The (second) E-report from Johannesburg

or "Don't Buy Your Next Car from a Namibian Rental Company"

or "Why I Love the Giraffe"

or "The Plains are Alive, with the Sound of Ethan"

or "The 5th Epistle from Chilly to the Heathens"

 

Here I am again, reporting from oh-so-sunny Gauteng (pronounced HOW-teng)

Province -- where both South Africa's executive capital of Pretoria and its

best-known city of Johannesburg are located -- in the midst of what they

call winter. I could get used to some of these winters... Gauteng's winters

are just about as mild as California's (my current home state, so I'm used

to wearing a light jacket) and is likewise known as the land of Gold. [It's

the SUMMERS in San Francisco that kill ya, folks.] Now before I report on

my recent three weeks in Namibia, let me remind y'all once again that I do

indeed LOVE all the emails you've been sending to me. However, as I'm only

able to get online a couple times a week, please make sure that you don't

include the text of my original message to you when you respond to me.

Thanks to 95% of you for following those directions to date. [Also, if you

want to be taken off the email list, just let me know. I recognize these

reports have been getting longer and longer - and that I've added a few of

you onto the email list without actually asking your permission!] As a

final reminder, if you missed any of the previous four 'tomes' from my prior

three months of travel around southern Africa -- and you have a few days set

aside to read them -- just check http://apgar.net/chillye/ to find them all

(thanks as always, Eric).

 

After arriving in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, I spent a week there

getting a sense of the place and some of the key issues people have been

facing. It was only recently that I realized why it had taken me almost

three weeks there to get a real handle on what was going on. Unlike South

Africa and Zimbabwe, the two countries in which I had spent a good amount of

time previously, I had not really done any background research on Namibia

prior to my arrival. Before landing in South Africa, like many of my

colleagues in the group experiences I joined there in April through June,

I'd read a few books, watched a couple films, and so forth. I'd been

briefed on Zimbabwe prior to my mid-June arrival simply because it had

dominated the news for much of the springtime in this region of the world,

due to both the land invasions and the parliamentary elections.

 

[By the way, to those of you who've inquired what is going on in Zim

post-elections, a quick summary: the government is having a very difficult

time right now. The predominately white Commercial Farmers Union, which

represents most of the large landowners, just last week threatened to close

down the majority of farms in the country. The concept of a nationwide

strike is being supported by the major labor unions as well - so you can see

that the revolt is being made by a coalition from both the 'right' and the

'left,' a deadly combination. Such an action would shut down most of

whatever small income the nation is generating at this financially depressed

time. That farmers are protesting the fact that the war veterans are still

refusing to get off the farms they have occupied, which recent political

agreements have 'settled' they would no longer occupy -- and which the

government is doing little to remove them from. And of course the new,

large minority party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is not doing

anything to help President Mugabe's ruling party, Zanu-PF, to get out of

this political and fiscal morass.]

 

But Namibia had not really been in the news in the previous couple months

here in southern Africa, and I hadn't read anything besides a bit of the

Lonely Planet guide I'd been given in June (thanks Amos), so I came here

with little knowledge of what to be on the lookout for. [Recent discussions

with folks in South Africa indicate many know little about their northwest

border country, so I don't feel so bad anymore.] What I did know was that

the country had achieved independence in 1990, a few years before South

Africa (1994), and a few after Zimbabwe (1980) -- in a mostly peaceful

U.N.-led process.

 

Pretty much the only thing I remembered about that period was the small role

I had to play in the U.S. Episcopal Church's change of position vis-a-vis

the new democratic government. I started working for the national church's

office of Peace and Justice Ministries in September of 1989. And I must

admit that in a few short months, I thought I was doing a pretty incredible

job. About one month after I began working at "815" -- as people around the

church call it (based on its street address on Manhattan's Second Avenue,

naturally) -- the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Ethan makes major headway

in addressing the Cold War conflict. A couple months later, Nelson Mandela

was released from prison, after 27 long years behind bars. Another historic

victory for Flad-man. So then came the process of implementing Namibian

independence...

 

The Peace and Justice office was (and is) responsible for monitoring the

entire church's rather large stock portfolio, with respect to a wide range

of social justice issues. Together with other church groups and socially

conscious investors, we would pressure multinational corporations whose

stocks we owned on a variety of topics. In the 1980's, the best-known topic

was the divestment movement, in which companies were pressured by activists

around the world to remove their operations from South Africa... and Namibia

as well (or what was then called South West Africa, which South Africa had

run for several decades). Our church, like several Protestant

denominations, had a policy statement that prevented us from owning shares

in corporations that were doing business in those two countries, based on

the international boycott. [In fact, I should add that the Episcopal

Church, USA was the sponsor of the very first socially-responsible

shareholder resolution: in 1972 we called on General Motors to disinvest

from its operations in South Africa. I'd also like to mention how surprised

I've been here in South Africa to learn some people had little to no

knowledge of the divestment movement.]

 

Well, to try to bring this long story to a close, in 1990 our church was

going to have to change its policy on Namibia -- now that it was a new,

democratic country, we naturally didn't want to maintain an outdated

position of keeping investments out of the country. So, on behalf of our

national Socially Responsible Investing committee, I wrote a short, simple

(imagine me writing something short...) draft of a resolution that would

change our policy statement. It was modified slightly, and went through the

appropriate channels, and became our new policy. Ethan makes good, once

again. [Granted, not quite as dramatic as getting that darned Berlin Wall

to fall, but not bad.]

 

So here in Namibia I set about trying to familiarize myself with this place.

Namibia's population is a lot smaller than I had imagined -- there are

only 1.7 million people. I was struck by the fact that the combined

population of it and its large geographic neighbor Botswana (which I'd

visited briefly early in the month, and also has less than 2 million

residents) is less than Soweto!! That's right, these millions of hectares

of land over two nations have a grand total of people that is less than one

former township region in the greater Johannesburg area. Whew. Obviously

the social, economic and political dynamics were going to be a bit different

there than in South Africa.

 

But yet, some of the challenges are indeed similar. Thanks to some

Namibian-supportive friends back in the U.S. (thanks Brian, Diane, and Bob &

Evie!!), and thanks to my host here, the administrator of the Anglican

Diocese of Namibia, Kelvin Adams, I was put into contact with a range of

church-based and NGO representatives. This range of local leadership shared

with me their concerns about unemployment and the economy, HIV/AIDS,

increasing crime, racial and ethnic tensions, political corruption, and the

tenuous process of moving from a liberation struggle to a government that

meets the needs of its entire people. I found the most comprehensive

overview of the numerous concerns facing Namibia's society and church

community outlined in a paper that one of my best contacts here, Christo

Lombard, wrote a couple years ago. Professor Lombard is the director of the

Ecumenical Institute for Namibia (EIN), based at the University of Namibia,

and since he's already written about the issues better than I could, I'm

going to plagiarize a couple paragraphs from him (should you do that from a

university professor?!). This is taken from the introduction of his essay,

"The Role of Religion in the Reconstruction of Namibian Society: The

Churches, the New Kairos, and Visions of Despair and Hope."

"As a background for the dilemmas which the Christian churches in Namibia

are facing currently, it is important to recall their strong prophetic stand

before independence, in defence of the right of the Namibian people to cast

off the shackles of apartheid rule and South African hegemony. Against this

background the current crisis, but also: opportunity, of the churches,

suddenly facing a totally new situation, a new kairos, can be portrayed to

some extent. The churches are now confronted with new realities such as a

popularly elected government within a 'unitary, democratic and secular

state.' Without proper preparation they are required to deal with a

complicated agenda, such as human rights abuses by the liberators, a new

situation of religious freedom, multi-culturalism and multi-faith education

in schools, and new challenges in the arena of civil society, such as:

gender equality, sexual orientation, corruption, nepotism, ongoing poverty

and unemployment, and integration of victims of the war. Suddenly, the

'kingly', 'priestly' and 'prophetic' ministries of the Church of Jesus

Christ have a totally new setting and orientation.

