I was about two weeks away from embarking on my second field trip to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. I was collecting data for a doctoral degree in conservation biology at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. My supervisor anxiously wandered over to my desk, slumped in the chair next to me, and said: “I think we need to get you out of here A-S-A-P.”
At the end of 2019 I returned to New Zealand having wrapped up my first stint in the field. This was around the same time news had started trickling through from China’s Wuhan Province about a then little-known virus. I had been feeling content with the progress I had made in the first year of my PhD. I had also secured another year’s worth of funding which fed the feelings of progress and stability. My funders, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) not only provided me with the financial means for this endeavour but granted me access to their research camp and one of their all-terrain vehicles. Since graduating with my Master’s degree in early 2016, I had not ruled out the possibility of adding the big DR to my name—but the project had to be right: I needed something that would keep me engaged for the entire duration of the degree as well as a source of funding.
While I occasionally scoured the internet for opportunities or research interests, it never felt like I was actively searching. Intuitively, I always trusted this process to follow a more organic route. In the latter part of 2017 that trust bore fruit: a professor from Massey University in Palmerston North, in New Zealand, was advertising a project. It caught my eye not only because of the research topic but also because I had never considered New Zealand as a host for my tertiary education. It was an enticing prospect which struck all the right chords.
When I emailed Professor Stephen Marsland, I was greeted by an automatic reply.
Stephen Marsland no longer works at Massey University.
He had taken up a position at VUW’s School of Mathematics and Statistics.
I searched for and found his new address. I fired off the same message.
To my great joy, it did not take long to elicit a response. What Stephen had originally advertised was estimating bird population sizes based on their calls using a combination of automated recording devices, a bird call analysis software package he had helped develop, and some fancy statistics.
I do not think I was ever his intended audience for that particular project but after I had put forward the idea of applying a similar concept in one of Africa’s most iconic wildernesses, a mutual curiosity was aroused. NGOWP’s leadership had previously alluded to the fact that scholarship money was available to graduate students from countries spanning the project’s study area: Angola, Botswana, and Namibia. As a Namibian, at the very least, I would tick the geographical box. One of the project’s overarching premises had been the use of wetland birds as an environmental indicator: a way to gauge the intrinsic “health” of a system in the Okavango Delta. Stephen’s proposition sparked something of an epiphany: I envisioned marrying the concept of acoustic monitoring with that of wetland birds as ecological indicators. At the NGOWP’s first ever Science Symposium in Cape Town in early 2018, I approached my superiors with that vision. My verbal proposal quickly gained traction. Funding from higher-up was all I needed to start kicking the formalities of my enrolment into gear.
As a mathematician by trade, Stephen needed to supplement the supervision that would navigate me through a principally ecology-based degree. It did not take him long to recruit Dr Heiko Wittmer, an ecologist, from the university’s School of Biological Sciences to head up my supervisory team. When everything had been put in place to formally apply to enrol for my PhD I was on expedition with the NGOWP again. Our team was camped on the banks of a lake in the Angolan highlands where the sources of the Okavango River basin are scattered. Luckily for me, we were at the mercy of some bureaucratic hold-ups which prevented the rest of our team from joining us before embarking on the next leg of the expedition. This gave me time to work on my university application; I had to complete it from a tent using a satellite internet unit—on its best day it allowed you to Google something in a few minutes. Submitting a lengthy online application form was a daunting prospect. Spurts of form-filling were separated by hours of loading time. The process went well into the night. I had to take a chair and the not-so-trusty internet supply out of earshot in the middle of one night so Stephen and I could round off our discussions via a WhatsApp call before I submitted my application.
With the click of a button, and a nail-biting wait to see if the internet connection held up, I had officially applied for a doctorate.
The near certainty of my application’s success had me prematurely extracted from the expedition. This was no cakewalk: the bulk of the expedition consisted of a river transect which involved paddling down the mighty Kwando River in specialised dugout canoes. The Kwando trickles down Angola’s central plateau before exploding into a waterscape of colossal proportions and spilling into northern Botswana, where given enough hydrological impetus, its waters merge with those of the Okavango. At its most expansive, this river’s fairly compact main channel is flanked by hundreds of metres of predominantly impenetrable swamp on either side. We had already spent weeks navigating the colossus’ headwaters and were about to be absorbed by the vast expanses of its heart. This particular section sent the odd Adam’s apple quivering because long stretches of it were shrouded in uncertainty. From what satellite images revealed, land suitable for camping seemed few and far between; there was also the ever-present threat of disgruntled hippos—their disgruntlement eventually forced the (unharmed) team to abort the expedition.
My extraction point was the last accessible spot of land by vehicle and coincided with a rare opportunity to resupply the team before their push into uncharted geography. After a day of replenishing provisions, imparting me with logistical instructions, and a bittersweet farewell, the team set off again. Weary and worn, I climbed onto the backseat of one of two old Land Rovers sent to retrieve me. A more than 1000-kilometre horseshoe route would take us across central Angola for four days, before we arrived back in the town of Menongue, our base in the country. The sparsely cushioned metal seat I perched on had little to no leg room and was an unforgiving host on the volatile topography that passes as roads in most of the hinterlands. While my expedition had come to an end this now officially felt like the run-up to my PhD.
The trip to Menongue was followed by another week’s worth of driving and three border crossings after which I boarded a plane in Johannesburg: I was on my way home to Namibia.
Waiting for my application’s approval felt like holding out for a starter pistol’s bang. Even though Stephen had assured me my admission was highly likely it was hard to block out the lingering probability of a rejection.
