up by Namibia's ruling political party. Though I'd been looking forward to meeting members of SWAPO's Youth League and was saddened that our friends from the Embassy were disappointed by the cancellation, everyone in our group was somewhat grateful for the unexpected break.  I got a much-needed rare treat - a quick nap - and we got a moment to visit the street vendors across from our hotel before our evening event.  I couldn't work up the courage/rudeness to ask for a photograph of the traditionally-dressed woman I'd seen in the mall the day before, so I took this one from across the street.  I'm sure these striking women are used to photographs but after dodging their surprisingly pushy sales tactics and buying only one beaded bracelet, I was ready to quickly head across the street anyway.  The bracelet, which they eagerly tied onto my wrist without permission, left my arm covered in the red paint.  The red tone made their skin appear smooth and ageless but it was undeniably garish on my own.  I wiped it off before we headed back into the van.

 
I could relax during the night's event since Laura and Michael were our designated speakers on grassroots mobilization in American politics, so I designated myself as our photographer.  I began by admiring the photography of others - these black and white photographs captured beautiful moments in an average Namibian day.  Laundry, walks, hard work...and each was taken by one of Esme's girls in the King's Daughters program.  A volunteer who was in Namibia on either a Fulbright or with the Peace Corps, I can't remember, was a trained photographer and she gave the women disposable cameras and photography lessons then arranged for the display in the American Corner at the Institute's library.
 
 
You know those moments before a work event in America, when you've moved past small talk and still have some time until you need to focus?  We always, always turn to something of perceived importance on our phones.  Turns out, the same thing happens in Namibia! 
 
Imagine that you were giving a presentation at work and the President of Harvard and high-level State Department official just popped in to hear it.  That's basically what this was...these amazing men not only took time out of their day, but showed up to spend a Friday evening with us as well.
 
I was so proud to be included in the scheduled presentation, though I didn't expect many people to show up.  The last thing most college students in America would do is listen to people talk about politics for an hour on a Friday night, but in Windhoek that's exactly what they did.  They kept coming in until it was standing room only and the security guards were adding more chairs to the back rows.  They asked questions, some sincere and some critical but all legitimate.  None of us ever did find a way to answer one question we always got: "how can America spend so much on elections when the money could help fix real problems?"  It seems our democracy still has some things to learn too, Namibian friends.
 
The presentations were followed by a reception in the library.  I formed new friendships but mostly just wandered through the room to catch others' conversations.  I'd made it through a long, eventful day as Group Leader without any major missteps, but my brain was exhausted and my stomach was reminding me that crackers and cheese do not a dinner make.  As the students, professors and dignitaries who had joined us wandered off to start our weekend, my travel pals Niya and Laura joined me in a quest for another great Namibian meal.  We found the perfect place with a tree-covered patio to enjoy the perfect evening, but were met at the door by a frowning waiter who informed us they were closing.  Since the sign stated they were open for another three hours we thought we'd encountered our first anti-foreigner sentiment from Namibia's capital city.  We'll never be sure why they decided not to welcome us but since the men in our group got the same treatment half an hour later at least we could rule out sheer male chauvinism - something that we dealt with every day in countless ways on the trip through Africa. 
 
We found an even better haven in Gathemann, a quiet and dignified restaurant that was hidden upstairs at the end of a rather narrow and hidden stairway.  The lamp-lit walls and dainty decor made it feel as if we were eating in someone's grandmother's formal dining room - it was a welcome change of pace and we ate like queens for a sum so low I almost felt guilty.  This was one of the few times in my life that I have been too tired to even consider ice cream, but with an ostrich steak for dinner there was no need for another course before my overworked brain got a good night of rest in my temporary Windhoek home.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Win Stuff and Make A Difference: Passports with Purpose

There's another update on my Africa trip coming this weekend, but first I wanted to tell you about an amazing opportunity to win great prizes and change the lives of people in Haiti.  Passports with Purpose works with travel bloggers around the world each year to raise money for charity.  It's not one of those "donate to help everyone" things - though those programs do wonderful work, I like Passports with Purpose's choice to focus on a specific thing we can all feel good about when it's accomplished.  This year, they're raising $100,000 so Water.org can build two much-needed wells in Haiti.
 
