A Namibian experience
[If you wish to have a better look at the pictures, just click on them and they’ll expand]
T.I.N: This Is Namibia. And T.I.A.A.A.N: This Is An Article About Namibia. It narrates the adventure of a young Swiss student in this great country, and it involves life-long friendships, volunteering, lovely children and, last but not least, marvellous landscapes. But let’s start from the beginning, shall we ?
My name is Aris, I am from Switzerland and am currently studying political science at the University of Lausanne. I always had the desire to volunteer abroad, and Africa has always represented a considerable source of interest to me. After my girlfriend’s experience in Colombia in 2015 with AIESEC, I finally made my mind up and decided to embark on such a mysterious and fascinating adventure. I was also able to realize this decision through AIESEC, the biggest international student-run organisation, which provides young people with the possibility to have an impact through volunteering or professional internships. I opted for Namibia as a destination for various reasons: first, the aforementioned interest in Africa; second, the fact that – shame on me – I knew very little about this country beside its colonial past; third, it’s a stable and relatively safe country. So, after having decided on Namibia, I booked a flight and packed my backpack(s) and took off from Zurich Airport, destination Windhoek via Johannesburg, on the 23rd of July, ready and excited to spend eight weeks – six as a volunteer, two as a tourist – on the African continent.
What was my first impression of Namibia? I was simply astonished. Since I was on a late-morning flight, I could admire the landscape from a privileged position, and it was totally worth it: I couldn’t see anything but kilometers and kilometers of land with no human traces beside some sandy roads, no mountains – which is quite unusual for somebody living in Switzerland – and especially a sky of such an intense blue colour.
My experience as a volunteer
Waiting for me there was Tilovayeni Care Foundation (TCF) (go see its Facebook page, which contains beautiful portraits of most of the children: https://www.facebook.com/Tilovayeni-Care-Foundation-1734647133480817/?fref=ts), a non-profit organization, whose purpose it is to provide the children of Green Well – a neighbourhood of Katutura, Windhoek’s township – with a safe environment, where they can spend their free time – generally the afternoon after school – playing, reading, studying and, obviously, having fun with their friends. TCF also aims to furnish food as well as school material. The foundation is run by a lovely woman named Biriha, who is also its founder. Since the creation of TFC, she opens her house every day to the kids of the neighbourhood, whose parents may not be at home in order to take care of them. Albeit her English being poor, she managed to communicate with us and make us understand what she meant, sometimes through the translation of her daughter, Rauna, or with the help an older kid. To show my gratitude towards her efforts to speak English, but also because I am sincerely interested in learning a minimum of the local language when I travel, I set up a ritual with her which consisted, on my daily arrival at TFC, on an exchange of a series of greetings in Oshiwambo, the language spoken by the Ovambo people, namely: “Wa uhala po” (Good afternoon), “Ongaipe” (How are you?) and “Nawa” (Good). Unluckily, Oshiwambo is, for an Italian-speaker, really difficult to learn, and thus I wasn’t able to learn more than a few basic words and phrases.
Since I arrived on a Sunday, I started to work on the following day. Luckily I wasn’t alone: a German colleague, Amanda, had already been doing her internship for two weeks, and she helped me greatly, by showing me Windhoek (the capital city) and the project. Thinking of how disoriented I was even with her help, I don’t dare to imagine what would have happened had I been on my own. In fact, the first day was particularly though. As TCF operates in Windhoek’s township, I was initially struck by the contrast between what I was used to seeing in Switzerland and the situation in the township: houses made of metal sheets, no pavement but dirt roads, garbage piles outside, etc.
Despite these initial difficulties, I got used to the situation relatively rapidly, and thus started enjoying my internship even more, for working every day in contact with the children was exhausting incredible.
How to describe them? Their age varied quite a lot, as there were kids who were 2-3 years old, and others who were 16-17 years old; the vast majority of them was Ovambo, the largest Namibian ethnic group (50% of the overall population); but beside demographic data, what they had in common, and what struck me the most, was a sincere happiness, which was highly contagious! And how could it be otherwise: every time we arrived, we barely had the time to get out of the taxi before they had already surrounded us, hugging us and shouting “Teacher! Teacher!” – which, with “paper” (pronounced “papè”), was the only English word the little ones knew. Thus, we shared numerous moments of joy and fun, not only by playing football and board games, dancing, drawing, but also by teaching and helping. We even taught them an AIESEC dance we had learnt from Wiebke, here are the hilarious results:
Mike and Shorty, two guys of TCF, even tried to teach me a kind of local dance, which, because of my below average dancing skills, resulted in a moderate success.
