Sunday, June 6, 2010

241: Two Endings And Two Beginnings

Ending Experience #1: The last Big Hike in Namibia (from Bernd)

I always had a special fondness for the Naukluft, a mountain range at the edge of the desert, some 300 km south of Windhoek. There is an 8-day/120km round-trip trail with shelters for every night, but otherwise nothing but unspoiled nature. We hiked it in 2002 (see Namibia Diary #132), and I wanted to do it once more. Our daughter Elsita agreed and persuaded two of her colleagues, Michelle and Ari, to join the adventure. So, on the 21st of May, I set out with a load of supplies from Windhoek to Gobabeb to pick them up, and on the next day we started from the Naukluft Park Headquarters with all the clothes, food and other essentials that we would need for the next 8 days on our backs.

The first day’s trail climbs up to a plateau along the Eastern rim of the mountains, where we saw baboons, rock hyrax, mountain zebra, several eagles and many, many wildflowers. But we had started late and didn’t make it quite to the firstt shelter that night. Instead, we camped out in the open, using a clearing made by zebras for their sand baths. The soft ground suited us just fine and we had a great time sleeping under the moon and stars of a clear sky.

Early the next morning, we made it to the shelter and there was trasheverywhere. Due to flood damage during the last rainy season, the “jeep track” for maintenance was impassable, and the baboons had used the opportunity to raid the place. But the water pump was fine (every shelter is supposed to have a water supply, and so we needed to carry only 3 liters per person per day.) All morning the trail wound across the high plateau and for lunch we stopped near a huge active nest of sociable weavers. (It’s like an apartment house for birds.) From then we climbed down through a deep gorge, partially secured on chains, to the site of a former- vacation home that is now the 2nd night’s shelter. That night a herd of zebra visited us, munching the grasses behind the nearby bushes.

On the third day we had to climb back up through the same gorge, and then take a long hike over the hilly high lands. We saw more zebra, and lots of klipspringers, but not the white rhinoceros that roams the area (we were assured, it’s friendly, and yes we saw lots of fresh unmistakable rhino dung, but that was it). We continued on the 4th day, until we reached another gorge. This is the point of no return: you have to slide down a smooth rock face with no possibility to climb back up. Soon we had to climb up another slope to
bypass a large (but now dry) waterfall. The beautiful view from above was worth the struggle. On the other side, once more in a valley, we found Namibia’s largest Moringa tree (known locally as a medicine tree for its curative values), with the stem of 4 meters
(13 feet) circumference. That night we all had a much-needed quick shower from a huge water tank before crawling into our sleeping bags.

After a steep ascent in the morning, day 5 led us across the extensive milkweed plain – again with klipspringers and zebra watching us. However, in the evening we hit a crisis at the shelter: No water. This despite the fact that there was a huge tank and a solar water pump. It seems that someone had inadvertently left the valve open on the out-flowing pipe.
Eventually, we saw that somebody else before us had drilled a small hole at the bottom of the tank and closed it with a wooden peg. By opening it, there just was enough water to fill our bottles. What a relief! Of course, we closed it carefully again, and also the main valve, so that future hikers may have more luck.

That night we had another good meal thanks to Michelle’s art of cooking – despite the limited choices of dry foods that we could carry, she always came up with surprises. And then we enjoyed the last of our hot chocolate under a full moon.

Day 6 was the hardest and longest day, starting with climbing up steeply next to a 200 meter waterfall, and then continuing over the boulders in the riverbed above. At times we climbed the side of the gorge so high that we could look into eagle’s nests from above. Finally, following the remainders of an old farm road, we descended down to Tufa shelter – nicely nestled between large trees in a valley. There, the pipe on the water pump was broken, but water was gushing out on the side, which allowed us to fill our water bottles anyway – this time a double load, because we were warned that the last shelter also was unreachable by vehicle and its water tank was empty.

The 7th day hike began on a path through scruffy bushes, and at some particular narrow place, Ari tripped and fell backwards into the bushes, pulling Elsita with him. Not much happened since the
backpacks protected them somewhat, but this time the medical emergency kit was needed to mend some ripped pants. Shortly after, we arrived at the last big ascent of the hike, a climb up along a waterfall where we had to pull ourselves up along a long chain. Over many more boulders and rocks, we eventually gained the highest point of the hike at Bakenkop – rightfully called “World’s View” over the desert far below.