"...one can say the Namibian churches and society have been thrust into the

global village, where an international plan for peace and independence was

implemented successfully, but without the support of an established

democratic tradition; where racism has been constitutionally ousted, but

keeps coming back in all sorts of ethnic and cultural guises; where mission

and evangelization are to be redefined in terms of a secular state and real

religious freedom, within a predominantly hierarchical Christian tradition;

but also where special attention is needed for victims of war and newly

marginalised people, in a setting where the concept of *liberation* has not

yet been expanded to include social justice issues of 'land' and

'distribution of wealth,' let alone a culture of human rights."

 

Prof. Lombard indeed led me in the direction of some excellent human rights

contacts in the community, who I will discuss shortly. We talked at length

about some philosophical and political priorities for the relatively new

country, and the church's role in playing a part in the civic discourse. He

noted that the U.S. (where he has taken at least one teaching sabbatical,

back in 1989 at my childhood stomping grounds of Vassar College in

Poughkeepsie) is a completely legalized nation, in which the very values of

the country are put into law. He argued to me that our First Amendment

actually went too far, for two reasons. First, while he agreed that the

state shouldn't meddle in religion, the reverse was not true -- religious

traditions should be allowed to express their prophetic traditions within

the state. Second, he said it says religion shall be only an individual

expression; but most religious traditions are inherently a collective

experience. Finally, his analysis of the importance of the church's role in

the community noted that Jesus said that you need love as well as justice in

society; prophecy as well as law.

 

Christo described to me the four main goals of the EIN: (1) support

theological research, (2) to organize conferences on certain major themes,

(3) to stimulate ecumenical contact and support the work of the Council of

Churches of Namibia, and (4) to develop curricula for religious and moral

education throughout the school system. In this context, I learned that one

of his current primary areas of programmatic focus is on faith and the

environment. A growing field in my home country for the past decade, he is

one of many southern African religious scholars to take this on with new

insights. It was exciting to see how this movement is becoming a priority

for people of faith around the world, highlighting the connections between

God's creation and modern science. I offered to locate for his research and

curriculum development a couple of the resources I'd used back in the U.S.,

and his very positive acceptance of that suggestion made me feel I'd brought

something of value to that one area of work here.

 

This topic focus brought to mind several stories from my own occasionally

Zelig-like (or Forrest Gump, mayhap) background. Back in 1990-91, I had the

good fortune to join our Episcopal then-Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning,

at part of a gathering of top-level religious leaders, scientists, and

legislative representatives. The meeting, which was kicked off at the

Museum of Natural History in New York City, had been convened by

then-Senator Al Gore (now-battling candidate for the Presidency),

internationally-renowned Carl Sagan (now-deceased), and then-Dean of the

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, James Parks Morton. That initial

philosophical exercise led into an ongoing project involving theologians,

scientific leaders, and members of the Washington DC community called the

National Religious Partnership for the Environment, with which I've had many

good opportunities to work.

 

On a slightly more negative side, I recalled my trip to the United Nations

Conference on Environment and Development (popularly known as the Earth

Summit), back in June of 1992. This mammoth affair, which drew about 50,000

people from around the world to Rio de Janeiro for two weeks, taught me a

big lesson in showing up somewhere without having done enough legwork

beforehand. In Rio I learned that most of the work for these U.N.

conferences is done at the smaller working conferences held in the years

leading up to the high-profile event, which essentially serves to finalize

the agreements and publicize them. My biggest regret in Rio was not having

brought one of those life-size cardboard cutouts of our then President,

George Bush. Bush had expressed a hard-faced intransigence toward the

negotiations at the Earth Summit (for instance, toward the proposed

reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by developed nations, which would

play a large role in slowing down climate change worldwide), and any and all

activists there were vilifying him. So I wished I had thought to bring a

Bush replica, a Polaroid camera, and perhaps some rope - and with those

three items I could have made buckets of dough (pesados?) in a booth where

people could visit and have their picture taken strangling Eco-Enemy #1.

 

Bush did send his Vice President, J. Danforth Quayle, for a measly day or

two, one of two times I ran into the 'genius' conservative from Indiana

overseas that year. The other time was in December in San Salvador, at the

signing of the peace agreement between the El Salvadoran government and the

FMLN rebel forces. The Episcopal bishop there, the Right Rev. Martin

Barahona (a very nice man, committed to environmental and economic justice,

who I thought resembled a Latino Napoleon), had asked the U.S. Episcopal

Church to send a small delegation to stand in solidarity with the church

there at that important moment in the nation's history. I joined the Rev.

David Perry, Sonia Francis, the Rev. Ricardo Potter, and then-Panamanian

bishop James Ottley on a brief but powerful visit there. Being the only

member of the group who didn't speak Spanish, I felt quite the 'gringo,' one

of many times I've come to regret not taking it in college (my excuse was

that it was held at 9am EVERY day ALL year long, way too much of a

commitment for this late-riser).

 

It turned out that one of my other Namibian contacts had been at that very

same peace treaty ceremony! Back in April, when I first arrived in South

Africa, I had visited a food-training program in the Cape Flats area of

Langa with my Grace Cathedral group. There was another overseas group

enjoying lunch at the township-based vocational program that day, a large

crowd of U.S. college students who were visiting the Cape as part of their

semester abroad. I chatted with their program leader, an American named

Kevin Connors who was based in Windhoek, and told him that if I got to

Namibia I'd look him up. And so I did. When we talked more in Namibia, I

learned he had lived in El Salvador for six years, doing human rights work,

and had also been there at that historic moment.

 

Kevin and I hung out for the better part of an afternoon, and he brought me

to meet the cool staff of a gay and lesbian rights organization called The

Rainbow Project. They are doing their work in a tough climate, as Namibian

President Sam Nujoma has echoed the call of a couple of his African

counterparts (Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, as well as the Tanzanian president,

I believe) denigrating homosexuality as un-African, not to mention sinful.

Project director Ian and his assistant Britt, an American visiting for a

year, seemed to be in good spirits, however, and the fact they had recently

received a decent grant from a northern European NGO could have been the

reason. I'm hoping to use my Bay Area connections to send them one or two

resources in the future.

 

Namibia's more visible human rights issue related to the ongoing (lack of)

post-independence reconciliation process in the country. I met with several

people who expressed their concern with the government's increasing

autocratic tendencies and authoritarian tactics. On the one hand,

by-and-large Namibia is felt by the international community to have a

democratic government. Moreover, the fact that the ruling party of SWAPO

(the South West African People's Organization, the movement which led the

liberation struggle) won over 75% of the votes just a few months ago in the

national elections, lends one to believe that a clear majority of the

populace are comfortable with their current government. On the other, a

certain disparate stories are worth outlining, as they in different ways

give credence to the worries of this opposition.

 

First of all, Namibia's constitution had decreed that no president would

serve more than two five-year terms, when the democratic government took

office back in 1990. Last year, President Sam Nujoma convinced the

parliament to pass a 'one-time' amendment to the constitution, so that he

could run again - and he won, and this year began his third term of office.

Certainly this is a concern in a region where executives have been known to

do almost anything to maintain their power (with the striking exception of

Nelson Mandela's decision to step down after one term of office). In a

connected vein, I heard from more than one voice that the newly (re-)elected

government has called for stricter allegiance from its ministers of

parliament, not to mention the rank-and-file party members. [Now, with

SWAPO holding well over a two-thirds majority in the parliament, there is

cause to believe they can push through any sort of executive decisions

and/or constitutional amendments they choose.

 

SWAPO's dissatisfaction with internal criticism was made quite evident in

two stories making the headlines during my visit. One was the expulsion of

a foreign diplomat. In mid-July Finland's ambassador was told to leave the

country for what the government would only describe as 'undiplomatic

behavior.' Although Finland has been one of Namibia's main donors for the

past decade, according to the main English-language daily their ambassador

angered members of the Cabinet with his outspoken 'straight talk' about

Namibia's involvement in the regional war in the Congo. In a seemingly very

different world was the story about a musical group called 'Osire Stars.'