The starter pistol’s bang sounded in October 2018.
But not before I ruptured the Achilles tendon in my left leg, playing a casual game of Sunday football.
I underwent surgery four days later, was forced into a cast, and put on bed rest for two months.
My admission was confirmed. Administrative formalities lined up. My bedridden state had one advantage: between clearing bureaucratic hurdles to meet New Zealand’s immigration requirements, I crafted a coherent research proposal and filed grant application after grant application to supplement my NGOWP-issued scholarship money. Studying in New Zealand is not cheap; the nature of my research demanded some fairly sophisticated field equipment which inflated my budget to distressing proportions. I had already sold my car earlier that year and was able to fall back on my expedition earnings. They could tide me over for the first year of study. While only one out of 17 grant applications materialised (and a modest one at that), I was able to draw on my supervisors’ resourcefulness to push ahead with my inaugural field trip in the Okavango.
The second bang: the end of 2019.
Following my return to Aotearoa, I launched myself straight into the next episode of my doctorate. One of the major hurdles of this particular degree was the one-year review which determines whether one’s provisional PhD student status is advanced to full-time candidacy. On 12 March 2020 I was subjected to mine. Despite the relatively laid-back setting—with myself, my supervisors, and my two-person review committee sat around a table essentially chatting about the feasibility of the PhD and my ability to pull it off—the stakes were high; there was the occasional tremble in my voice. Undeterred by my surfacing nerves, the committee signed off on my candidacy: I walked out of the conference room with a shot at doctoral glory.
The third bang: COVID-19.
Everything I had poured into this endeavour was dumped out.
I was tempted to hat-tip: the rapidity of the unravelling was objectively impressive.
Only three weeks stood between my one-year review and my already confirmed departure for Botswana. Within those 20-odd days the entire globe spiralled into disarray. My field-destination flights were cancelled. I went into lockdown in my Wellington flat. My supervisors gave my PhD proposal its time of death.
I was lucky enough to be offered a different, albeit piecemeal, revival of my dwindling aspirations to complete this degree.
I can only imagine how many graduate students’ academic ambitions were upended and run into the ground by the unforgiving nature of the pandemic. I counted myself among the fortunate ones to be able to stitch together something resembling a PhD.
I was warned, though: would what I was left to work on get me out of bed in the morning?
It did not take me long to put those doubts to rest. I could not bring myself to abandon my doctoral studies, even though, as my roommate observed, I was mourning my PhD of yesteryear. I forged ahead.
My concerns quickly transformed from academic to financial: since the pandemic had put me under house arrest in the land of the long white cloud my plan to save money while in the field evaporated. I took on some part-time work and was blessed with an additional minor scholarship. But as 2020 raged on, it became clear the most pragmatic remedy to my financial aches was an indefinite return home, a thought I had rarely entertained in the past.
Given the extraordinary circumstances, my supervisors were willing to support this new plan of action. Eventually, the stars and the available airline routes aligned: New Zealand to Singapore, then on to Frankfurt, and, finally, a beeline to Windhoek.
Despite the tectonic upheaval of disappointment, I was in an arguably sunnier disposition than before. I am able to reflect on my progression, not begrudgingly, but with a renewed sense of appreciation. My return to the homeland—a financial relief strategy more than anything else—has also been sprinkled with serendipity.
Since I left high school, I have never resided in Namibia as an independent adult. With more than a decade’s worth of perpetual uprooting, I am now affording myself the opportunity to reposition myself in a society that, for all intents and purposes, I was ready to abandon for the gravitational forces of promise beyond the Namibian horizon. I had simply interpreted it as ambition. The more time I spent on the outskirts of my Namibian reality, the more I realised my ambition was merely misplaced. What I had perceived as a pull was a push. A push away from a volatile home. A push away from a community seemingly frozen in time.
The ghost-of-settler-colony-past still fans flames in Namibia. In search of some kind of affirmation I had often tried running away from it. But the smoke still found me. It filled my lungs. Subconsciously, the fear of suffocating took over.
Growing up, all I had known were the rigid confines of Namibia’s Germanophone populace. My flight had led me to a cul-de-sac at the edge of the world with my maneuverability in academia and self being put to the test. My sense of home had largely been shaped by claustrophobic reverberations of a remnant colonial echo chamber.
That was my Namibia.
An image projected through a German lens: German schools. German churches. German sport’s clubs. German festivals. German newspapers. Refraction after refraction leaves you with a Germanocentric portrait of an African country, framed by hegemony. What builds this frame is a remorseless desire to uphold a “culture” born of injustice. I paint with a broad brush but not many of my kin are even attempting to chip away at the fortification that holds this frame together.
And neither was I.
I had run away. Without any intention of looking back.
My distorted image of home had become synonymous with my malleable sense of home. It took the lockdown abroad to inadvertently redirect my gaze homewards.
And now the rusty wheels of introspection are churning.
My misguided navigation has ground to a halt. My image of home was not defined by Germanness in itself but, rather, how I decided to wield it. That adjustment—minor in theory, major in practice—has ensured that my sense of home, much like my doctoral ambitions, is undergoing an unlikely revival with no ending in sight.
Frowin Becker is a Namibian PhD candidate at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand where he is investigating the power of acoustic monitoring as a tool to measure environmental change. He holds a master’s degree in Conservation Ecology from Stellenbosch University and has worked with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project. Frowin is also a board member of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Africa section.