Monthly Archives: September 2012

Goodbye/Totsiens/Oshili nawa Namibia!

University of Toronto 2012 interns taking in the Swakopmund sunset.

Well, my friends, Amber and I have sadly reached the end of our incredible Namibia experience. After another 22 hour Intercape bus ride back to Cape Town and a few days of souvenir shopping, wine tasting, reflection writing, and running in one of my favourite places in the world, I began my journey back to Canada via Johannesburg, SA  and London, England. Amber and Abi flew out a few hours after me, avoiding the Johannesburg detour and flying straight to London. We all enjoyed precious time catching up with our families and loved ones at home before getting back into the swing of things with our studies at U of T.

Personally, I feel as though this summer was packed so full of adventure, friendship, laughter, and life lessons learned that I sometimes struggle to reduce the magnitude of what this incredible opportunity meant to me into just a few sentences. As such, it’s also difficult to conclude this blog! However, Amber and I both thought that we would conclude our blog by sharing with you the concluding remarks Kate and I wrote and presented at our Final Forum held at UNAM on August 7, 2012. A special thank you goes out to Abi and Jordan for your input into the following!

Before we conclude today’s forum, we would like to say a few words on behalf of our fellow University of Toronto interns. We are now approaching the end of what was an incredible learning experience, an incredible life experience, an incredible journey. For us, this journey began back in January of this year, when we all learned we had been accepted into the program. Looking back now, the whole Namibian experience seemed very distant and surreal to us – I’m sure trudging through the snowy streets of Toronto didn’t help us visualize our summer ahead.

We began our weekly orientation sessions as strangers, learning about the history of Namibia, Namibian culture, social issues surrounding HIV, and of course, what to pack in our suitcases. These orientation sessions were so jam-packed with information, we hardly got a chance to get to know each other. Before we knew it, we were meeting again; however this time we were meeting in Cape Town, preparing ourselves for a 22-hour bus ride to Windhoek. Getting off the bus in Windhoek and being greeted by Aaron, Esther, and Kayla officially marked the beginning of our Namibian experience. Little did we know that we were embarking on a journey that was so much richer and deeper an experience than we had ever imagined.

Namibian culture we learned in the classroom, Namibian culture we experienced while here. We shared traditional Owambo meals (complete with mopane worms!) and enjoyed lunchtime kapana with co-workers. We watched amazing dancers perform at the UNAM Choir Show and we learned traditional dances with Sisi at the Omaleshe Dance Project in Oshakati. We cheered on local athletes in cycling races and some of us competed in local running races ourselves. We were in the stands as Namibia beat Kenya 1-0 in the FIFA World Cup Soccer Qualifier; some of us attended a traditional Owambo wedding. From learning basic Afrikaans to learning how to encourage ‘condomizing’ in Oshiwambo, we feel as though we’ve been able to embrace Namibian culture in the fullest extent.

Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of this adventure has been the chance to really see the beauty that is this vast and diverse country, Namibia. Climbing Dune 45 at sunrise in Sossusvlei took our breath away (in more ways than one!) as did a seaside jog in Swakopmund at sunset. We went hiking at the beautiful Waterberg Plateau Park, and we relaxed by the waterhole in Etosha, entranced by the majestic beauty of elephants, rhinos, and giraffes under the starry sky. Thanks to some excellent photographers in our group, all of these sites, along with the sandy plains of Oshakati and the mountainous terrain of Windhoek will be able to be remembered forever.

We feel so blessed to have been embraced by the community here. There was never a dull moment; there were always so many invitations and people to spend time with. You have invited us into your homes, shared meals with us, shared moments of laughter and celebrations. We experienced some profound and powerful moments with you, and with you we created some unforgettable, wonderful memories. This experience has enriched us not only as students, but also as people. We don’t feel as though it has been a typical internship experience where we arrive, do our work, and depart. We feel as though we’ve put down roots here and made lasting friendships.

With that being said, we are incredibly thankful to you all for being here today and helping make this experience an experience of a lifetime. Thank you to our program coordinators; Aaron Yarmoshuk, for introducing us to Namibia, and Dan Allman, for caring for us when we’ve been sick and injured and encouraging us to always stay vigilant. Thank you to Scholastika Iipinge for leading the internship on the UNAM side and providing us with a host institution while here. Thank you to our coworkers for your patience and enthusiasm throughout our internships. Thank you also to UNAM and the University of Toronto for making this internship program possible. Lastly, thank you to our newfound friends here; you will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Thank you very much; we will miss you!

