First Forays into the Field

I spent the last two weeks on my first foray into the North, and thus begins the actual research that I will be basing this PhD on. When last I posted I was in a hotel in Tsumeb, a small mining town near the famous Etosha National Park, and I find myself here again two weeks later. It was my twenty-fourth birthday yesterday, and I took what I think was a fairly well-earned break and did very little, sheltering from the heat of the day, which here is climbing to the upper thirties as spring turns into summer, and joining Namibians in hoping that the promised rains start soon. I’m actually on my way back down to Windhoek again, as I need to extend my visa. The current one expires in a month, sadly, so I am back to dealing with bureaucracy, a trial best endured in person rather than on the phone, or god forbid via email, replying to which seems to be regarded as optional here. No matter. I am getting rather the hang of driving Helga, I think, having experienced some serious off-roading in the last few days, and I must say I’m really impressed. Having driven about two thousand kilometres in the last week, I am a little concerned with the amount I am spending on diesel, although I am reassured by the fact that this early part of research is bound to include a lot more back-and-forth than it will later. I hope this is the case, anyway. My daily allowance from the University of Cologne, already nowhere near enough to cover all my expenses, halves after sixty days. Let’s just say I am obsessively hoarding receipts.

The last two weeks began with a drive past what is known as the Red Line (the veterinary cordon marking the point North of which cattle cannot be sold to the EU) into Owamboland, accompanied by a local contact I met at university in Cologne, and his friend, who will be working with me as an English-Oshiwambo translator when I go to work with the Hai||om people there. Things are… different up there, and undoubtedly more what you might call “African”, in contrast to the European-friendly extension of South Africa that seems to be the prevailing feeling in most of Namibia. The marked absence of other white people was also definitely something I noticed. It seems there are not many that live up there. We arrived late at night, and my contact kindly offered a room in his house for me to sleep in for a few hours before we began the arduous trek of the next few days.

In order to conduct research among the Hai||om people in Owamboland, we needed permission to do so. Firstly, we needed to speak to the regional councillors of both the areas which we intend to study, as well as speaking to the Headmen of the two communities. We also needed to to this in two days, as my contact had meetings back in Windhoek shortly after. The two areas, unfortunately, are also hundreds of kilometers apart. In between, we earned a well-earned rest at one of Ondangwa’s many roadside bars, sitting on garden furniture on the sand beside the main road and sipping mercifully cold Windhoek lager.

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The first meeting with the officials and the headman of the area near the Angolan border went incredibly well. The councillor was pleasantly affable about our research, probably because of its incredibly vanilla and apolitical nature, and the headman (who I was much more concerned with impressing than the government) welcomed the research with enthusiasm. When I told him what I would be looking at (traditions, folk knowledge and skills) he even confessed that he thought my research needed to be done, and would be very interested in the results. We were welcome to camp at the clinic near the Hai||om community and talk to those he represents. His enthusiasm totally blew me away, and has opened lots of doors in that region. I did not expect such interest, but it gives me a huge amount of motivation and strength to know that I might not just be doing it for my own benefit after all. He sounded like he has dealt with anthropologists before, too, which makes it much easier when I reassure the people I will be working with that I am not from the government or an aid agency and I am not evaluating them.

Unfortunately, the second region, nearer to the border with Etosha, met with less success from some highly obstructive civil servants. I dare not speak to the Headman without government approval, as the idea of being turfed out by the Namibian Police Force is not one I relish. Hopefully we can get permission soon. I suspect it is because this region has not had anthropologists in it before.

I had aimed to spend two or three days with each community while up there, and since we had the green light for one of them, one of my contact’s appointed translators and I proceeded towards the border with Angola to conduct the first reconnaissance trip of this fieldwork excursion. I was excited to finally be on my way, and this was dampened only slightly by getting suck in the deep sand on the road to the community, known as Ekoka. Dug out, we continued, and eventually reached the health clinic whereupon we set up camp. It even has toilets, making it positively luxurious in contrast to other field sites I will be spending time.

