Red sand. Endless flat white salt pans. Moonscape mountains of red sandstone rocks randomly emerge from a soft silvery-green plain dotted with the occasional tree. Rivers teeming with wildlife and birds. A few miles later, arid dusty sand-coated trees where the leaves have withered and browned. The desert here ends right at the pounding Atlantic Ocean, giving Namibia a seemingly endless beach stretching inland for miles.
The scenery and landscape must be some of the most beautiful on earth – certainly some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in my travels.
Namibia is extreme. Extremely beautiful. Extremely harsh. This is an amazing place to visit. But I suspect it’s incredibly difficult to live here.
The temperatures in the desert fluctuate 50 degrees in a few short hours … and most of this country is desert. The sun is hot. Mind-bendingly, hide under your scarf to get out of the sun hot. The nights have us sleeping in fleece hats and multiple layers and bag liners for warmth.
The population here is small, and most people live in small villages and earn their living subsistence farming – somehow scraping a living farming this dry, sandy ground or by herding goats and cattle.
One of many shipwrecks off the Skeleton coast, named by early mariners because the treacherous Antarctic current wrecked countless ships, and survivors of the wreck had no chance of surviving the desert and lack of food and water.
And now there is a drought in the north of the country, and the crops have failed. Which means food shortages for many people, when they already live on very little. UNICEF is gearing up for substantial food assistance to help people survive till the next crop comes.
There is high unemployment and few jobs … most jobs are in the mines. While education and literacy levels are relatively high, there is little opportunity to take a basic education and make a career or earn a living.
This country only became independent in 1990 and it has a long and bloody history. First Germany colonized Namibia, and even perpetrated a genocide that killed 80% of the population of the largest ethnic tribe living in the south. There are remnants of German colonial architecture, and restaurants serve German food and many speak German in the cities. And some Namibians of German descent still live here, still farm and control a disproportionate share of the wealth here.
Then in World War 1 Britain persuaded South Africa to invade Namibia … and they successfully took over the country. And then they never left, despite UN sanctions and international pressure. And when they finally left in 1990, they left behind remnants of divisive apartheid social structures and a dependance on South Africa for the economy.
And in the late 1990s Northern Namibia was caught up in the civil war in neighboring Angola which made the North a war zone with regular raids by rebels pillaging farms and homes and resulted in deaths from land mines and violence.
So Namibia is still struggling, and still has much to overcome. And the wounds of the past are still raw, and it’s not hard to understand why there is still distrust and resentment between races and regions.
Most locals I have spoken with are very optimistic that their new president – the third president since independence – will be able to help end the corruption and improve the lives of people. They are hopeful, and I hope they are right.
In this country it seems very difficult to succeed and rise through society without assistance. Our guide Markus has a remarkable story … he spent his childhood in the North of the country where his family’s farm was raided regularly by UNITA rebels from Angola. He still got an education and then qualified for secondary school and left his village for the capital of Windhoek to complete secondary school. He then received a highly competitive USAID (US Agency for International Development) Millennium grant to pay for private college for a tourism degree, which was very expensive and would have been out of his reach without the financial assistance. And he’s terrific at his job.
And now he is taking the money he has earned and applying with the Namibian government to start a construction business. If he gets this grant, he can build houses that are desperately needed here, and also help create desperately needed jobs. The government needs housing so badly that they are providing construction equipment and start-up costs to those who qualify.
Basically, Markus is a success story of the USAID Millennium grants. The goal is to cultivate local leadership to eventually lift up this society a generation at a time. I love knowing that the financial assistance our country has provided is working and has made such a difference in his life, and that it will likely pay forward to benefit many others.
When Mom and I planned this trip, coming to Namibia was an afterthought ,,, added because it made more sense to leave from Namibia to go on safari to the areas we wanted to visit.
But now it has easily risen to be one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited. Not just because of the wildlife and the scenery. But because there are very few places where you can truly feel the resilience and the strength of the people around you as you can here, in this harsh and beautiful country.