Sunday, June 16, 2013

Namibia Keynote, workshop, debate, township

Day 1 – Hello Africa
Missed SA Airways flight, so rerouted through Frankfurt with direct Air Namibia flight to Windhoek. Last here in 2007 for a wonderful holiday camping in the desert, then to the waterholes at Etosha, climbing dunes in the Namib and down the Skeleton coast. This time, was for a keynote, workshop and participant in The Big Debate ate the E-learning Africa Conference.
Met airside at Windhoek and taken through the Diplomatic Channel where a driver was waiting – that’s what I call being met in style. Then off down that long road through scrubland that I remember from my last trip, past the same baboons. After a kip in the hotel I went to a reception where I met my fellow speakers and had a few Windhoek beers.
Day 2 – Keynote & workshop
Gave keynote on mobile learning. Written up in full on PlanB Learning, so won’t repeat. Similarly with workshop on mobile devices and literacy.
Day 3 – The Big Debate
This was a real shindig. A fight to the death on sustainability v innovation. Unusually I was on the side of sustainability. It was a riot – funny, loud and a huge amount of audience participation. We won, but Harold, the chair, for some reason went for a recount and people were so confused, we lost. That’s Africa, someone said!
Day 4 – Katatura Township
Taken out to Katatura Township on the edge of town to visit a school, and amazingly find an empty Sugata Mitra ‘hole-in-the-wall project that was derided by the staff at the school as a waste of time. It was proof, here in Africa, of what I had talked about in The Big Debate, where I had shown evidence that these projects were a waste of time and money. Empty shutters are all that remain, exactly what other else researchers have found elsewhere in India. The dangers of TED-driven ‘feelgood’ projects.
Above the entrance, however, was a more worrying structure. A huge concrete walkway stretched across the site, sued in apartheid days to shoot people who wanted to leave the compound at night. Namibia only gained independence in the early 1990s and the current politicians fought their S African neighbours in a bloody war. I happened to meet someone I knew from S Africa who fought in this very area, bitter about how he was brainwashed by the S African government and given no choice but to fight. It’s a testament to him that he came out with me to the township.

Inside the school I meet some kids, feisty, fashionable girls keen to ask about my wife and kids. They posed for the camera like professionals and were as knowledgeable as any western kid about Facebook and whatsapp. I showed them some photos of snow, as that’s one thing they had never seen. They were brilliant. What Africa does not lack is talented youth. The staff explained that attendance is a real problem, as the kids live so far from the school, so one member of staff, a keen cyclist started a cycling club and the school now provides bikes free of charge. . They had no problems with theft as the community protect what’s good for them. This is the sort of innovation that counts, practical people providing practical solutions.
The township is a vast area that starts with small houses, then turns into tin-shacks made of shiny new corrugated metal. Here people live on the streets, a vibrant self-sustaining community that is visible proof of Monica’s talk from the World Bank about urbanisation being the primary driver for social mobility in Africa. At junctions there are shops from mobile repairs, hairdressers and everything else one can think of. Football games being played in huge dusty patches of ground – football is a religion here, with four local teams. The locals tap into the electricity, share toilets and get on with the business of feeding their families.
We went for an Indian meal and they dropped me back at the hotel where I went straight off for an altogether different experience, dinner at River Crossing. 
On the way out I witnessed an interesting conversation in the car about who one would choose to be colonialists, if one had no choice. There was universal agreement that the French were the worst, whether the Belgians, Germans (Namibia) or British were that much better, who knows. We ‘turned right at the first baboon’ and headed up a dirt track to a lovely lodge atop a hill with views of a fantastic, blood-red, African sunset. Then the starts came out, unfamiliar sights like the Southern Cross but a more familiar huge swathe that is the Milky Way. This final dinner was wonderful. Tales of living in Zanzibar on the beach where the locals buy and internet access codes from staff at the nearby hotel, the fact that Swahili has ten words for farts. Anyone who has lived in Africa for any length of time, seems to have a pocketful of these wonderful tales. Interestingly, he was gay, and thought that Africans were incredibly relaxed about the issue. Next year’s conference is in Uganda….
Day 5 – Pilots, airport and home
At breakfast on the terrace I sat next to the Scottish pilot who was out there doing training for Air Namibia. His French colleague told tales of flying into Angola during the war, of handfuls of diamonds being exchanged. He also told of his problems in Saudi Arabia, when he used to fly the Hadj. Pilgrims would bring up to 20 litres of ‘Holy Water’ on board adding dangerously to the weight. He had to negotiate with the Imam to get it poured out on to the runway.
Still bumped into people at the airport eager to talk about the future, exchanging cards. Look forward to next year in Kampala, Uganda.


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