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After a quick chat with some of Ekoka’s inhabitants, we discovered that thanks to the extremely long days working on the farms nearby, the best time to go and speak to people was in the early mornings. For three days, we went along at about half past seven to have a chat with people, and try to get a broad sketch of what life is like there, partly to see whether they can contribute to my PhD. I wrote lots, and what follows is a couple of small excerpts from my field notebook. I’ve left out people’s names, and heavily edited down the ten pages of biro scribbles, but here is an impression of my first time this trip among the Hai||om:

21st October 2014

The smell of goats. That seems to be the defining feature of the place so far. Never really liked goats, but I will get used to it. Ekoka is a big spread-out sort of settlement, but the Hai||om seem to all be squashed into little one-room brick dwellings that are all arranged in two long lines. I asked one of the inhabitants about them. He said they get more space inside the houses, but they were not meant to live in straight lines like this. I think it might be so they can all have electricity and water, but I’m not sure about that yet. Or, to be frank, whether the electricity and water works.

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That same man told us where to find a contact recommended by the headman the other day, who should be able to direct us to the right people to speak to about knowledge and skills, and we will meet him tomorrow. He even showed us a shortcut through the bush back to our camp, which shortened our journey back by some considerable amount. Very grateful. The sand is hard to walk in for any length of time.

Under a tree at the centre of the settlement, I interviewed an assembled group of six elders […] I learned that hunting does not go on at all any longer, and only the old ones have the knowledge, although they are no longer physically capable of doing it. They were emphatic about how much they would like to hunt again, though […] Apparently, the younger people don’t like bushfood (gathered fruits and roots) any more, either, since they started cultivating mahangu (millet) as a staple food […] This could all be accurate of course, or it could just be get-off-my-lawn griping of the old people about the younger generation. I will have to test this.

22nd October 2014

We decided to go back to the Hai||om settlement again early this morning, echoing our trip yesterday. This turned out to be the right thing to do, as the morning sees tolerable temperatures before midday brings highs of nearly forty degrees. In the shade, as I sit writing now, it is almost livable if you do not move much […] I thought the best thing to do in contrast to yesterday’s relatively well-organised group meeting was to wander informally around the settlement and speak to people individually.

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Speaking to an older woman of about sixty who was weaving a basket, I found out that she makes them to sell in town […] She takes fronds of the tough, palm-like Makalani plant and makes concentric rings, wrapping thicker, flatter stems around them and sewing them together with what looks like a stiff, blunt darning needle. She collects the Makalani herself, and has to go into the bush to gather ones that are just the right “texture”, wetting her hands while doing it to ensure the fronds remain firm and supple. I would also imagine that the contraction of the drying fibres will work to tighten the weave of the basket. She told me that she was taught to weave in that way by her mother, who had been making these baskets for some time. We thanked her for her time and gave her some pipe tobacco for her trouble, and sweets to the children.

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As we walked past the bakkie (pickup truck) on the way up the settlement, we noticed a gaggle of young boys sheltering from the developing heat in its shadow. One of them had with him a home-made slingshot, which looked as if he had made it from sticks and inner-tube. I asked for a demonstration of how good he was, and watched him hit an empty plastic bottle with a stone at about ten metres. I asked for a go myself and he obliged. I managed to repeat his feat on the second try, although my own misspent youth and former possession of a similar slingshot myself were undoubtedly on my side […] I’m sure he is a menace to the local avian population and his parents alike.

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[The chap who guided us back to camp on our first night] went into his house and emerged with his bow and arrow, complete with metal arrowhead and chicken-feather fletching. He was definitely proud to show me this, and had only yesterday enlightened me as to how important he thinks hunting is […] Thanks to the illegality of big game hunting for the Hai||om, however, he has not made a kill in four or five years.

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When hunting, the arrow would be poisoned using a particular tree known in Oshiwambo as Ombo and in Khoekhoegowab as |gou , which he still knows how to find and extract the poison from. I want to see if he can demonstrate this for me when I return […] The bow does not look like it has been much used, though. Whether this is due to lack of use or simply meticulous care is difficult to say […] I asked about range and power, and he indicated through reference points that we could both see that at six to seven metres the arrow would punch straight through most animals (he indicated his neck at this point) and the bow had a slightly less effective range of about fifteen metres, and at this point the hunter relies on the poison to slow the animal down so that it can be spoored (tracked). As such, the closer one gets to the quarry, the better […] He said he got his first kill when he was fifteen, and smiled when I said that must have been a great day.

