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Crisis of the “why do I bother?” May 7, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Communication, Eh?, Namibia, Raaah!, The job, Tradition.

A few people have commented that I haven’t written much about work recently. This is mostly because I simply haven’t had the motivation or energy to start trying to word my feelings about it in such a way as to not regret it in future nor make it sound like I’m not doing great things for the world. Also my boss keeps saying “I’ve been meaning to check out this website of yours, but haven’t got round to it”, which makes me nervous – Alessandro, if you are reading this, please also look at the disclaimer.  

At the end of March, you may recall that the project ran a finale of events to finish off Phase 1 of the project. No one really came, not even the Chief or Councillor who we’d invited to open the activities, and I came home feeling pretty crap that no one in the community seemed to care what we were trying to do. Now, with all those activities out of the way, and no money to spend, I have set about writing the End-of-Project Report for our donors, the UNDP GEF SGP. Because we want more money from them for Phase 2, my boss thought it’d be good to make the report the best End-of-Project Report that they have ever seen, with an additional Evaluation Report (cheers). It needed to be qualitative and quantitative, the former being just ticking boxes on our objectives and activities list, and the latter configuring how good/successful/effective/positive it had all been. And in all fairness, great experience for me.

And so I set about creating questionnaires for each of the stakeholders, and then trying to fit in a time to meet with them, with as few visits to Ovitoto as possible (to save on petrol, which we have no budget for). I wanted to get as much information out of the stakeholders as possible: what people thought of the project; did they understand any of it; does anyone know what we are doing there; does anyone care; why don’t people come to our trainings or activities; what can we do to encourage them to come; how do they think we are doing; and so on. I knew the answers we’d get, and did my best not to bias the questions too much.  

I’ve been on at a long-term visitor of a friend of mine, Dave, for a while about how he never does anything apart from lie by the pool and get drunk, and that he hadn’t really seen anything of Africa. So when he suggested that he came to Ovitoto to see what I do, it was a win-win situation: Dave could see “some poor black folk” and I got a free ride up there. I’d set out to interview Tjono, our ECO-C caretaker, the school’s Headmaster (who’s name I can not even attempt to pronounce), and Mr Kazombiaze, the school’s Life Science teacher who I’ve been working with on various activities.

Tjono’s interview was the longest and one of the most important. His English has really come along, although I discovered that there just aren’t words for “expectations”, “energy efficiency”,“efficient” or “regret” in Otjiherero, so some bits took longer than others. What came out of the interview (aside from the bug that Tjono vomited up halfway through!) was that no one really knows what we are doing there and no one really cares enough to find out. It seems that a lot of the community expected that we would give them free money and employ all the unemployed, and when we didn’t, they lost interest (missionary syndrome). Not to be totally disheartened, Tjono did say that the people we had trained and who had visited the centre had certainly benefited hugely from the project. Which is about 50 people out of 3500. I got some great info out of Tjono about how he feels about the project, how things work in the community, and was determined to stay upbeat

Kazombiaze was pretty useful too, although, being an important man, he likes to talk a lot, and has a habit of speaking in half sentences which don’t match up, or make a huge amount of sense. I was typing his answers as he spoke, and found half of what I had typed about as useful as if it had been in Otjiherero. He also, as Dave kindly put it, was “blowing smoke up your arse”, as in being overly optimistic about the project to butter us up, and constantly contradicted everything he previously had said. He also suggested that we combine our workshops with a horse-racing event (“ooooh people will come”), and that we also slaughter some cows to feed them. Yes, bribery is surely the best way to get the community involved.The Headmaster on the other hand claimed he knew nothing about the project, that he had no idea how the community felt about the project and that the school needed a TV with a VCR and a satellite dish, which we must give them.  

On the way home, Dave turned to me and said, “Tink*, I really respect what you do out here. I mean, you work so hard at something which I see as being really positive and good, and these people really don’t have much, and you’re trying to help them. But you do realise that no one here really gives a shit? I’m just so impressed at how you keep on at it, slamming your head against the brick wall. Good on ya!” 

And this kind of summed it up. I work really hard, day in day out, coming up with new ideas on how to get through to people, how to do activities that would be of interest, that would get them going, and they couldn’t care less. And why should they? Who am I to know what is in their interest? Sure, the ideas and concepts we are presenting through the project could change their lives for the better, but for some of these rural folk, some of which have never left their village, it is beyond their sphere of interest, and in some cases, understanding. And after decades of being told that they are crap, and will never amount to anything, how can we expect them to turn around think that they can even have dreams, let alone follow them? Namibia was the last country in Africa to gain
Independence, just 17 short years ago. And the legacy of their colonisers is far too visible and apparent for much headway to be made.
A lot of whites here say that Namibians are lazy; I disagree. It is easy to say that about a people who have been crushed over and over again; who had few resources to start with, but then had the best ones pillaged from them, and it will be a long time before they get them back. They are survivors, who for years were forced to fight to survive. But now the war is over, they do not know what to do, because all many of them have ever known is war, oppression and being told that they just aren’t any good. All the smart industrious ones flock to the city or leave the country all together. The people of Ovitoto are only there because they were forcibly chased into the area by the Germans, who didn’t think to follow them because they thought there was no water there and therefore thought they would all die; they were wrong, but the people are still in survival mode, rather than living mode. This is just a in-a-nut-shell rant on the way I am seeing things right now. 

It wasn’t Dave’s words that made me start rethinking my work – he had barely a snapshot of the work I do, and knows nothing about development, Namibia or the people – because I knew the answers myself before I asked them. My heel-clicking enthusiasm for the project has been zapped right now, but I don’t doubt that it’ll return. I do believe in the project. But my optimism bubble has been popped, and reality is flooding in, with a neon sign flashing “Why do I bother?!”. But that’s development for you, or so people keep telling me. It’s tough and demotivating and disheartening and hugely frustrating and and and… and this I knew when I first wanted to do this kind of work. My boss tells me not to take it so personally and to lower my expectations. I’m trying but right now, it just isn’t that easy. 



* Tink, or Tinkabell, is my nick-name out here, which has caught on amongst my friends. I don’t know why,.. because it sounds like Isabelle, i guess. I’m not very fairy-like. When they are feeling really clever and witty, they call me Stinkabell or Tinkasmell. Oh, how we laugh.



1. Heather A. - May 8, 2007

Oh, Isabelle–I’m sorry. That sounds so frustrating and discouraging. I really admire your record of perseverance in the face of it all, but I can also sure understand why your enthusiasm might be flagging.

Maybe it pays to look at what you’ve done overall in your time there. Sure, it would be nicer to see a transformation in the lives of the locals, and for all the effort you’ve put in, one would think there could have been such a change. But still, fifty people benefited hugely. FIFTY people! That’s remarkable. I promise you, no fifty people have had their lives improved by all the work I’ve done in the last ten years, and I’m sure many others could say the same. And you’ve been there less than a year! So chin up, and hang in there. Word will spread, eventually. Best of luck with the report and everything else you are still working on there!

2. isabelleinnamibia - May 16, 2007

Heather, thanks so much for your support.
I does help to look back on what has been achieved, and remaining glass-half-full.
The report is now finished, although I had to change the tone and remove any subjective opinions! I hadn’t even done it on purpose!
Let me know how your job hunting is going.

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