Written: 1-30 April 2018
Posted: 1 May 2018
Updated: 7 July 2018
(So I accidentally published this, back in May, as a “New Page”, not a blog post. Sorry about that! The post is unchanged from 1 May.)
Wow – no post since October. If I try to make this a “catch up” I’ll never get finished writing. That’s one the things that has kept me from posting. So much has happened. I’ll just start at … now.
Peace Corps Service for me has shifted – a lot. Arriving in Namibia in April 2015, I was originally assigned (after training) to Penduka Trust. In June, 2017, I extended my service and by my choice was moved to Oranjemund, Namibia. My extension to a fourth year was recently approved by the Peace Corps (normal service is 26 months. So far I’ve been here for 36.), and as of now I am scheduled to leave Namibia, and the Peace Corps, around August 2019. Assuming I pass the physical soon, that will become official. I’ve now been in Namibia longer than any current PCV, and I’m still happy with the decision.
As an older volunteer, but also with so much time in-country, my perspective differs quite a bit from a more typical PCV. I don’t tend to “hang out” much with the other PCVs (other than Brett – he and I share a two-bedroom home in Oranjemund) but I enjoy the interactions when they do happen, and usually feel welcomed by them even though I’m a couple of generations ahead of most of them. We are getting more older volunteers in the new groups, however. I guess Peace Corps is figuring out we have something to offer! Plus. Oranjemund is VERY remote and Brett and I don’t have many PCV visitors.
The job I have here is difficult to describe in brief, but I’ll give it a shot.
Oranjemund, Namibia, is right at the mouth of the Orange River where it empties into the South Atlantic. The river is 5 km away on the south side, ocean 6 km on the west side. There are hundreds of km of sand all around the isolated town. It is VERY remote! What communities are close by (Alexander Bay, Rosh Pinah) were all created by Diamond Mining operations, and are even lower population than Oranjemund. Rosh Pinah is active, but Alexander Bay (South Africa) is spookily quiet and almost uninhabited. Many small diamond mining independent operators live and work out of there. Current population of Oranjemund is unknown, but estimates are somewhere between 4,000 – 10,000. Estimates vary widely.
Oranjemund used to be a mining town completely owned by Namdeb – the Diamond mining company 50% owned by DeBeers and 50% by the Namibian Government. In 2011 it was “proclaimed” a town, which meant Namdeb gave the land (not buildings, infrastructure, etc.) to the Town Council, the Local Authority that is in charge of any Namibian town by law.
The “Town” was started in 1936 as an area to house workers at the diamond mines, mostly on contract coming from Northern Namibia. Some houses were built for mine management, most of which were from South Africa, and dormitories/compounds built for the workers. In the decades after that, stores, a theatre, etc. were slowly added until it started to look like a town. Virtually all of the food was raised in farms owned, and run, by Namdeb. All of those farms have at least changed hands and now belong to individuals, but by far the majority of them simply closed and are abandoned.
Since the first Town Council was sworn in (2012), the town has been trying to get less dependent on Namdeb and start becoming a “normal” Namibian town. It hasn’t gone very fast, and not very well. It used to be that you needed a permit from Namdeb to even enter the town, and they weren’t easy to come by. In October of 2017, the need for a permit was removed and now anyone can drive into Oranjemund at any time.
Describing the history and current situation in Oranjemund is beyond my meager talents to do in a blog, but I can refer you (if you are interested) in a few places to “catch up” on the situation. There are photos, stores, and some such on these sites.
Here is a nice YouTube video about Oranjemund.
And to get more of idea of how remote it is in the Namib desert see the YouTube video of taking off from the Oranjemund Airport (Yup, we have one. It was built to service the Namdeb executives and to permit the Diamonds to be flown to a final destination). Pay particular attention just after the 1:05 mark, and at about 1:30 the town of Oranjemund (small green patch on the other side of the “lake” which is really a very shallow area sometimes containing water. Later in the video you can see the Orange River. But notice the sand – everywhere – around Oranjemund.
My Job In Oranjemund:
I report to the CEO of the Town Council. My job started out as working with the Economic Development office of the Town Council, but within six weeks of arriving, it changed to be the Advisor to OMD 2030, described below. The original form of OMD 2030 was as a “Steering Committee” made up of representatives of the major stakeholders in the town transformation: The Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Constituency (kind of like a county in the USA), Namdeb, and the citizens of the town. It was a good effort, but it didn’t accomplish much due to rivalries, mis-alignments of stakeholders, lack of a clear direction, no real objectives, etc. etc. I was asked to be Advisor to the group in July, and shifted my responsibilities to function as a Programme Manager until OMD 2030 could get on its own feet. That never happened, however, so we’ve taken a new step.
On 23 February, OMD 2030 voted itself into being as a “Voluntary Association” by Namibian Law – a non-profit legal entity that doesn’t belong to anyone but itself. The constitution we developed stipulates that members cannot represent their organizations (Namdeb, Town Council, etc.) but join as individuals. The Mayor, CEO, Chair of the Management Committee, Namdeb Manager of Town Transformation (and other Namdeb managers), and Chairperson of the Chamber of Commerce are all members. However, the management committee is made of association members that are not any of those persons. OMD 2030 is now a citizen led legal entity that has the mission to “… assist stakeholders in transforming Oranjemund from an economy dependent upon Namdeb to an economically diverse and culturally rich town offering citizens opportunities to create an excellent standard of living.” The steering committee was disbanded at the same meeting the Association was created.
