For the last week or so, I've been posting a serial account of my physical and metaphysical hike around the Taconic Plateau. It took five posts to complete a single day of my hike, and before setting out again to the sweetest mountain of all, glorious Mt. Race, and day two of my journey, please permit us to pause for just a few moments...
I've been thinking about Africa recently, and the deep and abiding connection I have with southern Africa generally and Namibia in particular. I cut my eye teeth as a newly minted English major and a volunteer teacher during Namibia's first years of Independence from South Africa. I was captivated by the process of nation-building and the personal and collective discoveries about liberty that Namibians were making in the early 1990s. Did freedom meet entitlement, or opportunity? Did liberty mean license, or new ways of understanding and interacting with others and the environment? Above all, was it possible to overcome the pitfalls that so many other new nations, including our own, encountered in the process of building a more sustainable, equitable society?
I wrote literally thousands of pages of letters and observations during my nearly 4 years in Namibia. The last two years were spent on a Fulbright scholarship and supporting community-based conservation efforts in Kunene Province and especially the emerging conservancy of ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy , or "Elephants Corner." My wife and I strove to be true facilitators, working to make ourselves dispensable while the members of this new experiment in communal-lands conservation developed their own capacities and realized objectives they defined for themselves.
Eight years later, we have such pride in their accomplishments. A Google search of our dear friends Bob Guibeb, Helga Howoses and Landine Guim reveals that they and many others in ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy have moved from strength to strength. They were young, unemployed, rural Africans and low placed in the traditional power structure. They and others like them showed, through their dedication and commitment to creating something new and of lasting benefit, that they were assets to their community and worthy of respect and inclusion.
It was by no means an easy or comfortable process. The tension between tradition and modernity, between customary land tenure and a new, government-defined process for managing and benefiting from conserving the community's wildlife resources, was deep and sometimes painful. Yet those in the Conservancy Management Committee, the Grootberg farmers Association, and the early Environmental Shepherds created something lasting and sustainable and with a modest amount of outside assistance.
A few measures of success:
- In the mid 1990s, there were fewer than 200 desert adapted elephant in this region, poachers had decimated the last, free-ranging population of black Rhinoceros, and zebra and antelope species were in sharp decline. A 2005 wildlife survey found more than 500 elephants here today, a dramatic increase in Hartmann's Mountain Zebra and many antelope, and a much healthier Rhino population expanding its range alongside human settlements.
- ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy took its conservation mandate further than the Ministry of Environment and Tourism envisioned, incorporating livestock and rangeland management into its conservation planning alongside protection of wildlife resources.
- Helga Howoses and some of her female colleagues blazed a new trail for Namibian women in conservation. In addition to serving on the Conservancy management Committee and as Information Liaison for the Conservancy, she and others established a Womens' Desk to devote some of the Conservancy's resources to improve the lives and skills of rural women. This was their own idea, and the men and traditional power structure supported this use of resources back in 2000.
-Landine Guim was a pioneer when she became one of the first 8 environmental shepherds - similar to community game guards but with broader, integrated responsibilities - and as far as anyone knows is the first woman to hold such a position in Southern Africa.
- Bernadus "Bob" Guibeb was perhaps our closest collaborator, and we worked hard to help him develop his natural facilitation skills. He was first the coordinator of the Environmental Shepherds, and today is the Conservancy's director of Environmental Services and a frequent attendee of regional community-based natural resource management conferences.
- ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy celebrated the launch this August of Grootberg Lodge, a mid-range tourist concession wholly owned by the Conservancy. Proceeds from this and other initiatives now cover the Conservancy's operating costs, provide more secure livelihoods for nearly 3,000 Conservancy members, subsidized diesel fuel for farms, and an emergency damage fund for conflicts between elephants and farming activities. The Namibian: Grootberg Lodge Breaks Ground
We are so delighted for our friends and former colleagues in ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy . There is usually no mention of the role we played in the formative stages of the Conservancy, and that is how it should be. If ever we were to drive down the rocky trail to Anker, or Erwee, or the Grootberg Breeding Station, we'd undoubtedly be embraced by throngs of old friends. Knowing the difference we made in so many lives and for such an extraordinary place is deeply satisfying, but so, too are the lessons we learned about empowerment, about participatory decision-making, and about conflict resolution from our years in Namibia. I draw on these experiences daily in my own conservation work here in the Berkshires and across the Northeast. Today we are a host family to a Namibian exchange student, now a freshman at Simon's Rock College of bard, and are pleased to be able to repay part of the debt we feel to so many Namibians who were so generous to us.
Anyone reading this post with an itch to see real, community-based conservation success and a glorious part of southern Africa should seek out ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy . Eco-tourism at #Khoadi //Hoas will give you a taste. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the WWF Living in a Finite Environment (LIFE) program, or a letter to the Conservancy at P.O. Box 119 Kamanjab, Namibia will start you on your way. Check out Grooberg Lodge in glorious Klip Rivier. Tell Bob, Helga and Landine we think of them constantly and toast their accomplishments, with Amarula cream when we can get it, and wish them well.