The popular band are refugees, and earlier this year were the darlings of

the political establishment as well, when they were hired to perform at the

10th anniversary of independence celebrations. However, they made the grave

error of performing in June at an event organized by a leading opposition

party, and hence became persona(s) non grata: all of a sudden the government

indicated that refugees had no right to speak politically (setting off a

huge legal and judicial debate, as you might imagine).

 

All of these issues interrelated with the most controversial one brought to

my attention - the call for the government to admit its wrongdoings in the

liberation struggle by: (1) acknowledging its use of torture and other human

rights violations, (2) apologizing to people it held in detention during

that period, on whom many of those abhorrent practices were used, (3)

clearing their tainted names from what SWAPO had accused to be spies and

dissidents, and (4) identifying what has happened to the hundreds of person

who are still missing, and presumed to be either dead or still in unknown

prison locations. This effort, which began all the way back in 1989-90

during the transition period to independence, gained momentum in the

mid-90's when a book was published by a Lutheran pastor named Groth about

many of the ex-detainees. It spurred the creation of the 'Breaking the Wall

of Silence' (BWS) movement, a dedicated group of people who refuse to let

SWAPO cover up this issue.

 

The BWS focus on bringing these stories to light is especially interesting

when viewed in the context of efforts around southern Africa to achieve

'reconciliation.' Roger Key, the dean of St. George's Cathedral in

Windhoek, gave me a helpful overview on this overarching theme by lending me

his copy of a four-part documentary series called 'Landscape of Memory.'

These four half-hour videos look at this topic in the post-war societies of

Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa. [I highly recommend it,

though at the moment I'm not sure how to get a copy.] Many of you have at

least some minimal level of knowledge of the work of the Truth and

Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which over the past four years

has brought to light the outrageous atrocities committed by both sides - but

particularly those perpetrated by the former apartheid government - in the

liberation conflict here. Namibia had no such process, and the

constitutional government simply called for reconciliation by moving forward

together. It is clear that will be impossible for many members of the

country until the wrongs that were done are acknowledged publicly. Unlike

in South Africa, there is not currently a call for reparations for those who

have been abused. Rather, the desire is to clear the names of those who

have been stained by this political and ideological conflict, and to

identify in a public arena what has happened to those still missing, so that

the community may move forward together.

 

Two leaders of the BWS movement spent significant amounts of time with me:

its first chairperson Samson Ndeikwila, and his successor Pauline Dempers.

Each of them shared a great deal of their moving personal stories, which

involved detention, torture, and political oppression, and highlighted the

ways in which BWS is trying to move forward in its ongoing campaign of

consciousness-raising and political criticism. Two of their top objectives

in the coming months are to finish an Oshiwambo translation of the book by

Pastor Groth (which was translated into Afrikaans shortly after its German

and English editions were published), and to commence an extensive oral

history project, by videotaping torture victim survivors and other

ex-detainees. [They just recently received the donation of a video camera

to assist this process, and are in need of some technical assistance to kick

off the project, not to mention creating documentaries out of the filming.

Anyone with such expertise that would welcome a short-term opportunity to

support this effort, please contact me.] The sensitive nature of their

work, and the government's 'unhappiness' with it (to put it kindly), was

made quite evident in a downtown coffee shop, when a CIA-type security agent

sat directly above us during our one-on-one conversation - making no real

effort to hide his disdainful watching and listening.

 

Those interesting connections led me to others, of course. I mentioned

earlier of the partnership between the EIN and Council of Churches in

Namibia (CCN). Christo has worked particularly closely with the CCN over

the past couple months on the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Together they put

together some resources for local churches to educate and organize around

the international debt crisis, and in a few short weeks they had gathered

several thousand signatures to send to the G-8 Summit in Okinawa. Christo

expressed great pride in the quick response to that call, as signing

petitions like that one is not any sort of a 'cultural tradition' in

Namibia. Of course, at the same time he expressed strong disappointment

(but not surprise) at the results of the Summit, where no real progress was

made toward debt relief, despite the high hopes on that issue beforehand. I

was set up with a brief meeting with the general secretary of the CCN, the

Rev. Nangula Kathindi, an Anglican priest. Just a couple minutes after we

started chatting, we realized we had met, years ago! She remembered our

time together back at the 1991 General Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, as we

met through our mutual friends Brian Grieves and Emma Mashinini. I had

recognized her face, but her memory was MUCH better than mine. In addition

to talking about the Jubilee 2000 campaign, she outlined some of the other

challenges facing the church and society, specifically: the ongoing Angolan

conflict; the growing problem of land mines throughout the Angolan border

region; and the rapidly increasing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

 

I was also put in touch with Mr. Uhuru Dempers (Pauline's brother), who is

the executive director of the Namibian Non-Governmental Organizations Forum

(NANGOF). It was formed in the early 1990's when many NGO's expressed a

need for increased networking among their membership. They work primarily

to support efforts for the poor and marginalized - especially turning NGO's

from historic service delivery work (now that the government is playing a

larger role in that capacity) to advocacy efforts. They also prioritize

capacity-building for the NGO community, leading workshops and doing

training in a range of key areas for about 85 affiliated organizations that

are trying to build up the civil society in the country. In that light,

Uhuru echoed the criticism about the government's growing culture of

intolerance. He indicated that governmental representatives have become

increasingly antipathetic toward those institutions which have criticized

the SWAPO leadership on certain policies (for instance its decisions to send

military troops into Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo); and

he cited the weakening political opposition in the country as a primary

reason the NGO community indeed needs to serve as strong watchdogs.

 

I had met a couple months ago in East London with a couple people involved

in similar NGO networking roles in the Eastern Cape, and they had expressed

grave concern about the financial situation of many of their member

organizations. That led me to ask Uhuru about funding, and he spoke

seriously on this issue. He noted that in 1990-91, the first year of their

independence, the Bank of Namibia (which holds all bank accounts for NGO's

operating in the country) reported that those organizations received from

outside funders a total of Nam$70 million. Four years later, in

1994-95, that amount had basically dropped in half to Nam$38 million. Many

NGO's closed their doors in the first half of the decade, and a top priority

for NANGOF's work is helping their members with organizational and financial

'sustainability' - in particular, trying to draw on the expertise of

overseas partners to help local NGO's learn diverse fundraising practices.

 

The role of the overseas community was highlighted in one issue that really

raised Uhuru's passions: land reform. This surprised me, since in a fairly

large country with less than two million people, I hadn't expected land to

be a big concern. However, he stated that the land issue is actually WORSE

in his country than in Zimbabwe, where the conflict (as previously reported)

has received all of the world's attention in recent months. Uhuru outlined

the stark disparity: less than 4000 white landowners control over 70% of the

land in this country. The only way this can change is by those few owners

choosing to turn over their lands to the government, because the

'reconciliation' process of independence (and the succeeding constitution)

has prevented any private property to be expropriated. The government, with

all its challenges, clearly doesn't have the money to purchase these lands

at what the owners claim are its 'market value,' so the situation has become

a sort of a Catch-22. It is his opinion that the legacy of the colonial

history of the land that in fact REQUIRES Western governments and

institutions to provide money to help this redistribution process. He saw

this as a key responsibility of developed countries: to help redress the

situation that they have caused over the past decades. With the knowledge

that the government has taken out many 'soft money' loans in recent years,

he is also worried that this assistance needs to come before international

financial institutions arrive in Namibia to force the restructuring of its

economic policies, which they have done to devastating effects in other

African countries.

 

Uhuru's final point was on the importance of the religious community. Like

several others, he feels that the churches are among the only remaining

'mass institutions' that have the capacity to mobilize people in communities

throughout the society. Like Christo, in particular, he believes the

churches have failed to live up to its prophetic legacy in recent years, and

that it needs to take on this role in a range of critical issues. In

talking with several people it seems obvious to me that the churches in

Namibia have entered the same somewhat 'dangerous' point of tension that we

have dealt with back in the U.S. in recent years. On the one hand, the

ecumenical and interfaith organizations are directed by their membership to

serve as 'facilitating' groups, not as programmatic ones, and to let the

member churches take on the latter task. But on the other, most of the

members are not actually willing to do that, for either financial reasons or

the concern about being too 'political.' It is a hard issue, and I hope

that the community in Namibia can handle it better than we have in the U.S.

