The ideas and thoughts expressed within this blog are not the views or opinions of WorldTeach nor the Namibia Ministry of Education, but rather my personal views.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Weekend at Walvis (Bay and Swakopmund)

After being rescued from the Namib-Naukluft Park in the Namib Desert, Jonathan and I continued on to our original destination of the Coast, specifically, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.

Swakopmund and Walvis Bay are two towns located on the West Coast of Namibia, two of the handful of places along the country’s Atlantic Ocean border that are actually navigable. A designated area north of Swakopmund is actually called the "Skeleton Coast"; don't worry, wasn't planning on traveling there, even on paved roads.

Swakopmund has become a major beach resort town, while Walvis Bay is a bit more industrial, yet relaxing, nonetheless. We decided to stay at a Bed & Breakfast in Swakopmund (the Intermezzo), and adventure in Walvis Bay. I really enjoyed the accomodations because it had a fabulous bathtub and calming view. It had been about 4 months since I soaked in a tub, and after C28 (be sure to read that post), I REALLY needed to relax.

Although the famous Walvis Bay pink flamingos were already gone (for the season), we were able to enjoy sailing with dolphins, seals, pelicans, and other aquatic life and birds during our morning cruise. We were also planning to go on a moonlight horseback ride, but no moon. (We did, however, get to see a whole lot of constellations during our night in the desert). Folks venture to Walvis Bay to kayak, sandboard (like boogie-board, but on sand dunes, rather than water waves), and enjoy the natural harbour. Our time was limited, even more so by our unexpected delays, so we took it easy, savoured the good food, and casually explored both towns.

Because of the location of Walvis Bay, there is some interesting political history there. For instance, while Namibia gained it's freedom in 1990, it wasn't until 1994 that the territory of Walvis Bay was officially transferred to the new nation of Namibia and became free.

As you can imagine, I have tons of pictures to share from this trip and from the time I arrived in Namibia; but, it literally takes about 20 minutes to upload one photo using the internet in Khorixas (and I pay by the volume, not the time). I'll try to get them up somehow.

NOTE: The formatting of this post seems to be a problem; I'll try to figure it out.

Mr. Goodyear and Mr. Goodwill

My Namibian-Road warrior, hero, mini-vacation buddy, goes by the mortal name of Jonathan Blakley. Besides leaping to Speedy Gonzalez action with tire-changes, Mr. Goodyear (aka Jonathan) also delivered a positive super-boost to the Khorixas Computer-Based Learning Centre during his visit, giving him the honorary title, Mr. Goodwill.

As I mentioned, the Centre’s computers are loaded with PLATO educational learning software, which provides individualized instruction and tutoring to users. One of the highlights of the PLATO learning software, especially in a country seeking to improve English language skills and comprehension, is the audio component. The audio helps users: 1) improve their familiarity with written and spoken English, and 2) better identify and learn complex terms and concepts. The audio also helps set the pace of the lesson.

Due to some oversight in planning, however, headsets were not ordered for the Centre/workstations. I was able to borrow a few sets of external speakers for a few weeks; but, you can imagine the challenges with that solution: 1) the speakers are borrowed – the owners will want them back, 2) the external speakers create excess noise in the Centre possibly distracting clients, and 3) there is a limit to how many speakers are even available to be borrowed.

The Kunene Region Ministry of Education and the Directorate of Research, Science, and Technology noticed and acknowledgement the oversight; however, the procurement process would take some time. I told Jonathan about my challenge and Mr. Goodwill went into action, finding suitable headsets in the States, shipping 30 of them to his home, and then personally delivering them to the Centre during his recent trip. The Deputy Director of the Regional Ministry of Education Office officially received the headsets.

The learners did great working in pairs and teams of as many as four, sharing speakers during our period without headsets. No one complained about sharing, and as a result of the “success,” we may even embrace future opportunities for teamwork from time-to-time. The individual learning, however, is what makes the Centre and PLATO unique. Thanks, Jonathan. As you were able to see during your visit, the learners love the new resource and will make the most of it.