So I got a huge amount of information in those short three days there. I’ve got a good idea of where I’d like to go from here, and in reassuringly familiar anthropological style my talking to the Hai||om has raised so many more questions than it has answered. This is good. I am looking forward to running these short impressions past other anthropologists when I return to Windhoek to sort out the visa, and to see whether I have the right end of the stick, or whether I am going in totally the wrong direction with my questioning.

As of now, I am sitting in a wonderfully air-conditioned hotel room on my way south. When I return, I hope to be armed with more questions and, more importantly, more confidence in my own abilities. I think this should go okay. I’m glad I have a bit of experience just there to prepare me for what is to come, and to get me accustomed to the role of leading an expedition for scientific data. We shall see how it goes, but thanks to the people I have met at Ekoka, I am looking forward to my return.

For now, Tschuß!

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Roadtrips, Royalty and Rednecks

I’ve started my journey North, finally.

I’ve got my car in my possession, paid for and insured. I’ve bought camping equipment, most of what I need. I’m now in a hotel in the town of Tsumeb having just driven about six hours and 436km (270mi) up the country. I plan to buy provisions here before going the next 270km (168mi) to Ondangwa and my next destination. Driving was actually quite fun; I got to see how fast my bakkie can go fully-loaded with everything I own here (145kph/90mph, just) and I got to play lots of music through my mp3 player. Helga’s even got air conditioning. Piling everything in my car does make me feel a bit like a tortoise, though.

I’m staying for two nights, as I have a meeting with someone who will be doing some interview transcription for me. I’ve been here before, and I’ve even stayed in this hotel before, so it is something of a Last Homely House before I make a start into the part of Namibia called “Africa Proper”, where German and South African colonists never really managed to establish themselves. The present government of Namibia does hold sway up there, especially since Ovamboland (named after its majority Ovambo inhabitants) was the seeding-place for the anti-apartheid SWAPO rebellion (supported by the Soviet Union, the DDR and Cuba, against the British, American and Israeli-supported South Africa) that secured Namibian Independence in 1990. Ovamboland’s lack of submission to colonial rule, however, is evident in the fact that much of the land is still communally-owned in accordance with ancient Ovambo law and custom, and much authority is places in the kings of the eight Ovambo tribes.

I have only spent half a day there before, but much of the next year will be spent documenting the knowledge and skills of the Hai||om hunter-gatherers that live in some of the less-inhabited regions. My translator, fresh from getting his Masters from the University of Cologne, will be an invaluable asset in introducing me to the people that will make or break my ability to conduct research there.

A satellite image of Eastern Ovamboland. the white expanse is the Etosha Salt Pan, enclosed by the famous national park. Circled in red is my stopover in the mining town of Tsumeb, and where my translator and I think the Hai||om groups are.

A satellite image of Eastern Ovamboland. the white expanse is the Etosha Salt Pan, enclosed by the famous national park. Circled in red is my stopover in the mining town of Tsumeb, as well as the two places where my translator and I think the Hai||om groups are.

Incidentally, I met the king of the Aambalantu tribe recently during my days of poaching the internet at the office of my host in the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. He was extremely nice, but any special customs I should have observed I did not as I had absolutely no idea who he was, and besuited Namibians are not exactly hard to find at a Windhoek legal office. After I was introduced as a colleague and greeted him with my usual “Hello, sir, how are you?”, he did however call me “sir” in return. I’m not sure how many people have been called “sir” by royalty without the customary knighthood, but he is thoroughly more approachable than Queen Liz at Braemar games, anyway, although to be fair we haven’t actually spoken.

