Education at SSI

20111213-101712.jpg

Photos of the SSI facilities, program components and youth can be viewed here.

From August to November 2011, my volunteer role at Stepping Stones International was to further develop its Education Program. I had the opportunity to work closely with the Education Coordinator and another international volunteer. Through teaching the youth and training the tutors, I was able to share many learning activities and teaching strategies. At the end of October, I co-author the following quarterly report which provides a detailed overview of the various components of the Education Program at Stepping Stones International.

Unfortunately, the day after the report was submitted, an important donor decided to not renew its yearly funding of the Education Program at SSI. Despite multiple funding proposals and meetings in the last month, management is still searching for education program funding for the 2012 year. Please consider donating. Currently, each tutor receives a stipend of P300/month which translates to $600CDN/year or $50CDN/month. The goal is to have a consistent base of 10 tutors volunteering throughout the year. This money covers the cost of transportation so that the tutors can come to the centre a few afternoons a week to work with the students. The tutors are an essential component of the Education Program. The training sessions allow them to discover new learning strategies so that they can better assist the students with their homework and studies. To learn more about donation options click here.

Education Program Quarterly Report
August – October 2011

This Quarter’s Highlights:
Stepping Stones International continues to offer a supportive learning environment for students from Standard 5 to Form 5.

Focus Areas:
– Daily study time now supported by 9 new tutors
– 63 youth accessed Individual learning assistance from tutors
– 16 youth had access to specialised Final Exam support for Standard 7, Form 3, Form 5 students
– Study Skill Sessions covering topics of exam preparation (e.g. understanding and summarizing information)
– 5 Tutor Training Sessions were held (e.g. Multiple Intelligences and Bloom’s Taxonomy)
– 48 SSI participants involved in individual reading support
– Introduces new strategy of creating peer reading coaches

Daily Study Time
Our afterschool study program schedule allows for a minimum of one hour of study time Mondays through Thursdays. During this time, sixty-three students have the opportunity to review school lessons, complete homework, study for upcoming evaluations, and read books from our library. The participants can choose to work independently or in small groups, inside the main hall or outside in the shade. For sixteen students who are going to write their final examinations (Standard 7, Form 3 and Form 5), preparations were made for them to review final examination papers with their tutors. They were given more individual study time and attention in preparation for these final exams. Nine tutors, three mentors, and three international volunteers are always available to assist students with their learning.

Study Skill Sessions
Study Skill Sessions are offered to form students on Tuesdays and standard students on Wednesdays in the Leadership Centre. Dividing the student population into primary and secondary groups allows us to differentiate our instruction and the learning activities to better meet the educational needs of the students. Since August 2011, the focus of these sessions has been on study techniques to help the students better prepare for exams. Topics have included creating study cards, making a web, multiplication patterns, planning and writing a composition, understanding and summarizing information, and exam tips. The goal is to expose participants to a variety of learning strategies and activities in order to improve students’ understanding of concepts, study techniques, self-confidence, and academic results. Examples of such learning strategies include group brainstorming, partner share, visualization, kinesthetic activities, and team games. Examples of learning activities include measuring three-dimensional objects, drawing pictures, organizing ideas and information on paper, exploring books, and creating posters.

Tutor Training
Building capacity amongst tutors is an important focus of the Education Program at Stepping Stones International. It is essential that our tutors know how to work with our participants according to best educational practices. We want the tutors to encourage effective learning strategies amongst our students so they can learn better during our after school program, at school, and at home and improve academically.
Firstly, tutors attend Study Skill Sessions to offer support with translation and student learning. This also exposes the tutors to new ways of learning and they are then encouraged to use these learning strategies and activities when working with students during study time. Secondly, Tutor Training Sessions are offered once a week on Thursdays. Here tutors learn about various learning theories such as;
• Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences
• Reading Comprehension Strategies
• Bloom’s Taxonomy (higher order thinking).
Tutors are then provided the opportunity to directly apply their understanding of these theories with our students during study time. They are encouraged and taught how to plan creative learning activities for small groups of participants. During training sessions, tutors are able to reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement and they are provided feedback and support.

Reading Program
Forty-eight students thus far have received individual reading support from tutors, mentors and international volunteers. To assess the student’s reading progress a log of their reading participation is kept in their education file. Some Study Skill Sessions and Tutor Training Sessions have focused on developing effective reading comprehension strategies. We are in the progress of developing a comprehensive reading program whereby more members of staff are trained as reading coaches. The goal of this initiative is to instil the culture of reading amongst our participants. Our library is also being fully utilised and organised. As more of our students improve their reading skills, they will see greater academic achievement at their schools as a result.

Members of Staff
There is a great need for experienced and qualified individuals to run the Education Program at Stepping Stones International. We currently have and continue to require the services of an Education Coordinator who has extensive experience in teaching and school curriculum policies. This individual is also responsible for the recruitment and management of the tutoring program. A teacher from Canada has been with us for three months bringing new and varied teaching and learning methods to our Education Program. This individual has planned and facilitated the Study Skill Sessions and the Tutor Training Sessions mentioned above. Teaching techniques have been shared with the Education Coordinator and another German Volunteer so that there is continuity in the teaching and learning program at Stepping Stones International.