Tangi unene; ohandi kekudjulukwa! (Oshiwambo)

Baie dankie; ons sal julle mis! (Afrikaans)

Amber-lee & I with our wonderful coworkers at the Katutura Health Centre ARV pharmacy.

In addition to thanking the people mentioned in our concluding remarks above, Amber and I also thank the following people and organizations:

To Dr. Jillian Kohler, our supervisor at the Faculty of Pharmacy, thank you for all of your support and insight into our internship endeavours.

To Heather Bannerman and Priya Bansal, the 2011 interns, thank you for all the advice and encouragement you offered as we prepared for our experience!

To the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy’s Student Experience Fund, the Undergraduate Pharmacy Society’s Student Initiatives Fund, and the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) / University of Toronto International Health Program (UTIHP) Discovery Fund, thank you for helping make this experience financially possible for us.

To our wonderful colleagues at the Katutura Health Centre, thank you so much once again for being so welcoming towards us and for playing such a critical role in the making of our amazing experience in Namibia!

To YOU, thank you for following our blog – we hope you have enjoyed it!

Finally, to current and future pharmacy students at U of T: APPLY to the Namibia Internship Program and please don’t hesitate to ask us any questions! You can contact Amber at or Erin at

Namibia, until we see you again: goodbye/totsiens/oshili nawa!

Erin, Amber-lee, Jordan, Kate, Abi, & Lizz on top of a dune in Swakopmund.


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Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Uncategorized


Erin’s Final Reflection

Hi everyone! This is Erin, and I’m sharing with you my final reflection of my Namibia internship experience, which was written and submitted to our program coordinator, Aaron Yarmoshuk. It took me awhile to write, as I tried my best to convey my emotions as accurately and as fully as possible, but I’m happy with what I came up with – I think I met the goal I set out to achieve.

I went to Namibia this summer. I came home with a flag. I’m not really one for souvenirs: I hate tacky touristy trinkets and I figured I would be happy if I returned home to Canada without a tangible token from my travels, but I didn’t test this hypothesis. Instead, I paid N$2.00 and bought myself a little 10x15inch Namibian flag.

I saw a lot in Namibia this summer. So did my flag. The flimsy bit of fabric accompanied me to work, to social events, to running races. At work one day, some of my colleagues huddled around my flag and I, taking turns signing it. I hadn’t given it much thought before my colleagues began talking about it, but the flag tells a story, or at least, its symbols and colours represent a nation’s story. I got a rough tutorial on the flag’s symbolism right then and there, but as none of these colleagues were Namibian-born, most of the information I received that day was delivered to me with a degree of uncertainty. Regardless, I was fascinated and made a mental note to research the flag’s meaning at a later time.

Every time I look at my flag, a smile creeps across my face as wonderful memories of the people I met and the places I travelled to pop one by one into the forefront of my mind. However, it wasn’t until I got home to Canada, unpacked my things, and unfolded my flag that I recalled my vow to myself. As I researched the history and meaning behind the flag while sitting in my Toronto apartment, these sometimes-disjointed memories of people met and places travelled to were suddenly linked together in a beautiful montage of my Namibian internship experience.   

As I began to uncover the significance of the colours and symbols emblazoned upon the Namibian flag in front of me, I realized that my signed flag represents so much more than the friendships I made and the memories I have of the experiences associated with them. It represents the events that shape Namibia’s history, independence, and current culture I experienced. It represents the country’s incredibly unique and raw beauty that so often left me awestruck. It represents the different people of different races and tribes that call Namibia home. It represents the connection that ties together all of these things into a national identity.

The 12-rayed sunburst unsurprisingly represents the blazing sun that warms the desert and shines upon all Namibians. That Namibian sun sure was faithful. There was not a day that went by where clouds shielded the sun from us, something that was never appreciated as much as it was in the middle of the Namib desert at Sesriem, following a particularly bone-chilling winter night camped out under the stars of the southern hemisphere. When I think of the Namibian sun, I think of climbing Dune 45 as the sun slowly rose and cast its golden radiance over the Namib-Naukluft National Park. It was an extraordinary sight – one that belongs in a National Geographic magazine but instead lives on in my memories.            


