Travel writer, tour leader and founder of Bradt travel guides Hilary Bradt on why she stuffed her rucksack with marker pens for her trip to Namibia
I was standing in a sun-washed courtyard on the outskirts of Windhoek amid a swirling mass of children, struggling to make sense of my surroundings. I’d only just arrived in Namibia, for heaven’s sake, and MaryBeth was clearly not in a position to give us a tour of her after-school centre. Kids eddied around her like shoals of fish, calling for attention and hugging the parts of her they could reach.
“Excuse me!” I looked down and saw a small boy. “My name is Ned. Do you know David Beckham?” Another boy pushed an exercise book into my hands. He was learning German numbers and wanted my help. I’d found a role.
So had the other members of the group. Daphne was reading to a couple of the girls. Richard was surrounded by boys, extolling the virtues of Man United and naming the players. Nick was doing even better, showing an excited cluster of kids their photos on his digital camera.
I wandered into the clinic where free Aids tests are given, along with counselling. “The incidence of Aids is decreasing,” the volunteer said proudly, “down from 21% to 19%.” Nevertheless most of the children here are affected by the disease. Many are Aids orphans being raised by grandparents or siblings.
A soft-spoken Benedictine nun told me more about the home life of these happy-looking, polite kids. In Namibia, as in South Africa, many men believe that sex with young children will protect them from Aids. Several of the little girls have been raped. Violence is commonplace. The nun pointed out a small boy and even smaller girl. “Their father shot his wife and then himself. The following day they took themselves to school and told the teacher. She now looks after them in her home.”
So why were we here? Because a month ago I checked the website www.stuffyourrucksack.com, found details of this charity, and started to correspond with MaryBeth to find out her most pressing needs.
Stuff Your Rucksack is the brainchild of Kate Humble – recently seen coping gallantly with Bill Oddie on Autumnwatch – herself a traveller with a conscience. As she says, “How many times have you been travelling and come across a school or local charity that you would love to help? The school needs books, or a map or pencils; an orphanage needs clothes or toys. All things that, had you known, you could’ve stuffed in your rucksack.”
The website’s description of The Children’s Hope Initiative Project appealed immediately, reinforced by MaryBeth’s response to my emails: “Thank you SO MUCH for offering to haul stuff over for us! If you want to know my ABSOLUTE NUMBER ONE DESIRE it is: SHARPIES!!! (A brand name for permanent markers).”
A phone call to the Sharpies manufacturer resulted in the gift of a large box of pens. A trawl around charity shops produced some football shirts and a fellow publisher donated some children’s books.
MaryBeth met us at our hotel, an American as exuberant and upper-case as her emails, and drove us to the centre. It was an eye-opening, endearing and gratifying start to the trip. It also put the rest of Namibia into perspective. It seems such a prosperous, easy country to travel in. Most visitors have no idea of the problems faced by a significant percentage of the capital’s poorer population. Of all our experiences in the country, this is the one we come back to most often in conversation.
It’s just nice to know that you have made a positive impact, however small. MaryBeth copied me in on her email to the ex-volunteer who put her details on the site.
“I just want to thank you SO MUCH for posting the centre on ‘stuff your rucksack’! A group of eight from the UK came to Namibia yesterday with TONNES of stuff for my kids! And they brought exactly what I needed most! Best of all, they spent the entire afternoon with the kids at the centre. I hope they will come back again, and stuff their rucksacks with volunteers.”
Find out more about the charity and how you can stuff YOUR rucksack here.
Hilary Bradt is the founder of Bradt travel guides. She is also a tour leader and travel writer.
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