RUNDU. This week I interrupted my regularly scheduled programming to steal a few final photos with the projects we’ve been helping. Namibia is getting richer, foreign aid is winding down. My employers used to work on strengthening a few dozen Namibian partners under USAID, then six, then three, then as of a few months ago - none. If I wanted more images of what we’d been up to, it was now or never. Granted, put a camera in a white kid’s hands here, and you’re liable to get some iffy impressions of Africa-with-a-capital-A (see, for example, Jina Moore’s thoughtful Boston Review piece this month, on what Teju Cole calls the “white saviour industrial complex,” or if you’d rather get that with a side of radioactive cynicism and Facebook pics, check out GurlGoesToAfrica.tumblr.com) - so enjoy not only the pretty pictures, but also my head-scratching over how to take development pictures that might actually make sense. What I got this week were three different organizations, and three very different experiences.
Tuesday: Leave for Rundu in the early morning (our driver, Hendrik, at the wheel, me mostly dosing off riding shotgun). Wednesday: Meet Thekla, the last active volunteer from the Rundu branch of PEACE Centre, which we’d been supporting to protect orphans and vulnerable children against violence and abuse.
I knew Thekla’s 135 kids had stopped meeting officially in June, but I’d also heard that she had a good relationship with the governor, and that right before our funding ended they’d been invited to start a youth-outreach show on the radio - a cool legacy of our work together. I’d take some pictures of kids at the studio, for us to use in our reports and for PEACE Centre to use in future fundraising, hey presto.
When I sat down with Thekla, she explained that they’d recorded helpline jingles for the show back in May, but that the station went on strike and they’d never actually aired. She downplayed her ties with the governor, too: He was willing to do photo ops with the kids, but she’d been waiting 10 years for any money from him. Instead, she told me about abuse victims she was still helping even though she was out of work, took me out to the tree where she met neighbourhood kids now that her office was closed, showed me how disabled children desperately needed new wheelchairs in the shantytowns. Which would all be bad enough, and there wasn’t even any way I could share it. At the beginning of a project, sure, to show why we had to be there - but at the end, the whole idea is to show how you’ve made a difference. Our agendas were miles apart.
The next day one of my coworkers asked if Thekla wasn’t the same PEACE volunteer who sat on the government’s regional council. It wasn’t impossible - she’s a chief’s daughter, and well-connected - but that definitely wasn’t how she was presenting herself. I don’t doubt she was, as she put it, the “eyes of the police” for those neighbourhoods while the project was running, but now that the paychecks have dried up, of course she’s moved on. She’s folding the youth groups into her personal Catholic activism, maybe playing up their suffering to try and raise funds from the occasional passing Canadian.
This afternoon she told me I had a chance to see her kids sing their old radio jingle after all, and I got the best shots I probably could get for PEACE Centre at this late stage. On the stoop of a Catholic school, the kids whipped up a refrain of “Stop violence, stop ab-u-zee”: catchy traditional rhythm, great drumming, glowing faces to match the misery Thekla had been showing me before - but also obviously nothing but a staged leftover of a project that hadn’t been able to muster a way forward, despite our best efforts. A celebration with too little to celebrate. Thekla will keep working with the organizations that are there to stay. As I left, I heard the choir switch to practising church songs for Sunday morning.
Next, my photos with the second organization were a whole different story: I think they’re actually some of the best I’ve ever taken in this job.