We talk about water shortages in Arizona but the fact is we have no idea what true shortages are.  It's mind-boggling to consider the lengths many people in the world go to in order to have just enough to drink, much less for showers and lawns.
 
The goal is noble and the process is fun: you get to enter to win from a huge list of prizes, and each entry means a donation of $10 to the program.  Click here for the rather jaw-dropping list of prizes (a week in Provence, anyone?).   
 
There's an awesome globe photo on the left side of the blog that will take you to Passports with Purpose at any time.  I'd also urge you to "like" their Facebook page, and check back to watch this fundraising number grow as you join me in helping made a difference for Haitians.
 
Thanks!
 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Troubled Township

I'm sorry to have disappeared in the middle of my Namibian adventure tales!  There are lots of small excuses - a house to clean, a job to do, a trip to California to enjoy (photos to come!).  But I'm hoping you'll continue with me as I finish my memories of the journey.
 
 
It was the dawn of what felt like the longest day of our trip.  The U.S. Embassy in Windhoek had packed our time there full of wonderful opportunities, but on this day I felt more pressure than enjoyment because I had somehow picked this action-packed day to be Group Leader.  The leader of the day was tasked with collecting appropriate gifts for each meeting we had (everyone in my group came with gifts that symbolized and shared their home state - an eclectic, amazing collection!), introducing our group and the purpose of ACYPL to each person we met and working with the Embassy staff to be sure things stayed on schedule.  When the alarm went off at 5 a.m. I was kicking myself for selecting this long day to volunteer for the increased level of responsibility, but there was a reason I'd picked it: I couldn't wait to meet Esme Kisting.
 
 
 
Esme joined my list of Most Amazing Women Ever as soon as I started reading about her work.  She runs King's Daughters, a non-profit in Windhoek that helps prostitutes find other ways to make a living.  That's a noble thing to do no matter what the circumstance, but in Namibia prostitution is a plague.  It's an all-too-easy career choice that is often passed down through generations (tired mothers send their teenage girls out in their place when they're "old enough"), promoted through tourism (it breaks my heart that there are still people on earth who would consider that an appreciation of Namibia's culture), and connected to the HIV/AIDS problem that is still an overwhelming problem in the country. 
 
Esme, like a modern-day angel, accidentally found her calling after her young husband died.  She went to work for the Council of Churches, a Christian organization in Namibia.  She enjoyed the work but said her interaction with the women who came for help stirred the desire to do more.  "These people needed more than 'hallelujah' and 'amen,'" Esme says.  So she got support to slowly build King's Daughters into what it is now: an active support system for women who are trying to change their lives and give their daughters a new path.
 
I think Esme deserved a palace for her organization but instead we met in the bicycle shop, a metal-walled enclosure in the middle of a dusty lot near her offices.  The shop provides an income-generating arm of King's Daughters, and I'm proud to say U.S. funding helped Esme get part of the materials needed for her to hire transforming prostitutes and local men to fix up old bicycles and resell them.  When our funding ran out, Esme talked a company into donating another metal trailer for the organization to use.  I can't even say I was surprised, since as soon as I met her I knew it would be hard for anyone to tell this beautiful, kind and enthusiastic woman "no" regardless of what she asked.

 
 
 
 
I'll admit that I cried through most of our meeting.  I cried because of the heartbreaking tales, like the woman whose determination to get help had inspired the creation of King's Daughters, and who continued to help with the organization even after her baby died of AIDS.  I cried because of success stories, like the women who had successfully found full-time employment off the streets and  Esme's award from the State Department for her work to end human trafficking.  And I cried out of admiration for someone who has clearly found what she is supposed to be in life, and who is willing to dedicate every moment to become that sign of hope for others who truly need it. 
 
 
 
The only thing that could have made me willingly leave our conversation with Esme a few minutes early was the chance to see more of the Katutura Township.  As you can tell if you've seen the many pictures I took every time we drove by a township located near a highway, I really wanted to learn more about how people lived in the "second economy" of these African nations we were visiting. 
 