(where ecumenical agencies have been slashed to skeleton staffs over the

past couple decades).

 

************

On Friday the 14th, I set off in a tiny rental car for the north of Namibia.

Shortly after my departure from Windhoek, I came upon a police roadblock

on the highway -- it was a checkpoint that seemed to be of special

importance at that time, when a group of Namibian war veterans had marched

all the way down toward the capital from the north. They were protesting

the government's lack of support (financial and otherwise) to them, a decade

after independence. Everyone here was a bit nervous about what they might

do, as the land occupations in Zimbabwe by their war veterans have had a

ripple effect throughout the region. The police officer who peered into my

car asked me where I was going: "Tsumeb," I said. Then, in an accent I

found it hard to distinguish, he asked me where I was from. "The United

States," I answered. To which he said, "U.S. dollars." "Dollars?"

"Dollars, ...ollars," he repeated -- but the more he spoke, the more

confused I got, and by then I thought he was asking what the U.S. colors

were -- so happily I responded, "red, white, and blue!" "No, US dollars,"

he said once again, making it quite clear what he was seeking. I was a bit

flustered, and started looking around my car for a bag in which I might have

a buck to appease the insistent security officer. Luckily, as this Abbott &

Costello exchange was taking place, 2-3 other cars had pulled in behind me,

waiting to go through the checkpoint. And as one of his colleagues walked

over to help deal with the growing backlog, he decided to wave me through.

Hmmn.

 

I arrived a few hours later in Tsumeb, a fairly tourist-centered town in the

north, which serves as the primary point of entry for many foreigners to the

huge animal-centric Etosha National Park. An hour or so later, I met the

diocesan bishop, the Right Rev. Shihala Hemepembe, and accompanied him to a

large regional gathering of the Anglican Mother's Union that was taking

place in town. We stayed for about a half hour, long enough for him to

offer greetings to the big assembly -- and me too. Unfortunately, we left

thereafter, because I learned later that the mothers had slain a fresh goat

for dinner, in honor of the bishop's visit. Instead, I feasted on a lame,

cold sandwich purchased from the only deli-type store open after 5pm on

Friday in town. [I can't really complain. I think back to my sister

Krista's beautiful wedding, at which the main course was a fantastic curried

goat dish, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As did almost everyone else, with

the embarrassing exception of Krista and her husband Chris, who had been

locked up in a photo shoot that lasted about 90 minutes. Oops. I'm still

sorry, Kris!]

 

A bit before 6 the next morning the bishop picked me up, and along with two

other passengers we headed off on a 3 & 1/2 hour drive northeast to the town

of Rundu. In the car, the bishop asked me, "Did you visit the U.S. embassy

in Windhoek, and tell them you would be coming up here?" I replied that I

had not, and asked whether I should have done so. He told me that the U.S.

government (and several other "Western" countries) had directed their

citizens to stay away from the Angolan border region, as the internal war is

continuing there (and occasionally spills over into northern Namibia).

Since Rundu was right at the border, the embassy would have told me to stay

away. Just as well that I didn't pay them a visit, then.

 

As we drove up the bishop had a cassette tape playing in the car -- and

unfortunately only had one tape, I would add. I must have heard the

entirety of that tape at least six times on the way up and back. Apparently

one of his kids had made it of some recent R&B songs, and having listened to

it and having seen a lot of videos recently, I'm convinced that R&B is in a

sad state. Yech. [I mean, the 'Thong Song'??!! Come ON!] The funniest

thing about it was the fact that I was in a car with a distinguished man of

"the cloth," and there were these songs with terrible curses & lyrics. It

sort of cracked me up, when I wasn't cringing. Listening to it over and

over reminded me of when my homegirl Meredith got her hair braided one time

up on 126th Street in Harlem, and had this horrible experience. Not only

did she not like the final product, and not only did it take over 6 hours

(at least 2-3 hours longer than it should have), but she had to listen to

some sappy Whitney Houston tape about 25 times. Apparently it (similarly)

was the only music they had available. Bummer.

 

That story also brings to mind my worst fear. All those of you who have

read George Orwell's "1984" probably mulled over what your most heinous

moment would be, based on that omniscient government's ability to exploit

each person's greatest fear (doesn't the image of the rats in the cage

around the man's head just stick with you?). In the mid-80's I became

convinced that my worst-case scenario would be a cassette player strapped to

my head with the song "We Built This City (on Rock & Roll)" playing

constantly... it seemed to be on the radio every 5 minutes, and I despised

it every time (maybe that is why I hardly ever listen to the radio

nowadays). In Connecticut we suffered the additional ignominy of an

inserted phrase, "We Built HARTFORD on Rock & Roll" thrown in on the

regular, by that voice many of you used to hear in advertisements for the

monthly Monster Truck road shows (catering to the elite of our society).

 

These two long drives, to Rundu and back, also made me think about some

other bishops-in-cars stories. My favorite one was told to me by Stephen

and Michael Perry, friends from way back in Po-town, who I've happily

reconnected with the past few years in the Bay Area. Their dad, David (hi

Ricki & David!), is a priest (and, naturally, a card-carrying member of the

PeeWee Herman Fan Club), and was serving at the time at All Saints' Church

in Pasadena, California, I believe. Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a visit to

Los Angeles, and for some unknown reason Stephen (I think) was called upon

to pick him up from the airport in his small, teenage-influenced, dirty car.

[Anyone who's ever encountered Tutu has a favorite story about him; this

is mine.] Now for some completely unknown reason, Bp. Tutu sat in the back

seat of Stephen's small car -- apparently there was someone important enough

to sit in the other front seat, instead of Tutu (?!). After he sat down, he

looked down at the car floor, as there was a crunching sound underneath his

feet. In that voice that only Desmond Tutu has, and which all of you who

have heard him will appreciate, he reached down and said, "Are THEEEZ potato

CHEEPS?!" [Which, picking some of the dirty semi-food items up in his hand,

they clearly were.] Now THAT is what I call a VIP escort service.

 

The other story that came to mind was the time I attended a meeting of the

international Anglican Peace and Justice Network in the Philippines, back in

late 1992. We spent several days in Manila (which is where the

previously-recorded "Hey, Joe!" story came from), and then headed north into

the rural Mountain Province, to a tiny village named Sagada. The

Philippines were in the middle of not one, but three different internal

military conflicts at that time. There was the Muslim separatist movement

in the south, which continues to this day (as you all know from those

hostages who have been kept there for the past several months). There were

a number of kidnappings and so forth by right-wing former members of the

military, who were seeking to fatten their pockets in the slightly less

corrupt post-Marcos era. And up in the northern mountains, leftist

guerrillas had been fighting against the government for years. Since the

north was where the Episcopal Church was based, our Christian brothers and

sisters there had been playing a central role in trying to mediate the

conflict between the two forces.

 

Now, I think that 15 of us from around the world were crammed into this

small (kombi-style) van for the long drive up. We left about 5:30 in the

morning, and we didn't get to the start of the mountainous area until about

4pm -- after a day-long journey of swerving back & forth on the so-called

"highway" (two lanes, one going north and one south) to avoid all the rice

that was put out on the road to dry by farmers from the omnipresent rice

fields. Somewhere in the middle of the day our teenage driver discovered

that there was no radiator cap in our van. Not good. And especially bad

when we started the dusk-then-dark climb into the mountains, on a one-lane

dirt road without any lights (of course not, there were no humans anywhere,

why would you need lights?), where we could frequently hear the dirt falling

away from the road -- to what? We spent the next seven hours singing

whatever came to people's minds, to keep our minds off the sound of the

disappearing road beneath us, and the occasional set of headlights that

emerge right in front of us as we came around a mountain bend -- at which

point our two vehicles would have to find a way to squeeze by one another.