The yellow symbolizes power and existence, life and energy. Everyone who signed my flag contributes their unique existence to Namibian society; they are all so full of life. But so too are the thousands of patients I met while working at the Katutura Health Centre’s HIV clinic. Most appearing quite healthy thanks to advances in HIV care and antiretroviral treatment, they are determined to have more power over the virus than it has over them – they refuse to let HIV take away their energy and zeal for life.

I learned that the blue of the flag represents the nation’s invaluable water resources, the Namibian sky, and the Atlantic Ocean. Among my interval sessions and informal Afrikaans lessons with a running friend, I learned a lot about the coveted water supply in this desert country, as this friend is also a hydrologist working for the Namibian government. With him and another friend, I ran to the top of the highest mountain in the Windhoek area and took in an exquisite view of the late afternoon city landscape, the only thing above us being the Namibian sky. I was there where the Namibian sky meets the Atlantic Ocean, too. I saw it in the distant horizon while running along the Swakopmund shoreline, surrounded by some of my fellow University of Toronto interns and friends who shared this incredible journey with me.

The red band that runs diagonally across the Namibian flag signifies the resource most imperative to Namibian culture: its people. In particular, the red stands for their heroism and determination to construct an equal tomorrow. Red is a strong, unrelenting colour, and strength and unrelenting determination will be necessary if an equal future is ever to exist. Heroism, strength, and unrelenting determination. These words describe no one else better than they do my friend Songo. Songo is a 33-year-old Herero man who I met at a running race in Windhoek one weekend. A 2:26 marathoner and elite athlete, Songo destroyed the field that day. A hero he was at the race, and a hero he is in the Otjomuise community, an informal settlement of corrugated iron shacks with dirt floors and not much running water. Day in and day out he works by day as a soldier in the Namibian Defense Force to feed his child, trains by morning and night to win running races to supplement his measly soldier’s income. He promotes education – he paid his son’s mother’s family in cattle to bring his son to live with him in the city and go to school. Despite having experienced a lifetime of racial prejudice and inequality, he is not afraid to speak to white people – that’s how he met me. He is not afraid to stand up for what he believes in – a nation where all Namibians have equal opportunity. 

In the history books of this region, I see the word ‘white’ as being tainted, stained with the association to a people who flocked to and treated so unfairly those who had inhabited southwestern Africa for generations and generations. In the context of the flag, however, white embodies the peace and unity that Namibia boasts. Peace and unity. These two words take me back to mid-July, as I sat quietly beside the Okaukuejo waterhole in Etosha National Park, taking in the tranquil harmony of dozens of vastly different species standing together, drinking and bathing and sharing what is during the dry season one of the park’s few water sources. It struck me that this scene was not unlike the people of Namibia. While different sub-groups of Namibians survive off of differing amounts of income, struggle from different hardships, and don’t always see eye to eye, Namibia is overall a peaceful country, united in independence.

Finally, the green in the lower right triangle of the flag symbolizes vegetation and agricultural resources. This automatically made me think of Namibia’s north, where herds of stubborn cattle, goats, and the odd chicken pose constant obstacles for traffic. This led me to think fondly of some of my Ovambo friends in Windhoek who would frequently travel back to the north to work on the farm in the village they grew up on. From there, I began thinking of the fun I had with them and the memories we created, of cheering on Namibia as they outscored Kenya in the FIFA World Cup Qualifier soccer game, of celebrating the win over Windhoek Lager and braaied goat, of sharing a traditional Ovambo meal at their family’s home, of them happily signing my flag. 

I was uncomfortable with the huge discrepancy between the division of resources among the white Afrikaners and the people identifying with the Ovambo, Herero, Damara, or other indigenous tribes. The racial segregation and obvious racism still existing in southwestern Africa did not go unnoticed by me. I met and made friends with people of all different walks of life. Some signed my flag and wrote messages in English, others in Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero. For various historical, political, and societal reasons, the people who signed my flag do not share one nation equally. They belong in different places of society’s hierarchy, based on unwritten and unspoken rules concerning history and race. However, they are segregated neither on my flag nor in my mind based on whether they are white or black, rich or poor. They are not segregated at all. They are as one and they share one place in my heart. They share it equally – I love that.

I came home from Namibia just a little bit different. So did my flag. Like my flag, I feel as though I have been added to. The signatures and scrawled messages on my flag represent the people I’ve met and the memories I’ve made that have etched themselves into this chapter of my life. I want to stay away from the clichés that say my African experience ‘forever changed my life’ or ‘made me a better person’, because neither of those phrases is necessarily true. However, I will not shy away from saying that my experience in southwestern Africa was one of the best experiences of my life.