"Katutura" means "the place where we do not want to live" in Otjiherero, the Herero language.  The township has a history similar to others like it - it became the living place of Windhoek's black population in 1965, when those Namibian residents were forced out of their homes under apartheid. Their former homes were demolished so whites could build fancier ones in their place, and though the world has altered - apartheid is ended and Namibia is now an independent nation - the displaced Namibian families continue to live here. 
 
 
The fact that this abuse of humanity could happen at all is horrific; that they continue to have to live in this area without basic necessities is hard to comprehend.  And yet we saw many of the urban scenes you'd see on streets in any other part of the world...kids walking to and from school, women gossiping in the streets or carrying children and packages, teenagers flirting in the shade of buildings.  This was a hub of entrepreneurship and the signs of a willingness to work were everywhere, in a rather confusing way.  I lost count of how many car washes we saw - there was a car wash at about every third house.  Confusing, since Katutura is a place with lots of dirt, little water and absolutely no disposable income, but most of them were busy.
 
 
Check out this interview with the owner of one of the carwashes  we saw- it's impressive and informative!  Keep in mind that one U.S. dollar equals about eight Namibian dollars - so when he says they charge $30-40 for a car wash, it's in Namibian cash.

Each metal shack held a variety of businesses...a small variety.  They fell into the categories of salon, car wash, convenience store, and bar.  Lots and lots of bars in metal shacks, referred to as "shabeens."

 
I suspected that any time spent in the townships would change my perspective on things, but I wasn't prepared for how much the next stop would change me.  We left the shabeen-filled streets to enter the grounds of the Katatura State Hospital.


This hospital and the people who work in it should make every American stand a little taller and prouder.  To say that this facility is vital to Namibia is putting it mildly - U.S. foreign aid dollars literally mean life for someone who would otherwise have a death sentence from HIV.  They mean a mother can celebrate the birth of her newborn with a better chance of seeing that infant live.  They give parents more time to provide for their families and ensure that at least in some cases, generations of families can stay together longer.

The U.S. Embassy and USAID staff who set up our tour were kind to our overpampered American sensitivities: we toured the hospital on a Friday, when the hospital only accepts new patients.  I suspect that a normal day would have been overwhelming due to the number of treatments on an average day.  There are currently 13,000 patients at this hospital, 9,000 of whom are active.  ("Active" in this context doesn't mean they send Christmas cards to their doctors - it means they are on a continuous cycle of ARVs, HIV management through antiretroviral drugs.)  We started in the paperwork-heavy administrative wing of the hospital, where we got to see first-hand the U.S.-donated computer systems that help doctors treat HIV patients efficiently and consistently.  Namibian health care isn't just fighting the HIV virus, it's also fighting the social stigmas and misunderstandings that lead people to deny they have AIDS or fail to use medication appropriately.  The computer systems help them reach out to patients to provide the support and reminders they need in order to make the treatments effective and prolong their life.
 
Even the paperwork provided a somber reminder of the heavy load these doctors are carrying - the "archive" room held too many lives cut short. 
 
 
The hallways of the hospital were decorated with art that reflected real Africans, not the touristy version in paintings at the markets we visited.  These photographs captured the small joys of daily life in a harsh environment - children jumping on a bed, families sitting together and old people eating simple bowls of food.
 
The next stop was the pharmacy, where the continuous, rhythmic sound of pills being counted into jars reverberated like a death song throughout the large space.  Patients sat against the wall of the waiting room, blank faces gazing with no curiosity as we walked through, and who can blame them?  We were in business suits carrying cameras, while they're waiting for yet another dose of pills that are their only hope against a disease they did nothing to deserve.  The pharmacy serves 250-300 of these patients every single day.
 
 
I’d maintained composure up to this point by focusing on the facts and figures of the information we were hearing: the number of patients rather than the lives behind those numbers, the fiscal details rather than the understanding of how many lives could be saved with an average American’s weekly food budget.  But the information got harder to process in the next section of the hospital, where we met with pediatricians who are responsible for treating children. They're proud of the fact that anti-HIV efforts have dropped the percentage of pregnant women with the virus: one in five Namibian mothers suffer from HIV.
 

