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Posted By Dinesh Pethiyagoda, Richard T. Clark Fellow, Merck & Co. on March 25, 2014

Labels: Namibia , Women’s and Children’s Health, Infectious Disease, Volunteers

Merck's Richard T. Clark Fellows Gark Zelko and Dinesh Pethiyagoda

Dinesh Pethiyagoda is an employee of Merck & Co. in Upper Gwynedd, PA in its Global Marketing Communications for diabetes franchise.  As a Richard T.Clark Fellow for World Health, he and Gary Zelko, Merck’s Director and Publisher of the Merck Publishing Group spent three months in the fall of 2013 visiting Project HOPE’s program sites in Africa.  The purpose of their fellowships was to develop new promotional materials for Project HOPE’s work in Africa to aid in attracting new sources of funding for our work in this region.  

After much anticipation, the day finally arrived for Gary and me to embark on our assignment with Project HOPE in Africa.  As the plane approached to land in Windhoek, Namibia, it was very apparent that we were in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an aerial view of extremely dry land with some mountains.  I had read that Namibia was experiencing one of the worst droughts in the history of the country.  We got off the plane and were pleasantly surprised to be met by Steve Neri, Project HOPE’s Africa Region Director.  On the way from the airport we saw lots of baboons by the side of the road, and Steve kept blowing his horn to scare them off. 

Gary Zelko travels with Project HOPE Namibia staff on a small boat to Impalila Island, Namibia

The first week was spent at the Project HOPE office in Windhoek acquainting ourselves with the goals of our assignment and meeting with stakeholders. The goal of our project was to enhance Project HOPE Africa’s visibility through developing and implementing a comprehensive communications and marketing strategy in order to secure new donor funding.

The next week we embarked on our journey to the north of the country, flying into Katima Mulilo Airport in the Zambezi province.  Namibia is an extremely large country, bigger than the state of Texas and twice the size of Germany.  It is the second least densely populated country in the world.

Women and children greet Richard T. Clark Fellows on Impalila Island, Namibia

We stayed at a hotel on the Namibia side of the Zambezi River, with Zambia across.  Hippos would emerge every now and then, which was quite spectacular.  The next day we set out in the early morning to visit Project HOPE’s program site on the remote island of Impalila, which is located close to the border with Botswana.

We finally reached our destination by the river bank and took an extremely small boat across.  We docked at Impalila Island.   The greeting was very cordial once we reached the shelter where the Village Savings and Loan (VSL) and Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) groups are located. The ladies were dancing and welcoming us as we said “Musahili Twanye” with the cool African handshake, and then we would clap our hands for respect in a special way and say “Hande”.  The women in the village were all dressed in lovely traditional clothes.

Women and children benefiting from Project HOPE VSL and OVC programs on Impalila Island, Namibia

We conducted our first interviews with the group using a colleague to translate and learned a lot about VSL, OVC and health education programs that Project HOPE has been conducting in this extremely remote village.  The people of Impalila Island also performed a play in their language for us and were so appreciative of the education, support and training Project HOPE had provided for them.

While crossing the river again we saw a herd of elephants in the distance and then our extremely eventful drive back began. As we were on our way it started getting gloomy and dark. There was a tusker elephant that we passed less than 300 feet from the vehicle and in the distance we could see smoke and a huge bush fire which was thought to be manmade in anticipation of rain.    

Elephants are seen as Dinesh Pethiyagoda and Gary Zelko depart Impalila Island, Namibia

Then all of a sudden it started pouring rain with thunder and lightning.  An hour later our driver managed to skid away to a different path and we were back on the move.  Finally three hours later, we were back on a tar road heading back to the hotel.  What an experience.  That’s when I proclaimed Gary and myself as the “Rain Makers.”  As we continued on our trip we ended up being three for three, bringing rain to each of the northern regions we visited – all of which were badly in need of rain.

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