I come away from this experience with a better understanding of myself – oddly enough, I found the exploration of my new environment gave way to a thorough introspective exploration, too. I am now more aware than I ever was before of my positive attributes as well as those I struggle with. I come away from this experience a more confident person, having risen to meet the challenges at my workplace and the demands of life in a foreign culture. I come away from this experience a wealthier person – wealthier in both friendships and in knowledge, having gone through some extraordinary life experiences and learned valuable lessons along the way. In spite of myself, I come away from this experience with a souvenir: a flag to remember it all.

My signed Namibian flag!


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Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Uncategorized



Hi everyone! This is Erin, and I want to share with you something I wrote about a person I met during my last week in Namibia. I don’t want to give much else away, but as you will see, I feel so blessed to have met this person and become friends with him. I hope you enjoy the read!

His name is Songo. He is 33 years old. His ‘really’ name is Vetisee Mbunguha, but he doesn’t tell the white people that, because they can’t pronounce it. He was 1 of 12 children in his family born in a Herero village in Namibia.

When he started Grade 1 at 10 years old, he was one of the youngest students in his class. He came to Windhoek when his teacher moved him away from his family and village so that he could get an education uninterrupted from work herding cattle. He graduated high school, but had no money to pursue higher education. Instead, he enlisted as a soldier and continues to this day to be employed by the Namibian Defense Force.

He has one son, Kaa. Kaa is 15 and thanks to his father, who paid his child’s mother’s family in cattle to take him from his village and to the city for school, he is getting an education. Songo and Kaa live together in a tin shack. It has dirt floors. It is the shack that has “Ovahimba” scrawled in paint on it, the one in the middle of Station 8, Otjomuise, one of the poorest informal settlements in Windhoek, Namibia.

Songo is black. He is an athlete. He is my friend.

Songo & Kaa outside their Otjomuise home

Songo in his Otjomuise home, about to head out for a training run with me

My name is Erin. I am 22 years old. My full name is Erin Ann Ready, but I only use my middle name when I’m filling out legal documents. I was the first of 3 children in my family born in a town about 100km northeast of Toronto, Canada.

When I started Grade 1 at age 5, I was the youngest in my class by no more than a year. I have a high school education and I am now a student in a professional degree program at the University of Toronto. In 2 more years I will have completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacy. I came to Windhoek to work in an HIV clinic, dispensing antiretrovirals (ARVs) to HIV-positive patients and working on pharmaceutical care projects as part of a 10-week internship to enrich my pharmacy education.

I have no children. I stayed with 5 other Canadian university students in a 2-storey house in the upper middle class region of Windhoek known as Hochland Park, less than 10km from Otjomuise.

I am white. I am an athlete. I am Songo’s ‘best friend he ever had’.

                                                            * * *

In the fall of 2011, I heard about an internship opportunity in a far-off land, in a country somewhere in Africa. I am ashamed to admit that at that point I couldn’t even locate Namibia on a map. I was sold by the presentation the previous year’s pharmacy interns gave our class. I, too, wanted an educational challenge in a unique internship setting where I would come out ‘feeling like a pharmacist’. I submitted my application and was thrilled when I received news a month later that I had been selected into the internship program.

I began looking ahead to the upcoming summer. I envisioned myself working in the ARV clinic, evaluating ARV prescriptions for accuracy, dispensing ARVs, developing ways to communicate across language barriers to counsel patients on their medications. I envisioned myself working closely with the healthcare professionals at the clinic, together working on pharmaceutical care projects to advance patient care. Having yet to be taught the therapeutics of HIV in the classroom, I was quite certain that I would learn more from the healthcare team at the Katutura Health Centre ARV Clinic (the internship site in Windhoek, Namibia) than they could ever learn from me. I envisioned myself forming friendships with my colleagues and coworkers, occasionally sharing a meal or drink with them after work or on weekends. I didn’t imagine making a friend like Songo.

To prepare for the Namibia internship, I attended the mandatory orientation sessions and completed the required readings. The academic side of me knew I was in the right place. I was embarking on a journey that had the potential to change my life forever as much as it had the potential to teach me about elements of healthcare I could never hope to learn from a textbook. However, I am not fully defined by my academics. As a varsity athlete, I also very much have an athletic component to who I am. As a young female distance runner attending safety abroad orientation sessions, I was worried about not being able to maintain my fitness – and consequentially my sanity – in the upcoming months.