Pediatricians in Namibia were faced with the problem of explaining the need to take the rigorous anti-HIV pills on a regular basis to children who did not yet know what AIDS is. So they developed a curriculum to train young children: "Why I Take My Medicine." The comic-style book tells an exciting tale of the good "body soldiers" and the bad guy...the bad guy stays sleeping if children take their medicine, but if they stop swallowing the pills the bad guy starts to wake up and the good soldiers are in danger. This heartbreaking story works until the children are six, when they're told about AIDS. It's not until they're 10 that they reach "full disclosure," and must begin to deal with the fact that they were born with HIV and must deal with the medications and possible death for the rest of their lives.
 
These pediatricians have formed a bond with their patients over the years, since the treatment keeps the children closely connected to the hospital staff. The oldest patient in the pediatric wing is 21. He should be transferred to an adult program now, but they haven’t quite figured out how to ensure the transition occurs. The pediatricians have been the guy’s therapists, counselors and guides for his entire life; they worry that if they ask him to trust the less personal nature of the adult hospital treatment, he’ll stop taking his medications.

There was no stopping the tears by now – there’s no stopping them every time I relive this experience. I gave up on taking pictures because I desperately wanted to communicate compassion and admiration for the patients we encountered as we walked through the white hallways, rather than doing anything to separate myself from them any more than usual. No photographs captured the essence of this place, anyway – a combination of hope and despair, disgust and resignation.

 
The final stop on our tour will haunt me until I die.  We walked across the hospital emergency entrance in the cool Namibian spring air to reach another wing, with a simple sign above the door announcing “Maternity Ward.”  As my eyes quickly adjusted to the inside lighting I saw that I was surrounded by a large room filled with rough benches, slabs of wood with no backs or armrests.  And the benches were filled with women, mostly young but not all, each holding a baby or a toddler awaiting their anti-HIV treatment.  To say that the moment put things in perspective is an understatement – it undermined every worry, frustration or irritation I have experienced, and scrambled my priorities in a split second.  Tears streamed down my face as I edged my way past the women to the administrative offices in the back where we continued our briefing with a doctor proud of the progress they’d made in reaching pregnant women with prenatal care and education.  I struggled to contain my emotions because I so wanted to encourage his enthusiasm for the accomplishments they’d obtained, but I’ll admit there was no way to do so completely.  My fellow travelers subtly passed Kleenex to each other without making eye contact, because any communication about this experience - even non-verbal - would demolish our attempt to focus enough to process the sensory overload when we were back in our van. 

I couldn’t wait to escape and yet I never wanted to leave.  No documentary or fact sheet or photograph could have prepared me for such close contact with the kind of sadness I saw in those womens’ eyes.  No percentages or statistics capture the sheer number of children born with little hope.  When we gathered outside again, the amazing doctor who had led our tour asked if I had the flu – we’d just left a room of dying babies and this wonderful woman, who couldn’t have been much older than me – was concerned for my well-being.  I tried to explain my emotions without ignoring the progress that this woman and many like her had achieved, but thankfully she understood.  This job was new to her, she explained – until recently, she worked in the rural areas of Namibia where there were no fancy state hospitals or computers that ensured doctors knew who needed another round of pills.  When she walked into the maternity ward she saw not a scene of hopelessnes or injustice, but an organized system of life-bringing medicines that could keep babies alive and education that could keep women from passing HIV to their newborns.  I’m so grateful that I had the chance to get her perspective on it, but still am haunted by the facts and images behind the reality of the people’s harsh existence.

When I visit Namibia again I will spend much more time in Katutura and other townships.  I want to understand their reality, their limitations and the victories that each day brings over starvation and illness.  Until then, I will share my pride in America’s foreign aid funding to anyone who will listen, and will fight like crazy to ensure that we continue to reach out a helping hand to those who need it most.  I can make economic arguments about the global market and Namibian exports of beef (coming soon to a grocery store near you!) but it really comes down to that moment when I realized that I never understood the level of despair humanity can endure, and I want to live in a country that does anything it can to help make it better.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Election Day

It's election day in Cuba.  Many will argue about what that means and the extent to which it changes even the slightest detail of Cuban life, but I will spend the day thinking about the beautiful people on an island I love: the social gatherings at local polling places, the quiet debates between friends, and the hope that someday Cuba's elections really will give the nation's citizens a say in the direction of their country.
 