DONATIONS: If you are interested in directly helping the Centre or special computer-based learning projects in Namibia, please let me know. Based on my capacity-building work in Khorixas, I have been approached by the national office (Directorate of Research, Science, and Technology) and asked to directly support the development of various Centres in other parts of the country as well. Your assistance will definitely be useful over the next few months.

NOTE: An extended list of direct contributors to my WorldTeach project in Namibia is included in the column to the left. Many, many others have also provided invaluable support to me and for all of you, I am grateful.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Working with PLATO

I wanted to write a little about the work I am actually doing here in Namibia, and specifically, Khorixas. I work for the Ministry of Education, and am currently on assignment through the Directorate of Research, Science, and Technology to the Kunene Region.

My job is to manage the strategic planning and implementation of a sustainable and optimally-utilized computer-based learning centre for learners and teachers in mathematics and science. I truly enjoy my work because it is based on partnerships and capacity-building, two areas I believe are at the root of sustainable development.

All of the computers in the centre are equipped with PLATO software. PLATO is an acronym that stands for, People Learning And Training On-Line. The software company is headquartered in Minnesota, but has offices in other countries as well, including South Africa.

When I arrived, the centre in Khorixas had the computers and software, but no project or centre manager and no detailed plan for how to introduce the resources to the key stakeholders. And so I began identifying those who would be affected in any way by a new computer-based learning centre. I began organizing meetings, searching for any useful documents, and drafting timelines and workplans to guide the project (and keep me sufficiently busy). In order to understand who I’ve been engaging, I should give a little background into the learning communities here.

Namibia’s school system for learners (pre-college students) is broken into three levels: primary (K-7), junior secondary (8-10), and senior secondary (11-12). There are some variations in this organizational scheme, but schools are typically grouped in this way. At the end of grade 10, learners must pass the Namibia Junior Secondary Certificate Exam to continue to grade 11. Those who do not pass must leave school. Some go straight to work or a vocational training program, while others enroll in another type of learning program to prepare to pass the exam. They cannot move on to the next grade until they pass the national exam. Learners must also pass an exam, the Namibia Senior Secondary Certificate Exam, to graduate high school and enter college. I have organized the centre to work with learners in grades 5 – 12 and also those who did not pass grade 10 or grade 12 exams.

The centre is also designed to assist teachers. Teachers can use the software to improve and manage their subject knowledge. Teachers can also use the software to prepare or supplement lessons on particular topics. They can assign activities for their students to complete before, during, or after they have introduced a concept.

Of course, in order to work with any of these groups effectively, I must have a solid relationship with principals and other educational administrators. As Khorixas is small, I have quickly come to know all of the principals in town and I work closely with the Director and Deputy Director of Education in the region. I have also created a planning and advisory committee, comprised of teachers and administrators, which has helped promote ownership of the project and has demonstrated investment made by local leaders in the project.

I am still learning the PLATO software and finding the best way to engage teachers; although, over one-third of the teachers in the area attended my basic computer literacy classes and over half attended my introduction to PLATO classes. As a large percentage of teachers had never touched a computer before entering the centre, the basic computer literacy classes were designed to ensure that they could understand and appropriately utilize the learning software.

In addition to working with teachers, there are also a number of infrastructure issues still being worked out. As such, I have only allowed a small number of learners (50 in-school and 25 out-of-school learners) use of the Centre. Each school nominated 10 learners to be a part of a pilot group throughout March. These learners have been especially useful in helping us observe how student populations may respond to the software and what systems we should have in place to track their progress, protect the centre's resources, and support student enjoyment of computer-based learning.

Whose Independence is it Anyway?

While I stole the title of this post from a past opinion/editorial in the Namibian (a local newspaper), I completely get it and have the same question. Saturday, March 21 marked 19 years since Namibia gained it’s independence from South Africa (although Namibia’s coastal town of Walvis Bay had to wait an additional four years – 1994 – to be freed from foreign control). Before becoming a protectorate of South Africa, Namibia was under German rule. As noted in many texts and speeches, Namibia has a long road to freedom. Nonetheless, there was not a single sign of independence or celebration, or even a notable Namibian flag in the tourist/holiday resort of Swakopmund, where I was relaxing on that day. At least, not where I could see. What’s that all about?