We arrived near midnight, and the next morning when we woke up and realized

how high up we were, I know we were all glad that we hadn't seen what we had

been driving along (expect the driver, perhaps). And I will admit that I

have been convinced ever since that God had decided to keep us alive simply

because there were too many bishops in that van to let die together. I

mean, think of all the elections and politicking that would have to have

been done around the world if we had all perished!

 

One of the members of the episcopacy that was in the van was the Right Rev.

Jonothan Arinzechukwu Onyemelukwe. Bishop Jonothan, who insisted that he

was from the Diocese ON the Niger (not of), was a very funny character. His

various stories also helped to keep our minds off of the journey, and my

best memory was when he shared the tale of a phone call he made once to the

U.S. It was a person-to-person call, so the operator needed his name. He

said it, and was asked to repeat it. Which he did, and the operator, still

not getting the "Arinzechukwu Onyemelukwe" part through his distinct

Nigerian accent, requested that he spell it. His response: "It is spelled

just as it sounds." Exactly! Nothing could have been more to the point.

 

So, back to Africa! We did make it to Rundu, despite the music, and I

attended a confirmation service there. For a while it appeared that I would

be stuck outside the corrugated-metal church, as about 10 of us hung around

the front door for about 20 minutes. I was well occupied, however, by the

Hon. Willie Brown. An older well-dressed fellow by the name of Petrus, who

looked like a stunt double for San Francisco's infamous mayor, chatted me up

for a good 15 minutes. I did take a photo of Willie/Petrus, and you Bay

Area folks will have to tell me if I'm right (OK, he wasn't wearing a hat,

but everything else looked similar). At the end of the three-hour service,

which was all offered in Oshiwambo, I was asked to bring greetings from the

U.S. The bishop was fairly impressed that I referred to his sermon in my

short speech, which he translated for the congregation. I had listened

intently to his sermon, and, not understanding Oshiwambo, practically the

only word that I could identify as having an obviously English connection

was "catholic." So, naturally, I talked about catholicity -- how the

(worldwide) catholic aspect of the Anglican Church had brought me to visit

them.

 

Afterward we were treated to a wonderful luncheon, which was highlighted by

their cultural staple of "oshifima" (or "sima"), which is a "sadza"-like

food (see my previous email report from Zimbabwe) -- but is made of millet,

instead of mealie-meal (corn). When we sat down, the bishop asked me if I'd

ever eaten with my hands - ha; he should ask my mother! "You betcha," I

replied... in slightly more formal language, of course. And following the

lead of others, I proceeded to pull balls of the burning hot oshifima out of

the big hunk, and dip them into the vat of chicken & gravy. Yum! [As they

say here - not.]

 

The next day, back in Tsumeb, I attended another confirmation service, as

presided by the bishop. This one was larger and longer, going over 4 hours.

At the end, I once again brought the obligatory greetings from the U.S.

After I finished, a fellow who I'd sat next to the whole service, who looked

just like Ossie Davis (but this time I have no photo to prove it), also

spoke. Apparently he was another special guest, though he'd clearly been

there before. He talked first in the local language, and then spoke briefly

in English, directed toward me. Said Ossie to the naive U.S. visitor, in

front of several hundred folks, "This is a peaceful country. Your

government should not tell you to not come here to visit us." [Summary

version.] Well, he's right, and then he's not. In the newspapers over the

next week it emerged that three separate cross-border attacks took place in

the northeast, purportedly by either Angolan government forces or UNITA

rebels -- one of which was actually in Rundu the very weekend I visited

there!

 

This little speech I received was an example to me of the denial that I feel

some people are in about their situation (and I'm not talking about a river

elsewhere on this continent). Most are simply frustrated. It is ten years

after Namibian independence, and a lot of the population is distressed that

they have not been able to completely emerge from the legacy of violent

conflict, despite their best hopes. As a couple politically minded people

noted to me, a central issue that many people refuse to acknowledge is the

role that their own government has played in exacerbating this conflict.

The SWAPO government made an "executive" decision last year to fund the

Angolan government's campaign to "wipe out UNITA" (following the lead of

Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe, who called on all his southern African

partners to put troops and money into the Congo and Angolan conflicts), and

ever since that point the problems in the border region have increased

exponentially.

 

This problem was best exemplified in the next community I visited, the

following day. I drove 3 1/2 hours from Tsumeb to Odibo, a border village

that is basically entirely Anglican. This small mission community features

an important medical center, which services rural residents on both sides of

the impoverished border region, a secondary school, and of course a large

church (which confirms about 300-600 new communicants each year drawn from

its numerous nearby outposts).

 

Odibo is struggling, though -- especially its school. Due to the war, the

school -- which was, I believe, the only English-language secondary school

in the country for most of the 1970's/80's -- moved about 20 kilometers away

in the mid-80's, to an isolated community. Last year the decision was made

to finally move it back to its home of Odibo: after all, the country was

almost a decade into independence, and nothing had happened at any point in

the 90's in that area, so the school should reclaim its place by the border.

Less than two months after the school reopened in Odibo, at the beginning

of this year, an attack took place in that area by UNITA rebels. Apparently

they had decided to target medical centers located along the border, to gain

valuable medical supplies for their ongoing guerrilla war. In response, the

U.S. and other "Western" governments pulled away from the border all

volunteers who are citizens of their countries (and made the

now-known-to-Flad directive that we should stay away from there altogether).

Odibo's school thereby lost three volunteer teachers, who were running

three essential courses (for the high school students who are determined to

pass their matric examinations, anyway): English, math, and natural

sciences. The school has been unable to replace these teachers since March,

partly because it is hard to find available teachers with those specialties,

and partly because they can't afford to pay much -- the volunteers were

serving basically free of charge, after all. Many of the students have

since left the school, realizing that they cannot at this time get the

quality education they want at St. Mary's.

 

The medical center itself has many challenges, particularly funding (big

surprise). The clinic's facilities are decades old, and no amount of

patchwork fixing of the walls and ceilings (the way my family is used to

dealing with the plaster constantly falling in our old 1892 Victorian house)

is going to bring the buildings to the point of true quality care. One of

my generous hostesses there was a woman named Nancy; she is the only white

person who lives in the community -- into which she was born the child of

missionaries, and where she plans to live the rest of her life. Her late

husband put together a comprehensive three-stage renovation proposal for the

medical center a couple years ago. The plans will have the main building

knocked down and replaced by a modern out-patient and primary health care

facility, reflecting its significant role in the region. In my visit around

their facilities, I saw how important even the final stage of the proposal

will be -- as it includes building an up-to-date laundry room, a desperate

need for a hospital where I witnessed a woman cleaning most of the laundry

by hand, while standing next to the one small washing machine they own. The

proposal is estimated to cost several million Namibian dollars, and at the

moment they are required to raise 50% of the budget from outside sources

(which will be matched by funds from their government -- a not entirely

unfair system, given the fact that the government covers the cost of their

salaries, medicines, and most other day-to-day expenses).

 

The other major expenditure facing St. Mary's medical center is that of

getting a new "ambulance." Now I have to put that word in quotes, because

their version of an ambulance is not that which most of us in the U.S. would

recognize. It is a 4x4 vehicle, designed to navigate the treacherous rural

roads and landscape. Luckily, I visited them in the winter (again, a winter

where the average daily temperature was about 80-fahrenheit -- making me

quite glad I didn't come in the scorching, humid, mosquito &

malaria-infested summertime!), since the rainy season is several months

away. Then the roads are normally impassable, except by a 4-wheel drive

vehicle -- so what they use as an ambulance is basically a jeep. Their

ambulance driver has apparently put about 300,000 bumpy, clutch-eating

kilometers on their most recent version in the past two years alone, and for

this reason and the fact that they want to start sending their nurses OUT

into the communities to deliver health care TO the rural people (rather than

waiting for the sick folks to get to the clinic) they badly need new

transport.