(Much more detail to come when I get time to complete my research project on Cuba's election process.)
 
Havana Times
 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What's Up, Windhoek?

We squeezed in one more meeting on our way out of South Africa, and it was an impressive one: we met with a roomful of union representatives at the Congress of South African Trade Unions.  As far as powerful lobbying groups go, this one sets an alarmingly high bar.  COSATU is directly and irreversibly connected with the ruling political party and with many South Africans' daily lives.  The fact that many employers are directly connected to the ANC only increased my admiration for the young people we'd met who worked with and for the opposition parties - it can't make them popular in many work and social environments!
 
Freezing outside COSATU House - those stereotypes about all of Africa being a hot desert?  Totally untrue.
 
The meeting with union representatives was cut far too short - especially because I really wanted to spend the day hearing a conversation between the Republican elected officials with whom I was traveling and the union activists - but we did manage to make a few quick friendships before we were herded out the door.
 
On our way to the airport we speed-walked through a local craft market.  It was very similar to the experience I had at the market in Havana: amazing products, pushy salespeople and an environment of negotiations that makes me very uncomfortable.  I don't want to fight about money with anyone - just tell me what you want and I'll decide if I want to pay it.  (Side note: I loved my Saturn car-buying experience because they agreed with my policy on haggling...I dread the next car purchase without that as an option!)  I made it through the market without spending too much money and then took time to befriend these wonderful men who were doing woodwork under a sign that read "Crafters at Work."

 
 
These side-by-side paintings captured my summer of travel pretty well!


More lines, more coveted stamps in my passport and a two-hour flight later, we left South Africa behind us to add Namibia to the "been there done that" list of accomplishments.

 
I didn't doubt Freddie (our friend at the Namibian embassy in D.C.) when he said Namibia looked like Arizona but I guess I did secretly think the perspective would be different for a first-time visitor.  I was wrong.  When the plane's wheels touched down at the Windhoek airport I was convinced we'd hit a time warp and they'd brought me back to Phoenix...a less inhabited, less polluted Phoenix.
 
 
To prove my point, the photo above is Namibia...the one below is between Phoenix and Tucson.
 
 
Not a single road in Arizona, however, has a sign this cool. 
 

And yes, in case you're wondering...I did in fact hum Hakuna Matata every single time I saw one of those signs.


Windhoek looks like another European capital city, with orderly traffic signs and blooming flowers planted on corners and in front of houses.  Tribal cultures are still tantalizingly close to the city here, however, and traces of them crept even into the downtown area where we stayed.  I enjoyed a few delightful free moments with two members of my group, and while enjoying sky-high cappuchino foam (seriously, these baristas are impressive) in the middle of a mall we glanced up to see a stunning African woman with no shirt, tribal jewelry...and an iPod.


I didn't work up the courage to talk to that woman in the mall (who was apparently just taking a bathroom break from the area where women from her community sell their jewelry and trinkets at an open-air market across the street from our hotel) but we did meet amazing women at our reception that evening.  The U.S. embassy hosted the event and invited a wonderful collection of young Namibian professionals who had traveled, or were going to travel, to the U.S.  There were very nice men there but it was my conversations with the women that I'll never forget.  Regina became a stay-at-home mother right after she finished college, but then started her own highly successful IT company when her child was older.  Mind you, she did this while fighting for financing in a country where the average citizen makes US$7,500 a year and in a society so paternalistic that men sometimes push women out of the way to get through doors first. Other women worked for non-profits or entities working to get young people politically engaged...all of them were beautiful and so impressive that I could have heard them talk for days.

 
This was another rooftop reception, which provided the perfect opportunity to appreciate another Arizona-like quality about Namibia: the sunsets.  People talked and laughed, glasses clinked and silverware tinged against plates as the food was served but it all blended into background noise as another busy day came to a glorious, rose-hued close against the skyscape of Windhoek.