In our safety abroad sessions, we were encouraged to never travel alone in Windhoek, to always be in the company of at least one other intern. Running outside was a definite no-no. Although this was never specifically addressed in so many words, I can say with some certainty that travelling alone to the informal settlement of Otjomuise, located on the outskirts of Windhoek, to go running with an unmarried 33 year old man was a definite violation of the safety abroad policies we learned about. I can tell you with utmost certainty that it was one of the best decisions of my trip.

It was through the slight bending of these safety abroad policies that began the series of events that led me to Songo. In an effort to immerse myself in local culture, make new Namibian friends, and maintain some of my fitness by running outside, I researched and joined a local running club. I met new friends and went running on a fairly regular basis with them. The lack of diversity of the group didn’t strike me as remarkable. I think as a Canadian, I’m used to accepting things the way they are presented to me, without much thought as to whether they are the same as me, different, or somewhere in between. We Canadians, we are an accepting people.

All of the runners in this club were white. Almost all spoke Afrikaans with English as a second language. Almost all had well-paying jobs and lived in the neighbourhoods of Windhoek that are responsible for skewing the national statistics such that Namibia, with all of its thousands of people living in informal settlements like Songo, is classified by the World Bank as a middle income country – a classification determined by average per capita income and not the country’s wealth distribution. None of them had friends like Songo.

My new friends at the running club are really nice people. They would often drive well out of their way to pick me up for practices, they gladly translated Afrikaans for me, and they spoke English when I was around to include me in their conversations. They invited me to their homes to share with me South African rooibos tea and rusks, home cooked meals, and family time.

Bearing this in mind, it may then seem strange when I write that my first experiences with racism in Namibia were among some of these people. I remember some of my fellow Canadian interns and I expressing enthusiastically our excitement over the upcoming Namibia vs. Kenya FIFA World Cup Qualifier soccer match that we would be attending. The running club did not match our enthusiasm with which we reported our weekend plans. Strange, I thought. Most athletes I know show, if not enthusiasm, respect and appreciation for other sports. The remarks we received were not what we expected to hear. They were remarks of a nation shaped by its history of Apartheid, still grossly divided into rich and poor, rugby and soccer, white and black. “You must be very careful. I would never allow my [white] daughter and her [white] friends to go to a soccer game. Soccer is a sport for the blacks. Rugby is the sport for white people,” we were warned.

Of course, my experiences with racism were just that. Little more than fleeting comments about other people, my experiences with racism never affected me like they affect Songo. I am white. Songo is black. When Songo told me with delight and amazement one day that chatting with me marked the first time in his life that he had ever chatted with a white person, I thought he was crazy and called him out on it. “It is the true. Ah! Erin, if you could know how I’m feeling to chat with a white person… The Namibian people do not like black people. If you could be my friend I will be a happy man ever,” Songo explained to me.

I let these words soak in before asking more questions on the topic. There was so much to reflect upon in these few words alone. That Songo had just defined Namibian people as being only the mere 6% of people in the country who are white left him in a rather grey area. If he does not identify himself as a man of the nation within which he was born and has lived his entire life, how does he identify himself? Songo is not only marginalized based on the colour of his skin. As a member of the Herero tribe, his ancestors were among the few survivors of the horrific Herero Genocide in the early 1900s, where German colonists nearly annihilated the entire Herero population in a massacre that can be likened to the Holocaust. He is therefore a member of a minority population in Namibia, one that finds itself still in a continuing struggle against the government for their rights. As a Herero man, where does Songo see himself fitting into society?

I thought about why Songo was so eager to gain a friend in me. The fact that in Namibia, there is a definite association between people of European descent and privileged lifestyles did not escape me. My fellow female Canadian interns and I remarked on this a lot. There were dozens of times during our stay in Namibia where we had been asked by our internship colleagues, taxi drivers, and strangers in the street if we had boyfriends. The answer never mattered. If we said yes, we needed boyfriends in Namibia; if we said no, we needed Namibian boyfriends more than ever. “Make me your Namibian boyfriend,” they would say. Perhaps, if we REALLY didn’t seem keen on the idea, they would instruct us to “find them a white girl.” Naturally, we questioned anyone who said these things to us. Nine times out of ten, we got an exacerbated “I just…. WANT!” as an explanation.