I am sure that there must be a few folks over here that who are not too pleased about the “independence” of Namibia; it may have messed up a few things in some people’s lives, people who were otherwise content pre-independence. There are also others who may just accept the new reality, but not feel as much to celebrate the fact. The town of Walvis Bay, where we traveled and sailed on a marine cruise, actually was the last part of Namibia to become “free.” But still, where were the fireworks? Banners? Light-post signs? radio shout-outs? It just felt weird.

The main celebration, with the president and parades and the like, took place in Keetmanshoop, a town in the Southern part of the country. Other celebrations around the nation were, according to select news reports, and according to my eye-witness account in one, actually two (Swakopmund and Walvis Bay), locales, somewhat lackluster and even non-existent.

I know that many national/patriotic celebrations in the U.S.A., especially as it relates to our national history and heritage are extremely superficial; most do not know even know what days like Veteran's Day or the Fourth of July actually commemorate. I thought it would be different here, though, because of how recent the "main events" have been.

The Namibian has a section where readers can send a text message that may be printed in the paper. There were a number of comments about independence day celebrations and participation. It’s hard to know how representative the views truly are. I asked school-children in Khorixas how they celebrated independence on that Saturday and most just stayed home and did nothing special. A few watched the Keetmanshoop celebration on television.

I know that as I become closer to the people, I’m sure I’ll learn more about related sentiments.

Thieves in the Day

A few weeks ago, my housemate’s clothes were stolen from our outside clothesline. It was broad daylight and he was inside the house when it happened! It wasn’t until I came home around 18h30 (6:30pm) that he noticed the missing items. Our friend is a magistrate and took him to the police station to report the crime.

I used that opportunity to introduce or reintroduce myself to all of my neighbors in this block and the next. My ‘hood in LA had issues of crime and theft, but as long as u had a few extra eyes and ears on the street, and u had some respect, u and your personal belongings were pretty safe.
Some of the intros I did in Khorixas were long overdue, but better late than never, we’ll see.

I notice that both Alex (my housemate) and I are now a bit more guarded with the property. We close the broken gate to at least present the appearance that our yard is not an easy walk-in and grab atmosphere. We also have to be careful with our gestures of kindness. On separate occasions, after helping struggling residents with food or funds, we were followed home by others asking for help and/or simple handouts. The same day Alex’ clothes were stolen, he’d given money to a beggar looking for food who came to the house.

Hate to seem cold, but I’ve had to tell a few folks to not come by the house again. We’ve had more than a few things stolen from the yard in the past month (a broom, a rug, clothes-line pins, and clothes. I say that I don’t mind peddlers and beggars in common areas; I give and will continue to give when able and appropriate, but once they bring the solicitation into my property, then I feel I’ve lost control. I don’t want to be the victim. Am I wrong? How’d you handle it?

C28 - The Road Less Traveled

What is a road trip without a few hazards, right?!?!! Well…..I think I could have done without a few of these fateful occurrences. During the weekend, I decided to rent a car and drive to the coast with a friend visiting from the States. It was a long weekend, as Friday was a school holiday (Independence Day, though many places did not seem to show any special regard for the occasion), and I hadn’t yet seen that part of the country’s diverse landscape. Besides, I needed a serious break; my work has been incredibly rewarding, but incredibly demanding as well. So, “vacation” it was.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Namibia’s roads are a combination of tarred and gravel. As I learned over the weekend, gravel roads are not all the same. There are some well-laid gravel roads and there are some areas with thousands of scattered rocks seemingly assembled to form a horizontal-like formation that tires can test if interested in a thrill. Unfortunately, it is not completely intuitive to tell which type of gravel road you are about to traverse simply from a map. There are definitely different types of paths – Main Routes, Minor Routes, Main Roads, Minor Roads – and also roads that are available ONLY to 4X4s. I thought I was good and informed, but I wouldn’t be taking the time to write this post if it were that simple.

We rented a 2WD Toyota Yaris (sedan) and decided to take C28, a number/code/designation that will stick in my mind for ages. Mind you, NO ONE suggested a route for me to take from Windhoek to Swakopmund (the coastal town communicated as my destination). I did, however, ask how long the trip should take. Four hours was the consistent response. I saw two possible routes, both were marked as open to “all traffic;” so, I decided to take the one that looked most direct. I’ll post a picture of the map and see what you think.

