Saturday, 9 July 2011

Project Namibia: A trip of a lifetime

The indigenous peoples of Namibia often refer to the deserts in which they live as "the land God made in anger" and on a recent trip to the African country I’m not surprised they believe that.

There are endlessly dry seas of sand that stretch out between rocky outcrops and I remember thinking that the land looked painfully inhospitable and unforgiving.

But ten days spent in one of the country’s most isolated locations revealed a curious beauty, sparked by the colourful sunsets Namibia is blessed with, and left me longing to return.

I was part of a group of 40 volunteers which travelled to the remote Tubusis settlement in the Damaraland region of the country to give a boarding school a much-needed facelift.

The international project was led by bowel cancer research charity the Bobby Moore Fund and my lasting memory of the trip will always be the friendly people we encountered despite some harsh living conditions.

Our journey to the school last month was a bit tedious and saw us catch a long-haul flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg and then a short flight to Namibia’s capital Windhoek before a long coach journey to Tubusis.

The project also didn’t start perfectly for me as my rucksack wasn’t on the luggage carousel in Windhoek and I had to wait three days to be reunited with my belongings.

Thankfully the other members of the group gave me clothes to wear, sun lotion to stop me from burning in the African heat and, most importantly, water purification tablets to keep me hydrated.

We were told on arrival at our camp that the amount of volunteers on this project was one of the highest the Bobby Moore Fund had taken abroad before.

But after walking the short distance to the school from our camp for our first day on site, the huge task ahead of us became clear.

The school consists of eight big buildings across a large area and although they were in reasonably good shape structurally, they needed of general repairs to walls, paint work, doors, ceilings and windows.

The boys’ and girls’ dormitory also needed additional work as the shower and toilet facilities had to be "spruced up" and tiled – a job I was unwittingly signed up for.

Now, I am always the first to admit that I am rubbish at DIY so after being told I was to start on the tiling team, I thought: "This’ll be interesting".

But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning a few new skills and working in a team which had very little tiling experience but still produced a facility we – and the children – were extremely proud of.

However, I must admit we were in for a stark reality check during the first couple of days revamping the shower and toilet rooms.

The biggest problem we encountered was that the drains were completely blocked and meant the toilet would overflow after being flushed and the water from the shower would go nowhere.

This was not helped by the fact the septic tank was filled to the brim with the school having no idea when government employees would arrive to empty it.

We tried to unblock the drains but with little success because of how badly blocked they were.

The smell in and around the dorms was therefore truly unbearable and looking back, I can’t even believe I spent the best part of a week surrounded by it.

The other eye-opener for us was seeing the living conditions of the children in the dormitories which were appalling. The children have to share a single bed with at least two other children on a sponge mattresses which was falling to pieces.
If that wasn’t bad enough many of the windows in the dorms were cracked and with the temperatures dropping by as much as 25 degrees in the evening, it couldn’t have been pleasant for the youngsters.

Finally, we were told some of the children had been sent to the school from as far away as 600km as the country’s tribes look to spread out into other territories which left the youngsters understandably vulnerable.

But despite all of these things going against them, the children seemed happy and always greeted us with beaming smiles, high fives and hugs.

It was also an amazing experience to see the looks on their faces on African Children’s Day when we handed out presents ranging from football shirts to skipping ropes to the children whose only other toy choices were made from barbed wire and bottle tops.

Other highlights from the project included watching the lunar eclipse and then sleeping around the campfire under the Namibian night sky as it came to life with thousands of stars.

There was also one evening where I climbed up to the nearest mountain to our camp to watch the beautiful sunset – something I’ll always cherish.

Then there was the football match between a Bobby Moore Fund XI and the village side held at the "Tubusis Stadium" which was basically a sand-covered football pitch with goal posts but no nets.

The whole village came out to watch the game and it was an electric atmosphere to play in - despite the game ending in a stalemate.

Finally, during the handover ceremony, the Bobby Moore Fund’s founder Stephanie Moore told us we had collective raised more than £150,000 for the charity, something which brought tears to the eyes of some who had lost a loved one to bowel cancer. It was also during this ceremony we created a "palm" tree- get it?!

Overall, the project was perhaps the most rewarding experience of my life and one I would love to repeat again if given the opportunity.

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