A female coworker of mine got a little more specific: “White men are just better. A white man will tell you he loves you, and mean what he says. The only time a black man will tell a woman he loves her is in bed (sex).” This coworker had never had a white boyfriend; she had only ever suffered heartbreak at the hands of her child’s black father. Yes, her romantic experiences have left her jaded and perhaps skeptical of the existence of everlasting love, but I think her cultural experiences have also left her believing that the prejudiced manner in which Namibian society places white men ahead of black men somehow reflects a superiority of a white man’s ability to love and be a good person. Unbelievable. 

With Songo, things were different. Never once was our relationship the slightest bit flirtatious. Never once did Songo expect or ask anything from me, despite the fact that to many people with Songo’s background living in Songo’s community, I am the quintessence of wealth: I am white. It is not as though circumstances in which these matters could have arisen never came up, either. Songo and I talked of love, of marriage, of fidelity and of adultery. Neither of us used these topics as lures to lead the conversation into flirtatious or promiscuous territory. We merely discussed these topics just as we discussed what our favourite pre-race meals were: we were interested in getting to know each other as friends and getting to know each other’s cultures.

Songo and I also exchanged gifts. Songo started it, but I could tell he expected nothing from me in return. When I was openly admiring Songo’s Namibian Defense Force tracksuit, he smiled, took off his racing arm warmers, neatly folded them, and gave them to me. I would have felt terribly guilty had I not given him anything in return. I really loved my brand new South Africa racing arm warmers I had just bought myself. I was pretty sure I could find myself another pair for myself before I went back to Canada. I asked Songo if he wanted them, and he said yes, but only if I wanted to give them. I never did find another pair, but I’m really happy I gave them to Songo. I have a picture of him and I after a run one day with him wearing them. He says that whenever he races in them he will think of me. I suppose it’s a little ironic that one of the tokens with which Songo will commemorate the first friendship he had with a white person is emblazoned with the flag of a country where racial segregation inflicted by national legislation existed for over four and a half of the past seven decades and was officially abolished less than twenty years ago. On the other hand, maybe it’s a sign that the future is behind us, or at least that we’re moving away from the past.

Songo (wearing his South Africa arm warmers) and I with two of his neighbours following a training run in Otjomuise

I thought some more about why Songo was so eager to gain a friend in me. I asked him to tell me about his experiences with white people, since I knew that even if he had never before chatted with white people, he had certainly had encounters with them before. He told me about his and his black teammates’ experiences at local races. Everything he told me, I realized, I had witnessed at the race where I first met him. Whites and blacks meet each other at local races, but they do not socialize with each other. During the results and the awards and the post-race festivities, the white people do not sit with the black people. This, I’ll tell you, is despite the fact that most of the races are won (often by a large margin) by black runners. The treatment of the winners is a stark contrast to how winners are treated in races (of varying degrees of competitiveness) that I’m used to running in Canada. Following the race, runners of all ages congratulate each other on races well run, especially eager to congratulate the top runners. There are jokes about what performance-enhancing breakfast cereals they are eating and victorious photographs taken to remember the solid efforts put in. All runners, but especially the day’s top runners, feel and are treated like celebrities for the hour or two following the race.

Sure, this is done at the races in Namibia, but it is only done among the white runners. They go around, congratulating each other on the morning’s accomplishments, celebrating in a post-race endorphin high. But they ignore the black runners standing together by themselves. It is as if they aren’t there. After all, they are black.

I met Songo when he called me over to where he and his teammates were sitting following the OTB Sport AquaSplash X-Country Trail Run at Heja Lodge. He recognized me from my participation in a local half marathon the day before. “You are the white woman who ran yesterday. [Disclaimer: I was one of many white women who had run the race yesterday, but what he said was true, and so I nodded in agreement.] Ahhh! You ran very nice. I have never seen a white lady run like you.”

