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Stroke My Massive Ego…

August 12, 2011

In a boost to my already massive ego I’ve been a ‘guest blogger’ for GetInvolved.ca. Woo.

You can find my drivel at: http://www.getinvolved.ca/2011/08/a-long-way-from-home/

Or read it here…

In March 2009, I was dropped off outside a busy casualty department of a developing-world hospital at two a.m. on a Saturday morning and was met with all the kinds of sights, sounds and smells you might imagine.

I’d quit my job and travelled thousands of miles to come here and do a voluntary job in international development.

Here was the small town of Opuwo, capital of the Kunene Region of the Republic of Namibia and home of the Himba tribe – one of the world’s most visually unique and oft-photographed tribes.

The job was to be an IT Specialist for the Ministry of Health and Social Services, a role with a two-paragraph explanation encompassing just about everything.

Everyone’s motivation for volunteering is different but honestly for me it was mainly selfish with a degree of altruism mixed in there somewhere. I wanted to travel, have new experiences, challenge myself and hopefully do something worthwhile along the way.

I spent quite a while “shopping around” the different opportunities for volunteer work abroad – everything from the “pay yourself” projects, to the build an elephant reserve or orphanage sites. In the end, I settled on applying to Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

VSO (CUSO-VSO in Canada) are a large charity that specialise in sending skilled professionals overseas anywhere from three months to two years in a variety of roles in many different countries.

In September 2009 I attended an assessment day in London and by some miracle was selected as a potential volunteer. Six months later I was standing at the casualty department wondering what the hell I was doing here and thinking I may have made the biggest mistake of my life.

But by the next morning it had become apparent I hadn’t made a mistake as I explored the dusty little town I now called home. Walking the streets was like being inside a National Geographic photo shoot: the sun was beaming down and the bustle on the pavements was interrupted only by the occasional wandering goat or donkey.

Working overseas is far different from travelling or touring. The level of exposure to different cultures and experiences are far beyond anything I could have experienced as a tourist. Working alongside the people gives you the opportunity to get to know them well, struggle through the same challenges, drink with them in the shebeens, celebrate their birthdays and weddings.

Professionally it’s been an eye-opener. Gone are the days of forming teams of various skilled individuals to solve a difficult technical problem. Now it’s just me with a paperclip, glue and some luck. If network cabling needs installed then I’m off in a heavily-loaded bakkie with a drill, cable and the willingness to get very dirty crawling through ceilings (or rather convincing colleagues to do the crawling).

And personally, it’s confirmed what I think I always knew (or hoped); people are people the world over and generally good. The less well off people are often the more generous they are and nearly everyone is keen for opportunities to better themselves or better their work.

I’ve been lucky enough to work and live alongside some really dedicated professionals. Opuwo may seem like an idyllic placement to me coming from the UK, but for many of my Namibian colleagues it is seen rightly as a difficult place to live and work. The sparsely populated vastness of the area and the rugged terrain give delivery of healthcare some very unique challenges.

One of VSO’s mottos for their volunteers is that they must be adaptable. Last week for instance, I was doing a network installation for one of our hospitals, this week I’m out driving around with a team doing polio immunisations and next week I’m giving a presentation to a group of Parliamentarians on ICT development in the Kunene Region.

Of course it’s not all been plain sailing. There have been nights in the summer where I think my brain is about to melt and run out of my ears, local and not-so-friendly bacteria take time to get used to (if you ever can) and getting stuck in sand in the middle of the Namib desert with only a few leaky water bottles on hand and not seening another car for 24 hours was worrisome to say the least.

But despite all that, I can confidently say that this decision has been the best of my life.

If I had one piece of advice to give to aspiring international volunteers it is this: you can’t expect the unexpected – so try and expect nothing, keep an open mind and see what happens.

The results, unpredictable as they are, may well astound you. They will certainly surprise you.

Anyway if you’re Canadian or whatever and fancy volunteering you should check them out.

Please Note…

I’m traveling at the moment (right now in Dar es Salaam) so blogging and email replying may be slower than ever.

Some posts are safely on a hard disc supposedly in a bag flying to Europe (if all went well). Others are just in my head.