As a volunteer, my main tasks were to organize and watch over activities, to help the children with their homework and, when needed, to help them with their studies, but also to give out the food. More generally, I guaranteed the good functioning of the project.
Of course, six or even eight weeks were not enough to have such an impact so as to turn upside-down the kids’ lives, but this would have been an unrealistic goal. Instead, what I hoped possible was to plant some good “seeds” in the children, hoping that one day they would sprout and bloom. In fact, I am persuaded that being present, spending time with the kids, focusing our attention and care on them, helping them and at the same time making them understand that they’re loved and important, that they should pursue their dreams and never give up on them, may have positive consequences in the long term.
Last but not least, the children aren’t the only ones who learnt something from this marvellous experience. I will always cherish the memory of their heart-breaking and warm welcome, their smiles and their sincere, simple happiness.
A history of friendship
As I have already mentioned, I wasn’t alone, but I shared this adventure with other persons that I have the honour to call my friends. Working as well as EPs there were Amanda, Annika, Anna G. and Anna W., the two Annas doing their internship not at TCF but in a kindergarten, all from Germany. It appears quite easy to understand why we decided to call us “the A-team”. Since apparently, the group wasn’t composed of enough German girls, the role of the guide was fulfilled by Wiebke, a member of the national committee of AIESEC in Namibia. In fact, as she had been living in Namibia for a few months at the time of our arrival, she had a better knowledge of the country, and hence was able to “show us the way”. Even though I was the only guy – and the only one whose mother tongue wasn’t German – they never never made me feel excluded nor alone, on the contrary: we were a really close group since the beginning. Thanks to Wiebke we got to know not only Windhoek but also Harsh, now her boyfriend, the owner of the only three Indian restaurants of Namibia – two in Windhoek, one in Swakopmund – “Garnish”. Believe me, if you happen to be in Namibia, eat there: before being in Namibia, I had never eaten typical Indian food, but there I utterly fell in love with it.
Together, we shared various unforgettable moments: journeys, karaoke nights, braais (the African barbecue) and so on. For instance, we spent a weekend in Swakopmund, a city on the coast; with us was also a group of Namibian friends: Ndeli, Pietrus, Eno, Steven, Isaac, Kapiz, Boy T and Lorenzo. We really had a great time, spent having fun, playing rugby on the beach (absolutely amusing as much as tiring!) and also climbing dunes: not far away from Swakopmund there is Dune 7, a really large dune; we took the advantage of its proximity and visited it. It is not easy to describe how I felt once on top of it: seeing only the dunes, stretching to the horizon, and the blue sky gave me such a strong feeling of perfect calm and interior peace that I remained stunned for a few minutes and couldn’t do anything but admire this amazing panorama.
One thing that utterly struck me was how open, friendly and easy-going the aforementioned Namibian friends were, and how easily I was included in this fantastic group.
I can’t believe how rapidly we all got along and became close, which allowed me to enjoy my stay even more, and, by sharing an important as well as particular moment of our lives, to make special friends that I will never forget and will never be able to thank enough for having shared with me this wonderful time.
Me, tourist in Namibia
Since the opportunity to explore Namibia more was too interesting and appealing not to take, I had decided to prolong my stay for two more weeks. Moreover, my amazing girlfriend decided to join me in Namibia for that time; how great is that?! Together, we travelled mostly in three places: Swakopmund, Etosha National Park and Namib-Naukluft Park.
Swakopmund: dunes and waves
Swakopmund’s location is great for two reasons. First, it happens to be on the Atlantic coast. Second, it’s near the Namib Desert, which is a few kilometers south. We became aware of the first advantage on our arrival after a long afternoon – 5 hours – spent in a hot shuttle-bus that took us there from Windhoek. In fact, we arrived at our hotel just in time to admire a splendid red sunset on the ocean. Such a magnificent view made me think: “hell, that’s a good start”.
And the days after were not any less spectacular nor poorer in terms of landscapes and emotions. In order to do the most in the few days we would spend in Swakopmund, we booked a daily activity that included a marine cruise in the morning and dune driving in the afternoon. During the morning cruise, we had the opportunity to see, beside a part of the fascinating coast and the ocean, several animals, and especially seals; in fact, some of them are so used to the tourist boats that they jump on them in order to receive fish, knowing that there’s a bucket plenty of them waiting for them, which makes both the tourists and the seals happy (and also scared: these animals are enormous!). The presence of seals near Swakopmund is explained by the fact that a few kilometers from the city there’s one of the biggest seal colonies of Namibia, the population of which even increases during the breeding season. We also saw pelicans, seagulls, flamingos and had a glimpse of some black dolphins.