 

Perhaps the toughest part of my trip to the north, though, was my

corresponding internal journey. Everywhere I went people would ask,

naturally, 'Why are you here?' The harsh reality was that very few people

from the U.S. come to that region, and those that do are usually either (1)

serving as long-term volunteers, and/or (2) bringing funds. I did not fit

into either of those historic boxes, which confused many peopleÖ and

increasingly myself. I felt that I was coming: to learn about the issues

affecting the communities in that part of the world, hopefully to share some

of those key learnings with a broader group of relatively concerned people

back 'home,' and to simply 'be' and worship with Anglican sisters and

brothers from a different part of the world. But it was not that easy.

There are two interrelated issues that I wrestled with, and continue to

ponder. First, what was I bringing? In a sense, I was 'taking' from those

communities - intellectual knowledge, and personal stories, but perhaps not

offering much in return. Second, the perception of people from the U.S.

being either (1) sources of funds and/or volunteer labor, or (2) tourists

who go to see the wildlife and avoid the people - and nothing in between.

 

Part of the dilemma was that I had written to the Anglican diocese several

months previously, indicating that I intended to make a brief visit of two

to four weeks, and inquiring as to whether I could do any helpful voluntary

work during the stay. The response was to indeed come to visit, but that

setting up a volunteer role would be next to impossible, due to the

government's stringent regulations and paperwork on creating such jobs

(fairly correctly, it reasons that almost any work should be handled my the

large number of unemployed in the country, not by outsiders). Conversely,

upon my arrival almost everyone I communicated with urged me to visit

certain tourist-dominated parts of the country, to immerse myself in its

beauty and ecological diversity. And since the volunteer idea had fallen

through, it was arranged that I would spend several days 'in nature.' As

you can see, what I had originally intended was not what I ended up doing -

and by gravitating toward the 'box' that has been defined for many overseas

visitors, and was the description that I had wanted to avoid. It was a bit

frustrating.

 

What is wrong with being a tourist? I mulled that over. Perhaps being a

'real tourist' would be better than what I was doing. After all, a tourist

puts money into the economy, thereby helping to create jobs in an

economically depressed climate. I, on the other hand, was looking to 'take

things out' of the community, at a certain level, without putting much back

in - except perhaps a brief relationship. I think there is a middle ground,

but the dichotomy consumed my mind for several days.

 

'At the end of the day,' as they love to say down here, I did indeed proceed

on my merry way to being a full-fledged tourist. I left Odibo in search of

game. Big game. My drive from Odibo southward to the Etosha National Park

was indeed marked by lots of game viewing -- but not of the species I was

seeking. Throughout my drive I constantly had to slow to a crawl to avoid

the herds of cattle, goats, and donkeys who meandered across the highway, at

their own pace -- that is, assuming they were moving at all. Sometimes they

preferred to stand in place, and stare at the oncoming moving vehicle with

that "Yeah, what? Go ahead, just TRY to hit me, dumb human" look which so

many have perfected. Most of the cows, in particular, reminded me of

members of San Francisco's infamous monthly bike ride, Critical Mass.

During that regular last-Friday-of-the-month gathering, where hundreds of

cyclists gather to enjoy pedalling through our city's lovely hills (pant

gasp), a main (if unwritten) objective is to wreak havoc on the start of the

weekend's commuter traffic. Therefore, after a short while, the bicyclists

cease to obey traffic rules, and begin to intentionally stop car traffic --

one or two persons will strategically place themselves in the path of the

oncoming cars, whilst all the other cyclists (the peleton?) zoom by

unimpeded.

 

Soon enough I had managed to arrive at Namutoni campsite in the park (well,

almost 4 hours later, thanks to the cattle), and I commenced my 3-night stay

at one of Africa's largest and best-known game reserves. As I drove into

the park, a giraffe peered over the top of some trees along the roadside,

and I knew I'd come to the right place. Over the next few days, as I drove

around this huge preserve, giraffes were often my salvation. I think there

often an expectation that these preserves are simply large zoos, and that

wherever you go you will find an animal waiting for you. Wrong. I had

hours of time to myself, without a fellow animal to share the moment. But

invariably a giraffe would appear, breaking the mammal-less moment, and

cementing its place in my heart as my favorite animal. 'Why?' you might be

asking (doubtful, but you might!). Well, several reasons. Certainly there

is the ability to actually see the giraffe, a not-unimportant issue for a

fellow who is driving on his own, and doesn't have an extra pair of eyes to

take up the lookout position for animals. Of course there is also the

physical resemblance -- tall, skinny, long neck, big eyelashes(?!).

 

Most of all, though, I think of the giraffe in the context of the time I

submitted it as a suggested symbol for a political party. A few years ago a

Washington DC-based progressive/ activist church colleague shared with me

some information about an emerging U.S. political party. It was called,

simply enough, the New Party, and it was a coalition of labor,

environmental, and poverty activists from around the country. Unlike some

other left-of-center attempts to build a new political agenda, this one had

a very small national role (at least at that time) and was concentrating its

efforts in local communities -- on school boards and city councils (just

like the right-wing Christian Coalition had done, so successfully, in

previous years). According to its literature, it was building a remarkable

track record of local victories, and I recognized the names of some of its

leadership as respected activists. I put myself on its mailing list, and a

few months later their newsletter announced they had grown big enough that

they needed to choose a national symbol -- like the elephant for the

Republican Party, and the donkey for the Democrats. So they were putting a

call out to their membership to submit ideas for the symbol.

 

Well, naturally I sent one in. Not only that, it showed up in a succeeding

issue of the newsletter, with about 7-9 other populist-inspired submissions,

for people to vote on. There were some weird ideas (the rock), and some

clever ones (most notably, the genius that dreamed up the gnu -- get it?

The New/ Gnu Party?!). But I liked mine -- the giraffe. My reasons?

Because the giraffe stands "head and shoulders" over its counterparts, 'just

like the New Party does,' and because the New Party's 'multi-colored

alliance is reflected in the giraffe's patchwork coat.' Or something to

that effect... I never found out what the final decision was (maybe the

leadership didn't like the vote results!), but I had that brief moment in

the sun. [NB: the New Party has since fallen a bit in my eyes due to their

mistreatment of my cousin Isabel during her employ as one of their local

organizers. We'll see if they can get their act together.]

 

The most visible animal at Etosha was the impala -- just like in my visit to

South Africa's Umfolozi-Hluhlue park in back in May (I can hear some of

y'all 'Spirit' folks groaning right now). The impala, a small antelope, is

apparently a prolific reproductive species (and unlike other regional member

of the deer family, you never really see impala on dinner menus -- so I

guess that's another reason it survives so well). There were long stretches

of time without even an impala or a giraffe, though. While tourists to

Etosha are often "promised" certain animals by the names of the places you

would visit (for instance, Eland Drive, or Rhino Way), they were clearly

mislabelled (or hopelessly optimistic) names. So I began re-naming the

paths with titles like "Just Dust Drive," and "Ain't Nobody Here But Us

Lonely Impala Way."

 

Being on my own, and wanting to remain as quiet as my small Toyota Corolla

could be in the bush (i.e., no radio), I was obviously left with a lot of

time to think. Now, this can be a dangerous thing. As many friends will

testify, not to mention my family, my mind often works in strange ways.

Back at Wesleyan, I used to sit in the Mocon dining hall with Bobbito,

Brother Earl, Dwight D-Lux, and other friends, and we would play word

association, for hours on end (it was certainly better than eating lots of

the Mocon food). And I would always get accused of going off track. [For

example, someone says Albert Einstein; after which another says Marv Albert;

then I say Dutch. Why? Well, Marv Albert brings to mind toupee. Toupee

sounds just like two-pay. And when two pay, it's going Dutch. Right? Stay

with me!] So as you can see, it wasn't that I was going off-track; I was

just jumping too far ahead. My mind was on the express train instead of the

local.

 

One thing that occupied my fitful, foolish, and often feeble mind during

these hours of "quiet" time was making up new songs. I'm used to trying to

'make the music with your mouth' state of mind, as Biz Markie once crowed.