Assessment
There are already signs of academic progress amongst our students. One Standard 7 student Masie, has become an expert at creating webs or mind maps from his textbook or school notes for use when studying. He has also helped a few other students use this study skill. Students are gradually building their knowledge of basic facts in math by using 12×12 multiplication tables independently. Several students are frequently approaching volunteers, mentors and tutors asking them to read with them. Another Standard 7 student Lesego, was very proud of herself for remembering to use the 5W+H (who, what, where, when, why and how) strategy when planning her composition during her exam. Stepping Stones International students are enjoying learning in new ways. Their self-confidence and attitude towards learning is improving every day.

Challenges
Despite our positive efforts within our Education Program, we still encounter several obstacles. One of the major challenges we face is having inadequate time with the youth due to the schedule changes at the schools. We would like to have more time with the participants at the centre in order to consistently meet their learning needs. The public national strike negatively impacted our Education Program. For instance, there is excessive pressure on our participants to make up extra lessons at their schools. The collection of progress reports from schools is difficult. It is often the case that the caregivers of students will not receive a copy of their progress report if school fees or textbooks are outstanding. Attempts have been made to directly collect copies of progress reports from school guidance counsellors, although this is often time consuming and hard to arrange. Even though we are in a routine of offering weekly Tutor Training Sessions on Thursdays, we still need to encourage tutors to attend the training sessions regularly and on time. Finally, our participants are still adjusting to these new teaching and learning styles being offered and encouraged at Stepping Stones International, in addition to their current ways of learning. It takes time for students to adjust to new ways of thinking.

Way forward
It is necessary to continue to focus our energy and resources in the area of education. Consistent tutor training is required in order to continue to build their teaching and learning skills when working with students. Study Skills Sessions need to continue to offer varied learning activities and topics so that all students’ learning styles are met and so that they are all engaged. Most importantly, those that facilitate the Tutor Training Sessions and the Study Skills Sessions need to have a background and experience in the education field in order to model effective teaching and learning techniques. These strategies will ensure that the Education Program at Stepping Stones International meets the individual learning needs of its participants, allowing them to learn and grow to their full academic potential.
For the remainder of the year, we will continue to develop our reading program. We plan to organize the books into reading levels so that our reading coaches and students can easily access a variety of texts and confidently work on improving reading fluency and comprehension. Our students will participate in a variety of experiential and interactive learning activities offered by tutors and international volunteers. We are confident that these methods will continue to instil a love of learning in our participants and prepare them for a new school year!

Looking Back at Public Transport

It took me eight weeks to finally feel comfortable traveling via public transport in Botswana on my own.

I am thankful for all the help and support I had in overcoming my fear:
– an important trial run during week#3 with three other Canadian female educators
– a door to door trial run, from Gabs to Mochudi one morning around week#5 with Mmoloki
– strategic suggestions from my prof
– several supportive conversations with Andy and the comfort of communicating via SMS when on route
– knowing I would soon have to take my mom with me to SSI via public transport, I had to know what I was doing!

Before leaving Canada, I was so excited about volunteering at SSI located in the village of Mochudi, but how was I going to get there from Gaborone? In emails I was assured that colleagues would be able to drive me sometimes and that public transport was not that bad. However, it was so hard to picture how this was going to work before arriving in Africa.

20111125-182655.jpg

So once we were living in Gaborone, and I was out to Mochudi back and forth multiple times with colleagues via car, and I had tried it out once with the other Canadians, I had concluded that it was that bad:
– the travel time was two hours one-way door to door which included a short walk to the combi stop, combi travel, a walk through the bus rank, a one-hour multiple stop bus trip, and then a short combi ride to the centre (not an efficient use of my time I concluded)
– in order to arrive home before dark, I would have to leave the centre at 1600, right in the middle of my Study Skill Sessions
– combi drivers can be careless and are often young and inexperienced, there are no seat belts, they remarkably hold 15 people and are almost always full, and the sliding door does not always close properly as the driver needs to pull the door shut with a string or use momentum to have the door slide close on its own (the whole combi thing is totally “sketch”)
– how was I going to communicate about payment, destination, and stopping without knowing Setswana?
– it was not clear where to catch a combi and which one to take
– I had yet to see one other caucasian person take public transport, but I knew many international volunteers who were already doing so on a regular basis
– the bus rank was a common place for pickpocketing to occur so you were advised by everyone to really watch your belongings
– it is not clear where to walk and where to go once you are at the bus rank
– it is a busy and noisy place: street venders are everywhere selling colorful candies, newspapers, brooms, toilet paper, shoes, sunglasses, fruit, airtime, you name it; Batswana walk at varying speeds and you feel as though they are all looking at you; taxi drivers offer you rides; random people approach you asking where you are headed, the names of Botswana towns are shouted as people try to fill their bus or combi; it is total sensation overload and very intimidating!
– some venders board the busses, offering all sorts of items for sale: candy, gum, gold earrings…
– there is no known schedule or system: combis leave when they are full and buses leave about every half hour, starting when was unclear

20111125-182916.jpg

But as time progressed, carpooling with colleagues wasn’t always an option as they would have meetings, work commitments, or school in other towns or countries. So after some time I started to realize that the day would soon come when I would have to take the leap and venture out on my own to Mochudi. I seeked support from colleagues and Andy in preparation which helped a lot. The Education Program at SSI was really starting to take off under my lead and I couldn’t simply not go to work because I was too chicken to take public transport. I have always thought of myself as a responsible and dependable member of a work team. I couldn’t let the students, tutors, other volunteers and staff down.