As a sea-lover, I couldn’t help but enjoy this relaxing cruise, particularly after the six exhausting weeks I had spent at TCF.
In the afternoon, we set up for a spectacular (guided) drive to Sandwich Harbour and back on the dunes along the coast. Yes, you read correctly: THE DUNES ALONG THE COAST. Among its fantastic natural attractions, Namibia offers the view of the desert literally meeting the ocean. Thus, not only did we enjoy a fun afternoon driving up and down the incredibly steep dunes, but also the magnificent panorama the location offered.
The following day we didn’t do anything special but decided to go for a restorative walk into the city. Swakopmund is tiny – 50’000 inhabitants – but really nice and welcoming, although a little too touristic for my liking.
Etosha National Park
After the days in Swakopmund, we went back to Windhoek and embarked on a 5-nights guided tour that would take us to Etosha National Park and then to Namib-Naukuluft Park. This deal was appealing to us because it would permit us to visit two of the most beautiful places in Namibia in not even a week, time running against us.
Etosha National Park is, guess what, a national park situated in the Northwest of Namibia. The park is home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles, including several threatened and endangered species such as the black rhinoceros. In order to get to our destination, a few hours drive was awaiting us, duration that was increased due to the inevitable flat tyre.
For this reason we were stuck for at least an hour on the side of the road with no cover from the sun and the heat, but at least we had enough time to admire the landscape surrounding us. Finally, after having helped lifting and substituting some heavy tyres, we were able to continue our journey.
Once we arrived at our destination, we spent nearly two days admiring the wildlife of the park from the safety of the bus’ interior. During our stay at Etosha, we encountered numerous animals and species: zebras, rhinos, giraffes, lions, elephants, ostriches, leopards, different varieties of antelopes and so on.
The moment I retain as the best of the safari-days was the last one we spent in the park. It was the early morning, the red sun had just risen, the air was still fresh, and hoping to be lucky and see something particularly special, the guide decided to drive the bus to a water-hole nearby before leaving Etosha. There, we witnessed a very special moment. No sooner had we arrived at the destination than some elephants approached the source of their daily water. And here you’re probably thinking: why would the sighting of a few elephants in a national park be so special? Indeed, you have a good point, the elephants are not too rare so it is not too difficult to spot them. But what made that moment special is that there weren’t just a few elephants. In fact, they kept on silently gathering around the water-hole, and at the end, at least 40 elephants were standing in front of us. Their arrival rendered the scene almost sacred, surreal, and because of that no one in the bus spoke loudly nor shouted, for everyone was stupefied and admiring the amazing spectacle that nature was offering us. After satisfying their thirst, the pachyderms, as startling and calm their appearance had been, started walking in the same direction they had arrived from and quickly disappeared from our view. So did we, grateful for having been able to witness such a superb occurrence.
The second part of the tour is the one I preferred. I had liked seeing 4/5 of the “Big Five”- the buffalo not living in Etosha – and other animals; nonetheless, being stuck in the bus for most of the time hadn’t been particularly pleasing. As I have already mentioned, the program was to spend two nights in the Namib-Naukluft Park, a national park comprising a part of the Namib Desert and the Naukluft mountain range located in the South-West of Namibia, and to visit its most important attractions.
We left Windhoek in the morning and arrived in the afternoon after a few hours on a particularly bumpy and sandy road that went through some “mountains”. After setting up the tents, our guide drove us to a dune near the camp site in order to let us practice by climbing it, for what was awaiting us the following day was the ascent of Dune 45, a dune measuring more than 170 meters. The climb wasn’t easy, especially because, the goal being to get to the highest peak in the surroundings, every dune hid behind it a taller one, thus protracting the distance. After a while, even though what we reached might not have been the highest peak, we chose to stop, for the position offered an incredible panorama of the desert and, far from us, the Naukluft mountain range. From this advantageous point we were also able to admire the first moments of a beautiful sunset.
As you may know, nights in the desert can be cold. Ours wasn’t cold at all. It was plain freezing. So, after a very “enjoyable” night, characterised only by some slight perturbations – such as waking up in the middle of the night and putting on all the clothes you’re able to find in the dark, because you feel like as if you had transformed into a block of ice – we got up really early with one goal in mind, namely to be on top of Dune 45 before dawn, so as to be able to admire the spectacular sunrise offered to us by Mother Nature. The climb was tiring and became even more challenging as we started to see the first rays of sunlight appearing from behind the distant dunes, for we were fearing not being able to reach the top on time.
