I’m back from my first shifts back at work, and it’s time for more Africa talk! The first week of the EHRA project is spent building walls around water tanks so that the elephants can’t reach them and destroy them. I think the best way to talk about the first week, better known as “build week,” is to do a “Day in the Life” type deal to explain what life was like on build week.
After traveling, traveling, and more traveling, we headed out to our build site, which was one that the group before us had started and our goal was to finish it. My group had eight people in it and two people from EHRA who taught us how to build a wall in the middle of the Namibian desert. This was our starting point:
For those of you just joining us, EHRA exists to build better relationships between the elephants and the humans, as the humans don’t like when the elephants tear down their water tanks in search of water. Therefore, building walls around the water tanks keeps the elephants away and the farmers happy.
So with that, let’s discuss…
A Day in the Life: Build Week
After a night of sleeping under tarp in our sleeping bags, whoever was on duty would wake you with your coffee or tea of your choice, made to your specifications. If you’ve never had anyone bring you coffee in bed/a sleeping bag, you’re definitely missing out, I wish I had service like this at home! The desert morning was a little bit chilly, so a cup of warmth was definitely welcome to help lure me out of bed.
Once you pulled yourself out of your sleeping bag, breakfast options included porridge (or as we say in the US, “oatmeal”) or whatever you brought for yourself to eat. I’ve never been a huge fan of oatmeal (I once ate it and then got a 24 hour stomach bug where I nearly vomited out my intestines, so needless to say we’re not the best of friends), so I would eat a bit of it and then go for a granola bar. (Side note: I like oatmeal in cookie form…especially with chocolate chips.)
After eating, we had until about 8am to get dressed clean up, roll up your bedroll, etc before heading over to the build site. We kept our stuff in tents so we could change in there, and we had a separate toilet tent…which was basically a hole we dug in the ground and then stuck a tube in to use as a toilet. Classy.
It’s build time! We had the main goal of finishing the wall, which sounds like an easy task. While it was quite simple in the building procedure, apparently building a wall in the middle of nowhere involves a lot of steps.
Our first day involved a lesson in mixing cement, where you make the perfect combination of sand, cement, and water in a wheelbarrow, using a shovel. THIS IS HARD WORK. I can run really far, but the only muscle I have is from lifting patients (that’s a lot of weight, mind you), so mixing was tiring.
Of course, in order to get the sand for the cement, we had to go on a couple sand runs where we shoveled sand off the side of the road (it’s the desert, you know) into the back of a truck, then shovel it back off the truck.
Another activity involved the fact that we actually needed to collect the rocks to make the wall. We were lucky in that the group before us had some leftover rocks, but we still needed to go get some more. See the above comment about how I’m weak. We had a few sayings throughout the week about the stones. We used “baby” stones (aka little rocks) to fill in the gaps between the big ones in the wall. When we headed out to collect rocks, I was picking up what I thought we were big rocks (false, I’m weak)…we ended up calling stones, “small, medium, large, and Mattais”…with “Mattais” rocks being only rocks that Mattais, one of our guides could lift. It took two of us to lift them. However, throughout the week it was impressive how I could pick up larger and larger rocks…win.
Once we had all the parts (cement, rocks), it was time to build the wall. Under the guidance of our trusty builders, Mattais and Hendric, we build the wall. They taught us how to throw cement, which rocks to pick, and how to fill in the holes with cement and baby stones. Mattais taught us how to build a more orderly wall, while Hendric liked a “funny” wall, with rocks sticking out in different places. Basically, I’m ready for a job in construction. It’s just like putting a puzzle together…
We had snack time of fruit and juice around 10:30am, which was a welcome break from the building. Sometimes, we had visitors from cows:
Lunch and rest time! It’s really hot in the sun around this time, it was definitely a good time to eat and then get some rest from the sun. Lunch was always some combination of sandwiches (mayo + tomato + cucumber + pepper = win), vegetables, and leftovers from dinner the night before.
After lunch, we hung out under the tarp…sometimes reading, journaling, napping, talking…or being ridiculous:
More building! We set back to work for the final push of the day…more cement mixing, more rock collecting, more sand collecting, more building. Whatever needed to be done. It was interesting to see everyone fall into their places…some people liked to build, some people liked to mix cement, others moved rocks closer to the wall and got water for the cement. Everyone did their own thing to come together to build the wall…excellent.
