Environmental change strikes young people deep in the Namib desert

08 December 2017

‘We park the bus where the road stops. When they get off and see only the sand dunes for miles, they start to think “Where on earth are we?”’, says Viktoria Keding, Director of the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET).

The NaDEET Centre, which runs live-in programmes offering hands-on immersion in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), is situated in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, at 200,000 hectares the largest of its kind in southern Africa. Its location alone changes the behaviour and attitudes of those coming to learn from the moment they arrive.

Everyone from schoolchildren, to community groups and educators can sign up to spend almost a week living with bucket showers, solar cooking, total waste recycling and learning how to make firebricks for fuel. The emphasis is on rolling up your sleeves, joining in and putting into practice what might have been learned from a textbook elsewhere. For schoolchildren, there are practical applications of English, maths and science as well.  

The NaDEET Centre, a key partner of the UNESCO Global Action Programme on ESD (GAP), was created in 2003 and since then has welcomed more than 10,000 beneficiaries and is consistently booked to capacity.

Viktoria Keding, who came to Namibia 20 years ago to teach environmental education, said: ‘When I started out at another centre we taught environmental education in a traditional style looking at wildlife and sitting round the campfire. I once had some grade 11 students and one of them said while he was happy to have learned so much why was the centre not concerned about deforestation.

I realised then that we had missed something.’

When she started, sustainability was not a household word and Viktoria realised it could not be taught effectively and honestly if the learning environment was not itself setting an example.   

‘Then I had this amazing opportunity to start a brand new centre in the desert from scratch and make it as sustainable as the Namibian context will allow,’ she said. ‘Here we are aware that we must constantly evolve and adapt in big and small ways. For example, when we opened the centre, LED lights were not readily available. Also, our facilities were a little basic so we upgraded so that teacher groups, for example, can be more comfortable while they learn.’

NaDEET’s work fits under three broad categories, environmental education, environmental literacy and outreach community development. What is learned there feeds directly into school curricula and teachers have remarked on its positive influence on pupils’ knowledge. It is also a powerful hub for knowledge exchange.  For example, language teachers who came to undertake the programme also translated the centre’s It’s Time to Grow booklet into three local languages.

As part of its GAP Key Partner commitment, working on accelerating sustainable solutions at the local level, NaDEET staff are developing a sustainable house model in the town where their head office is based, Swakopmund.

‘It will be somewhere people can see that it is not only the materials that a house is made out of that counts for sustainable living but behaviour, how we source food and how we manage the use of water, energy and waste.’

There are also plans to develop an academy for youth and education professionals on the original NaDEET Centre to reach as many Namibians as possible.

Viktoria has seen the transformational effect of the centre up close many times and how it differs depending on the participant.

“Everyone who arrives wonders where the centre is because it is behind the dunes. They walk for ten minutes and it appears and it is really a moment of wonder. They have imagined a concrete structure not wood and canvas. Children from rural and often disadvantaged backgrounds think it is paradise. The more privileged children who have never had access to this part of the country before see it is as a huge adventure.”

And the effect does not finish at the end of the visit.

“Some leave with very specific projects to start a clean-up where they live or make the recycled firebricks themselves. For others, it is a long-term change in how they define their relationship with the environment. One of the most satisfying things is to see teachers who were here as pupils return with their students,” said Viktoria.