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Great, so NOW I fall in love

July 11, 2011

Is it Murphy’s law that 29 months into a 30 month placement I fall in love?

Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to make the most of the few short weeks I will have with her before I head back to the world.

I apologise for the gushy nature of all this but I’m head-over-sheels and want to shout it to the entire world.

I’m not going to lie; there are a few haters out there and people who have no qualms in telling me they think our relationship is wrong. But seriously they can all get stuffed – I’ve never been happier and spend my time now grinning and wanting to break into song.

So a few details. My new beau’s name is Susan and she is sexy, smart, funny and generally wonderful.

She’s an HP 1810G-24 Ethernet Switch with 24 multiple-personality 10/100/1000 ports and two of the HP GBIC expansion ports.

Quite simply with a web interface, SNMP, auto-everything and a flashing blue locate LED you can turn on and off she is wonderful.

I really fell in love though the first time I turned her on. The startup sequence of LEDs lighting up, flashing and turning off all in a row was too much to bear.

Now I’ve known some slutty switches through the years, and there is always a time and a place for slutty switches, but Susan is refined and classy – not like some Cisco Catalyst switch all telnet interfaces and logos.

I’ll have to leave her behind but parting will be such sweet sorrow…

And is it wrong for a man to love an Ethernet switch? I mean love. Spiritually, emotionally and physically. Especially physically. Oh yeah. But, really, is that a good idea for the copper contacts? And do I care?

I is soooo Gangsta

July 1, 2011

I think it was Confucius who said: “if you lend your car MP3 player to your Dutch neighbour it will come back full of white noise, crazy electro-pop, and gangster rap”.

He was right.

Bombing round Opuwo today delivering letters (we can’t go any further because of the fuel card situation) with the windows down (yet another blue-skied perfect day).

NBC decided as it often does to stop playing music and go to some interminable speech by someone or other about key stakeholder involvement so I popped the MP3 in and bumped up the volume.

White noise. Next.

Sounds like modems making love. Next.

“**** my ******* ******* in the ***** and I’m gonna ****** you too ********” blurting out. Nice.

Not my weirdest musical experience here though. Not long in-country I tagged along with some colleagues on a tour of the other districts.

Otjiherero rap was the order of the day and I – foolishly – asked the driver what was being said.

It turned out to be a list of things the singer was planning to do with his other half when he got home and then even more explicitly the things he demanded she did to him.

Yes.

But the weird bit was the music selection was hardcore Otjiherero rap interspersed with Dolly Parton (which everyone sang along to, except me of course as I’m way too Gangsta for that).

 

Fuel Card Fiasco

June 30, 2011

The network equipment for Outjo Hospital is waiting at Wernhill Mall for me, the order for which is here in my office, the replacement RMT switch is at an Industrial Estate in Windhoek and the order for that is sitting here as well.

My trip has been approved at all necessary levels and so on sunday I should be off to Windhoek then back to Outjo to install cables then home.

What I’ve just been told though is that owing to some accounting SNAFU – we haven’t paid our fuel card bill – none of our fuel cards are now working.

Apparently with our remaining resources we need to do stuff like pickup staff already away and transport emergency patients. Pah, priorities huh. Seems facebook for the masses isn’t as important.

Namness Snapshot

June 28, 2011

In lieu of anything better or meaninful here are some randomish snapshots of Namlife.

The Sister

On having fixed a computer problem for someone.

Him: “Thank you so much. I must get you something. You can have my sister to marry”

Me: “Oh well, thanks but you shouldn’t really give away your sister like that… But, have you got a picture?”

Him: “No pictures. It is rude to refuse a gift!”

The Bed

Went to someones house to visit and was in his room.

Him: “Come, come, sit on my bed. You are a single man after all”

Me (sitting down): “What if I was married?”

(Some consultation between him and another friend in the room)

Him: “You’d have to sit on the floor”

Typos in Meeting

In a long meeting about babies and suchlike I spotted the following two typos:

1. When talking about resuscitation for newborns an objective was; “encourage resuscitation with bag and musk”

Pretty powerful musk.