That night we camped at Kapokflakte shelter on the high plains. As the sun set, we saw a herd of springbok, but later they disappeared. We had expected to see more in the full moonlight – but a cold wind came up, forcing the animals into lower valleys and us into our sleeping bags. Next morning the temperature was below freezing with a hoar frost on the grass.

The last day led across a rubble-strewn high plateau
and then into the waterkloof gorge and down from the mountain. There was still plenty of water, and some of the pools were tempting for a swim, but we were running late and had to rush back. By mid-afternoon, we reached the park office, greeted by the park ranger and the next group of hikers, who were eager to hear about our adventures. Hopefully the park officials can do something about the conditions we reported.

Despite the hardship and some big scratches and bruises, we had eight glorious days in the wild without seeing any humans except our own group. With the gorgeous views and herds of animals around, this was always my favorite hike and I am glad I could do it again – providing a bit of closure to thirteen years in beautiful Namibia.

Ending Experience #2: Success leads to new challenges (from Lucy)

I recently returned from Zambia -- my last African trip before Bernd and I embark on our Round-the-World adventure. Eleven hours by road from the capital of Lusaka, I reached Mansa – an agricultural outpost along Zambia’s northern border with the Congo. Here I met a group of amazing people associated with the Luapula Foundation, whose history is about as “far out” as its location.

Founded in 2001 by two Zambian citizens and a former US Peace Corps volunteer, the Luapula Foundation began with a donation of $870 from Louisiana, USA. Distressed by the growing numbers of children orphaned by AIDS
and unable to attend school, the three founders used their fledgling organization to provide 23 orphans with school fees, uniforms and the supplies they needed. As the years passed, more volunteers became involved and international assistance poured in. Currently, the Luapula Foundation supports over 3,000 orphans and vulnerable children as well as their caregivers. Their goal is to empower local families who are infected or affected by HIV to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, using the Foundation’s support to increase their access to education, health-care, and new techniques of “conservation farming.”

My visits always include a trip into the field to see what is really happening on the ground. Staff took me to meet with eighteen members of the Mushila Support Group of People Living with HIV/AIDS, an hour and a half away from the office. All the members looked healthy, which is remarkable in itself, as most had been bedridden and near death just a few years ago. Currently, all are receiving life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and have benefited from several training courses and start-up capital to improve their nutritional and economic condition.

What specifically, did the group get? Beginning two years ago, funding from the Stephen Lewis Foundation provided them with training on leadership, new farming
techniques and “positive- living.” They were taught how to construct fuel-efficient stoves (saving wood and labor), and they received several sacks of maize-meal and oil to make and sell fritters at the local market. (This paid for their immediate expenses.) They were also given a pregnant pig and some goats, and out of the 18 people with whom we met, seven said that they have gotten at least one animal from the offspring. (In addition to providing a source of food, these farm animals constitute the local bank – they represent a family’s savings until a major expense must to be paid.) Finally, the Foundation provided two bicycles to the group, to help people get to the Health Clinic without having to pay others for transport.

Group members spoke glowingly about the continued impact of the assistance they received. Their peanuts and soya crops have already produced two big harvests, thanks to the new farming techniques that they learned. For the first time in years, they have enough protein in their diet. Profits from the sale of fritters paid for last year’s school-fees, so that the children of group members could continue their education. Overall, the members said that they feel healthier and more respected in their community, and this has resulted in the reduction of stigma and discrimination. Now, other people are even asking for their advice, especially about HIV/AIDS and conservation farming. They are proud of what they have achieved, and feel much more optimistic about their future.

This is a success story except for one catch. When the group started it had 12 people and – had they remained that size – all of them are convinced that they would be completely self-sufficient now and able to support their families. But their success attracted more and more members, and today they are 51 people, with more wanting to join every month.

The problem is that African culture dictates that, when someone has achieved relative wealth, then others are entitled to share the bounty – both family members and neighbors in the community. Thus, the Mushili group was obliged not only to welcome the new members, but also to include them in the outcome of the work undertaken so far. Spreading the earnings to 51 people has watered down the benefit that any one person can enjoy. Thus everyone is a little bit better off but no one has enough to lift him- or her-self out of the depths of poverty. Once again, paying school fees has become a problem. And, as we were told, “Having two bicycles was great for 12 people, but not for 51. Moreover, we expect we’ll be 100 members pretty soon.”

I asked what the group intended to do about this onslaught of interest. I was told it is “not African” to turn neighbors away. The group’s chairperson said, “We are thinking of restructuring our Board so we can deal with this, but we don’t know how.” Clearly, this will be Luapula Foundation’s next challenge: to help the Mushila Support Group remain small enough to guarantee integrity and impact, but also ensure that others in the community can start their own groups with a similar outcome.

