Living in the desert, one learns how to drive in sand. The shortest distance between two points rarely proves the straightest line. Vehicle tracks that braid through the bush broaden and twine back on themselves, working around obstacles and flowing back to the center of the trail. When the ruts get deep you relax, loosen your grip on the wheel, and apply steady pressure to the accelerator.
These have been life lessons for me, learned in the deserts of Namibia. Fifteen years ago, I was the grateful beneficiary of a $2,500 grant from the Alliance of International Monasticism (AIM) in its annual Lenten Appeal. AIM made it possible for me to extend my stay as a volunteer English teacher in the newly independent, southern African nation of Namibia. This simple act of faith and generosity set me on a path profoundly shaping my life's direction and career, while maintaining a connection to Namibia and its people that continues to this day.
I was a newly-coined English major, one of the first batch of WorldTeach volunteers assigned to Catholic and Anglican mission schools during the first year of English as the primary medium of instruction in Namibian primary schools. My volunteer year was approaching its end but I was far from finished with Africa. I was eager to find a way to continue my stay and contribute to the remarkable process of nation-building in which every Namibian was then engaged. I was also in love with a Peace Corps volunteer with a year left to go on her contract in Namibia and whom I subsequently married.
Those were heady days during the great release that followed a century of colonialism, the brutal imposition of apartheid under South African rule and more than two decades of resistance and guerrilla war. Namibians were discovering for themselves whether liberty meant license to do as they pleased or responsibility to build a more just and sustainable society. Namibia's policy of national reconciliation had broad public support, even though it lacked a public process such as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided that country for revealing and accepting responsibility for atrocities committed on both sides during the liberation struggle.
A Namibian order of Catholic nuns, the Benedictine Sisters of Oshikuku, offered me food and shelter for a second year if I would be an English resource for one of the remote communities served by their order in the far north of the country. All I needed was money for my additional expenses and I started casting around for funding. AIM met more than half of my needs, sight unseen, without hesitation.
In all we spent nearly four years in Namibia, the last of which in 1997 on a Fulbright research fellowship supporting emerging, communal-area wildlife conservancies. My subsequent career as a conservationist draws heavily on lessons learned in Namibia and a deep belief in the value of community-based conservation. First with The Nature Conservancy and now with the Trust for Public Land, I travel the braided path through complex partnerships, competing conservation interests and rapidly vanishing open space in confidence born of my Namibian experiences.
There are many parallels between conservation in Namibia and what I encounter as Director of the Litchfield Hills Greenprint in northwest Connecticut. People in both places care deeply about their connection to "place" and are renegotiating relations among themselves and with their environments.
I learned that a Tragedy of the Commons is not a forgone conclusion. When people are seen as a part of their environment and that association is given value and meaning, they can become stewards of shared resources and advocates for conservation. Conversely, when conservation issues are framed as a choice between people and natural resources, the environment always loses.
My wife and I were married in 1995 and we have two children. Our youngest son is the namesake of Elias Xoagub, the our dear Namibian friend and chairperson of the Uibasen-Twyfelfontein Conservancy and owner of Aba-Huab camp and safaris. We are also host family for Burton Gaiseb, a remarkable young man from Namibia, now a college student at Simon's Rock College of Bard. We are so grateful to those many people who assisted us when we were in Africa, and it is deeply gratifying to pass on some of that generosity to Burton, and feel the braided track of our journey crossing back to the center.
This post will appear in shorter form in an upcoming issue of the AIM newsletter.