(Mostly written in March, 2020, this was “pre-COVID”, “pre-Election”, “pre-California Fires”, etc.. The first half of this was written before most of 2020 had (thankfully) disappeared into history. 2020 pretty much sucked looking back from mid-November 2020. There are a few updates at the end of this post.)
One month from today (ed: “today” is 15 March 2020) I will have been in Namibia for 5 years. Over four years in the “bubble” of the Peace Corps, and for over half a year as an American ex-pat in Namibia. The practicalities of living here – buying property, a car, and (required) registration as a Namibian tax payer (though one with zero income!) – can obscure my love of my USA home – Sausalito, California. I have called Sausalito home for many, many years and will probably have lived there more there anywhere else, ever, when I stop counting. I will continue to return to Sausalito, and the USA, as long as I live – most likely. But then “life is what happens while we make other plans”. (attrib: various)
Yet here I am in Africa. Many people ask why, and I understand the curiosity. I’ve asked it of myself, and tried to come up with answers for others.
As the saying goes: “It’s complicated.” I can’t begin to make a list – But I’m going to try and express some aspects of what makes me continue to return here to Africa, and particularly to Namibia and Oranjemund. Most likely, I’ll fail. I have no delusions of being a writer, and extremely talented writers have tried to describe Africa, it’s soul, problems, joys, and realities. So I’m doing this mostly for me. Hopefully you’ll find it at least passably interesting.
Having returned to the USA only twice since April 2015, three things continue to stand out to me about North America. They are separate and distinct, and reliably consistent from personal visits, from talking with friends and family there while I am here, and from friends here who go there to visit and share their own impressions.
But before I get into those things, let’s first acknowledge that the USA isn’t one thing – it isn’t homogeneous. There are people living in my country (the USA) who suffer deeply from poverty, social marginalization, and a myriad of other causes that are deeply disturbing and serve to define their opportunities in very real ways. Saying “Things just work” (#1 below) can be portrayed as laughably naïve when applied to neighbourhoods in San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or New York, or Dallas – just anywhere really. It is also unavoidably referential (see #2 below). Ultimately, I can’t begin to defend what I’m saying below as “truth” – it is expressed from my experience. That experience is woefully inadequate in many areas, and deeper than some in others. But it is my experience. As I said: “It’s complicated.”
- I like the way things just “work” in the USA.
Until you’ve lived somewhere that doesn’t assume things work, it’s hard to describe. Of course it isn’t consistent –rolling blackouts, water shortages, people being late to meetings, internet failing, being able to get fast food or set an appointment, etc. all happen everywhere, but they are much, much more reliable in the USA than in the parts of Africa I have experience with personally (which is a miniscule part of the continent), or some knowledge of through my African friends, here. .
- With rare exceptions, American citizens – particularly (but not exclusively) those of us with middle or upper level economic conditions – have absolutely no idea how much we take for granted.
Citizens of the USA are incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities we have. Yes, there are very serious problems and issues – and they matter.
- Finally (and most provocatively), I simply do not miss the USA.
My daughter and friends, yes I miss them. But the rest of it I just don’t miss. I don’t dislike it, I just don’t miss it. I know that is repetitive, but it is a profoundly significant differentiation. I’ll enjoy it when I got back again to visit, but I don’t miss it. Sure, there is some temporary pleasure in not being forced to deal with the political polarization that is so ubiquitous now, but “this too shall pass”. I fear this particular period is going to do some real damage to my country, and to the world, from which we won’t recover for decades, and we certainly won’t recover to what it was like “before”. Frankly that could be a good thing. It all depends on what we (the citizens of the USA) decide to do moving forward. I wish I was more optimistic.
That being said, why is Africa my “Home is where the heart is” choice?
(From this point on, I’m writing on 8 November 2020 just after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election (pending the ubiquitous legal cases that follow Trump around like fruit flies, or more appropriately like jackals following a hyena).
Frankly I am REALLY happy to have been outside of the USA in the last year.
In either late February or early March, a friend at the U.S. Embassy here in Namibia called me and asked if I wanted a seat on the last airplane the Embassy had arranged to evacuate U.S. Citizens back to North America before the COVID lockdowns. I replied something like “Thank you for thinking of me buried away here in the isolated southern tip of Namibia, but ARE YOU CRAZY? I’M STAYING RIGHT HERE!”
Oranjemund, particularly, has been one of the safest areas in the world from COVID because it is so isolated here (check out Oranjemund on any map or Google Earth). Yes, we’ve had cases but nothing like the majority of the rest of the world, and particularly not like the USA. And being here forced the politics in the USA to be available from a distance – a distinction for which I felt incredibly thankful this year. (Not that Namibia doesn’t have its political challenges – but that’s for another day and another blog entry.)
Aside from COVID and U.S. politics, why do I like Africa? Things here are a bit more – fundamental. Literally yesterday I was walking out my kitchen door and just happened to see the faucets on my kitchen sink. They are old (ca. 1950’s when the house was built), and nothing like the up to date faucets in most middle class homes in the USA, but they deliver fresh, clean (and hot) water pretty reliably – at least they do here in Oranjemund which is a very unusual Namibian town. Not at all the norm. My small two bedroom house is adequate, not “fancy”, and I am comfortable. For me, that’s enough, and preferred.
Countless people have tried to describe Africa, and Namibia, and Oranjemund, for many, many years and they are MUCH more eloquent than me. My contribution to the endless (and growing) volumes of “Africology” can only come from my limited experience. I am moved, literally to tears occasionally, by the enthusiasm of Africans of all skin colors that shows up in dance and singing at the slightest excuse. I am equally distressed at the poverty and lack of education of such large parts of the population. I continue have a growing understanding of the rich history that I knew nothing of in my western education. I revel in slowly, slowly making good friends with whom I can share conversations from astoundingly different backgrounds but a shared commitment to seeking and understanding the others’ experiences. I constantly am challenged by the realities of being in the 2.7% of the Namibian population that is white and realizing that racism as it is known in the USA is not as big an issue here, but Tribalism – social stresses between different cultures of non-white (and white, but we don’t call it tribalism) cultures – is a HUGE problem here. To the best of my knowledge (and I’ve looked into it), I’m the only American (North, South or Central) in the southern half of Namibia – an area roughly the same size as California. It used to be weird, but now I feel much more like “just a Namibian among many”. And I like that.
I can go on, and on – and hope to in my future blogs. In short, I am content here in Namibia, and enormously grateful for being able to live an interesting, challenging, and to a small degree contributory life here as I go through my ‘70s. I couldn’t be happier, or more challenged.
I’ve generally been really crappy about blogging, but some current decisions and plans cause me to make a renewed pledge to myself to blog more. You won’t see a lot of images, this isn’t a travelogue, but rather will be presented with a bit of exploration of my own path through some interesting choices and environments at this point in my life. If I’m able to carry it off, you will see some extensive travel experiences (and images) when (if?) I start a long trip I am planning for next year which will include a brief return to the USA. But more on that, later.
See you again soon on the pages of this blog.
I love to video chat by the way and would be thrilled if want to catch up even if it’s been years. If you don’t know me and just want to chat about Africa, or whatever, contact me and we’ll set it up.
I plan to start hosting a TED Circle for conversations about “stuff that matters” (specific topics to be determined). Let me know if you’re interested in good conversation and meeting some new people.