Namib (nä-mib), from the language Nama, loosely translates to “area where there is nothing.” Yet, in spite of blunt etymology, Namibia carries the weight of a complex history and is home to an incredibly rich diversity of peoples, landscapes, and ecosystems. Fortunately, I will have (at least) a year there to try and soak up as much as I can. I’ll be posting photos and writing about anything and everything I please! Get ready for some history and background…
The San, Ovambo, Herero, Himba, Damara, Nama, Topnaar, Tswana, Caprivians, as well as whites of Portuguese, Dutch, German, and British ancestry all contribute to the modern Namibian identity. While “discovered” by the Portuguese in the 15th century, the territory wasn’t claimed by any European powers until Germany in the 1880’s. The era of colonial rule is most remembered today by the methodological killing of 10,000 Nama and 65,000 Hereros (80% of the group’s pop. at the time). After World War I the Union of South took over the region naming it South-West Africa and institutionalizing the same apartheid policies that defined South Africa for the second half of the 20th century. Held strongly by the regime due to its mineral wealth – Namibia has some of the world’s richest deposits of diamonds and uranium, the people were finally granted independence in 1990. Today the country remains challenged by high HIV/AIDS prevalence (~15%), enormous wealth inequalities, and increasing desertification of the little arable land.
The landscapes vary dramatically from region to region; bushveld farmland in the north makes way to the Kalahari Desert and the Fish River Canyon, the earth’s 2nd largest, near Namibia’s southern border with South Africa. While much of the country lies on the high central plateau, arguably the most iconic landscapes are found within the coastal Namib Desert. 1000 miles long but only 30-100 miles wide, the Namib contains “dune seas” (visible as the orange swath south of Gobabeb in the image on the left) as well as gravel plains interspersed with large outcroppings, or inselbergs. Thought to be the oldest desert in the world (55 million years young!), the extreme aridity is caused by the Atlantic’s cold northward flowing Benguela Current, which causes the descent of dry air over the continent. Rainfall is limited to only 10 mm/ year, but frequent thick fog creates enough moisture for many species that have adapted unique evolutionary strategies. More to come on that front!
Gobabeb (gō-bah-běb) Training and Research Centre is located in the central Namib Desert (within Namib-Naukluft National Park) about 50 km from the Atlantic and 120 km from the nearest town, Walvis Bay. It is positioned along the banks of the ephemeral !Kuiseb River (the “!” denotes one of the “clicks” of Nama language), which marks the border between the dune sea to the south and the gravel plain to the north. When established in 1962, the foci of the station were primarily climate ecology, physiology, geology, geomorphology, and archaeology of early inhabitants of the region. However, after Namibia’s independence, the facility has expanded its the scope beyond the Namib to environmental issues all over Namibia and the southern African region. Today Gobabeb’s mission is “to promote sustainable lifestyles, conservation, and environmental rehabilitiation in drylands through innovative research, long term monitoring, training, outreach, networking, and tourism.” It is joint managed by the the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia and the Namibian Ministry of the Environment and Tourism.
While the full extent of my duties for the coming year are not entirely known to me, I will definitely be managing and guiding interns and their projects, teaching courses on desert ecology for visiting school-groups, and leading fantastic outings like star talks and scorpion walks. Rumors have it that part of my time will be spent learning how to skin and prepare goats for braai as well! In any case, my official title is the Grinnell Corps Training and Outreach Fellow. My position and a technical support position (this year fulfilled by my partner in crime, Nathan Pavlovic), have been occupied since annually since 2000 by two Grinnell College alums in their post-graduation year. For written reports from past fellows or an overview of the Grinnell Corps program, see this Grinnell link.
In closing, I hope you enjoy this fantastic video, created by former fellow James Anderson (Grinnell ’08), documenting the annual flood of the ephemeral !Kuiseb River.
I’m really excited for what I anticipate to be a year defined by new experiences and unique challenges. Send me an email or a letter letting me know how you are and what you’re up to (address at top under “more information and links“). And let me know if you’ll be in the neighborhood! With any luck my next update will be from Gobabeb, Namibia in a few short weeks. First, onwards to South Africa for some traveling and World Cup action!
Namibia on Wikipedia !
The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo By Peter Orner.