Luckily, the goddess Fortuna was looking out for us: hardly had we had the time to sit down on the top when the sun rose over the dunes and spread its rays through the thin and fresh air. This splendid event left us stunned and speechless: never had I seen such a poetic and awe-inspiring sunrise. An indefinite number of minutes later, having recovered from the strong emotions, we had a look around us and took several pictures of the magnificent panorama, even more beautiful than usual due to the shadows created on the dunes by the game of lights.
After coming down and eating a nutritious breakfast prepared by our incredibly nice and funny guide, whose bizarre laughter triggered the laughter of everyone around him, we set off for our new destination: Deadvlei, “a clay pan characterized by dark, dead camel thorn trees contrasted against the white pan floor. The pan was formed when the Tsauchab River flooded and the abundance of water allowed camel thorn trees to grow. However, the climate changed and the sand dunes encroached on the pan, blocking the river from reaching the area. The trees are estimated to be approximately 900 years old, however they have not decomposed due to the dry climate” (http://www.sossusvlei.org/attractions/deadvlei/). In order to reach our destination, we walked for an hour and a half/two hours in the (semi)desert environment, covering around 4 kilometers. The hike gave us the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful landscape, composed by interminable dunes and an intense azure sky.
Even though I had already seen pictures of Deadvlei, what appeared in front of me when we arrived there astounded me. What stupefied me the most was indisputably the colours’ vividness and the contrast between them: a white pan, brown trees, orange dunes and a blue sky. Sadly, since it was increasingly hot and no protection from the sun was available, we could admire the pan no longer than half an hour. Nonetheless, I absolutely relished Deadvlei and won’t easily forget it.
During our stay at the park, I had the last chance of observing the night sky of Namibia in a natural and light-less environment, and whose beauty is impossible to describe. Switzerland is a small and urban country, and hence it is difficult to find a relatively dark spot from where the stars can be seen. Moreover, unless being somewhere in the Alps, the cities’ lights wouldn’t be far away from there, and would consequently not allow having a completely clear look at the stars. On the contrary, being in a desert or rural area in Namibia means that very few lights, if any, are near. Furthermore, usually there aren’t any clouds. Therefore, the first time I saw the night sky outside the city I had the impression it was the first time I had seen the night sky at all: thousands and thousands of shining stars filled the sky from one horizon to the other, and the Milky Way was right in the middle, visible to the naked eye.
As you can understand by looking at the picture, even though it’s not half as beautiful as the real night sky, you can understand why I would consider the price of the flight-ticket worth it just for being able to see it again.
Time to go home
Like everything, even my fantastic time in Namibia came to an end. While leaving, my emotions were numerous and mixed. On the one hand, I was happy to go home and to see my family as well as my friends again. On the other hand, I already knew that I would greatly miss Namibia, in particular the kids of TCF.
There’s a saying: “T.I.A: this is Africa” – which we converted to “T.I.N: this is Namibia”. “T.I.A” is used in situations that can’t be understood nor explained with a “Western” framing. Saying “T.I.A” is therefore the acceptance of a different esprit, a diverse way of doing something, in bad and good times, and became for me the symbolic core of what I like to call “Namibian mentality”. As a Swiss, punctuality is important. On the contrary, Namibians, let’s put it that way, appear to detain a more flexible conception of time and punctuality. Nor do they like to have a schedule or to plan in advance. These traits initially frustrated me. But then I discovered that they represented only one side of the coin. In fact, I learnt to greatly appreciate the open-mindedness, the easy-going attitude, the friendliness and the simplicity Namibians showed. By the way, this is the reason I was included in the group of Namibian friends so easily and quickly. And this is the aspect that I miss the most.
In Italian, we use an expression to describe the nostalgia for Africa: “Mal d’Africa”, which could be translated into “Longing for Africa”, and which describes perfectly how I feel since I’ve come back. In Namibia, I had a wonderful experience, met fantastic people, visited stupendous places, and no day goes by without me thinking of it. For since I’ve left I carry Namibia in my heart, but a part of it stayed there.
P.S: I would like to thank everyone I met during my experience: my dear A-Team, Harsh, all the kids of TCF, Biriha, Rauna, Ndeli, Pietrus, Ino, Isaac, Steven and all the others. I miss and love you all. A special thanks also to AIESEC Lausanne and AIESEC Namibia, who made my experience possible.