2. On a form for recording ante-natal checkup information: “Fatal Heartrate”

Hint: Nearly always 0.

 

A Very Public Apology

June 21, 2011

One of my many character flaws, in some circumstances among the worst, is that I sometimes think I’m funny. This as we shall see is not the case.

Recently there have been some tribal tensions in the Kunene Region between the Herero and Damara.

This started off at a school near Sesfontein (and a Peace Corps volunteer was pulled out) and spread to Opuwo when a group of Hereros protested outside the Regional Council offices about what they see as a disproportionate number of Damara people employed there.

All this has been very peaceful but as a result the Regional Council offices were closed for two days and a police car sat outside.

One of my fellow Opuwo VSO vols, a Dutch lady we’ll call her M, works at the Regional Council but was down in Windhoek when the protest and closure occurred getting her work visa renewed.

On the Friday while waiting for something or other to boot up or finish installing I sent her and E (another Dutch VSO vol but who works at the hospital) the following text:

“Group of people standing outside the Regional Council holding signs saying ‘unite against the real enemy the Dutch’. Wonder who put them up to that?”

M promptly replied with “Are you joking?”.

There are many responses I should have sent back, ideally just a simple “Yes” and maybe a reassurance all was actually calm.

But no, thinking I was being funny, I instead sent the following:

“They’re now chanting ‘death to the dike building cyclists’ not sure what that’s about”.

Ha ha ha? No.

A very short time later my phone went and it was the VSO Programme Manager for HIV/AIDS (another Dutch lady who happens to be my and M’s programme manager).

She was asking my advice on the anti-Dutch situation she had just been informed about and if it was safe for M to come back to Opuwo at all.

A quick calculation in my head came to the conclusion the N$58 in my bank account wouldn’t be enough to buy fatcakes and cool drinks to actually entice a crowd into an anti-Dutch protest leaving only the options of coming clean or fleeing to Angola. I came clean.

After finishing grovelling to the PM who admitted she had been confused as to why there would be this sudden anti-Netherlands feeling in Opuwo I called M and began to explain, grovel, apologise, beg forgiveness and promise to never do it again all at the same time.

The names I was called in a mixture of English, Dutch and I think Mandarin would make a Polish sailor blush but were of course entirely justified. 100%.

I then spent a nervous couple of days waiting to see M in Opuwo and my inevitable slow and painful fully-vindicated death at her hands.

Luckily – and entirely undeservedly – she didn’t kill me and instead forgave me. This was unexpected and I’d made my peace with no fewer than 19 different gods.

On the record then: a thousand apologies to M and a million thanks for her generous nature.

She did then go on to lose my left boot in a shebeen the following weekend which I later found hanging on the hospital gate but that is another story. I don’t think it was revenge, not consciously anyway.

So no more jokes or japery from me from now until the end of days.

Which reminds me actually, have you heard this one?

“Two Himbas walk into a bar…”

Where Minibusses Fear to Tread (and Probably Shouldn’t): NID Round One

June 17, 2011

For the first round of National Immunisation Days (NIDs) I had to stay local to Opuwo so I could kick a modem regularly. I ended up assigned to Mobile Team One which entailed doing the villages, locations and other areas immediately around Opuwo.

Unfortunately the vehicle I was given was our Toyota Quantum minibus (combi in Namlish). Though roomy and great for actual immunisations it is the least practical vehicle ever invented for going anywhere other than perfect tarmac.

Of course this being Opuwo there only is one tarmac road so we spent a lot of time bumping, bashing and bouncing through/over uneven terrain.

The Toyota Quantum 'Immunobus' used by Mobile Team One for Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Once at a location the Immunobus was great – we could have the vaccine chest easily accessible and use it as a table, keep the engine running for AC (it’s pretty quiet) and snooze in the fully-reclinable seats.

Thanks to the ultra-low bullbars, positioning of wheels, two wheel drive and long body getting there though was an exercise in feeling our way over stuff, gouging holes and getting beached twice (though as luck would have it we got off both times).

Queue for immunisations for Mobile Team One, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

As a mobile team our job was quite literally to drive around looking for children and then enticing them to our van. Any other time, place or reason and we would have been arrested.

