Development at the end of the road

As the bottom of our vehicle scraped the rutted, dusty path, I found myself hoping it had protective metal plates on the undercarriage. I was in Namibia to see MCC-financed activities in education, tourism and agriculture development, now in their third year of implementation. We were on our way to Nghishongwa, a remote community in the Ohangwena region of northern Namibia that is participating in the community based rangeland and livestock management (CBRLM) activity of the Agriculture Project, part of MCC’s $304 million compact.

The countryside here is wild and arid. The track we traveled went through a forest of scrubby acacia trees. In contrast to the thick grasslands we had passed in the fenced freehold areas to the south, this communal land looked barren, stripped of almost all vegetation except for the acacia; I wondered how cattle could survive at all. And that’s the point, as Dr. Helmke Sartorius von Bach, a Namibian of German descent whose family has farmed the Namibian veld for three generations and who serves as the MCA-Namibia Director for Agriculture, reminded me. “The communal lands are overgrazed and exhausted. We are working with communities to manage communal grazing areas and to improve animal husbandry so that families can shift from traditional methods to livestock management practices that will increase income and sustainability. There is great potential here but it needs to be managed,” he explained.

After nearly an hour making our way, we emerged into a broad clearing. At one end, there was a collection of mud and wattle huts with thatch roofs. Where, I wondered, did they find thatch in this barren landscape? To the side was a traditional cattle enclosure and not far away, a hand-dug watering hole. Sitting under a tall Marula tree was the chairman of the community association and some members and neighbors. The chairman’s lean frame, wrinkled face and gray head gave him the look of a traditional farmer. Like many Owambo elders, he wore a red and white striped shirt. Although I didn’t ask him, I would guess he did not have the opportunity to go to school, due to the lack of schools in rural parts of Namibia during the apartheid era. His deputy was perhaps 20 years old and held the association’s grazing area management book and was keen to answer my questions about life in the community: 

“How far do you have to take the cattle to find grazing?” I asked. “At least two hours in each direction, but with the project’s help we are combining our herds with our neighbors so we can protect some areas,” he replied.

“Is there a general store that sells basic supplies like sugar, flour, tea, and agriculture supplies?” “No,” he said. “The closest store is about 24 kilometers away, down the path that brought you here. That is where the clinic is, too.” With no public transportation and no sign that any of the community members had a vehicle, I could picture community members using a wheelbarrow to carry a sick person down that rutted path to the clinic.

“What about a school?” “Oh, yes,” he said. “It’s not far from here. It goes to grade 6. After that you have to go to the town.” I was impressed by the earnestness of this young man and by the fact that this well-spoken, sincere young person had chosen to stay in this remote community. Curious about him, I asked, “Did you go to high school?” “Yes,” he replied proudly; then he hesitated and looked down at the ground, “I only finished grade 10.” 

“Your community is fortunate that you have decided to stay and help them improve their farming. Tell me about what you are doing here.” I felt a deep sense of respect and appreciation for this young man’s contribution to his community. On the drive back to the main road I thought about how often in the development community we talk about the importance of education and building capacity and that what we are talking about are people like this young man who bring new skills and ideas to their communities.

During my trip to Namibia, I was fortunate to meet with a cross section of civil society and government leaders. The ministers of education and agriculture and the deputy director of Etosha National Park were impressive, articulate leaders, as were the heads of local NGOs that work on MCC-financed activities. All are just the type of committed counterparts MCC looks for in its partner countries. And while I gained a lot from the high level meetings, it was the sincerity and determination I saw on my visit with the members of the Nghishongwa community that reminded me why U.S. assistance in poor communities so far away really matters.

As we bumped back down the dirt path, I felt a sense of hope that MCC’s investment in community based livestock management will result in a better life in this distant community and for the association chairman’s kids and grandkids to have opportunities that he didn’t.