My last days in Windhoek before heading North have also been punctuated with some anthropologically interesting interactions. On my quest to get insurance for Helga, I spent about three days attempting to open a Namibian bank account. This was a dismal failure, and I was left mystified as to why Namibian banks were so reluctant to let me bring a lot of money into their country, when I have learned that getting it out is a good deal easier than I thought. After a disastrous meeting in which I was told I did not have the right documentation (cue flashbacks to my eighteen months as a call centre employee at the Student Awards Agency for Scotland) I thought I would cheer myself up by following some friends’ advice and making a visit to the Windhoek gun shop.

I have, I must admit, an incredible fascination with rural culture. Reluctant urbanite of six years though I am, I am drawn to the facets of “redneck” culture that remind me of where my parents live (pickup trucks, farm equipment, self-sufficiency and home-made alcohol) as well as the bluegrass culture that spawned the banjo I am still terrible on. I want to go into Appalachia at some point for some post-doc research. Part of this culture is centred around guns, and in Namibia it is no different. I grew up in Britain, which has the good fortune to be a place in which guns are very unusual alien things, unless you happen to be part of either the landed gentry, the military or a club for enthusiasts. They hold a fascinating (for me) central position in the libertarian don’t-tread-on-me anti-government ethos, one which when held by outdoorspeople and frontier-dwellers is a goldmine for research, though admittedly when held by white twenty-something college men is a source of whiny self-righteousness and no end of annoyance for the rest of us (here’s looking at you, Robert Nozik. Smug git).

So I found myself browsing shelves and shelves of rifles, pistols and scary knives. I contented myself with buying a Leatherman multi-tool to help keep Helga in tip-top shape, but I’d be damned if I was leaving before getting talking to the guy who ran the place. Turns out he was really interesting. We had a long chat, in which I practised an interview technique I like to call “agreeing with everything they say so they tell you more stuff”. It worked fantastically. We bitched about the government regulations in Europe taking everyone’s guns away, and he was astonished when I told him that all of the rather imposing handguns he had on display were illegal to own in the UK. So much so, in fact, that our Olympic pistol-shooting team has to practice in Ireland. I neglected to go into why I thought that wasn’t too bad a thing, and such was his sympathy for me that he proceeded to get out most of the handguns he had on display, and enthusiastically go through their merits as to how easy they were to conceal vs how big a hole they would make in someone trying to mug you.

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I have to say, part of me really enjoyed it. I’ve long suspected that the popularity of firearms, particularly with men, has something to do with having personal power as well as their representations in entertainment media, though having never held a real gun in my life I had no personal evidence to back it up. Now, however, I’m pretty sure it’s true. It took a superhuman effort from me not to quote Dirty Harry upon being handed a revolver, but I managed to hold it together enough for him to hand me his card, and let me know that even though I’m not licensed in Namibia (or anywhere) I can come back any time I like when the range has been revamped to try out the ones he showed me for three hundred dollars (twenty euros) an hour. I will probably go back just to talk to him again.

So before leaving Windhoek I had an interesting taste of the Namibian culture that I would probably say most of the tourists that come here are a part of: Shooting. As well as that, I’ve been introduced to some Namibians that would definitely fit the American definition of “redneck”, and this has been backed up latterly by an interesting conversation with a fellow anthropologist here who has the same interests in pursuing research like this. As nice as the gun shop chap was, and as fun as it was to examine another gun breathlessly described by the shopkeeper as “straight out of the Bundeswehr”, I’m still not really comfortable around instruments of death, and am going to stick to the pickups, bluegrass and booze when it comes to rednecks for now. Also horses. Horses make excellent lawnmowers in the garden, apparently:

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I’ve even been told I can have a riding lesson when I get back from the North, which I am definitely looking forward to. I can’t look as much of a berk as I did the first time I got on a horse, but we shall see. There will be pictures.

My journey North, however, is me settling back into what I am more used to, not to mention trained for. I’ve probably got a few things still to sort, but at least if I have to come back to Windhoek the journey will be measured in hours rather than days as it is back to Europe from here, so I’m nowhere near as frantic with preparation as I was in the days before my coming to Namibia. I’m here in my hotel, having driven for six hours, and will shortly make a trip to the excellent hotel bar for a beer and a wind-down.

