A journey through Namibia: transformational lessons from an ASSAR rookie

13 Jul 2017 - 09:45

By Julia Davies

A Himba woman and her young child walking alongside a dirt road in the rural Kunene region.

Armed with a camera and an over-packed suitcase (typical!), I began my first week on the job as a research assistant at ASSAR, and what a better way to gain insight into the project than to hit the road running (and flying, though mostly driving) to, and through, Namibia. When asked by the airport immigration official at Hosea Kutaka International what the purpose of my trip was, I had to think for a second – business or pleasure? The main purpose of our being there was to facilitate the second Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP) workshop in the Omusati region. However, having never travelled in Namibia before, this was as much a road trip for me as it was a work trip. Over the 1565 km’s that I spent on the road, I certainly got a taste for the vast, open landscapes, friendly faces and the diverse culture that is northern Namibia.

Whilst taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of the beautiful (albeit rather barren) southern African country, my eyes were opened to the vulnerability of the region’s people. The vast majority of the population is dependent on natural resources so climate change-related impacts have a significant effect on people’s livelihoods. Gaining a better understanding of how to build resilience to such impacts was the inspiration for the TSP workshop. The particular focus of this workshop was on droughts and floods, as both have been identified as key concerns in the region.

The livelihoods of people in the semi-arid Omusati region are largely reliant on fishing; cattle, sheep, goat and donkey rearing; as well as agriculture.

TSP 2: building resilience to droughts and floods in the Omusati Region of Namibia

On 5th and 6th July 2017, we met with various stakeholders at Bennie’s Park in Ongwediwa. The two day workshop was the second of two TSP workshops, the first of which was held in February 2017. The overarching aim of ‘TSP 2’ was, broadly, to identify possible solutions for enabling the productive use of water in the Omusati region. Four workshop objectives were identified, namely:  

  1. To build our capacity for longer term collaboration;

  2. To get a better understanding of what the group sees as a desired future;

  3. To clarify what we can, and must do, together; and

  4. To lay the groundwork for response strategies.

Participants at the second TSP workshop at Bennie’s Park in Ongwediwa
The workshop was well attended by 30 or so stakeholders, including ASSAR researchers and students from the University of Namibia. Many of the local stakeholders had chosen to return, following their positive experiences of the first TSP.

Participants at the second TSP workshop at Bennie’s Park in Ongwediwa.

Key stakeholders at the workshop included the honourable chairperson of the Regional Development Coordinating Committee, the secretary of the Ukolokadhi Traditional Authority as well as both the PA and advisor to the governor of the Omusati Regional Council. Also present at the workshop were councilors from the Onesi and Okahao Constituency Offices, the environmental officer for the Outapi Town Council and individuals from NamPower, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Fisheries. Various local stakeholders were also in attendance. These included the assistant manager of Etunda Small Scale Farmers, individuals from NPO’s such as SCORE and the NAFOLA project, and members of marginalized communities (including two village heads). In addition, we were lucky enough to have someone from the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) who presents a show on Oshiwambo Radio, and who had in fact chatted about the project on air with one of the Namibian ASSAR team members prior to the workshop. According to the stakeholder from NBC, approximately 98% of the local population has access to and listens to radio, making it one of the most effective ways to communicate and share information.

Stakeholders participate in a fun and energetic icebreaker.

The method is in the madness

The Transformative Scenario Planning methodology, developed and facilitated by REOS Partners, proved to be key to the success of the workshop. It allowed the multiple stakeholders in attendance, many of whom came from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds, to collaboratively begin working toward a desired future for the region. This was, in part, achieved through the facilitation of various interactive icebreakers and creative activities, many of which called for smaller group engagements.

Introducing an element of fun and playfulness, for example through drawing and colouring, encouraged stakeholders to let go of any reservations and to communicate their perspectives without fear of judgement. For instance, following an early discussion around the challenges of working in a complex environment, one of the stakeholders expressed his belief that life is not complex but is in fact easy, fair and straightforward - it is us, as humans, who make things complex. Given the inherently complex nature of our broader (natural, social, institutional, political etc.) environment, this view came across as somewhat simplistic, even controversial. However, the TSP process is such that it enables stakeholders to acknowledge how they feel and to use dialogue as a tool to engage effectively, thus avoiding potential conflict. Such an approach is useful because, whilst we can’t always shift how people think or change what is happening around us, we can alter the manner in which we respond to issues and the way that we adapt our own thoughts and behaviour to deal with challenges.

Key outcomes

Upon reflection, many of the stakeholders expressed the usefulness of one of the workshop activities, which required groups to illustrate their 2035 vision for productive water use in the Omusati region. From this activity a few themes emerged that showed the presence of common desires among all, or at least most, of the stakeholder groups. These included:

  • Construction / installation of earth dams and collection tanks for harvesting and storing rainwater

  • Agro food processing facilities and silos for storing food reserves

  • Good agricultural practices, such as conservation agriculture, crop diversification and intercropping

  • Greenhouses and community / household food gardens

  • ‘Green’ flood management solutions (e.g.: infrastructure that aligns with the principles of water sensitive design)

  • Installation and management of solar-powered pumps and water supply infrastructure

  • Vehicles, tarred roads and other facilities for the transportation of goods

  • Collaborative planning between different people and institutions and the effective dissemination and sharing of information

  • The establishment of an early warning system for droughts, floods  and extreme events

  • Education and training

One of the workshop activities required stakeholder groups to illustrate their 2035 vision for productive water use in the Omusati region.