C28 was labeled a “minor route” and began as a tarred road but turned to gravel after about 50 km. The initial gravel was manageable, but then it turned tricky another 50 km down the way. There were big dips, turns, sand pools, and sometimes smooth points. Our speed had to be reduced considerably and it was clear that we would not be making it to Swakopmund in four hours. Little did I know at the time that we would not even make it that night!

I can easily say that I am glad and blessed that I had the companion of an excellent driver and a calm and collected responder to vehicular emergencies. Otherwise, I’d have been a bit …….. (you can fill in the blank any way you see appropriate once you finish the post). Ninety-nine percent of the cars in Namibia (included our rented Toyota Yaris) are manual, and I still need to re-learn how to drive stick, so he was on his own this trip. Anyway…...

Bottom-line(S): Stuck in sand in the Namib Desert and forced to sleep in the car overnight was not the memories I had in mind for this trip. Oh, and not to mention the decimated tire that luckily chose to reveal itself in the form of marijuana-smelling burnt rubber AFTER the pass (Bosua Pass to be exact) from hell.

OK - I’ll backup a bit.

What happened was, we were driving along, slowly, over plenty of tricky road. Once we realized that the route and road was shotty, it was too late to turn around and there were no easy opportunities to change to a smoother route.

The front passenger (left-side) tire was the first to go. The tire was crazy-destroyed by the time we smelled the burned rubber and stopped to investigate the culprit. THEN….we carried on and once we entered the Namib-Naukluft Park (IN THE NAMIB DESERT!), the car got super-stuck in the sand and we could not move on. At this time, the sun had set, our cell-phone service was virtually non-existent, and we hadn’t seen any cars or people for hours. My road-trip hero put on his fix-it gear and began trying to literally dig us out, but no luck. Every so often, I’d get one bar on my phone so I constantly had a text message waiting to be sent to the rental company’s 24-hour line. Ah, the rental company and the tour company that set me up with the rental company…..

OK, so it turns out that although we paid for a full damage waiver with the insurance we “chose,” the customer is ALWAYS responsible for tire and rim damage; SO, we had to pay for the burst tire and warped rim that met it’s fate against the gravel. (That was in the tiny print that I didn’t think to read that closely in the pre-rental phase).

Also, the rental company’s great 24-hour emergency line and support came with a yet undisclosed price. (Oh, we were “rescued” by a few people, including a driver from the rental company, at about 9:30am on Saturday. Mind you, we left for our 4-hour drive at about 3:00pm on Friday. We were stuck in the sand in the car, in the desert, alone, for about 12 hours, which is where we had to (try to) sleep.). Turns out that we were charged N$1238.00 for the road-side assistance. Yep, I was in for a civil fight. Couldn’t really fight about the tire and rim; should’ve put on granny’s glasses and read the policies written in 4-point font on the back of the contract; it’s there – section 8.0. BUT the road-side assistance charges and the way the tour company classified our problem got me unnerved.

The tour company director claimed that we were “negligent” for driving on C28; we should have known that driving on that road would damage the vehicle’s tires….. I can’t even go on with that knucklehead. Needless to say, tonight, at about 8:30pm, after meeting in-person with one of the managers of the rental car company, we settled on fees and liability issues that have taught me a few lessons, but that are manageable in light of the circumstances. I’ll follow-up later with the Namibia Roads Authority and with the Tourist Association to communicate my experiences, concerns, and suggestions.

Yes, I won’t forget this mini-adventure anytime soon (even with my trifling memory issues). I will say, though, that once we arrived in Swakopmund, cleaned-up, and rested on a real bed, we had a very nice time and I’ll write a post on a few of those activities next.

Could’ve been worse, so, I’m thankful……..

Oh yeah, we did get stuck in the sand one more time during the week, but luckily, there was a whole village of people waiting on the side of the road to push us out and then demand per person payment afterword. Joy! (Kinda makes you think they put the sand trap there intentionally……)