So out I ventured, an independent foreign traveler in the middle of Botswana! I quickly developed a strategic “survival” system:
– I walked quickly with determination: no gawking around, no stopping for anything
– I tried to look like I knew where I was going (my confused or nervous look was always hidden by my sunglasses)
– I was never dressed too nicely, as I brought fairly casual clothes, so I didn’t need to worry about looking too “rich”: many Batswana were better dressed than I
– I wore my purse in front of me and covered it with my arm
– I avoided bringing valuables with me in case I was pick pocketed or mugged (hence few pictures of these areas)
– when people asked me where I was going or offered me a ride, all I had to say was “Mochudi” and keep walking
– I always carried small bills and coins to help pay for combis (P3.50) and the bus (P10)
– I would SMS Andy once I was on the bus safely and once I had arrived at the SSI centre
– the volunteer I was mentoring to continue Study Skill Sessions once I left Botswana was gaining confidence and was able to lead the sessions on her own when needed.

20111125-182018.jpg

After a few times of traveling back and forth like this when needed, I came to realize that it actually wasn’t that bad:
– the people asking if I needed a taxi were simply trying to help and get business
– those yelling the name of a village, over and over, were simply communicating to everyone where their bus was headed
– people couldn’t help but look at me, I was the only foreigner in sight
– people were generally friendly and welcoming, and would help with directions etc… if I asked
– if you didn’t look interested in purchasing items from the street venders or the bus venders they didn’t ask you anymore, and they were simply trying to earn some money to feed their families that day
– there actually was a system to it all: the flow of pedestrian traffic became clear and the bus departure times were fairly consistent
– I learned to get my change ready quickly in order to pay like a local Motswana, through the passenger side window once you got off the combi as others loaded in
– I learned the best places to sit to avoid passenger traffic and the heat of the sun
– sometimes I would enjoy an cold appletiser or grapetiser on the bus (sparkling juice)
– I actually managed to finish a book (a rarity for me!): Race Against Time by Stephen Lewis about “searching for hope in Aids-ravaged Africa.”

During my last week, I took public transport seven times! I would have found this frustrating a month ago, as it is very time consuming and cuts into my productivity at SSI. But with it being my final week in Africa, I actually found this very fitting and enjoyable. What a better way to end the trip than mingling amongst locals, viewing the scenery and village life from the window, and experiencing the hustle and bustle of the bus rank. What a learning experience! I am definitely going to miss Botswana!

A Harsh Welcome

Today was my first day out and about on my own in Ottawa, since returning from Botswana. North American society was very unkind.

Upon returning to my silver Golf after an eye appointment, I noticed a piece of paper flapping in the chilly breeze. Yes, it was a parking ticket. Apparently, I have forgotten how to carefully read road signs! I thought I had been so careful to choose an appropriate parking spot, but a green P sign is only good if you obey the small black arrows which accompany it. I don’t understand why the spot was not for parking, it was perfect and had my name on it! I wanted to cry, but didn’t. Before I fork over the $50 (early payment rate), I am going to kindly write the City of Ottawa, explaining that I have just recently returned from Botswana, and that they money would be better spent as a donation to SSI’s Education Program, which has recently lost all of its funding (to be discussed in a later post). Do you think they will go for it?

Unfortunately, my eye appointment ran late and I couldn’t make it for a noon yoga class (I wouldn’t have been able to relax anyways after the ticket). So off I went to run errands. As everything was going so smoothly, I decided to venture out on the 417 Highway. I must say that after not sitting behind the wheel for 4 months my technical driving skills were quite good; I only stalled the car twice all day (not on the highway). This major road splits into two sections and the signage is awful on a good day. I did not want to go to Montreal so I veered left, which ended up leading me to the northeastern suburb of Orleans. After gathering myself in a shopping centre parking lot and checking Google Maps on my iphone yet again, I decided to try once more.

I finally managed to arrive at my destination: Costco. Yes, the giant store where you pay a membership fee so that you can purchase large quantities of food and stuff. After my African experience, I couldn’t believe I was already here. I felt ill inside. But like many people, I was driven by the desire to save money (so that I can one day go back to Africa). To ease my conflicting conscience, I bought only health food (some organic), no stuff, I spent only $113 and I resisted all temptation to eat samples (free food!).