The odds are against such a development,however. Jealousies are bound to break out between groups, and to retain peace the local chiefs may decree that it is better to remain poor and unified than unequal and at-war. If that happens, it’s back the old ways of doing things, and true progress – even when it has proven itself possible – may be rejected. This is how Africa will survive (and part of what we love about it), but also why true progress is be so difficult to achieve.

Beginning Experience #1: Mazel Tov to Us

This morning (June 6th) the woman who will live in our house while we’re gone became a mother. You may remember Lydia from
her great wedding in the north, about 18 months ago (see Namibia Diary #222). She gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and all is well. We weren’t allowed to know the names until the baby arrived, but a few minutes ago the father told me: The parents are calling her Twapanda (We are grateful) Etugama (God is on our side) Twapewa (She has been given) Sharon (Biblical, denoting the valley of Sharon). And because Lydia lives in our house, we also got to add a name: it is Tsipora, meaning little bird in Hebrew (and also the wife of Moses).

Beginning Experience #2: Eighteen days to go

Yikes! We’re mostly in denial about having to say good-bye, and our “TO DO” list is still too long for comfort. Nevertheless, we plan to have a website up and running ( before we leave, so you will be able to see photographs and keep abreast of our itinerary and adventures as much (or as little) as you want. We’ll also send out periodic letters, as now. Many of you have written us encouraging notes. Thanks for your support.

With best wishes,
Lucy and Bernd

Monday, May 17, 2010

240: Countdown: Forty Days to Go

Every day our friends ask us if we're excited about leaving for our round-the world trip next month. The truth is that we're exhausted. I don't know how it's possible that our “To-Do” list still keep growing, but it does. And then there are all the good-byes we have to squeeze in – very gratifying but they tug at our heartstrings. Even though we plan to come back next year for at least several weeks, it’s hard to leave a country – and the people – we’ve come to love.

Nevertheless, the logistics of leaving are well underway. We conducted a sample packing and were able to stuff everything into two big suitcases, two small back-packs, and a carry-on. Former students Lydia and Pandu will move into our home next week (they’re the couple who got married in Namibia Diary #222) and their baby (!!!) should arrive before we leave. Our dogs will also get a new home, though I dread saying good- bye to them as much as to our human-friends.

A couple days ago Bernd and I went in search of elephants one last time. We found them at a watering hole at night, shortly after watching two lions mate and also seeing rhino, giraffe and assorted other mammals and birds. (We splurged for our 30th wedding anniversary and stayed at a new game-farm

that is larger than the countries of Lichtenstein and Andorra combined.) Still ahead of us is one last visit to Gobabeb, the desert- based research center where Elsita works. She also has exciting news: The faculty at Israel’s Ben Gurion University have invited her to join their Master’s Degree program in Desert Ecology, starting in October.

Unfortunately, we won’t get to see Sergio before our departure. He remains in Japan and is unable to take home-leave.


Question: Do you know how to tell the difference between the way male and female elephants leave their poop?

Answer: Males poop in a row, while walking. Females stop, poop in more-or-less one place, and add urine. (No kidding! I also bet if they had toilet seats they would also put down the rim.)

Meanwhile, we are still heavily engaged at our work. Bernd finishes teaching at the Polytechnic in a couple weeksand still plans an 8-day hike with Elsita and her friends (see Namibia Diaries #132 for the route). And starting later today, I must still travel for three-weeks to Zambia for the Stephen Lewis Foundation and also finish up writing two life-skills curricula for youth.

Training at Osire Refugee Camp

One of the curricula I’m writing led to an interesting experience last week. In order to pre-test it, I had arranged a five-day workshop at Namibia’s Osire Refugee Camp, about 3 hours from Windhoek on the edge of the Kalahari. Since the curriculum is designed for use in many countries (to be published by Strategies for Hope –, the multi-ethnic composition of the Refugee Camp made for a good fit. Moreover, all the youngsters (ages 11-15) spoke good English -- thanks to the presence of an English-medium government primary school on-site.

About 7000 people live at the Camp, mostly from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Many of the young people, like the student Sofiana who moved in with us eighteen months ago, have lived there most of their lives. The place is like a massive low-security prison, completely surrounded by a high-wire fence -- albeit with dozens of churches, several mosques, a makeshift market, a health clinic, a library, school, and a large police station inside.