We had success though so here are some pictures from our efforts to make lots of children cry:

A child is upset after immunisation, held by its mother while an older girl holds another small child, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Child is Upset After Immunisation

Two mothers with their children watch immunisations and wait their turn, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Two Mothers and a Baby Watch Immunisations

A mother holding a child watches others being immunised waiting for her turn, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

A mother and her child wait for immunisations

Marking the right thumb of a child immunised as part of Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

After immunisation children are marked with ink on their right thumb

A Himba baby receives an oral immunisation near Opuwo, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Himba Baby is immunised while a Herero mother looks on

Dust-covered children coming for immunisations, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Dusty children come for immunisation

A dust-covered child receives a Viramin A oral booster, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Dusty child receives Vitamin A booster

A child watches immunisations, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

A child watches immunisations near Opuwo

Mobile Team One at work, Immunisations near Opuwo, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

People queue at the Immunobus

Baby receiving immunisations, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Baby being immunised from the Immunobus

Baby receives polio immunisation near Opuwo, Kunene Namibia National Immunisation Days 2011 Round One

Baby receives polio drops

A-Z of My Nam; part three

June 16, 2011

The thrilling final instalment of my self-indulgent and entirely unoriginal A-Z of my Nam experience:

S is for Serra Cafema, destination of a truly amazing adventure through mountain passes, crossing sun-scorched expanses of desert and navigating by dead reckoning and luck.

S could also be for sunsets – they are really rather spiffing here, especially in the dry season (9 months of the year) when the dust kicked up during the day means the whole sky turns purple and pink as the sun goes down.

T is for Travelling, something I’ve thankfully got to do quite a bit of – for work, for VSO or just for fun.

U is for Unbelievable, which is what it is anyone would offer me (me!) the chance to come here and get paid (me!!) for messing around with computers. It’s also half the stuff that happens (nobody will believe you about the bizarre stuff that happens in the Nam).

V is for VSO, the organisation that kindly decided to send me, despite my obvious shortcomings (as some sort of charitable act in itself I suppose or just to save the UK), to Namibia for a couple of years. The VSO staff in-country are great, tolerate me amazingly and even laugh at some of my jokes (another post on VSO Namibia staff later I feel).

V could also be for Victoria Falls, not really in Namibia but close enough you know, pretty impressive. Also V could be for Vastness. The country is vast, everything is vast; the landscapes, the sky, the temperature difference, the change from dry to wet season and back again to name but a select few.

W is for Winter, which though you wouldn’t expect it is bloody brass monkeys especially this year. Freezing my nads off in sub-Saharan Africa between the tropics! Ridiculous.

X is for X-Ray, the film used to fashion an anti-scratching collar for Mr Cat after half his head fell off (really). As you can imagine Mr Cat was anything but impressed with all these goings on but my scratch wounds have now almost healed.

Y is for Yanks, they’re bloody everywhere between the Peace Corps and numerous evangelical/missionary sorts. Neither group have managed to save my soul but I’m still holding out hope even if they’ve given up (quitters!).

Z is for Zebra, it’s like a horse but stripy. Oh and has a stripy mohican which is in the same black/white pattern as its body. Nice. They’re also, well, hung like Zebras which is pretty darn impressive and a source of much astonishment until an elephant whapped his out in the background. Made my eyes water for poor (or lucky?) Mrs Elephant. Also fun to tell the Yanks the correct pronunciation according to English. Proper English that is.

I am away. Or maybe just asleep. Either way not actually posting this now now. This p**s poor effort was pre-written and scheduled for publication during the NID period. Look at me all Raymond Chen but without the skills, followers, ability or human decency.

A-Z of My Nam; part two

June 15, 2011

Continuing my poorly thought out and worse executed list-me-whatsit:

J is for Journey, a word used in the sick-inducing phrase “The Volunteer Journey”. A little bit of me just died within.

J could also be for John, a PCV IT vol who espouses only the best values of the Peace Corps and the USA. And also looses to me at poker. And Battlefield 1942. But an all round good egg with an interesting take on facial hair, hygiene and mattress sanitation.