And so that was my day, while bundled up in my winter coat, tuque, scarf and mittens after the 5cm of snow that fell yesterday. I miss Botswana! I think all this is a sign I should go back. I knew it would be difficult returning home and that some of my perspectives have changed, but I did not anticipate having to reintegrate myself into society after such a short time. I carry a guarded look and feel as I walk/drive the streets, just like I did when first arriving in Gaborone. I am happy to see friends and feel “normal” around them, but I am not ready to run into acquaintances, former students or parents. I may just have to stay in hiding for a while…. But I know it will get easier.

I am extremely grateful that friends and family have made us feel welcome! Thank you for the phone conversations, friendly visits with cookies, home-cooked dinner, blog comments, emails, Pacific smoked salmon, flowers, chocolates, and welcome banner.

Just One Example…

My colleague and friend M* handed in his essay on Climate Change a couple months ago now. Unfortunately, he would have received a phone call by now if he was the winner of the essay prize. Although, it is quite possible that the review process is behind schedule so you never know. I have been meaning to post this follow-up story for some time.

The essay was due on a Wednesday and he went to Gaborone that morning from Mochudi to submit his work. The following Monday, there was drama. I received a text from M* late in the morning saying something along the lines of “We entered the wrong category. My essay has been pulled from the competition. It is alright.” Ummm “No, it is not alright!” I thought. I was having trouble believing that we had responded to the wrong set of questions regarding climate change. But he then phoned to further explain. The Department of Housing had contacted him to tell him that his cover page should say Category 3 (for the general public) and not Category 2 (for in-school-youth, as he is an out-of-school youth). M* was not feeling well and at home in Mochudi. He was asking if I could please go to Gabs for me by 1500 to change the category number. I asked M* if he could simply call the man back at the Department of Housing, explain that he was home sick in Mochudi, and ask that the man change the number from a 3 to a 2 on the cover page for him. M* said that he had already tired that and that the man was insisting that he come to Gabs today. So I simply said I would do my best to help him out and the conversation was left at that.

I decided to phone the man at the Department of Housing. Perhaps an adult who doesn’t speak Setswana could convince him to help us out. I was wrong. He was unable to change the category number for us. And I even asked if I could come to the office in Gabs myself instead of M* as he was sick. This was also not an option. The man was insisting that M* himself come to the office by 1500, the deadline for him to send the essays off. In disbelief and confused as to what to do next, I explained the situation to an experienced colleague at SSI and she simply said; “Amanda, don’t try to make sense of it, you just need to go to Gabs now and see what you can do in person.”

Luckily, there was another volunteer that could drive me to the city. So after printing off a new cover page with Category 3 on it and reprinting the essay, off we went, desperately trying to make it to the housing office at Main Mall by 1500. It was a bit of a slow and hot drive, but once in town we actually managed to find parking easily. It took some asking around to find the correct office building of course but we did find it. After signing in at the lobby with security, we opted to run up the stairs to the forth floor instead of waiting for the elevator. This was a mistake. We had to sign in at every floor with a new security guard: full name, phone number, passport number, visiting office, time in, signature (this would not have been necessary, had we taken the elevator!). We finally made it to the fourth floor, a little after 1500, and found the office of the gentlemen I needed to speak to. I confidently offered him a new copy of M*’s essay, with the correct cover page and all, explaining again that student was sick and unable to travel in from Mochudi today. In a quick casual reply, he said that the essays were already sent off and that he had decided to change the category number with a pen after all. I could only smile and politely thank the gentlemen. And down we walked the four flights of stairs. Curiously, we did not need to sign out with every security guard.

So it was a happy ending! And I sent M* an SMS to update him that his essay had indeed been sent off on time with the correct category number. But SERIOUSLY, what a process! This is just one example of how things happen in Africa.

I learned a lot working with M* on the essay and we became friends. I also learned more about Botswana society. It is unfortunate that M* probably did not win the essay contest. But all was not lost. Just this week I received an SMS from him explaining that his English exam went very well. The essay topic was climate change and he wrote four pages!

Sounds of Botswana

– barking dogs at any hour of the night
– birds chirping in the morning (one to a tune close to the Cha Cha)
– combi horns honking (“move”, “need a ride?”, “combi leaving”, “combi stopping” and “combi has room for passengers”)
– random cat fights
– car alarms going off endlessly
– sweeping, straw or twig hand-held brooms brushing against a dirt yard or sidewalk
– power ballads of Celine Dion and others blaring out of car windows

I will miss them all!
We are back in Ottawa and it is extremely quiet!

Another Running Injury

20111116-103858.jpg

I’m ok. This fall was not a superwoman dive like last time in Antigonish over the holidays. It was a clutsy but quick fall as I was shoulder checking for traffic. But I fell on the sidewalk, not the road. I got up quickly and kept running. No tears. I think Africa has toughened me up. Dr. Andy carefully bandaged the wound – finally a use for one of the four first aid kits we brought.
We are planning to participate in a 13km fun run Saturday morning. It is a fundraising event for the Botswana Baylor Adolescent Centre. I say participate because Andy is going to run and I am going to locomote as quickly as I can by running and walking to the finish line. A nice way to mingle with the Gaborone community on our last day in Botswana! Should be fun, and hot!

