In celebration of my host sister’s graduation from Grade 12, we threw a party at home. This consisted mostly of middle-aged women and their children dancing and eating as many different types of meat as possible.
I arrived a little bit late, so booty-shaking and beer-sipping were already in full swing when I sat next to one of the aunties who I was introduced to. I was led over to her because she had spent some time in Tanzania long ago. She greeted me in Swahili, and welcomed me over and over again–much as Tanzanians do–to Namibia. After that, she was silent, but she did snatch my scraps one by one to properly finish the job of eating every last bit of protein possible. I have a lot to learn when it comes to this efficient consumption of meat. A little later, though, I asked her why she went to Tanzania. She went back in 1977, she told me. She also told me that she went as a freedom fighter. That is some meat to chew on that I will properly digest and deliver in a later blog post, I am sure, but for now I focus on a different story.
After listening to my carnivorous, activist friend, I migrated to a corner of the living room where another family friend sat. I had met her the night before, but didn’t get to know anything about her other than her being from Walvis Bay and speaking both Afrikaans and English. During the party, I learned much more. In Walvis Bay, she used to be a regional banking manager for years. This was until she decided to resign in order to focus all her time on what she calls a legacy program. The program seeks to bring about change and development in the village from which her own grandfather moved to work as a fisherman in Walvis Bay. Despite that, he always kept a homestead in Topnaar, just 15 kilometers away from the coastal city. My friend explained to me that even today these homesteads are not allowed to be anything more than a temporary structure. This is because the land that they are on is a federal reserve, and rules prohibit permanent houses. Traditionally, Nama and Damara people are nomads, thus this is not so illogical or discriminatory. However, times change. In addition, there is no electricity available to the village. My friend based her idea on a similar and successful one in Kenya that brought some opportunities to Maasai people who wanted more financial independence while maintaining their proud culture. She purchased a recorder and has been visiting the village in Topnaar every day in order to interview each and every citizen. In total, “They are 657,” she said.
When she interviews people in Topnaar, she asks them what they need. This does not mean money. We all need money, no matter where we live or what we do in the world. Instead, this means what we need to achieve our goals. Some of her interviewees need seeds to plant tomatoes or more !nara, the staple food of Topnaar. Others need new needles to sew more dresses. Youth need motivation and something to make studying easier than dropping out from school. They have looked into high tunnels to increase the production of crops; and they have looked into solar panels for electricity, which might allow sewing machines and lights to study by at night. Thus, all of the goals stated by the villagers might be enabled by funding. But, it is not the funding that changes anything in a sustainable way. Rather, it is the achievement of goals and the discovery of opportunities that makes a change.
The thing that will stick with me as a volunteer and as a teacher is what my friend said about development. She explained that giving money does not change anything. Instead, people most often use it to buy temporary things, which too often is alcohol or drugs. Better than giving money, she said, is identifying goals. When a villager sets a goal, he or she can assess what is needed to achieve it. One goal at a time, the village discovers that they are not excluded from financial opportunity. Then, in knowing that financial opportunity is something accessible, they find something to strive for. This changes a destructive cycle of dropping out into a productive one of self-reliance. In this way, they can find independence. Instead of depending on federal or foreign aid, they can depend on themselves while maintaining the traditional foods, products, and practices that they identify with. With this financial independence comes sustainability and peace of mind.
Thanks to my friend, I think that I, too, have identified a goal. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I will do my best to be like her.