Some Challenges in Namibia, but One Can Hardly Expect a Perfect Record

I knew going into my year of worldwide instruction that not every stop would turn out perfectly. I’ve done remarkably well so far, but my time at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) felt just a bit less satisfying than other visits. Perhaps the heart of the problem was that my hosts weren’t especially engaged. They set themselves up in a hierarchy, with the disadvantages of that configuration emerging right away: those at the top just delegated, and those at the bottom weren’t motivated to, or perhaps even capable of, making things happen. I ended up fending for myself a great deal of the time.

My stay began with a four-day Big Data short-course. Although we were in a lab with wired internet, connectivity was still a constant challenge. The problems weren’t quite as dramatic as in Tanzania, but in Namibia people are reluctant to use their smartphones as hotspots — apparently data charges add up. (Cancel what I said in the previous blog about phones becoming the internet connection of choice worldwide.) Once we circumvented the internet issues to the extent possible, I soon discovered that many of the students just weren’t prepared for the more technical aspects of the material, particularly when computer programming was involved. Similar to a few other places I’ve been, for one reason or another students just don’t like to — or even really learn to — program, even the computer science majors. There were exceptions, though. It was hard to miss two participants who looked quite different from the rest; it turns out they were Finnish exchange students, very well-prepared as Finns are known to be. But the real gems were two young NUST undergraduates in the front row. Slouching in their baseball caps they exuded “chill,” but it didn’t take long for me to recognize that both of them were highly motivated and talented. I’ll be keeping in touch with them.

Sometimes working on Big Data all day can be a bit much and we need a short break to stretch. Note the local assistant in the center and his much appreciated Stanford t-shirt.

As is typical, I complemented the Big Data short-course with a one-day Design Thinking & Collaborative Problem-Solving workshop (this group wins the prize for most enthusiastic prototype-builders to date), and a roundtable discussion with women. My women’s discussions tend to head in different directions depending on the culture, environment, or even just the educational set-up. I was very surprised to learn that the NUST computer science graduating class is more than 50% women! So we certainly weren’t discussing what it’s like to be in male-dominated classrooms. (Computer science is 36% women at admissions time, but men drop out or prolong their undergraduate studies at a much higher rate than women.) After the 3-year undergraduate degree, many students go on to a 2-year “honors”, then a 2-year masters, and possibly a PhD. But there are no scholarships or typically any family support after the undergraduate degree, so many of the women I talked with were working at a company or teaching full-time while furthering their studies. Several of them were single mothers, one a professional dancer, and many were involved in university or community organizations. They were keenly interested in discussing how to manage their overwhelming commitments; I wish I had easy answers.

Every roundtable with women ends up having a somewhat different tone and set of discussion topics.

Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek, is surprisingly modern and clean, though residents complain that it’s a relatively boring place, and tourists don’t stay long before moving on to the game reserves, massive desert sand dunes, or coast. Unfortunately, like the major cities in neighboring South Africa, there seems to be constant concern about crime. I could enjoy dinner at a surprisingly upscale restaurant, but it would be unthinkable to walk the few blocks back to the hotel after dark. Stray dogs have been a fixture in my morning runs almost everywhere. There are no strays in Windhoek, but in the residential areas where I ran, every house boasts a guard dog or two behind its heavy entrance gate. I may prefer the wandering strays to the unnerving effect of ferocious barking, snarling, and fence-leaping at every driveway!

Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek. With no context, would you guess that it’s Africa?

This stop on my odyssey had one special feature: family. My daughter Emily had been traveling in South Africa between our winter holiday in the Middle East and a college semester abroad in Zurich, and my husband Alex decided this would be a good location to tag along. (He last joined me in Sri Lanka.) We all met up in scenic and captivating Cape Town for a long weekend before flying on to Windhoek. In Namibia the plan was for Emily and Alex to help out in the Big Data short-course, perhaps even learning a few new things along the way. So it was a bit of a let-down when it turned out to be one of the lesser stops in terms of organization and student learning potential — I had been excited about them seeing first-hand just how fun and rewarding this type of teaching can be. But they did get a glimpse, and we all greatly enjoyed our short safari in Etosha National Park, with big-animal sightings easily rivaling those in the Serengeti.

Numerous rhinos and lions were a feature of our short safari in northern Namibia. We also saw elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, ostriches, many types of antelope, and interesting birdlife.

Having failed completely to make a cohesive schedule as far as continents go, it’s back to Latin America (Peru & Mexico), then a triple-header of Europe (Poland), Asia (Azerbaijan), and Africa (Mauritius).