Although everyone living at the Camp has been found by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees to have a “well- founded fear of persecution” (which theoretically allows them to stay at the Camp indefinitely), the Namibian government doesn’t like the fact that the services to which they are entitled cost a lot of money (i.e. the school, health-clinic, police, etc), and the government wants them to go home as soon as possible. Thus, they keep things uncomfortable by reducing food subsidies to a minimum and disallowing electricity and running water except in a few public buildings. Families must also construct their own homes and latrines from mud-bricks and straw, and find their own way to make a living. Most supplement their diet by coaxing vegetables, beans and maize out of the meager soil. Others engage in buying and selling, as even cracked pots and worn-down clothing have value in this forsaken place.

Several good-Samaritan Non-Governmental Organizations try to make life reasonable by offering English-language classes, income-generating activities, theology training and youth-programs. This is how I slipped in, although I was still required to get a Government permit for entry. Fortunately, I had been to the Camp several times before and I already had a good relationship with Gabriel Sehenu, the volunteer Coordinator of the Osire Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs (himself a refugee from the DRC and a teacher in the Camp’s school). Together we recruited nineteen youngsters, met with their legal guardians, and subsequently held three two-hour sessions every day for an entire week in order to test and revise the curriculum.

The kids were great! The curriculum includes a lot of games, drawing and role-plays, so we could have lots of fun together. Gabriel and I addressed issues of sex and sexuality, how to solve problems, good study-habits, self- esteem, “Who is my Hero?”, “What is Love?,” HIV & AIDS, and issues of addiction and alcohol abuse. While I got lots of tips about how improve the curriculum, overall the workshop was a great success. By the second day, our anonymous Question-Box was filled with 23 questions that the participants wanted us to talk about – everything from menstruation to career guidance -- and that meant staying until very late each afternoon. But nobody minded.

I also became “mother confessor” to a few of the girls who sought my advice on personal issues. Most concerning was an incredibly bright and articulate 14- year-old named Rosa who told me on the third day that I was “the first adult to know” that she is pregnant, based on a Clinic-test she took a few days before. Oh, my heart broke as I felt her dreams just crumble to bits in my fingers!

Over the next few days, Rosa and I spent several hours talking things through. Rosa has been motherless since the age of five – and has been living alone for the last three years since her father moved in with a new girlfriend. (Tragically, there are quite a few child- headed households in the Camp.) She told me that she didn’t want an abortion --which would be illegal anyway, given Namibian law -- because her only sibling had died from a botched abortion three years ago. Rosa also said that her 17-year old boyfriend admits his role, but he is scared of his parents’ reaction and refuses to talk to them about it. No wonder this girl is feeling lost, lonely and vulnerable!

I tried to help Rosa put her new-found problem-solving skills into practice: Define the Challenge; Identify the Choices; Think through the Consequences; and then Make the best Decision... Unfortunately, the Camp contains very few resources with which to assist, as I’m told

this type of story repeats itself almost every week. Above all, Rosa and I decided that she must try to stay in school to finish her basic education. By the end of the week, she agreed to tell Gabriel about her situation and he said he would help with the school authorities. But how will she support herself and her baby? Who can help guide her through the tough times ahead?

Driving back to Windhoek after the training, I wondered if I could do more if we stayed longer in Namibia. The answer is, “Not easily.” Once I am physically away from the Camp, my only linkage can be through Gabriel. He has received some training in counseling and wants to learn more. So Bernd and I agreed we would try to help him with his goals and he, in turn, said he will do what little he can for Rosa...

Yours truly, Lucy

Saturday, March 27, 2010

239: What continent is this?

For the last three years, the World Council of Churches had been planning a regional meeting in Madagascar to support the efforts of local churches dealing with HIV and AIDS. Finally, it happened. Our small plane left Johannesburg, crossed over Mozambique and the Indian Ocean, and graced over rocky outcrops and luscious green rice fields until it landed in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. Very few tourists have come to this island since last year’s military coup, so in February the country cancelled all visa fees and now gives every new visitor an informational booklet on the history of Madagascar’s lunar calendar (which is Arabic in origin). Does the government really think these gestures will persuade tourists to start coming again?

An international city – in a time warp

Unfortunately, I could only stay less than one week. But what an amazing experience! Antananarivo is one of very few historic capitals that lie neither on the ocean nor on a major river. Instead, it is located in the middle of the country, perched on hilly outcrops about a mile above sea level. There are 2 million inhabitants and not a single traffic light. Not one!