My first and only car (to date) was a 1982 Honda Accord I'd dubbed 'Zizou'

in honor of the captain of France's national soccer team, Zinedine Zidane,

possibly the best player in the world over the past three years (Vive les

Bleus!). I drove poor Zizou for the past four years into its death, and for

most of that time lacked the comfort of a radio (my own fault, as I'd lost

the pop-top, uh-duh). So as I wandered around Etosha's expansive savannah,

I was inspired by the memory of several creative Wes friends (Wadhwa,

Hlinko, Mullaney, Neidell, etc.) who penned the Grammy-deserving "Olin

Library," sung to the tune of "Copacabana" our frosh year. [Their other

major achievement that year was the invention of Shoe Golf, an outstanding

gender-neutral sport which has been exported to at least 13 countries,

according to Alex's report at our 10th reunion last June. Watch out for it

at the 2004 Olympics!] Over the next few days I hummed and sang a veritable

collection of self-taught recordings. Like it or not, I will share with you

a few of my favorites -- see if you can figure out the original songs,

before I give them:

- You are My Giraffe, My Only Giraffe -- OK, that's one of the easy ones:

You Are My Sunshine

- From a Distance (You Look Like a Cat) -- sung to, easy again, From a

Distance -- a testimony to all the trees that I discovered were in

animal-shaped camouflage disguises

- It's an Impala, Another Impala -- sung to You're My Obsession

- One Lonely Gemsbok -- to One Night in Bangkok (!)

- Okaukeujo's Lonely Driving Man -- I'm sure a few of you know this one --

Sgt. Pepper's LonelyÖ

- Bloody Impala -- sung to (I'm going to destroy the title of this Jewish

folk song), Havah Nagila (?!?) - the word 'pretty' or 'lonely' may be

substituted for 'bloody,' depending on one's mood upon sight of the animal,

of course

- Throw Your Horns in the Air! -- for all the hard-core hip-hop heads,

straight from the Onyx classic, just substitute guns for horns (and since

the long-horned gemsbok is also known as the Oryx, this came especially to

mind; I've even thought of the album title, Bacdabokup)

- Showin' the Butt -- the part of the zebra most often seen, drawn from what

all of you Spike Lee fans should remember from "School Daze" -- the dance

scene that featured Doin' the Butt

- Winter for Rhino in Etosha -- a testimony to the terrible song from Mel

Brooks' classic movie "The Producers," with its incredibly written

"Springtime for Hitler and Germany"

 

The Mel Brooks reference above brings me to a couple other points. His

oh-so tongue-in-cheek musical scenes were about the only ones I could

stomach when it came to musicals. As my long-time friend Alan (Yan) knows,

as a rule I don't like them. He and I had only one basic apartment law of

mutual respect through over three years of being roommates: he didn't play

musicals, and I didn't play Public Enemy (simple enough). But there is one

musical that I always loved: 'The Sound of Music.' [And I liked it BEFORE,

as a kid I met Julie Andrews backstage after her performance in Peter Pan,

just to keep things clear.] So to top off my list of original tunes, I'm

offering a few special songs derived from that great soundtrack:

Doe, a Bok, a Female Bok - I'm trusting you know the original

I am a Human; You are an Elephant -- I am 16, you are 17

And finally, for the grand finale, my ode to the Austrian national anthem --

Wildebeest, Wildebeest (Love My Savannah Forever)

 

Mel, genius that he is, inspired me to think of many things. Choosing my

top flicks of all time was another way I wasted away hours of lonely time.

Now, granted, my top choices are films that many of you might call "bad" -

yeah, whatever! Most importantly, these are the movies from which I can

pull a quote at the drop of a pun: Hollywood Shuffle; This is Spinal Tap;

Monty Python's The Holy Grail; The Muppet Movie; Wayne's World; Happy

Gilmore; Blazing Saddles; Fletch. Bad comedic movies such as these also

came to mind as I struggled to put up the tent each night. Growing up, the

Flads went camping almost every summer, and we would erect one of those huge

prehistoric tents (with about 40 poles and endless yards of canvas) in

various KOA sites around the east coast. Back in 1984 my family went all

out, though, taking a six-week journey around North America, our version of

the 'National Lampoon's Summer Vacation.' The best summary was, I think, my

younger sister Maggie's comment, somewhere around Oregon, "We should have

filmed this."

 

Another distinct memory from those long family trips emerged as I attempted

to take photographs with my cheap $10 camera that I bought in South Africa

(possibly the worst thing to happen on this trip, thus far, was when my

half-decent camera broke back in May). Both of my parents have had stints

as amateur photographers. I'll always be grateful to Mom for taking up the

practice, since she recorded some of my most memorable teenage moments. But

DadÖ aaah, Dad. As all my siblings will readily attest, our father was

always intent on taking photos of things NO one else would. Specifically,

while most people around the world use their cameras to record images they

find beautiful, our Dad stopped (over and over) in the middle of our drives

to pictorialize that which was most ugly. As an environmental geographer,

one of Dad's passions has been to highlight the urban blight that has crept

over the land, so he collects images of massive power lines running through

previously pristine landscapes, and so forth. Now, to get back to the

themes of bad puns (how could I ever leave that?) and movies, I am compelled

to share with you the title that I offered (freely!) my pops for his second

book. As the set up, you have to know that the cover of his first book on

the topic had some of those aforementioned huge power structures, which to

me look very similar to various war machines used by the evil empire in

George Lucas' best-selling films. Therefore, how does the title, "The

Blighted Empire Strikes Back" hit you?? Huh? Where's the love?

 

I must admit that the one thing I really missed from my family trips was

decent food. We had one of those Coleman kerosene stoves, and each night

would cook something or other. Not so on my trip through Etosha. I

survived on a fabulous diet: peanut butter and jelly (thanks to all of you

who sent in your comments to my previous PB&J reference, and a special note

of recognition to Mrs. Williford, who had Katie bring a jar all the way from

the U.S.!); biltong/ dry wors (aka jerky); Pringles (drawing on the lessons

of the California All Stars' trips to Europe, as related to me by Sean &

Dale); water; and a fabulous dinner one evening of a can of meatballs in

(cold) gravy. Tasty, and nutritious too! Luckily, the stove was just about

the only important camping thing I didn't have in hand, thanks to my hosting

family in Windhoek. Kelvin, Debbie, Julian, and MichaelWayne Adams (and

their friendly dog Sandy) were incredibly generous to me, and not only did I

stay with them for over a week and a half, but I must express special thanks

for all the outdoors equipment they lent me. My greatest worry was that I'd

forget to return one of these items (probably not the tent), and it would

emerge in my suitcase in South Africa - like the extra tube of toothpaste I

discovered following my brief trip to Botswana (to the Mikayas, I'm sorry!

It looked like my own!).

 

In terms of the meals: let's be honest, though, they weren't going to be

what would sustain me through that three-day trip. It was the animals.

And, occasionally, the ecology - in particular, when I could look out onto

endless miles of a dry sea (essentially what the Pan is), and seeing a lone

tree emerge as the sole speck on the horizon. But the animalsÖ hyena,

various antelope, ostrich and other weird land-grounded fowl, jackals, and

of course the big ones. My first morning I chanced upon a pride of lions

(well, there were at least four, I'm not sure what the official minimum

number for a pride is, two of whom were checking out a fairly paranoid

lonesome gemsbok who stood erect in the tall grass about 250 meters away. I

was going to see a kill! As I sat in my car for the next hour, frustrated

by the combination of cheap binoculars and lazy lions, it became slowly

apparent that they weren't really interested in answering the call of the

wild after all. And I mused about the irony of my eager anticipation of a

death, despite being the supposed peacemaker sort I aim to be.

 

The best place to visit there - for all those of you who've been inspired to

plan a trip to Etosha in the near future - is the waterhole located just

next to the Okaukeujo campsite. Practically any time of day that you walk

over to the benches overlooking the waterhole you will see animals partaking

of its life-giving sustenance. The most exciting time, however, is at dark.