K is for Kunene, the mighty, vast and diverse region which I roam over breaking computers hither, fither and yonder. We’ve got rivers, desert, trees, grass, animals, desolation and everything inbetween.

L is for Lion, the animal I failed to see for a long time here (over a year). Other new volunteers would turn up, go to Etosha two weeks in and see lions juggling their cubs whilst chasing a kudu down at the same time. Thankfully my luck changed eventually and I saw me some lions.

M is for Mountains, especially the ones I keep having to drive over or thread my way through on various Ministry of Health missions to far-flung corners. Pretty though, especially the Zebra ones in the north.

M could also be for Ministry of Health and Social Services, my erstwhile employer and curer of the sick.

N is for Namib, the huge desert stretching all the way up Namibia with all it’s different textures, landscapes and seasons. It is a ‘proper’ desert in that it’s how you’d imagine it (in fact a lot of filming is done in the Namib because it’s more like people imagine the Sahara than the Sahara actually is). Certainly it’s a damn sight more ‘proper deserty’ than the Kalahari.

O is for Opuwo, the dusty little frontier town I call home. It’s a funny funny little place but with a chaotic and dirty charm all of its own. Oh, Opuwo!

P is for Penny, sage guide in the ways of the Nam, quality shebeening compadre, good friend and jolly good fun.

P could also be for Peace Corps, the sworn enemies strategic partners and drinking buddies of VSOs.

Q is for Quartz, pretty much all we found on the supposedly diamond and agate encrusted beaches of Luderitz.

R is for Rhino, who have visited the waterhole at night each time I’ve been at Etosha. Yet to make a daytime appearance for me though. Impressive beasts.

I am away. Or maybe just asleep. Either way not actually posting this now now. This p**s poor effort was pre-written and scheduled for publication during the NID period. Look at me all Raymond Chen but without the skills, followers, ability or human decency.

A-Z of My Nam; part one

June 14, 2011

Yes that’s right I am going to rip off invent a totally new blog-meme of doing A-Z lists about something. Look at me awesomely experimenting with new media forms and all the possibilities of informal cross networking and social media. Comments remain disabled.

So here is the first of three thrilling instalments of A-Z of My Nam:

A is for Amalia, my amazing boss at the MoHSS and a good friend who has helped me endlessly, taught me loads about Namibia and the GRN and stopped me from making an utter fool of myself more times.

A could also be for: Anika or *A*W*E*S*O*M*E* (Peace Corps mantra)

B is for BOLLOCKS, the word I have probably used most often as I’ve messed up or electrocuted myself and luckily unknown by most people here as a swear word.

C is for Condor, my mighty steed which took me safely around the highways and byways of Namibia, Botswana and Zambia only eating one gearbox and catching fire only a single time.

D is for Dangerous, a favourite word and description of most situations/people/events by the Opuwo PMO and also my description of a large number of activities I’ve undertaken in Nam.

D could also be for Diane or Daniel (two other Opuwo Brits) or the Dutch (as in “run for the hills, the Dutch are coming”)

E is for Elephant, my favourite animal here and (so far) nearest cause of animal-related demise.

E could also be for Erwin my Dutch neighbour, all round good sport and first VSO to join me in Opuwo after a year on my own. He was only slightly put out by my traditional attire of a Himba lady.

F is for “F**k It!” my personal VSO mantra used in different circumstances and with different emphasis but most often as in “yeah it’s probably a stupid idea but f**k it, what’s the worst that can happen?”

F could also be for Fish River, a place where more than ever I used my personal mantra.

G is for Giraffe, one of the most graceful and common animals I’ve seen around these here parts.

H is for Harrison, my most excellent Kenyan brother and guide to the wonders of Opuwo.

I is for Internet which I would be lost without. Lolcats, Kitlers, Rick Astley videos, german grumble flicks, email, facebook and of course not least for work (I can only fix things that have a clear description of the solution in the first page of a google search of the error displayed – yes I am ace).

I am away. Or maybe just asleep. Either way not actually posting this now now. This p**s poor effort was pre-written and scheduled for publication during the NID period. Look at me all Raymond Chen but without the skills, followers, ability or human decency.