The traffic is terrible, as you can imagine. But I enjoyed looking at the proliferation of cars from the 1950s, which gives a feel of Old Havana – albeit with a French overlay. Most cars are rattling Renault 4s and 2-horsepower Citroens, which are used as taxis.

Old buildings line the streets, with sloping tiled roofs, tiny wood-shuttered windows and small balconies where people hang out their laundry to dry. None of the structures seemed quite straight, least of all the narrow outdoor staircases that lead one to the second floor or up the steep hillsides of the city. Looking at these scenes, I was reminded of old Moldova or parts of Eastern Europe fifty years ago. Yet the street signs are all in Malagasy and French. And, given Madagascar’s history as a former French Colony, our meals invariably included croissants every morning and French wines at night.

Perhaps because I knew so little about Madagascar, I never expected the city’s residential and business areas to be so crowded. People’s homes and shops are squeezed into tiny spaces in between flower-potted gardens, polluted canals and sour-smelling garbage heaps. Most surprisingly, however, the flat areas that surround the city’s hills consist mostly of rice paddies. In the middle of the city! Sadly, however, the paddies are becoming less productive every year, as an epidemic of hyacinths choke out the oxygen in the stagnant water. Seemingly, no one knows how to get rid of this invasive plant. (The same has happened in the Chesapeake River outside Washington, I understand.) A number of local farmers try to induce their cattle into the water to eat the hyacinths, but with little success.

These scenes and my interactions with the Malagasy people transported me even farther afield -- to Asia. Most people look Polynesian and they speak a local language that resembles a Papua New Guinea dialect. (The photo of me is with Rev. Vololona Randriamanantena – a descendent of Malagasy royalty and coordinator of the World Council of Churches’ efforts in the country.) What little you see of new construction is almost entirely financed by Chinese banks using Chinese labor, and in my Chinese hotel nobody even bothered to translate the instructions from Chinese on how to operate the TV or telephone. Over and over during this trip, I kept pinching my arm to remember what continent I was in.

The two sides of HIV in Madagascar

But of course, we came to focus on the HIV situation. Coming from other southern-African countries that have the highest HIV-prevalence rates in the world (for example, Namibia’s adult population is 18% HIV-positive ), once again Madagascar blew me away. The national prevalence rate in Madagascar is less than a half-a-percent – far less than in Washington D.C. (at 3%) or the United States as a whole (close to 1%).

What is Madagascar’s secret to success?

If you answered “its isolation” you are probably correct. But it’s not only that Madagascar is an island, far away from Africa’s mainland. Even within the country people don’t move around a lot due to the country’s miserable road network. So the normal patterns by which disease is spread don’t apply here.

Moreover, when people do travel, it often means that they are looking for work outside Madagascar and, because of language issues, that usually means going to Mauritius or France or West Africa where the HIV prevalence is much lower. Finally, you may be aware that male circumcision reduces the likelihood for HIV infection by 60%. And, despite the fact that Madagascar is mostly Christian, virtually all Malagasy boys get circumcised by the age of two. It’s not a foolproof solution (as Jewish and Muslim men with HIV can sadly testify), but it certainly helps.

Unfortunately, the downside to this low prevalence rate is that for those Malagasy citizens who do happen to be HIV positive, the stigma and discrimination issues are awful and overwhelming. Most people living with HIV are afraid to tell their employers or even their family members that they carry the HIV virus for fear that they will be thrown of their jobs and homes. Clinics and support organizations for HIV-positive people are few and far between, and also very difficult to find. (The desire for anonymity keeps them hidden, without any public outreach.) The churches have a big role to play in breaking down stigma and discrimination, and from what we could see many are trying their best.

We visited a number of HIV/AIDS clinics and support groups. Interestingly most of the people living with HIV whom we met were men, while worldwide the disease predominantly affects women. Is this because of the relatively more-accepted practice of men-having-sex-with-men in Madagascar? I can only guess. So much on this island remains a mystery – and not only to me.

Lemurs are best!

Of course, no trip to Madagascar is complete without taking in some other unique aspects – specifically, some of the country’s 16 surviving species of lemur. Our natural history guide was named “Good-smelling,” which I thought bode well for our adventure.