Namibia

20111114-220059.jpg

For more photos and a great chronological description, please visit Andy’s website (scroll upwards after clicking the link) where he has organized our holiday into five segments.

For our last week of holidays during our stay in Africa, Andy and I decided to explore central Namibia. We flew into Windhoek last Saturday and stayed one night. In the morning we took a shuttle bus to Swakopmund and stayed five nights. From there we went to Usakos for two days and one night, prior to returning to Windhoek for our last night. Before I go on to describe our vacation, I feel it is important to share a little bit of what we learned about Namibia.

In our Lonely Planet Botswana & Namibia Tour book (2010), we read that the tourist industry is primarily controlled by the Namibian caucasian population, who only account for 6% of the total population.
As such, while we definitely learned a lot about Namibian geography and enjoyed various activities, our cultural experience was quite limited. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of opportunity to interact with people of the Owambo tribe for instance, who comprise 50% of the population.

Some other interesting facts about Namibia from the same tour book:
– one of the lowest population densities in Africa
– 85% literacy rate
– high HIV/Aids stigma and approximately 15% of the population is infected
– 5% of the population controls three-fourths of the economy and 55% of the population lives on $2USD per day (according to a 2005 UN Human Development Report)
– as such, a large economic gap exists between the rich and the poor; unfortunately there are huge inequalities between population groups

Our travel efforts:
– we stayed in eco-friendly accommodation
– we appreciated when the accommodation management hires local Namibians
– we walked when and where we could to reduce our carbon footprint
– we ate at local run restaurants as opposed to large food chains
– we participated in low environmental impact activities: hiking, kayaking, desert tour
– we booked with responsible and environmentally conscious tour companies
– we purchased local products to support the community’s economy

The Cities
Windhoek is the capital city and seems to be large and somewhat modern. We did not spend a lot of time here at all. There are more sky-rises than in Gaborone. We read that the architecture of the older buildings demonstrate the influence of German colonization. The city streets seemed very quiet compared to the hustle and bustle of Gaborone.

The coastal town of Swakopmund, also colonized by Germany, is beautiful, quiet, and quaint.
The streets are lined with sand and many of them with palm trees. This offers an interesting contrast with the straight lined modern buildings of the town. At any given intersection, as you look to the West, you see the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the street, and as you look South, you see golden sand dunes.

We spent our first afternoon exploring Swakopmund, although most of the shops were closed as it was Sunday, and the waterfront. When walking out to the jetty and along the beach it was extremely windy and slightly chilly.

It is safe to walk around town at night. We realized that this was the first time in 3.5 months that we had traveled from one place to another after sunset by foot. This freedom gave us the opportunity to scope out various restaurants for dinner. Seafood places were easy to come by, however other varieties of restaurants were more limited.

Walvis Bay is more of an industrial town, compared to Swakopmund, which is geared more towards tourists. The outer edge of town is where many residents live in metal or cement shacks. We could see many children dressed in school uniform heading off to school by foot and workers walking to work, many of them dressed in navy blue long pants and sleeved shirts. Some may be working at construction sites, building new homes closer to the waterfront, or others may work in the salt mine. Walvis Bay is home to one of the largest evaporating salt mines in the world, however it is still owned by South African and not Namibia.

Getting Around
The drive from Windhoek to Swakopmund was very scenic. Small and spread out bush trees fill the landscape in front of large distant hills for much of the way. As we approached Swakopmund the terrain became paler with sand and vegetation is scarce. Few habitants live between these two towns.

We began to understand the vastness of the sand dunes as we drove down to Walvis Bay from Swakopmund. It was a beautiful drive: sand dunes on our left and Atlantic Ocean on our right. Our guide Craig pointed out part of Dune 7, the seventh largest dune in the world in terms of area.

The Desert
During one of our early days in Swakopmund, we decided to have a closer look at the nearby sand dunes. We walked past horse stables before reaching a large river bed. After crossing over, we were walking amongst beautiful sand dunes. In the wind, it was neat to see the ripple patterns left as the top layer of sand shifts. I was surprised at how colourful the vegetation was with greens and purples, albeit it was very brittle with dryness.

We gained an even greater appreciation for the sand dunes after going on a Living Dessert Adventure Tour. We saw a white-lady spider, a small side-ways moving snake, a gecko, two different types of lizards and a chameleon. The guide was very good at explaining the elements of the desert ecosystem and the life cycle within it. We also learned about the formation of sand dunes in terms of shape and mineral composition. He stressed the importance of protecting Nambia’s fragile deserts. Unfortunately, those who ride quad bikes and 4×4 vehicles in the deserts do not always stay on the approved trail, damaging vegetation and animals species. What is also disturbing is that the tracks they leave behind can remain on the desert floor forever, as much of the rock is too heavy to be displaced by wind. In the last five years, our guide Chris brought his concerns to the international community, discouraging tourists from visiting the country. This forced the Namibian Government to create laws around desert use and as of April 2011 the entire west coast of the country is considered a national park.