This was when I learned the answer to the age-old question, 'When does a

2000-pound rhino look tiny?' When it is standing near a herd of elephants,

of course! Each evening Okaukeujo's floodlit water source is visited by

dozens of elephant: my first night I saw almost 50 of these magnificent

creatures, as well as about 10 black rhino. My final morning I woke up very

early, and went to visit the waterhole for a final look, and a quiet one -

Okaukeujo's only major downfall is the number of tourists who are there

(some evenings you will share the view with over a 100 folks). As I sat

there, with only one or two other people sharing the moment, seven lionesses

emerged from the darkness for a draught. It excited my human companions,

and me but scared the dickens out of the solitary giraffe that had nervously

approached the hole a few minutes beforehand.

 

Although the big game was clearly the most exciting to watch, I came to

recognize that it is another creature altogether that is the most powerful

in the savannah. My choice for southern Africa's strongest walking animal

is: the ant. This tiny insect manages to build mammoth kingdoms thousands

of times bigger than itself - I often drove past anthills that rose above

adjacent trees, two to three meters high (six to ten feet, for those of you

not yet metrically-oriented). Looking for tall and funky-shaped anthills

became a good distraction during my seven-hour drive from Etosha to

Swakupmond, a German tourist village located on the Atlantic Ocean, which

was my next destination.

 

The only other thing which kept my mind occupied during that day-long

journey (besides my previously-catalogued music collection) was the hard

question about whether or not I should pick up locals who were often begging

for lifts on the roadside. On my initial highway drive up to the north I

did not do so, reasoning that I didn't speak the local language, I didn't

know how safe it was (in South Africa I had certainly received many warnings

to never pick up hitch-hikers, no matter how nice they seemed), and someone

else would soon come by. It was harder to feel okay zooming by people

sitting on the more isolated western rural roads. I eased myself into the

process by picking up a couple workers going to Etosha from the main

highway, on my way into the national park. And upon my departure from the

main gate, I picked up an older woman resident going to a school 90

kilometers away. These modest but significant actions gave me the courage

to pick up about 8-10 people in total in my last couple days on the road,

depositing them safe and free-of-charge further along their route. The only

negative from this experience was that most spoke little English, so I was

not able to really converse with them (speaking little to no German,

Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, or Herero). A young kid in his early teens who was

going to visit his mom for the weekend opened up enough to share with me a

bit of his sad family story: he had been pulled out of school and put to

work in a crap job by his drunkard father. It bummed me out.

 

In Swakupmond I stayed in yet another convent (ya gotta love ëem), and

moseyed around the tourist-focused downtown. My real reason for visiting

there was its close proximity to the Namib-Naukluft Desert, and I spent much

of Saturday the 23rd driving in the desert. Three highlights come to mind.

First, arriving at the 'Moon Landscape' in the northern part of that

national preserve, and gazing out on that awe-inspiring view after having

driven for a half-hour through thick fog to get there. Second, driving for

almost four hours straight to get within a couple kilometers of the famous

red sand dunes. [I didn't have enough time to walk the rest of the way, as

I was running late, but I got darn close.] And finally, I somehow managed

to get through almost the entirety of that long, overwhelmingly isolated day

without car trouble.

 

Almost. Luckily, I picked the right place to have my fairly minor problem

happen. I returned from the desert to the coastline about 4pm, giving me

enough time for an exhilarating (if exhausting) hour-long march on top of

some of the huge sand dunes (not red, unfortunately) that imposingly gaze

over the ocean. I got back into my car on the beach, and turned to get back

onto the coast highway. Stuck. My little Toyota had gone into sand it

couldn't handle, and dusk was falling. Fortunately, a couple of the little

dune buggies (which I'd been silently admonishing only a few minutes earlier

for the environmental damage they cause) drove by, and two kind fellows

spent the next 15 minutes helping me extricate my car from its predicament.

Serves me right, I suppose. I don't recommend that any of you purchase a

vehicle in southern Africa from a rental company, however. With the wear

and tear that I put on that car in just ten days, there is no way those

things can last for long. Of course, given the fact that they charge about

US$50 per day (I'm serious, almost twice what you would pay in California),

I don't feel all that bad. I probably spent almost as much money on travel

expenses in that one short portion of the trip as in several other weeks

combined.

 

The next morning I visited St. Boniface Church, the local Anglican parish.

The community was the most openly welcoming of all the churches I'd visited

in the country (living up to our U.S. motto of 'The Episcopal Church

Welcomes You'), and I had apparently arrived on a very appropriate Sunday.

Two other visitors from overseas were their special guests for that service,

a pair of women from a church in Manchester, England, who were looking to

set up a companion congregation-to-congregation relationship. Since I was

also asked to offer a few words as an international visitor (per usual), I

was able to speak very positively about this proposed companion church

relationship. After all, I noted, my own trip to southern Africa had been

largely inspired by two such partnerships (Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, with

a church in the South African diocese of Klerksdorp, when I was a youth; and

my recent employer, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, with St. George's

Cathedral in Cape Town).

 

I've summarized the meetings I held that following week in the early part of

this message, so, amazingly, I'll try to end here. There was one other very

special couple I met before departing, though, James and Sally Kauluma. He

is the former bishop of the diocese, and I had a wonderful dinner at their

home and tried to catch them up with many of their friends from the

Episcopal Church, USA, who they remember warmly. Thanks again to Brian and

Diane for helping me make that connection; they send their best greetings to

you both and to many others on this email list.

 

There is one broad (perhaps too broad) request I'd like to make. Some of

the teachers up in Odibo, and many other young people around southern

Africa, asked me about scholarships for study in the United States. If you

have any ideas (broad or specific) that might help me to answer this

frequent question, I would be most grateful.

 

The other summary piece I wish to say is to encourage any of you that have

an opportunity to visit Namibia. The only reason I went there was because I

had a few friends who told me that if I was in South Africa and had the

chance to go north, I should do so. And I am glad I did. You get a

different look at southern Africa through the Namibian people, the landscape

(including its incredible deserts, the seemingly endless savannah, & the

northern wooded region), and especially the people. Namibians are eager to

meet and welcome more people from North America (and elsewhere), so if you

can visit, do so.

 

I close as always with a few special shout-outs. First of all, I want to

wish warm greetings to all those in the peacemaking community who took part

in the Fellowship of Reconciliation's 40 Days of Peace vigil in Washington

DC over the past month. I wish I could have joined you this past week for

the Episcopal Peace Fellowship gathering, in particular. Also words of

recognition to all of my church friends that managed to survive the two-week

General Convention in Denver last month. Congratulations on what seemed to

be a fairly reconciling gathering, from the brief highlights I saw glancing

at the Episcopal Church's home page. In that churchy peacenik vein, I'd

also encourage all of you to say special prayers this coming Sunday, August

6th, for the victims of Hiroshima and of all forms of nuclear warfare. As

many of you know, August 6th is not only the anniversary of that horrific

bombing, but in the liturgical calendar it is also the Feast of the

Transfiguration, an appropriate connection.

 

Birthday greetings this month go to Reeve, my main man Andy (ëBanks, go

Huskies), Stephanie McC-K, Jess, Irina, Mark T, Monroe (the Don), Zoe, Nat

P, Sneep (the Wad), Robb (Mouse), Gwen, Tucker, Bill (Bear), Carrie A, and

Gregg (Lemons). I'm also wishing wonderful anniversaries to my homegirl

Sharon & Clayton, Sarah & Andrew, Durba & Robert, Christine & John, Eric &

Karen, Dan & Melissa, Denise & Marc, Tom & Roma, and Joe & Dana. I want to

send a special, albeit belated, public congratulations to my brother Rowan,

who recently was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to spend a year in China

continuing his graduate studies in archaeology. You da man, bro.

 

And finally, one more word of thanks to all of you who have 'thunk good

thoughts' of me, sending greetings and saying silent prayers for my journey.

For a variety of reasons, this part of the several-month trip was where I

think I needed them the most: due to the nearby violence at the border; the

days of driving alone in that small car; and my internal struggles. I'm

deeply grateful. Don't stop thinking about me just yet: over the next three

weeks I expect cover nine cities in four separate countries! But hopefully

everything will work out okay, with your support. The final leg of this

journey has begun.

 

Peace, love, and courage,

Ethan