Lemurs are the world’s earliest prehensile mammals, maternal in their social structure, and generally living in groups. They are primarily vegetarian and females always eat first. A night, lemurs sleep in a circle, with the males forming a protective ring around the females. They are naturally curious creatures, their round eyes staring at you intensely like Namibian bush-babies. Tragically, a loss of habitat has endangered many lemur species (15 are already extinct). We saw them in the zoo, in an open reserve. I would have loved to visit their natural habitat. Yet even here, I could have watched them for hours.

Madagascar is not on our world-trip itinerary but I hope I can come back one day. To end, here is a wonderful local proverb that I learned during my stay:

Let your love be like the misty rain,

coming softly but flooding the river.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

238: The constancy of change

Three years ago I first visited MWEDO, The Maasai Women’s Development Organization in Tanzania. Leaving Arusha in Northern Tanzania, we spent an entire day driving over rough tracks to reach a group of Traditional Birth Attendants who had received training in basic health, hygiene and HIV/AIDS, thanks to support from the Stephen Lewis Foundation. At the time, my efforts were rewarded with a warm welcome by my age-mates (women of similar years) who dressed me as a local Maasai and told me – through translation – how much their training increased their knowledge and the respect they receive from other villagers. (To my left in the photograph is the mother of MWEDO’s founding director, Ndinini Kimesera Sikar, who was taken out of the village as a young child to receive an education, and is now a world-famous champion for women’s rights.)

On this trip, I learned that MWEDO ( has expanded its work in six districts, where it now empowers thousands of women through various income generating activities, advocacy over land-rights, and follow-up training with the Traditional Birth Attendants. They also involve young men as peer-educators, as these men often travel to the towns and cities looking for work and are therefore most-at-risk for bringing the HIV-virus back home to the rural areas. I visited three villages to ask about these experiences and find out what the participants had learned.

The work has been extraordinary, but some questions still remain. As Ndinini and I sat under a tree, one young man challenged me: “We learned how to
use condoms, but were told you could still get infected (with the HIV virus). So why should we bother with them?” Ndinini had already warned me against speaking directly about sex in this culture, but I sensed this question was a test. How I answered could determine the way this community continues to accept training by the Stephen Lewis Foundation. I thought carefully before responding, and then looked up at the new road that was under construction about two hundred meters from where we were sitting.

“You know, if you cross that road, the danger always exists that you could get hit by a truck,” I said. “In order to avoid that danger altogether completely, you have to stay on this side of the road. But if you want to cross the road, then you should reduce the chance of getting hit by a truck as much as you can. So you must look both ways to make sure it is safe and then you walk across very quickly. Well, it’s the same with the condom. There are things you can do to avoid getting hit as much as possible.”

I held my breath and looked at Ndinini who smiled. The young man said he understood and was satisfied. Then the women followed with stories and questions of their own, mostly related to and about HIV-testing and care. Before the Training, they said, it used to be their custom to share razors when shaving each other’s heads (a traditional sign of beauty). But now they realize this habit could spread the HIV infection. So they are teaching each woman to keep her own razor. As Traditional Birth Attendants, these women also know that if a pregnant woman is infected with HIV, she should go to the doctor to get certain drugs that can reduce the transmission of HIV from mother to child. As further protection, the pregnant woman should give birth in a health clinic, rather than in the bush. But Maasai women are used to giving birth in a squatting position, these women explained, while the clinics require you to lie down on your back. Could we do something to change that?

The truth is, I’m not sure how much can be done but I wish all organizations would pose challenges like this one. By contrast, I found out that another organization I had waxed eloquent about in 2006 (that was founded by two volunteer-doctors) has gone down the tubes. Fortunately it was the exception: Ruined by external funding and the lack of administrative know-how, though very little money was lost.

Where to next? I have a meeting next week in Madagascar, followed by consulting work for Family Health International. I’ll be back in time for Passover and an Easter-weekend trip with Bernd to see elephants, and then I head to Malawi for more work. Meanwhile, however, our “to-do” list for the Big Trip seems to be growing longer rather than shorter.

We’ve started to figure out what we should pack and what we should leave behind. I’m reminded of a jewellery-bedecked saleswoman I met in January at Chico’s (one of my favorite stores in the U.S.) when I was looking for a wrinkle-free blouse that I could use as an all-purpose “dress-up” outfit on the trip. The poor woman’s eyes popped out when I told her why I was being so fussy about what to buy. “How do you pack for a whole year?” she sputtered. Now, I’m beginning to wonder myself.