I was very reluctant to leave the previous house and my amazing hosts, but if they will have me again I will certainly be back. Tschuß!

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Trucks, mysterious animals and how I might be becoming a farmer.

I’m not quite sure whether I can really say I’ve been busy the past two weeks or so. I’ve had a lot to do, certainly, and I’ve definitely made sure I’ve done things quickly when I’ve had them to do, but there has been an awful lot of waiting. In the very recent past, this might have made me stressful, but the process of learning to follow African Time seems  to have begun. It’s been three weeks or so since I landed, and unfortunately I am still in Windhoek. However, things are slowly coming together.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my hosts kindly offered me the use of an old Mark One VW Golf while I waited to find the car I would buy, and this has had a number of side effects. Here is a photo of the aforementioned car on its first journey with me:

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You may notice that it is in fact stationary. This is not because I wanted to get out and take a picture, but because I was in fact waiting for rescue. This, by the way, is fantastic.

There is nothing like relying on a slightly temperamental car to get you to learn a lot about how they work. Previous to my trip here, I knew almost nothing about what sits under the bonnet, yet on my breakdowns in the Golf since, I’ve been able to fix the problem myself and continue on my way. I have got rather attached to it. Peter thinks it will be back under a tree for two years when I have finished with it, but I hope not. When it gets itself together to go, it’s quite enjoyable to drive.

Alas, I no longer need its services, for I have finally managed to buy myself a car. I picked it up this morning, and this is part of the reason I am still in Windhoek, waiting as I was on one of those international bank transfers. Based on the naming tradition I started with Gretel, I want to give her a good German name. Meet Helga:

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I took that just picture now, and while looking it over have already had a couple of offers to buy it from people here at the Legal Assistance Centre, where I sit in the daytime and poach the internet. I’ve given Peter first refusal, but even so I may well make my money back in a year’s time. Of course, if I got more than I bought it for, then I can always pocket the difference. We will see how good a dealer I am come next September.

I’m in for a bit of a stressful drive home, though; I am yet to nail down my insurance. I’ll be driving even more carefully than I usually do in a giant car. She’s got a bunch of extra features, too: An extra fuel tank, attachments for a roof tent, anti-theft film, and a water tank that I am wondering if I can fill with beer at the Windhoek brewery. It feels great to finally have some wheels of my own, and my trip into the North feels closer than ever. I’ll buy my camping equipment early next week, and I will hopefully be in Owamboland by next weekend.

On that subject, I also met up with a Namibian guy I first met in Cologne. He just completed his Masters there and wants to do a bit of translating work. He has even offered to have me stay with his family up in Ondangwa, which is fantastic. He’s one of those chilled-out guys for whom nothing is a big deal, so I reckon he will be a great influence on me. I’m definitely looking forward to travelling with him up North. The internet up there is going to be patchy at best. I’ll keep up with my blog as much as I can, though, and post when I can get enough bandwidth to upload anything. The pitfalls of being in Namibia, I guess. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, able to log on at least once every day, and it has made me realise how much of my life I spend on the internet. I’m sure I remember a time when Mum and Dad limited me to an hour, after 6pm when the phoneline was cheaper, and even then I struggled to find enough to do on the internet to last all that time.

Normally, when I set myself up in the evening for browsing the internet, Skype and catching up with friends, I’ll put my computer in Peter and Michaela’s study. This works really well, but lately I’ve noticed one of their cats has been behaving very oddly. I was hearing scratching and shuffling from the draws inside the desk, and then I’d see the cat rush out from behind them and scarper when she saw me. I thought there must have been a hole in the back of the drawers, and paid no further heed.

However, one night, after the usual scarpering of the cat, I heard the scratching and shuffling again. Peter and Michaela had already gone to bed, and it’s the start of snake and spider season, so you can bet your life I left those drawers firmly shut. Curiosity was tough to resist, indeed for me it is usually impossible, but my lack of enthusiasm for a night-time trip to the hospital to get a dose of antivenin trumped any desire I had to see what creature lurked in the drawers. It happened for a couple of nights, and was one of those things I wondered about while I was there, but forgot when I was gone.