Before Songo’s compliment gets interpreted without much context, I’ll tell you this is likely true. Given Namibia’s small population and lack of structured athletics programs beyond recreational running clubs, I am not too surprised. Still, I think I might keep Songo’s compliment written down in my training log to pick me up on days I’m not feeling very good about myself or how my running is going. I thanked him and began the pleasantries by asking him how his race went. It wasn’t long before I was sitting down with Songo and his friends, talking about work, school, home, and of course, running. It wasn’t long after that before I felt a hand grasp firmly around my upper arm, yanking me to my feet. That hand was white. It belonged to Johan*, a man in his 50s and member of the running club I had joined. “Come on, come on; let’s go over here. Let’s go over here for a photo,” Johan said, leading me away from Songo. I could still feel the impression his hand had left on my arm.

In defiance, I went back to sit with Songo following the photo decoy. I saw in Johan’s eyes disapproval, but this time he at least didn’t stop me. A few days later, I asked Songo if he remembered the white man I was with at the race. “Yes, the one who pulled you away. You see? The Namibian people do not like black people.”

Me with my Namibian flag and new friends (from left to right): Nangy, Collen, Songo

I wanted to know if the episode with Johan was something like occurrences that Songo had had with white people before – whether things like what I had been a part of happened regularly. The responses I received from Songo are words I won’t ever forget. “Sometimes they [the white people] call us kafel means slave… Sometimes they call us baboon, which is paining.”

Apartheid hasn’t been apart of legislation since Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990. That’s what the history books say. It’s a fact that suggests a humble society ashamed of its past but moving towards fairer futures has been established. It’s a fact that doesn’t reflect reality. The political system of Apartheid may no longer govern the land, but in my eyes, the segregating effect of Apartheid on society is still very much a reality. It is as real as the barbed wire fences surrounding the million-dollar homes of Namibia’s white Afrikaners, as real as the scrap metal roofs covering the dirt floors of Otjomuise’s dirt poor. It is as real as the white man who drives his shiny new car to the private healthcare clinic in his Windhoek neighbourhood, as real as the black man who travels for many hours by donkey to get HIV treatment at his nearest outreach clinic in remote Namibia. It is as real as the crowd of white faces cheering on their rugby fans at Olympia’s Independence Stadium, as real as the sea of black faces cheering on their soccer fans at Katutura’s Sam Nujoma Stadium. Apartheid may officially be over, but racial segregation in Namibia still very much exists.

An Ovahimba woman (left) in traditional dress with Kaa and Songo’s aunt in a traditional Herero dress and hat from the village

Otjomuise sunset – as seen from Songo’s home

The inside of Songo’s home

Porridge time for Songo’s puppy!

Songo’s porridge-faced puppy!

My experience in Namibia this summer taught me so much. I learned about so much more than what I could ever learn from a pharmacy textbook. From Songo especially, I learned about humanity. I learned there is nothing more valuable in life than friendship, than family. I learned that when you fall down, you get up and try again. You try again with humility in your heart, dignity in your chest, and a smile on your face. I believe I made a difference, too. I may not have changed society, but I may have changed Songo’s perception of it, even just a little. He introduced me to the world seen through his eyes, and I did my best to show him the world seen through mine. Neither of us sees black or white; we see both, together.

Songo and I

*Name has been changed.


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Posted by on September 16, 2012 in Uncategorized



Stunningly gorgeous yet humble and sweet? Check. Passionate about what she does? Check. Hilarious quirks and sense of humour? Check.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to introduce you to Abinaya (or Abi for short), our 4th roommate, fellow University of Toronto intern, and friend. She is going into her 4th year of Women and Gender Studies and spent her time in Namibia interning at the Namibian Women’s Health Network. Abi’s not afraid to be herself, which is such a refreshing quality in a person. She added a really fun element to our house dynamic, and it was so great living with her and getting to know her this summer!

Below is a picture of Abi soaking up the Swakopmund sunset (photo courtesy of Lizz).

Before you read Abi’s final reflection and get a sense of some of the amazing work she and Kate did at the Namibia Women’s Health Network, check out the picture of this Sri Lankan beauty getting ready to show her Namibian pride at the Namibia vs. Kenya soccer game we went to! Photo and pretty-professional-looking face paint courtesy of Lizz. Another added bonus to this photograph: if any of you weren’t sure where in Africa Namibia is located, check out Abi’s cheek – it’s the country in yellow!