Nevertheless, we are making progress. This past week, Bernd and I went to hear a local speaker who had travelled around the world for fourteen months, albeit mostly as a beach bum -- not our style. He re-enforced two very important concepts, however: First, that in order to be truly open to new experiences, you have to detach yourself from the parts of your life that don’t matter so much. Second, don’t try to plan everything ahead of time because that doesn’t work anyway. (As an inveterate planner, this last bit of advice hit home. I have promised myself to try to hang loose on some of the details, for example waiting until we get settled in one country in order to decide what to do in the next.)

We still hope we’ll get to see Sergio before we leave in June, but aren’t sure. He remains in Okinawa and has turned his body into a canvass for the tattoos he designs. This latest photo includes one of his beloved guitars. (Appreciating this artiness is also a test – we’re okay with the picture but wonder what it will be like in-person.) Elsita’s future is also unclear at the moment: she didn’t get into the graduate schools she wanted and now wonders: Should she stay in Africa longer, move back to the USA with her friends and look for a job, or apply to Ben Gurion University in Israel for a Master’s Degree in Desert Ecology? (All three options have pros and cons. See her below at work in the laboratory -

Bernd is teaching a course in Cryptography for the first time and really enjoying it. After six weeks of agony and applications to every tertiary-level course we could find, Sofiana (the Angolan refugee who lives with us) got into a 2-year diploma course in Accounting at the University of Namibia and is thrilled. She hopes for on-campus accommodation next term, but will continue commuting from our home in the interim.

(The photo of President Bush was taken during his visit to MWEDO in 2008, kissing a tall Maasai woman. I think it’s a hoot!) As a final note, yesterday I was interviewed by Namibia’s Anti-Corruption Commission based on some non-profit work I am doing (where the director was being investigated), but happily it was all a false alarm – motivated by party-politics and another Board member’s vindictive nature. I wish all disputes could be ironed out this easily!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

237: Transitioning

One thing we’ve recently learned is that airlines can only book you 330 days in advance. Under normal circumstances that shouldn’t be a problem, but when you want to plan a year-long-trip around the world that basically means you can’t – at least, not all at once.

With our plan to leave Namibia in late June (2010), we ran straight into the World Soccer Cup tournament in South Africa. Already, there are no seats available in or out of Johannesburg (our major transit-airport). We’re reminded of the First Lesson in Travel – “Be flexible!” Our apologies to the environment, as we’re forced to take more airline flights than anticipated in order to bypass the soccer-glut. Already, we are promising to plant lots of trees somewhere along the route, maybe while in Belize.

Many people have asked for our itinerary. Some of our choices may strike you as odd. One factor was that we are trying to maintain an affordable budget by averaging all the costs, meaning that every big splurge has to be countered by cheap nights back-packing or bunking on the floor of friends. (Thanks to all of you who have offered!) Had our budget been higher, we would have included Terre del Fuego (Chile) and New Zealand, but then again, we’ve got to leave something for next time.

Our first six months features nine main stops:

  • The ten day Dingle Walk in Western Ireland – 15 miles a day but with good Irish pub-music at night and a B & B at each stop. (The best part is that someone else will transport our luggage from place to place.)
  • A wedding in North Carolina and some “legal business” in Washington. More on that below.
  • Relaxation in Cape Breton and Quebec, touring with Steinitz relatives from Nova Scotia
  • Three months’ volunteer work and learning all about orchids at the Belize Botanic Garden.
  • Three weeks’ one-on-one Spanish lessons in Granada, Nicaragua, including a home-stay.
  • The tour-of-a-lifetime (aka “the Bribe” to get Bernd to agree to come on this trip) – 17 days to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia Islands, and the Falklands/Malvinas. Penguins and icebergs galore!
  • Two weeks in southern Peru and northern Bolivia, operating out of Cuzco, Peru
  • Two weeks with cousin Anita Steinitz in and around Quito, Ecuador
  • Ten days back in the USA with friends in Arizona, including a hike down and up the Grand Canyon

The Pacific (Australia) and Asia (Cambodia and India) fall to the second six months.

Now for the glitch.

When we landed at Dulles Airport last December 31 for a brief vacation, Bernd and I found ourselves hauled off to a “little dark room” at Immigration because he had broken the rules of his US Permanent Residency by staying out of the country too long. Essentially, Permanent Residents are not allowed to leave the US for more than six months at a time without giving up the privilege, the consequences of which could block Bernd from Medicare and a whole series of other US benefits.

Whoever wrote those rules obviously didn’t understand modern principles of globalization, but the bottom line is that we had to hire an immigration attorney plus pledge that we’ll return to the USA permanently as soon as possible – thus answering the “what next” question for both of us. (So much for my fantasies of another Namibia-like experience in a far-off Shangri-la after the world-tour.)