The morning of our final tour, we got to explore part of the Namib-Naukluft Park in a 4X4 Landrover and by foot. We saw numerous jackals and some seals. At first it was rather cloudy, but just as we began our desert walk the sun came out. We really enjoyed walking in the sand, climbing up various dunes and strolling along the ridges. The sand felt very hot on our bare feet at times. We finally had the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by golden sand dunes. These are some of the tallest coastal sand dunes in the world. We climbed the tallest peak in sight and sat on its summit overlooking the coast with the nice ocean breeze cooling us off.

The Coast
At the beginning of our kayak tour in Walvis Bay, we quite enjoyed the drive through the salt mine and out on the sand spit, which now stretches three to four kilometers past the former end point where the lighthouse was placed. Winds continue to transport sand from the dunes out onto the spit, extending it gradually. We spotted flamingos, seagulls, pelicans, jackals, and numerous seal colonies. From our tandem kayak on the water, we got to see the seal colonies up close and witness the male bulls fighting each other for the female. We also saw dolphins jump and swim along side various other boats. The best part was interacting with the young seals in the water. We were amazed by their personality as they did acrobatic jumps all around our kayak, popped their heads up to look directly at us, and came up to our paddles to gnaw on them.

The afternoon of our final tour, we drove further south along the shore (now that the tide was out) to Sandwich Harbour. Here we walked along the edge of the lagoon and up various sand dunes until reaching another beautiful look out point. From up high we could really see the fresh water lagoon (the only coastal fresh water in Namibia) and where it feeds into the ocean. We then descended the steep side of the tall dune, which felt like walking down scree in the mountains, crossed over the lagoon, and walked along the beach barefoot before heading back to the vehicle for the long drive back to Swakopmund.

The Mountains
We spent two half days hiking in the Erongo Mountains. Just outside of the small town of Usakos lies the Ameib Ranch, a privately owned game farm. Inside this land there are numerous hiking trails around the mountains. We first explored Philipp’s cave, a national monument with famous rock paintings. From there we followed a trail to an area full of enormous rounded boulders called Bull’s Party. We then climbed past boulders and through caves and gorges to the plateau behind Elephant Head (Klettersteig “Elefantenkopf”) at a height of 1200m. It was quite amazing to see ancient rock paintings for the first time, and then walk in a valley amongst gigantic oddly placed boulders, that must have fallen many many years ago off the mountain tops and are now smooth from wind and rain. We were in complete awe of our surroundings all afternoon.

Nambia was a great country to visit during our final holiday in Africa. The owners of Mieke’s Guesthouse in Swakopmund were especially helpful in assisting us with our travel plans as we were unable to rent a car after forgetting our licenses in Botswana. We really appreciated their help organizing tours and transfers for us so that we could did get a sense of Namibia’s natural beauty.

Victoria Falls

20111114-213823.jpg

After a very long and inefficient board crossing experience we were in Zimbabwe. Shortly upon arriving to the town of Victoria Falls, the atmosphere felt different than Botswana. Firstly, the town was established for tourism, so there are many cafés, restaurants, shops, lodges and activity booking offices. Street vendors are constantly asking you if you would like to buy their stone carved hippopotamuses. But overall, people are very welcoming and friendly.

We stayed at the Victora Falls Rest Camp. There was a nice pool area and the office was very helpful in booking our activities and transfers. The self-catering cottage we stayed in was clean and simple, but a little run down.

During a full moon, the park opens its doors to visitors three nights every month so that they can see the lunar rainbow created from the falls. We planned our trip in such a way so that we would be able to experience this natural phenomenon. As part of a large guided group we were able to walk around the park grounds and view the falls across the gorge (falling from the Zambia side) from various lookout points. When the water level is low as it is now, there is less mist generated from the falls, which creates a weaker rainbow from the moonlight. So unfortunately, it was not easy to see the rainbow, but it was still beautiful to see the falls at night.

The following morning, we entered the park again to walk around the grounds and view one of the seven wonders of the world in daylight. Victoria Falls is quite extensive as it is comprised of multiple falls along a long cliff edge and is the widest waterfall in the world. Barriers along the edges were created naturally from thorny branches for visitor safety. We appreciated this african characteristic as opposed to our metal barriers and caution signs. There was even a part where a sign warned that there were no barriers, so visitors were able to walk right out the cliff edge and look down into the gorge.

To celebrate my mother’s birthday we went to the Victoria Falls Hotel for high tea. The gardens were beautifully landscaped and we had a terrific view of Livingstone Bridge. We really enjoyed our afternoon over tea, fancy sandwiches, scones and assorted desserts.

The town of Victoria Falls is a hotspot for adventure activities relating to the falls. Amongst all the options (zip lining, bungee jumping etc.) Andy and I chose white water rafting down the Zambezi river. At first I was not very nervous, as we had been rafting together in Calgary and Ottawa before. But when the safety talk beforehand reviewed many maneuvers involving what to do when you fall out of the boat I became worried. Then as we descended the gorge on foot down a long set of steep stairs my nerves were increasing. On two occasions I found myself in the water, but every time Andy was there helping me stay calm. In the end, I survived all 18 rapids (the group rafted through rapids 1 to 19, walking around #9 as it was a class 6 rapid). I must say that the scenery was stunning, it was a beautiful sunny day, and the people in our boat were very friendly. After the last rapid, we hiked our way up the side of the gorge and found a delicious warm lunch waiting for us. It was an adventure on the Zambezi river that I will never forget.

