Monday, January 26, 2009

Does God Leave Footprints in the Sand?

There's a great desert in Namibia, in Africa's southwest, where two German geologists went AWOL during the Second World War. They didn't believe in Thousand Year Reichs, Jewish pogroms or master races; they were scientists and primarily curious about what lay under of the surface of the world's upheavals. I mean this literally. Namibia is a region rich in reserves of quartz, jasper, amethyst, among hundreds of other minerals. While rock could transcend eras, the war was a pocket in time, a manmade catastrophe that they did not believe in and were determined to survive so that they might continue their studies. They escaped to the desert where they hid out among the dunes and ridges, canvassed for water and hunted antelope and other animals, much as man must have lived in this region for centuries. Amazingly, they survived for two and a half years before they exhausted themselves of game, water and the gambit of living in the harshest of climates, finally surrendering themselves to the authorities.

Bordering South Africa, Angola and Botswana, Namibia does not figure prominently on most people's minds when they think of Africa, as its recent history is not so pathetic or violent as many others on the continent. In the 19th century, during the gluttonous appropriation of lands, rivers, and mountains it was ignored by the the European colonial powers in the initial rush for conquest. The British had put a flag down in the deep harbor of Walvis Bay but otherwise the coast was not advantageous and the land beyond it, inhospitable. The Germans eventually claimed it for the Kaiser but as with every area of land in Africa, there had been someone settled there beforehand. The Germans fought a vicious battle with the indigenous San Bushmen, forcing thousands to migrate east to the Kalahari Desert where they starved to death or perished from dehydration.

Namibia was pretty much ignored afterwards as a frontier post until diamonds were discovered in 1908. Of course, this raised its profile considerably and became a source of contention among the great powers. It was forfeited by the Germans along with their entire colonial holdings following their defeat in the First World War. A treaty put Namibia under a mandate to be administered by South Africa, back then still a member of the Queen's empire but more or less autonomous. When South Africa achieved nationhood, the rigid and racist social structure known infamously as apartheid was firmly entrenched in its society as well as within its colony in Namibia. Great diplomatic pressure from the UN could not sway South Africa to release its grip until an internal guerrilla movement called SWAPO made things untenable for South Africa to effective govern. Independence was finally granted in 1990.

A lucrative industry, there are very few unemployed geologists in Namibia. For underneath the barren plateaus and mountains of sands are rich reserves of diamonds, copper, gold, lead, tin, lithium, and zinc. Namibia is the world's fifth largest exporter of uranium. Because of the wealth generated from the mining industry, the country feels wealthy by African standards. When I crossed the border from Zambia the landscape was just as forlorn on the Namibian side but the bus stopped at the OK Market, a generic supermarket outfit with America-sized food packages and correspondingly high prices. I was surprised to find three dollar magic shell syrup for ice cream amid the merchandise.

This wealth, is of course, quite deceptive. Like South Africa, there are two worlds in Namibia, black and white, and the distribution is very uneven. The major industries are still controlled by old Afrikaans and English families and wages do not correspond to rising prices. 35% of Namibians are unemployed and 50% live below the poverty line (nearly one-third of Namibians have annual incomes of less than $1400). The desert climate is as inhospitable now as it was a century before. Less than one percent of the land is arable and during prolonged droughts starvation is rampant. And the economic success itself is precarious, dependent on the availability of underground minerals. When they will eventually be irreprably exploited the country's infrastructure has few economic alternatives.

Regardless of technology, irrespective of the minerals, the desert remains formidable, dangerous, unforgiving. It is also a source of tourism. There are canyons, plateaus, vleis (dry river beds), and dunes that give the desert its geographical character. The dunes of Sossuvlei are particularly special--they rise nearly 300 meters from the earth, unnatural mountains undulating into the horizon, a great sand sea. When the wind picks up, sand scurries across the desert's face, giving the land its voice--lingering and soulful-- between the long, stoic silence it invariably defaults on.

How the sand dunes are formed is a bit of magic that takes millions of years to develop. Sediment of iron oxide is carried down the Orange River into the Atlantic where it meets a strong surface current called the Benguola. The Benguola spins the minerals in a cyclical direction against the coastline grinding it up into a fine red sand that is then blown across the land by a southwesternly wind that eventually meets a southeasterly wind, that has picked up along the way sediment from the Orange River upstream. The two winds clash and the fallout is deposited so that the dunes are balanced and colored on both sides, a finely carved ridge forming the dunes' backbone. Erosion from the nearby mountains is the source of quartz and dolorite blown in from more desert winds creating a delicate, sparkling sheen. When the sun rises over the dunes, its ascent to the sky douses the landscape with shifting light like a great finespun Arabian carpet washed over in fresh dye.

Namibia is a geologist's playground, an inspiration, a neverending story of development, formation, erosion. But for most of the country's inhabitants the dunes have very different origins. Like many countries in Africa, almost ninety percent of Namibians are Christians and they believe in the Old Testament, biblical creationism, Intelligent Design. Thousands of miles to the north, the men of the Sahara explain, 'God created the desert for man to find his soul.' Is this because the desert, like any embittered environment can bring out mans' great virtues and extreme depravity? When you think of life and the desert, survival comes to mind because if water is the source of life, surely the absence of it is the proximity of death?

Life manages to persist. Amid the rugged terrain outlining the desert's frontier, trees are sparse but they do grow and some of them are home to giant nests of birds calles sociable weavers. Dozens of these birds live in the same nest, building upon the shelters to accommodate growing populations. Creating a complex apartment aviary, the nests can grow so large they uproot trees. 

On the road between the urban sprawl of Windhoek and the desert are birds-of-prey gliding in slow, deliberate circles, wild horses grazing on yellow grass, fat cattle slouching on the long march, and the occasional baboon seemingly shiftless and bored on a rocky outcropping. Indeed, in Nambia, one gets the impression that biblical creationists would lose the great evolutionary debate. Even to the casual, amateur eye, the formations and the adaptive qualities of the wildlife indicate the earth is a very old place.

Yet one can't help but feel that God does exist, because the desert and the surrounding landscape feels much more intricate than the aftermath of a climate pattern. This is divine and inspired beauty and while I don't think it necessarily demonstrates a Biblical Jehovah at work one is inclined to believe in some mysterious force present.

At a distance the sand dunes are conspicuously empty of life. But when one puts his or her foot in the sand, a little black-rounded bug, with a curved thrusting blade in front emerges from the depths. If one touches your shoe they squeeze into a little ball or dig themselves under the grain. The 'bulldozer' beetles have managed to stay alive in the desert for millions of years, through unbelivable summer temperatures and great desert storms. These robust creatures persist in a climate not made for life at all.

There is something both frightening and wonderful in that.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2005

No comments:

Post a Comment