Fortunately, our round-the-world itinerary calls for another US stopover in July for our friends’ son’s wedding, by which time we hope the worst of our legal problems will be solved. Bernd also plans to take the Graduate Record Exams in July (ha! ha!), just like Elsita did a few months ago -- in his case for a possible Master’s Degree in Philosophy at the University of Maryland starting in August 2011. Hooray for him! Don’t ask me what I will be doing when we eventually return to the US to live because I haven’t a clue, the one advantage being that this leaves me open to any ideas you and others might have.

Of course, under these difficult legal circumstances we were especially delighted by the warm welcome we received last month by friends in Washington and beyond, and we loved walking around on the newfangled aluminum snowshoes that have replaced the Native American tennis-rackets that were used for the same purpose in the past. (See photo. I bet you East-coasters wish you had some now!) You can also imagine how relieved I am that Bernd likes the hundred-year-old colonial row house I bought in his absence eighteen months ago in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington (off North Capitol Street). It’s now under two feet of snow like everything else in the District, but has a lot of storage space and a guest-room downstairs for anticipated visitors. (You, included!)

Despite our efforts to look forward, we know that the hardest thing about leaving Namibia will be saying good-bye to the students we sponsor. Some we’ll miss like second sons and daughters.

Most of the young people are doing extremely well, and we cluck with pride at their achievements. As of December last year, half of them have graduated and are either working or continuing their studies or both. And by this time next year, all but three (out of 14) should have finished their undergraduate degrees. Unfortunately, Catholic AIDS Action’s main donor for the program has “moved on to other things” so they can’t take on new students – which is probably another sign for us to also move on in our lives.

That said, four of the students will stay in our house while we are gone – free rent and a subsidy in return for taking care of our dogs and personal belongings. But it still won’t be easy for them or for us, as we know how much personal turmoil many of these young people face despite our support. Thus, we recently spent about two weeks running interference for one orphaned student who faced a possible diagnosis of cancer (still not completely resolved). Two other students had sisters who died of HIV over the December holidays and left very-young children without proper care. Mostly, I try not to think about the welfare of these newly orphaned babies because it just makes me crazy, knowing how little attention the extended families are giving to their needs.

And the list goes on.

Over Christmas, our beloved Helvi learned that her 91-year-old grandmother (who raised her) had been physically abused by an aunt who wants to inherit the grandmother’s shamba (small land-holding). With this news, we had to move quickly: I made a quick study of will-writing and the laws governing protection in Namibia, and with the help of both the local Headman (the traditional Chief’s appointee) and the Namibian Police, Helvi got a restraining order against the aunt and the Headman endorsed the grandmother’s wish that Helvi should inherit the land instead. But the worry continues, as the aunt left her teenage son behind for the grandmother to care-for – nothing less than an “up-yours” retribution by the aunt for chasing her off the property.

On a completely different issue, the Polytechnic of Namibia recently changed their admissions criteria, which meant that Sofiana (the Angolan refugee who lives with us) didn’t meet the admissions requirements for a second year in a row – even though she would have sailed in under the old rules without any problems. Poor Sofiana has been feeling so hopeless that Bernd and I felt we needed a full-time psychiatrist on-hand, even as we desperately search-out every alternate option we can, in order to avoid her returning to the Refugee Camp with nothing to do.

It’s these situations that make us feel how fortunate our own family has been, to have had so many more opportunities and support-systems available. Within that context, we are glad to report that Elsita and Sergio are fine – both in a holding pattern until Sergio’s Japan-based assignment finishes in six months and Elsita finds out about the graduate schools to which she has applied. Two weekends ago Bernd and I visited Elsita at the Gobabeb research and training center – see photos, including one with Lucas and a Wilwitchia plant, the oldest living plant in the world. And yesterday we took Helvi on a hike over rough terrain in a nearby National Park – practicing for our big trip. The highlight was seeing a herd of 23 oryx (see photo), which has got to be the most beautiful animal ever born.

On a final note, I’m glad to call your attention to the link below for a copy of a book I worked on for two years at Family Health International – my swan song, now that I’m leaving. It has received excellent reviews and we’re hoping it can help many programs worldwide, even in Haiti where so much of the country must be rebuilt. Feel free to download the book and circulate it to others.

We wish the snow-diggers along the East Coast all the best, and we’ll stay in touch,