During the day, my mother went on one last game drive to a private reserve and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at one of the fancy hotels which included lunch and shopping. I was very proud of my mom throughout the whole trip and she adapted very well to the new culture and climate and really enjoyed all the activities.

We ate our final dinner at a restaurant called the Boma. Upon entering we were greeted by friendly staff who painted our cheek with dots and clothed us in traditional african fabric. Guests were invited to help themselves to the buffet of soup, salad, a variety of meat and desserts. Entertainment consisted of traditional dancing and singing, followed by an interactive drumming session with all the visitors. It was a lovely cultural evening and a perfect way to end our African vacation.

Thanks to my mom for visiting us in Botswana and thanks to my dad and sister being so supportive of our travels! It was a wonderful trip!

Please visit Andy’s website for pictures, videos and his terrific write up.

Kasane and Chobe National Park

20111023-215834.jpg

The town of Kasane is a getaway to Chobe National Park. One side of the street, the riverfront side, is lined with various shops, fancy lodges and some local craft tables. On the opposite side of the street, some stores and services for tourists can be found, but also traditional homes of clay and brick, where in the yard children play in buckets of water to keep cool and laundry dries along the line in the wind.

The Batswana here definitely welcome tourists as we help generate employment for them. Many of them work at the lodges or offer activities for the visitors. Again they seem pleased to share their country with others and are happy that visitors are interested in learning about Botswana and Africa. To give back to the community in a little way, we bought a soccer ball for the village children to play with. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to interact with them for very long as they are discouraged from speaking to “white people”; their elders may think they are asking for money.

We stayed at The Old House. This is a casual and simple family-run place with nine well decorated rooms, a restaurant, a small pool and a lovely view to the river. We were surprised and interested to learn that the caucasian owner of the bed and breakfast grew up in Botswana and was fluent in Sestwana. It was really neat to see him conversing with other workers in Setswana.

One morning we went on a game drive into Chobe National Park. We were excited to have my mom experience her first driving safari. The scenery of the park has a unique character. Chobe is known for its high elephant population and as such, most trees in the area that we were in had been chewed and rubbed to death. The land looked barren and provided a strong contrast to the large blue river and greenery surrounding it. In terms of wildlife, we were quite fortunate in our sights. After vehicles had there turn to look, we also got to witness a leopard hiding in a bush gnawing away at a fresh kill of impala. We were able to pull up very close to him as he did not seem bothered by the presence of vehicles. For Andy and I, this meant that we has now seen all of the big 5 (the most dangerous animals: buffalo, black rhino, lion, elephant, and leopard). We then went on to see a herd of elephants of varying sizes walking in a straight line through the bush. The young ones were seen dispersed amongst the older large elephants for protection from lions. We then had a rare sighting of an eland, the largest antelope. We also saw mongoose, giraffe from afar, waterbucks, impala, and sable. We were all pleased with our successful safari experience.

Then in the late afternoon, we went on a boat cruise along the Chobe river. For all of us, this was our first river safari experience. We saw crocodile in the water and up close on land. Along the banks we saw baboon, lizards, impala, mongoose, and numerous birds. In the water, we also saw many hippopotamus. An island belonging to Botswana as part of the Chobe National Park sits in the middle of the river. Many animals cross the river to graze on the island: buffalo, elephants, crocodile and hippopotamus. We all really enjoyed seeing the animals from the water and the boat cruise ended with a terrific view of the sunset.

Please see Andy’s post, a short video, and photos as well.

The Okavango Delta

20111018-230720.jpg

This was the first part of our African adventure with my wonderful mother. Andy and I were excited to share some of our limited Botswana experience and understanding with her, and we were also thrilled to explore Northern Botswana together.

After flying from Gaborone to Maun on an AirBotswana fight, we took a very small 20 minute charter plane into the inner delta. From above you could see a network of water channels, lush vegetation, and a couple of elephants. A fence marked one boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve. This area is one of the untouched natural environments in Northern Botswana only accessible by air.

The Accommodation:
We stayed at a “camp” called Oddballs. Although expensive, it is the more casual and relaxed lodge of a serious of three. We stayed in what is known as a luxury tent. It is equipped with two very comfortable twin beds, white linens, and accompanying bucket shower and flush toilet. Solar power provides hot water.

Many common areas are available overlooking water trails which lead to various islands. There was a look out deck high above the main lounge as well as a lower deck. There were also a couple of shaded sitting areas which provided relief from the hot midday sun.

The Meals:
There was a good mix of African and North American food. Breakfasts consisted of fruit, cereal and yogurt followed by a traditional bush breakfast: eggs, bacon (could be a little crispier), sausage, baked beans and toast (the only item missing was a fried tomato). For lunch we had salad and homemade bread with spaghetti bolognese one day and vegetable quiche the next. For dinners they served soup to start which was delicious. The first night we had ox tail with pap (maize meal) and the second night chicken, potatoes and veggies, both followed by a tasty dessert.