Having established a broad vision, the groups each selected one practical element of their ideal future (e.g.: the installation and effective management of solar-powered water pumps), and subsequently discussed what might be done to achieve this desired outcome.  However, rather than taking a direct approach to answering this “how might we…” question, stakeholders were first asked to recognize what obstacles might prevent the outcome from being realized. In other words, what are we currently doing or what could we do to ensure the failure of a desired outcome? The point of working backwards like this is that it allows us to better understand what is getting in the way and preventing us from achieving our goals. This is important as in order to overcome barriers, we not only need to identify them but also to understand what (or who) is causing them to arise. This exercise can be applied to challenges in our personal lives as much as to those in the workplace, because it is often our own actions (or lack thereof), prejudices and insecurities that stand in the way of achieving our goals.  With this understanding, Reinhold Neibuhr’s serenity prayer became the mantra of the TSP:  

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This encouraged stakeholders not to feel overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of what needs to be achieved, but rather to adopt ‘requisite simplicities’ – a strategy that “attempts to discard some detail [of a complex problem], while retaining conceptual clarity and scientific rigor, and helps us move to a new position where we can benefit from new knowledge” (Stirzaker, Biggs, Roux, & Cilliers, 2010). The TSP enabled the use of requisite simplicities by allowing stakeholders to prioritize and focus only on what must be done and what can be done – not by others but by those present in the room.  The effectiveness of this approach stems from the fact that it forces stakeholders to really think about what actions they can take going forward, and to set up the channels through which these actions can be mobilized. The chosen activities were then grouped according to similarity and, by virtue of democracy, stakeholders voted on which set of activities should be prioritized. The following activities received the most votes:

  • Integrative regional planning, consultation, stakeholder engagement and awareness raising

  • Resourcing and mobilization of funds for water-related projects (e.g.: for building earth dams)

  • Participatory needs assessment on productive water use

  • Capacity building among local communities (e.g.: through the establishment of a mentorship programme)

  • Exploration of alternative water sources (e.g. deepening the Etaka Dam)

Stakeholders voted on what activities should be prioritized and subsequently discussed what actions they might take to achieve the desired outcomes.

Toward a more productive water future

Achieving the stakeholder vision of a more productive water future for the Omusati region requires that current, reactive planning practices are replaced with future-focused strategies that build adaptive capacity and enhance resilience to climate change. Whilst this will undoubtedly be a collaborative effort, transformative change cannot be achieved without individual change. People’s personal values (both intrinsic and extrinsic) are closely linked to the way in which they think, plan and act. Thus, one needs to look inward and assess one’s own views, goals and desires before attempting to inspire change in others, and in systems as a whole. Digging deeper may feel a little uncomfortable as it forces us to confront our fears and our feelings. However, it is necessary in order to identify shared values and move forward towards a commonly desired future. In order to illustrate this theory, the TSP facilitators used an analogy that described four rooms of change: the rooms of contentment, denial, confusion and, finally, the room of renewal. By identifying which ‘room’ we are currently sitting in, we can understand how best to move forward.

The room of contentment is our ‘happy place’ – where we are comfortable and satisfied. However, when the world around us changes – for example when risks such as floods, food insecurity or poverty are introduced – then we shift out of the room of contentment. Whilst we would like to move straight to the room of renewal, which is a place in which we are able to grow and adapt to new circumstances, there is unfortunately no doorway directly from contentment to renewal. We therefore have to go, firstly, through the room of denial, wherein we are likely to experience anger, attempt to resist change and hold on to our old views. To move on from this room, we have to accept the need for change and be willing to take the necessary steps to make the required changes. However, we tend only to become aware of what we need to let go of when we experience our own resistance and discomfort. As we are still unsure at this point of how to reach the room of renewal, we find ourselves in the room of confusion. This room is often chaotic and rife with adversity, but it is also filled with opportunity and holds the golden key to renewal - and thus transformation.


“Business or pleasure?” I was asked upon my arrival in Namibia. Well, I’d say it’s been (mostly) ‘pleasurable business’. Forget ‘work trip’ or ‘road trip’, this has been a journey – and who knew that one could travel so far in just one week!? Now I don’t mean travelling only in the sense of kilometres (although we covered many of those), but also in the sense that a great deal was learnt in a relatively short space of time. Despite feeling rather overwhelmed by the end of the two day TSP workshop, I was able to take home some key messages:

  1. Whilst we can’t always shift how other people think or change what is happening around us, we can alter the manner in which we respond to issues and the way that we adapt our own thoughts and behaviour to deal with challenges.

  2. A useful strategy for overcoming barriers is to think about what actions (or lack thereof) are likely to result in the failure of our desired outcome. Working backwards from this point might help us to better understand what we are doing to prevent ourselves from being where we want to be. Sometimes we might find that we are our own worst enemy!

  3. It is unhelpful to succumb to feelings of inferiority and become overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of an issue. You know the feeling – “the problem is too big and I am too small to make a difference.” (If you have ever spent the night in a room with a mosquito, then you will know that this is not true!) What I learnt from the TSP about such seemingly ‘big’ and complex problems is that it is OK to adopt ‘requisite simplicities’ by prioritizing and focusing only on what must be done and what can be done – not just by others but by you at this point in time.  

  4. In order to get to a place of renewal where we can grow, adapt and ultimately transform; we first have to be uprooted from our place of contentment, wade through the sludge of denial and navigate our way through the maze of confusion. Like many difficult journeys, it is the process rather than the end product that is most important.

  5. If you happen to be a vegetarian, good luck with finding a decent meal in Namibia. Here, meat is king - although your meat dish will usually be accompanied by a side salad of chicken or fish!

I hope that these lessons will assist me in my work as an ASSAR research assistant, and help to ease the growing pains that I have experienced in my personal life since having to ‘adult.’ If not, at least I had the opportunity to see some breathtaking northern Namibian sunsets, meet some beautiful, friendly people and fill my lungs with clean air from the vast open spaces of our peaceful neighbour, Namibia.