Towards the start of February, having left behind my marginalised Ju|’hoansi San patients less than 24 hours before, I found myself in London in a corporate box watching an Arsenal football match. My friend had kindly provided me with free tickets through his work and I sat there watching the match in the snow, drinking beers that cost my friend’s company £5 per bottle. The contrast from Epukiro to the Emirates could hardly be greater. Thankfully I was given a job from the world’s most expensive interview and I’ll be moving from rural Namibia to inner city London in July.
My friends and family have been making fun of my changed appearance since setting off for Africa over a year ago. Before I left I was a regular at the gym and played squash a few times a week. Since being in Namibia I’ve barely done either and I’ve lost about 5kg of muscle. A lovely comment from my Mum when I was back at Christmas was ‘You look very skinny Paul, are you sure you’re not sick?’ The culmination of this was in a supermarket in Namibia in the local town. Not playing squash has made my legs like cocktail sticks and I’m still wearing the same size trousers as before. I was queuing up to pay when my shorts fell down. I drew a lot of attention from the long queue of people behind me as I loudly dropped the cans of sweetcorn I was carrying on the floor. I was carrying the rest of my shopping in my arms, so before I could bend down to pick up my shorts I had to carefully place my bag of apples, my avocados, diet coke and giant box of rooibos tea on the floor. I was the only white guy in the supermarket, shorts by my ankles, showing off my bright purple underwear for about 15 seconds.
Some excitement for the village recently was with a snake in our grounds. I was walking through the clinic yard with our San translator when she somehow noticed a track in the sand. She looked at the track, said there was a snake and that it led to a thick patch of grass next to our house. Sure enough when she had a look, a Boomslang snake slithered out, past the open door to our house and into the bushes. The villagers here do not appreciate a deadly snake next to their houses. It sounds lovely for conservation to let snakes live free, but it just takes one child being killed for the snake’s wellbeing to take a back seat. The next hour and a half was spent with villagers throwing rocks into the trees and bushes to try to force the snake out. They threw petrol into the bushes and set them alight to try to smoke it out. The standoff was eventually broken when the snake made a successful mad dash through the bushes leading towards the river and safety. We now have to keep all our doors and windows shut as the snake has been seen on our neighbour’s property a couple of times since then.
I’ve had some generous donations of money recently to spend in Epukiro. I’ve had to think carefully about how to spend it since money doesn’t solve problems here and can actually cause more problems. A volunteer at the clinic gave a mother with a small child the equivalent of £3 (a huge amount of money here) as she said she was hungry. We found her later, passed out, with the baby still on her back, having spent all the money on alcohol. Anther example is a San child that made it to Grade 11, which is an incredible achievement. A Swiss charity heard about him and started giving him money while he was at school. He dropped out of school within 3 months, spending all the money he received on alcohol. He’s now an alcoholic in the local town.
Despite that sad story, my opinion is that education is the only way that the tough situation the San face in our area may change. There is a secondary school in our village and I’ve spent time with most of the San boys and girls that attend there, through my football team or the San cultural dancing group. They told me that they don’t have many of the basic necessities for school. They regularly mentioned not having school uniform, an obvious way that the San stand out as being poorer than the other tribes. The schoolchildren were excited when I used the donated money for school uniform, school bags and stationary for the 35 San students at the school. School uniform doesn’t mean they will go on to academic success but maybe it could make them feel more like the other students at school, and feel more pride in belonging to the school. 7% of San children finish primary school and less than 1% finish secondary school (at age 16). We don’t know of a single San student in our area that has passed Grade 12 (at 18) in the last 5 years.
There are four San students in Grade 11 and 12 in our region at the moment and my translators knew one of the girls. I was introduced to her and since then I’ve tried to support them with some school equipment like calculators, textbooks and school trips. They often don’t have toiletries so I took one of the boys, Isaak, to the supermarket. I had spent £20 on soap, toothpaste and other items for the four of them. Isaak said to me ‘I feel pity for you doctor, spending all this money on us.’ I guess he could not see a reason why I would spend this huge amount of money on children I wasn’t responsible for. I felt guilty that I had spent £20 at Christmas on two Cosmopolitans while out drinking in Manchester.
The football team had only one match in February as I was away a few weekends and we now share the car at weekends with ‘Doctor Clare’s netball team’. We added to our losing streak, losing 3-2 to Pos 13, which makes it four losses in a row now. In March we’re going to play against the Naankuse farm team in Windhoek (the parent charity of the clinic I work at, which also employs San people). The boys are super excited about it, some of them never having travelled more than 100km from our village before. The netball team is awesome as the San girls don’t often play much sport. Again, like the boys, they just aren’t able to compete physically with the taller, stronger Herreros. Clare takes them to the same villages I go to, to play against the San netball teams there.
In a sad end to the month, there was a car accident involving a white farmer from our area. He had his San workers in the open back of his 4×4 and his dogs in the cab with him. His dogs survived and his San workers died in the crash. A story of how undervalued San lives can be in this remote area of Namibia.