The Activities:
In the early mornings and late afternoons we took a mokoro to visit neighbouring islands. One or two people sit on plastic mobile seats inside the wooden boat while a poler pushes and steers the boat along. At times the poler would have to really shuffle the mokoro through thick reeds and mud as the water level was fairly low. The view from the mokoro is a very unique experience as you are siting at pratically water level and can look down in the water, to the sides at the reeds and the horizon, and then up into passing trees and off into the distance. It is a very calm and peaceful experience. We saw many birds, a frog, and at one point we stood up to watch a hippopotamus. Once we reached land we would do a nature walk around the selected island in a loop following the trails created by animals. We were able to see zebra, impala, warthog, red litchi, and kudu up close. Again we saw several different species of birds. We also spotted elephant and baboons off in the distance.

When the water level decreases even more in another month the islands will become one land mass above water. When the water level is high these same islands become submerged. The water level of the delta depends on the rains in Angola. It takes six months for this water to run down the mountains in Angola and flood the delta. So when it is rainy season in Botswana this rain fall is actually not what is filling the delta.

After returning from our first mokoro trip we were very excited to see that an elephant had decided to visit the camp. There he was, happily eating away at the leaves off trees in between some of the tents. We were happy to watch him in amazement with another couple. But then a large group of tourists returned from their afternoon activity. There were quick to fill the viewing area with their giant zoom lenses. We decided to go to the upper viewing desk to watch the sunset and the elephant drama. From above we were able to witness when the elephant decided to the crowd below. This is when my mother and I decided it was time to go shower. However upon returning to the main lodge afterwards, we accidentally surprised the elephant. Darkness had fallen over the camp but our path was lit up with torches. We had not seen the elephant as there was not a group of photographers surrounding it. The animal charged at us as we startled it. We heard it moving before we could see it. Luckily we moved out of the way towards bushes and it did not come towards us again. We were a little shaken and asked to be escorted back to our tents at bedtime.

Our Guides:
K** has been a poler in the inner delta for 8 years. He grew up in the neighboring village, and so it was easier for him to get his guiding license than a Motswana born in the city. He trained at the Wilderness Centre in Maun. L** has been poling for two years. He is also very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the Delta, however he is much quieter than K**. He speaks English well but does not seem as confident in his language skills. Polling itself is a physically demanding job, but speaking in your second language to tourists all day must be mentally exhausting. You can tell that they both enjoy educating others about the natural beauty of their homeland.

Mokoros are made from various hundred year old tress, one of them being the ebony tree. From one tree, one mokoro is made and it takes one and half months to complete the handcrafted project. A mokoro will last approximately four years until the wood will become too dry and will split. The guides at this camp are required to provide their own mokoro. K** made his first mokoro, and purchased his second one, which he is now using for P600 ($100 Canadian). The government is now encouraging the use of fiber glass mokoros in order to protect the environment.

The Hostess:
P** is the hostess at camp. She organizes all the guided activities and guest check-ins and check-outs. She also helps the kitchen staff to ensure meals run smoothly. She handles all the guest inquiries: drink orders, charging batteries, timing of activities etc. P** is very patient with the varying manners, expectations and cultural differences amongst the guests. Her work day is long. She is up at 6 am or earlier to help guest prepare for the morning mokoro trip and then she stays awake until the last guest has gone to bed. After working 42 days straight, she has a week off (this is the same for guides). This is when she travels by plan (the only way to get in and out of the inner delta) to visit her five children aged 4 to 18 who are being cared for by her mother. It is not uncommon for Batswana to work long days and weeks, have larger families, have an elder or other relative look after their children while they earn money for food and other basic necessities.

The Staff:
We met a lot of genuinely kind and hardworking individuals at the lodge. It was apparent that they were trained and experienced in working in the service industry catering to a variety of tourists. Even the service during meal time was different from what we had experienced in other places in Botswana. On example is that they would say “you’re welcome” after being thanked. Batswana culture shows appreciation in different ways, but they do not out right say “thank you” or “you’re welcome” like we do. Many of them live in the village near by. Hunting is no longer allowed in the Okavango Delta, so they need to go to Maun to buy food. The cost of food is high here as it is imported from other parts of Botswana or other countries. Traditional homes in the village are made of clay from termite mounds and they use pop cans inside the walls for structure and insulation. They make sure the cans are well sealed so that mosquitos can not breed there. Thatch is used for roves: long strong staw-like grass is thickly layered.

As a foreign tourist, it was hard to accept the dichotomy between our lives at the same lodge. Conversations continue between us around themes of tourism, living conditions, social challenges, environment, fair-trade, health care, education, developing nations, and living abroad. All I can say for now is that we are, and will forever be, very appreciative that these Batswana welcomed us into their natural environment. We are thankful for their hard work and skills that allowed us to continue to learn about Botswana.

The photos Andy took will tell the story better.
And see Andy’s post about our experience as well.