“With a background in constantly learning about marginalized communities and the effects of inequality, there have been numerous times when I had to close my books and go to sleep because I didn’t want to think about it. I did not want racism to exist, I did not want to learn about the affects of colonialism, I did not want to know the economic and social disparities. To be honest, before this internship, I have had doubts of whether I really believed in social advocacy, but after three months of making  amazing lifelong friends and working with powerful, inspirational people, I come to realize that there is a community just for me, even if its half way around the world. We share the same passion and that for me shows solidarity. Namibia has truly inspired me to believe in my dreams, and as much as I close my books at the end of the night because I feel hopeless, I know that the next morning, I will go back to educating myself about the effects of inequality. This is what I am most passionate about and I am going to continue working towards equity, in one form or another.”

These were my final words at the Final Forum last week, words I couldn’t finish because my emotions overcame me. Looking back at the ten weeks spent in Namibia, a myriad of emotions arise within me. I’m not sure if I should be jumping up and down because of the amazing experience I had here, or be saddened that this internship has come to an end. Soon I will be heading over to Toronto – to a life that I have always been accustomed to. It was a week filled with goodbyes at NWHN. Franzi Sommer, an intern from Germany who was volunteering here for a year left Tuesday. Aivy, one of the closest friends I have made in Namibia went back to visit her family in Zimbabwe and Beverley, a friend I got to know more than I had ever expected, an intern from Kenya left to South Africa.

 The office was quieter than usual in our last week. I can recall my first day walking into the NWHN office with Aaron Y. and Kate and being introduced to the NWHN family. I was a “deer in headlights,” but was also filled with absolute energy. August felt so far in the distance, but now looking back, it went by so fast – too fast for me.

When I left Toronto in May, there were a lot of things I left behind. To be honest, I was relieved to leave it behind – kind of like getting away. The idea of going back home now seems strange. In the past three months I have adjusted myself to a life in Namibia, waking up every morning to go to work, coming home and spending my time with the other interns and my colleagues’ families. In the last three months, I have grown to be a better person. I have become more confident and stronger – stronger than what other people give me credit for, than I think I give myself credit for. I now feel like I can take control of my life, and it has been so long since I felt this way.

I have learned about HIV and AIDS in a way that transcends academic lenses.  I had the opportunity to work with Mama Jeni, a truly inspiring woman. I worked with UNAIDS, and appreciated and acknowledged the impact they are making in society even though I was skeptical at first.  I was able to have dialogues with many young men and women about topics of transactional sex, sex work, self-esteem amongst youth and poverty. I feel privileged and glad that I am educated about this constantly in school, but to experience it firsthand is definitely a precious experience on its own.

I don’t like good byes. The more I think about it, I know why I don’t want to go back to Toronto aside from leaving behind Windhoek and my friends. Every day when I woke up in Windhoek, I knew I had something amazing waiting for me. I would walk in one day and would be told to go into informal settlements and assist in teaching English to HIV positive mothers, prepare a document for the United Nations, or gather activists and supporters in Windhoek and worldwide for the Forced Sterilisation Campaign. My 8am to 5pm work days felt short. There were so many things to do in such little time – and I enjoyed every second. I enjoyed coming home everyday to my roommates and telling them about every new project Kate and I were working on. Going to work everyday felt like being home away from home – my colleagues and I pushed each other to perform our best, bluntly critiqued each other when we weren’t doing our best and most of all, we were always there to support each other. Now going back to Toronto, I’m afraid I won’t find a positive and safe place to do the same work I was doing at NWHN. Windhoek, and NWHN, became a home for me. Thus, going back to Toronto, I feel dislocated, nervous that I won’t be able to find a niche where I can flourish in the same way.

Though I am not much of a believer of the adage that “things happen for a reason”, I came to feel somewhat differently on my twenty-two hour bus ride to Cape Town. As Namibia faded away into the horizon, I truly felt that everything had fallen in its rightful place.  Sometimes I feel like people say this to make themselves feel better, but to be honest – it feels so right to say it. I was brought to the Namibian Women’s Health Network for a reason and it has made me a kinder, more intelligent and humble person. When I went to Kenya at the age of eighteen, I left as a cynical person. I did not know if international development actually worked. I did not find it in me to volunteer abroad again. Now being twenty-one, and coming home from Namibia, I am more confident in what I want to achieve and what I am passionate about. I know what my passion is, I have a better idea of what makes me happy. NHWN has played an integral part in that. These past ten weeks have made an impact on my life more than words can ever describe. It has been a tremendous blessing to have worked with NWHN this summer, and I know from the depths of my being that I would go back to working with NWHN in a heartbeat. 

– Abinaya Balasubramaniam

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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Uncategorized