After a hard day’s work, it was time to head back to the campsite (five minute walk-ish) for the night. Whoever was on duty would start making dinner while the rest of us would clean up and hang out. We didn’t have showers, so cleaning ourselves involved baby wipes. If you’ve ever run a relay, you know how glorious baby wipe baths can be! Also, it should be noted that since your clothes get so dirty from the cement/rocks, most of us just wore the same thing all week. We didn’t smell that bad, I promise…
One of the best parts of the evening was watching the sun go down, and we liked to watch “the show” every evening.
We also hung out and drank some beer (Windhoek…Namibian beer!) or sat by the fire waiting for dinner…and then eating dinner. It gets chilly at night and everyone loves a good fire.
Dinner was always something different, and basically anything you could cook over a fire. Going into this, I didn’t think we would eat as well as we did, but everything was great! Beef stir fry, chicken moabe, lamb…I don’t remember the last time I ate so much meat! We were all definitely hungry by the time dinner was cooked, and so was our little dog friend who came around for scraps:
After dinner, it was time to hang out by the fire until we went to bed…at 9pm. None of this night-shift-up-all-night business, we have work to do! It usually took me awhile to fall asleep (I never go to bed before midnight…ever. Unless night shift kills my sleep schedule, nevermind that), and it was sometimes chilly at night, but my sleeping bag kept me plenty warm. The only animal that came to visit us in the night was a stray cat (as in…a normal cat, not a tiger), and the only sounds were some snoring, some roosters crowing in the morning, and some cows doing their moo thing. No traffic noises here! It was strange to go to bed so early all the time, but then again I never wake up early on a consistent basis.
being on duty
We all took turns being “on duty,” meaning that you’re in charge of washing dishes, making the food, and starting the fires for the day. It was a nice system, and as I said above…it’s really nice to have someone bring you coffee in the morning! I’m not the greatest at starting fires and it took nearly 45 minutes to get one going one morning (oops…city girl?), but it was amazing how good the food was just from cooking over the fire! Of course it took a lot of prep on EHRA’s part to get the cook and carry it along, but so good. And cooking over a fire is pretty cool too:
learned at base camp
We spent a lot of time talking to one another because…that’s mainly what our entertainment it was! A couple people in our group spoke English as a second language, and although their English was really, really, really good, it was still funny to hear them mix up different words. On one of their first nights, our Portugal man said something along the lines of, “Portugal…we have the best bitches!” After from stares around the group to figure out what he was saying, we learned that he sometimes had trouble between the words “beaches” and “bitches.” Bahahhha. Even among the people who spoke English as a first language, I was the only American, so I learned lots of British English terms for things. One woman said I better put sunscreen on or else I would get frazzled…frazzled? Maybe burned, but certainly not frazzled…until I learned that “frazzled” also means sunburn. So strange to speak the same language yet still be so confused!
During our lunch break one day, Hendric (one of our Namibian builders!) told us all about relationship life in Namibia…men can take more than one wife, but he must get approval from all his current wives before taking another. Women can also have more than one husband, and husbands are expected to come home early or not at all…because if you come home late, another man might be there! This is fascinating stuff.
One night was spent entirely talking about how we celebrate Christmas in different countries. Did you know that in Sweden they watch the same Donald Duck camping episode on Christmas Eve? And that in Portugal Santa brings the gifts by putting them outside the door, ringing the doorbell, and then running away? So much for Chinese food on Christmas Eve…
all in a week’s work…
Our work week was complete when we finished our wall…early on Friday! Good job, team. Our last step was to put a stone walkway in front of the entrance so that elephants would be deterred from trying to get…they have sensitive feet and wouldn’t want to walk on the sharp rocks!
Namibian wall, check and check.
We finished up with some team pictures…
And writing out names in the wall…
that’s a wrap
The wall is built! A lot of cement, dirty clothes, and some (hopefully?) bigger muscles over a few day period. We didn’t see any elephants this week, although they certainly had been there at some point because they tore down the wall. Patrol week is the reward for the hard work in build week…and it definitely went above and beyond. Stay tuned because I have an obscene amount of elephant pictures to share.