My role, now, is to be Advisor to the Management Committee (MC: six of the members voted into “office” by the general membership). I am working with the MC to get the organization established literally from nothing. While there are associations in a few – very few – Namibian towns that share some relatively minor similarities in mission, there is literally no precedent for this kind of organization. The job of “creating” a new Oranjemund is unbelievably complex. While a good foundation now exists (the Association), the work ahead of us is enormous, and scary. Plus we are not yet funded. For the first time since I got here, there is a reasonable possibility we will actually have a budget and that appears to be due to the stakeholders’ increased confidence that the correct platform is finally in place to do what needs to be done in the community. Saying I am the Program Manager is somewhat misleading, however, and frankly is a outside of the Peace Corps mission. I do not, and should not, manage anything – we are here as advisors. The fact that we are creating this non-profit out of nothing, however, requires a “driving force” and until a sufficiently experienced and dedicated individual is found and trained, that responsibility lies with me and with the newly formed Management Committee. I have no direct authority, and shouldn’t have any. But part of what I need to do here is to help the MC find a replacement Program Manager before the end of my time here in Oranjemund. That is going to be difficult, as there are very, very few qualified people in Namibia to run this type of organization – particularly not the kind of organization we are intending to build! So – I’m an advisor and very clearly the managerial responsibilities lie with the MC of the Association.
So what is “Town Transformation”, anyway?
The Town Council is deeply vested in trying to get the properties and infrastructure legally transferred from Namdeb so they can sell homes to the many, many people that want to call Oranjemund home. But the very old infrastructure, much of which was not build to ordinary standards because it was essentially a “dormitory” for Namdeb workers, is vexing because it breaks a lot. Water outages due to broken water mains, electricity failures, etc. are common. The Town Council is responsible for all of that – sort of. Until the legal mess between Namdeb and the Town Council is worked out, it is all very frustrating for everybody.
And – many people who WANT to be part of the Oranjemund community are moving out because they can’t buy their homes. This is a major problem.
And none of these items address the really critical job of literally creating a community feeling here. When Namdeb was running things, people felt included and part of things – but everything was set up and arranged, and paid for, by Namdeb. It is a community that isn’t used to being – well – a community! Many people here know that, and want to work on it, but the roadblocks to doing impactful work on creating a community have precluded effective action.
OMD 2030 is tasked with all of that – among other things. I’m concentrating on locating and enrolling the individuals in town that orient to community and trying to develop ways that their efforts can make a difference.
None of this affects a very central issue of needing to attract new businesses, and population, to Oranjemund. That, alone, is daunting. Sheesh. Oh yeah, and to build a Tourism industry, and Agriculture, and Drylands research – you get the idea.
Why does all of this matter? Take a look at Kohlmanskop – that was an active town until around 1956. It is just up the Atlantic Coast from Oranjemund, around Luderitz. Matter of fact, Kohlmanskop was abandoned because they found bigger/better diamonds around Oranjemund. Lots of interesting history there I’ll write about another day.
Probably Oranjemund won’t be quite that drastic, but in all seriousness, it could.
On the other hand, there are some seriously big projects that MAY come here, which would revitalize the economy.
In the mean time, I am attempting to help the community take responsibility for their own growth by attracting new businesses and residents, and forming community groups to help the existing poor residents as well as ensure a better way of life for everyone.
Back to Peace Corps jobs in Namibia, in general:
This is a very untypical Peace Corps job, and there is no equivalent in Namibia. It remains to be seen if the Peace Corps decides to continue to support this type of position when (if?) I leave. However, CED (Community Economic Development) is assigning PCVs to increasingly “modern” positions with government and NGO institutions throughout Namibia. The number of PCVs assigned to Town Councils is growing. We have a PCV at Arandis and at Keetmanshoop, and a PCV with the Regional Council (a Region is kind of like a state in the USA) for Kunene Region. They actually work with the Councils directly, and in some cases have been very effective. There is also a PCV that works to help rural communities benefit from natural resources by creating income opportunities for using their resources sustainably. She is now doing that on a national level, after starting in rural areas with elephants literally in her front yard. Other CED PCVs work with groups in vocational training, education for adults, and in the more traditional Peace Corps positions helping groups with making handcrafts, building local organizations, etc.
Currently there are approximately 140 PCVs in Namibia. About 30 in CED, only about six currently in Health (CHHAP), and the rest in education (SUPEP). On April 12 or so, new trainees arrived in country for 10 weeks of training: about 17 CED, and 16 Health volunteers. They will stay for 26 months unless they extend (as I did), which is not rare but is not the normal situation.
So What about Namibia?
Africa, and Namibia, just aren’t what almost everyone in the USA pictures. National Geographic has very recently done some soul searching about how they have portrayed things here. The latest edition of Nat Geo is REALLY interesting, and they do an admirable job of self-evaluation without falling on any swords. When I was a kid I used to go to the attic and look through decades of stored-away Nat Geo magazines, often with the not-so-lofty goal of seeing bare breasts! I’m not sure that was an enlightened way of learning much about another culture, but I doubt if I was the only teenager doing the same thing. More than that, and as recently as shortly before leaving for Namibia in 2015, I still envisioned Africa as villages, leopard skin loin cloths, and kraals. Africa is much more developed than I even conceived of. Getting to know the “real” Africa has been gradual.
I’m feeling bad about not having more images, but if I don’t post this now, it may be weeks before ANYTHING new gets on the blog. Please stay tuned and I’m really going to try and put more up here. There are LOTS of projects that need help, and this blog only lays out the larger picture.
Notes and contacts help me motivate to post more, as does “following” my blogs with the button in the lower right corner. It may not be visible unless you scroll UP towards the top of the blog – then look for the “FOLLOW” button. No advertisements or releasing your contact information, it only sends you an email when I post a new blog. Thanks for reading!