Picture the continent of Africa in your head.
Picture the bottom tip of Africa, and right to the northwest of the tip (South Africa), there is Namibia.
Namibia is a diverse, yet sparsely populated country, where each of the regions has a distinct geography and tribal majority. For example, in the central-western portion of Namibia, the people are predominantly Herero and Damara, and the landscape is rocky and mountainous desert that gives way to sand dunes at the coast. In the northeast, we have the Caprivi, who live on a lush and tropical strip of land that lines the Caprivi river. And then, in the Central-North part of the country, on the border of Angola, is Owamboland, home of the Vambo tribe, half of Namibia’s population, vast tracts of farmland and bush, hundreds of towns and villages beginning with the letter “O”, and one very obviously light(ish)-skinned foreign volunteer who, armed with nothing but his big hiking bag and a little creativity, is managing to live and thrive among members of Namibia’s largest tribe.
The closest large town to me is Ondangwa, in the Ohangwena region, which is a dusty concrete anachronism featuring cows free-grazing in front of completely modern shopping malls. Basically a two-mile stretch lined with shops, shebeens, and what-what, this is where I hike to on the weekends when I need to buy food. Ongwediva (the “nice” town in the North) and Oshakati are on the same main road (the B1) 23 and 33 kms west of Ondangwa, respectively.
To the northeast of Ondangwa (about 60 km along tarred and gravel roads) is my hub village of Okankolo, which is the jump-off point for the smattering of villages within a 25 km radius in the bush. By “bush,” I do mean “bush.” There’s a community law that forbids the cutting of trees (with appropriate results), and the land is very flat, so it is impossible to see anything in any direction except for large, bushlike trees. Okankolo, the designated “hike point," is where people wait for cars to take them to well-traveled locations, for a flat fee. It’s common and expected to cram as many people into vehicles as possible before zooming of. I've stood in the back of a pickup (equivalent of a Ford Ranger, so not even a full size), with twenty kids from my school choir.
Okankolo is also the last place to get groceries before my village, though I do try to avoid shopping here since the prices are expensive, doubtless because of the pain it must be to transport goods here. From Okankolo, I usually get a hike all the way to my village of Iikelo, or I get dropped off at the start of the sand road that takes me there (15 km to the road entrance, 7 more to the village), and foot it (not “walk”). Footing there usually takes about 3 hours due to the sand road and the fact that it twists and turns past many fields and homesteads before unceremoniously ending at the village of Iikelo.
Iikelo village comprises of two or three concrete buildings and maybe a dozen tin shacks, where people live and sell goods, mostly traditional homebrew (otombo) or more conventional bottles of Tafel. Here, there is nary a word of English spoken as with in Ondangwa, and the memes and tates walk around in their traditional flowing, overlarge and colorful outfits, and it’s not unusual to see young boys dressed in western wear walking around with wooden bows and arrows. Because my school is actually located about 1.5km (about a mile) south of the village, I actually don't spend too much time in the village, unless it’s to go buy beer or emergency rations sold by the cuca shops (small bush shops that sell dry goods).
Onward to my school, which is probably the most straightforward part of the entire trip, consisting of a walk in between the sort of buffer zones between homesteads, past the homesteads of a few colleagues and learners, and past a small, ramshackle graveyard, until the path opens up into a large clearing in the bush surrounded on all four sides by homesteads (it’s a treat to walk into the clearing right when the sun is setting, because each one is framed visually by the palm trees, homestead fires, and crude wooden fences, and accompanied by the sound of drums beating (harvest dance), kids playing, cows lowing, and all the other sounds of a happy yet tranquil village settling down for the night.
This is Iikelo Combined School, and I can’t easily describe the warm feeling of homecoming every time I return from a weekend in town, or the even happier feeling I get after I unpack a fresh load of groceries, set up my camp chair outside, and just sip some tea and watch life move by at its own pace, as it tends to do here.