This changed when Peter went into the study one afternoon to get something. He must have opened the drawer, as I was called to have a look at what he found. Apprehensive, I approached the draw expecting some Lovecraftian denizen to attempt to eat my face, only to find not a creature lurking there, but creatures.

These creatures, to be exact:

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They’ve just opened their eyes, and their Mum has since absconded with them elsewhere, obviously not trusting humans to leave her brood alone. The plaintive mewing behind the unused range cooker in the kitchen is a dead giveaway as to where they’ve been moved, though. This brings the number of cats about on the homestead up to at least fifteen. They’re lovely of course, but I’ve been less well-disposed to the cats since one of them decided to use their daughter’s room, which I am temporarily occupying, as a toilet during the extremely hot day.

Lastly, I had an extremely interesting day yesterday. Not only did I witness the Namibian justice system at work by sitting in the public gallery of a court in session with one of the cases the Legal Assistance Centre was bringing, but I also visited the Windhoek Show, which I have now christened the Windhoek Highland Show as I was reminded so much of my childhood in Aberdeenshire as to make things extremely weird.

The court case concerned a man who had had his house and all his property demolished by the local government, without a court order, which is surprisingly common here. Apparently when you are out in the sticks the government simply function as the biggest, scariest gang, making Namibia more and more like I imagine the Wild West to be each day. The government lawyer was not the most likeable chap in the world, thanks to his smarmy grin and post-case gloating, and thanks to his bogging the court down in technicalities it looks like the client is going to have to come back with a whole lot more evidence than he thought. It’s a shame, but chatting to one of the advocates gives me hope that he will eventually get some justice. Fortunately he has somewhere else to live in the meantime. It was a great insight into the conflict between Namibian Common Law, mostly based upon South African Law (Roman Dutch Law and English Common Law being the ancestors of that), and Namibian Customary Law, which is more based upon the legal systems of the individual social groups and organisations that inhabit the country (you could describe it as “tribal law” if you like, but I and many of those that live here would really rather you didn’t). I do hope the Centre can bring the government to heel in this case.

The show was our attempt to cheer ourselves up after a rather disappointing morning in court. Apparently, it started as an agricultural show, and sort of developed from there, sprouting goods stalls, bars and funfair attractions as a prize bull cowpat does mushrooms, and has turned into a strange hybrid of what I remember from Banchory Show mixed with a trade expo for the government.

The winners were utterly magnificent:

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Having not eaten all day by that point, we were starting to think they looked a bit tasty, so we thought it was best to stop somewhere for a steak roll. While eating, we could here music coming from over by the funfair, and I could have sworn I recognised it. It was hard to pinpoint where I’d heard it before, as I was in the unfamiliar environment of Namibia and full of thoughts about Scotland and the Highland Shows, but then it hit me.

Karneval.

They were playing Schlager music at the funfair, thus completing the strange confluence of my experiences that day into a trifecta of Scotland, Germany and Namibia. I felt thoroughly confused, and was only made to feel more secure again by looking at how much the car dealers wanted for a bakkie (pickup truck) like mine (lots), nodding sagely at extremely large farming equipment and pretending we were in the market for a tractor.

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What has happened to me? Three weeks in a farming economy and I have an preoccupation with massive agricultural machinery. It doesn’t help that a a very proud Mum and Dad were showing off on Skype the first meat from their pigs they sent off to slaughter a week or so ago.

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Being reminded of all this farming stuff really do makes me miss the croft.

The show might have reminded me of home, but I did get a couple of reminders I was not in Scotland, but definitely in Namibia:

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Look! It comes with brakes! Bargain. Well, I think it means that the brakes are on the service plan, but Namlish (Namibian English) has some brilliant ambiguities, apparently.

So a lot has happened to me in the last two weeks. I had to actually write myself out a plan for this post, as much as there was to tell you all, but even then I’m sure there is some stuff I missed out. Hopefully next time I write I shall be in the North, further towards Angola and what is called “Africa Proper” than I have ever been before. Until then, Tschuß!