How Volunteering in Namibia led to a life in Africa

My wife and I arrived in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, with 3 checked bags a couple carry-ons between the two of us. More than we’d pack for travel normally, but considering we had sold everything else before packing this was considerably much less than we had just a few weeks prior.

Landing in a foreign country this time the normal travel adventure high was replaced with something else. A sense of urgency to get to work.

How Volunteering in Namibia led to a life in Africa

Four months prior we were packing our bags for a three week volunteer vacation in Namibia. Stephanie works in wildlife conservation so she had an opportunity through her work to take a few weeks off and volunteer at a cheetah conservation center and then travel around the country. I fancy myself a photographer so was keen to travel along and shoot anything and everything.

We both had steady work at the time and I was just finishing off my most successful year as a full time freelancer. We had long ago committed to spending our money on travel and experiences instead of what we called traditional adult things such as having kids or buying a house. This trip was our fourth consecutive year making a big trip and we seemed content with this routine for the foreseeable future.

Once we arrived for the first time at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia it was clear that this was no vacation. The days started at 7am. Ended well after 7pm after communal dinners.

Typical days were few and far between. Everyday was something new, exciting and surprisingly hard. We were volunteers, or working guests as they called it, so while we got to experience a little of everything we had no responsibilities. Wild animals hardly keep a convenient schedule so new challenges presented themselves to the staff everyday.

We loved every minute of it. My wife, Stephanie, has worked in zoos and with wildlife for years so she could talk shop with the staff. She also got to see the kind of conservation work happening right in front of her that she has taught the importance of to many zoo visitors and students for years.

It was immediately clear that this was the work that donors want to support. People working day in and day out to save a species. Some sense of romanticism in the work remained after 2 weeks but the determination of the staff told a different story.

Conservation happens 24/7/365 and is a never ending task. These were the people doing that task. As volunteers we still toed that line of enjoying the romanticism of the experiences and knowing that the work of this organization was hard, expensive and requires a lot of determination.

These two thoughts began to work on our minds. Are we those people that could handle this kind of work?

Dreams of Africa

At the end of our stay at CCF the director, Dr. Laurie Marker, mentioned off hand that it was hard to find educators to come to Namibia. Stephanie as it turns out is an environmental conservation educator and has always had one of those dreams of working in Africa. The conversation was light, but that night Stephanie told me “I think there might be an opportunity for me to work here.”

We left CCF on a high. We saw real wildlife, real conservation work and real hurdles overcome daily. But, there was clearly something calling us to go back back.

As we traveled our final week across the beautiful country of Namibia we had time to contemplate our options while taking all the natural beauty the country has to offer. Namibia is a huge country and driving between towns could be up to 2-3 hours with only the sight of a picnic bench on the side of the road so there was plenty of time for long thoughts and discussions in-between stops.

The drives over a week became a ritual in convincing ourselves what we had already decided in our heads – should we stay here? We went round and round.

When I have traveled in the past I have strangely felt home almost anywhere and naturally feel home in a new city or area so it was safe to doubt ourselves since we were still on this travel high. The travel high is something that I’m sure most have experienced and it doesn’t matter how far one goes it can get you at any time in any place.

Travel with a Purpose

This travel high was somehow different, maybe even grounded. It had a purpose and direction and was seemingly less selfish. Traveling can be very selfish sometimes and admittedly that can be the purpose.

We all need to get away from something, even ourself, and look at the world from different ground. Seeing the group of people at CCF who had bought one way tickets to a deserted land to make no money and try and save a species was not the romantic experience we had expected. When you look at the Facebook page for CCF it’s all Cheetahs, puppies and nice stories.

However, the life on the ground is full of dirt, poop and sweat. It’s not glamorous by traditional means, it’s real. That reality is what attracted us.

There is a goal and there are people trying to attain that goal and that is it. Dr. Marker has been doing this work for well over 25 years and, with any type of conservation work, the goal is to make things better for the future without too many milestones en route.

After returning back to the US and a hand full of emails later we found ourselves in the position of buying one way tickets to Africa. Our minds had been made up since the day we left Namibia.

The really great thing about picking up your life and moving across the world to Africa is how supportive everyone is. There were and are amazing people all along the way from our landlord who supported us moving out early to the friends offering to help in anyway to family taking in our dogs.

Rooted in Africa

Now, six months into this perm-trip it’s safe to say the travel honeymoon is over, but we are still just as determined and maybe a little more focused. Sharing our experiences with friends and family is now one of our favorite pastimes.

We’ve already encouraged at least one family member to visit us in Africa and if we can show another side of the world to our small group of friends and family then we’ll be both doing our job and making the world a little bigger and more accessible for anyone willing to listen.

About the Authors

Stephanie and Bobby are an American couple originally from Texas now living in Namibia, Africa. Stephanie works as the Education Manager at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia. Bobby is a volunteer at CCF and works as a freelance lighting designer and photographer splitting his time between Namibia and the USA.

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