Living on Africa Time: In the Moment
By Marina Watowich (Carleton College)
Coming here we were asked to be flexible as plans are apt to change in Namibia on a second’s notice. But flexibility implies there to be routine that may be occasionally altered. To some extent there may be routine each day- breakfast, game drive/point count, lunch, data entry and class work, dinner, bed – but these events are just a skeleton of our day and are bodied by hundreds of moments which fill them and have shaped the most powerful and wonderful parts of our experience here. It is also these moments which I can never anticipate or pin down, they simply spring up, giving us opportunity after opportunity to take advantage of this experience. So what I really think we should have been asked is to cast off all expectations and hesitations and embrace every minute.
This past week we spent in Sesfontein Conservancy, where we camped at the conservancy office in town for the first three nights. The afternoon we arrived, the mere presence of our soccer ball brought dozens of kids to gather around our campsite while we attempted to catch up on course work. Wyatt went to chat with some of the kids and, eager to play soccer however possible, they challenged “the tourists” to a game of soccer. We had been enjoying our time in the shade of a fig tree but we glanced around to one another and knew we could not pass this up. Leah and Mal held down our defense while Wyatt and Taylor did their best to score. Despite our valiant efforts, and a few newly made up soccer moves, we were completely crushed by 5-10 year olds – so much so that a few took pity on us, joined our team and gave us our only goals! Playing with these spirited kids was such a blast that we played for well over an hour and were all completely covered by a thick layer of dust by the time we went back to camp. In this time Maddie had befriended our campsite neighbors, a group of high schoolers from a Windhoek private school who were on their last night of a service trip. Throughout dinner we heard them singing around their fire and after dinner they invited us over. Again we decided – why not? We chatted and they sang a beautiful rendition of the Namibian national anthem. In return they wanted us to sing our national anthem to which we hesitantly agreed (they were much better singers than us). We started the Star Spangled Banner, a personal favorite, off strongly but difficult notes and Leah’s ability to actually sing well quieted the rest of us to quiet mumbles and we let her carry us through the rest of the song. Luckily our hosts did not seem to notice as they were in awe of Leah. We headed back to our campsite already laughing at our luck so far in Sesfontein.
Our next two days were filled with more wonderful times as Jess, Taylor and Leah were able to sit in on the dramas of the annual general meeting of Sesfontein, Wyatt went swimming with some of our soccer players at the local swimming hole, a laughing dove accompanied Jess to the toilet stall and left with her, and Mal and Maddie taught local women about basic computer programs. We also went to the Sesfontein Combined School to teach a few students about the effects of drought on resource scarcity and competition. We ended up staying well over half an hour beyond this lesson to answer questions about what scientists do, how to be a scientist and the animals in our home country. We told them that anyone can be a scientist, as the root of being a scientist is asking questions and seeking answers. Already blown away by the sparks we saw in some kids’ eyes, we weren’t expecting much on the walk back to camp when a truck pulled up to us. The local guide asked us if we were with Round River, held out his hand and thanked us for our work in the region. By this point we were floored by the generosity of the Namibian people we had met and incredulous that all this had occurred in a few hours.
The next day we headed out to the Ganumeb Mountains and set up camp at the base of a mountain under massive boulders. Most of us set up camp under overhangs but Leah set her tent up right on top of a boulder to fully embrace the site and the elements. So at 9:30 in the dark of night, Leah and I ended up doubled over in laughter that we were lugging rocks too heavy for one of us to carry over boulders just to keep her tent from being lifted in the wind. The next day we had an incredible opportunity to participate in hunting a springbok and Wyatt, Maddie and Taylor went with Vehi and Penaar, one of the game guards, to see the process from finding the springbok through to eating it for dinner that night. The next morning Mal, Leah and I were staying at camp and heard a goat in distress on the mountain 75 meters above us. Preparing to have to soldier carry a goat down the mountain we hiked up to the goat when suddenly it found its own legs from fear of us and scurried down the mountain, with us following to chase it from the campsite.
Our next three days were spent in the incredible Hoanib riverbed. Our introduction to the river was the juxtaposition of two events – first suddenly seeing a beautiful lioness and watching her climb a mountain, then, not even a kilometer down the road, coming across a long since dead elephant carcass where we stopped. Penaar attempted to take one of the footpads and stuff it in the back of the truck with all the bags…Even after a few rinses the truck still gives its riders whiffs of decomposing elephant! From both these moments we were all left looking around at one another wondering at life, whether at its beauty or its ridiculousness.
Our three days in the Hoanib were incredible, as it is a protected area with no hunting or settlements. We saw an incredible amount of wildlife up close because they were much less timid than in other areas. In fact, we could not go out of sight of one another because of the fresh lion tracks we found 70 meters from camp! The Hoanib was amazing and in short we saw giraffes 100 meters from camp which Taylor and Wyatt nearly walked up to, on a game drive Wyatt and Jess saw a group of five lions and Mal, Leah and I were startled one morning by a troop of baboons fighting 150 meters away. When we finally had to leave the Hoanib we stopped at a traditional Himba village and Leah, Maddie and I were able to talk with a Himba woman while the others walked around the village. Vehi explained the meaning behind their traditional dress and then we were able to look at the many crafts they made.
To me this trip has been a lesson in recognizing the material that fills life, not the activities that life is scheduled around, but the real substance which gives meaning to an experience. Being here I have attempted to live fully – for each minute – to shrug off the dwelling in past mistakes or thoughts of a future which will always be beyond the reach of the present. And what I’ve found is this experience, life itself, is made of minute upon minute and is best tasted when unpredictable and unexpected.
Our most valuable moments have been the suddenly hilarious that have reduced us to being doubled over in laughter, the stunningly meaningful that leave us speechlessly lost in our own thoughts, the absolutely ridiculous which cause us to cock our heads in puzzlement at our reality, and the strikingly heartfelt when the new family we have here becomes apparent. So if there is to be a theme of the trip, so far in my eyes, it is these unexpected moments that we have lived to the fullest.
To sum up the truth I have found thus far I can offer the simple quote of another: “The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle. Which is exactly what it is – a miracle and unrepeatable.”