This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Carol Ascher and Robin Ashman visit a community center during their trip to Nambia.

Reflections: Celebrating Fifty Years of Friendship Camping in Africa

In this on-going feature, alumnae/i reflect on their lives at Vassar and beyond. Here, Carol Ascher and Robin Ashman, both ’63, relate lessons learned during a camping trip to Africa, taken to celebrate 50 years of their friendship.

We met in front of Jewett Hall, in Sept. 1959, our first week at Vassar, and were soon traveling across Jewett in bathrobes and slippers for late evening chats. After graduation, we both lived in Manhattan, where Robin became a psychotherapist and Carol a writer, and our relationship deepened over the telephone, in restaurants, and across kitchen tables. We celebrated each other’s marriages, birthdays, a birth, and book publications; and helped mourn the deaths of our parents and some of our dreams.

As our friendship approached fifty, we proposed a momentous celebration—without husbands. We chose a ten-day no-frill camping safari in Namibia. We were as nervous as we were excited. Could we pitch pup tents at each campsite? How would our 68 -year- old bladders manage bathrooms "within walking distance" of the campsite, surrounded by the strange hoots and growls of an African night?

We set off at the end of September 2009, fifty years exactly!

From JFK, we flew to Johannesburg and then onto Windhoek, the pretty Namibian capital, where, after a good night’s rest, we spent a sobering day in the black and colored townships. The best houses are cinderblock on meager dirt lots and the worst are corrugated iron and cardboard sheds. Yet, as pained as we were by the inequality and deprivation, we also marveled at the courage and creativity of several faith-based community centers providing HIV testing and follow-up, free daycare and lunches to orphaned and vulnerable children, as well as running water and street addresses.

The next morning, we settled into our safari mini-bus, along with a Dutch couple. Our guide, Elias Kahuadi, and his assistant and cook, Joseph Imene, had come of age during apartheid, and, like virtually all black Africans in Windhoek, they still live in the townships. Over the next ten days, they would show us this arid and sparsely populated country of 2.2 million, of whom 57 percent are Africans of a dozen ethnic groups. While German colonization (until WWI) shows up in good wholegrain bread, immaculate bathrooms and well kept highways, decades under South African rule have kept ownership concentrated in the hands of Europeans, and left vestiges of apartheid and severe economic disadvantage among black Africans.

That first afternoon, as Elias and Joseph helped us pitch our tents, a group of baboons chattered on the hillside. With apprehension we approached our first toilet. A stick fence wound like a snail until, suddenly, protected by fencing on three sides, stood a sparkling clean white porcelain flush toilet facing scrub and open to the sky. Beside it: a sink and a small metal box containing toilet paper. When a similar path produced a hot shower, mirror and hooks for towels, we were smitten!

Three times a day, Joseph produced folding chairs, a table, and a fresh tablecloth for laying out our meal. Perching our granola, yogurt, and bread on our laps, we steadied our coffee in the dusty ground. German bread, sliced vegetables, and cold cuts constituted lunch, and two pots and a campfire magically produced Joseph’s gourmet dinners of chicken stew, beef stroganoff with noodles, or pasta and meat sauce—all served under the stars.

Our tour began with Etosha Game Preserve, but the animals were everywhere! Our hearts were in our throats when we saw a giraffe munching a tree top, just a few feet away. One morning a dark dust cloud moved quickly in the distance—only to turn into a herd of elephants coming towards us at an amazing clip!

We spent hours in the minibus, watching the ordinary, soul searing, standoff at the precious watering holes. While lions relaxed in the brush, biding their time until evening, giraffes, zebras, kudu, and springboks, sensing danger, neared the water but feared lowering their heads to drink. One dusk, we sensed the animals’ desperate calculation—a night without water, or risk quick death. Finally, several giraffes approached the water. As the dozing lions raised their heads to give royal yawns, the giraffes backed off and dozens of zebras and springbok followed. When the drama was replayed, we decided against witnessing that terrible moment of a kill and returned to camp.

Inevitably, we took these dramas of survival quite personally, giving us new contexts in which to see ourselves as privileged animals, without the life threatening daily struggle to eat and drink, and with eye glasses and surgery to support and repair our aging bodies. We compared the animal world, where a baby zebra who doesn't recognize its own mother within a few days is abandoned as incapable of survival, to the way US preemies are put on life support machines. Celebrating our toughness as campers, we nevertheless recognized that, at 68, we would quickly have been the lion’s easy meal.

Despite years of images of Africa, nothing prepared us for Namibia’s startling dunes, the ubiquity of its animals, nor the power of its human story. It’s hard to imagine our lives without our Namibian experience, and all that it made us question—about ourselves, as human animals of privilege, and as educated woman with authority and physical resilience. Thus, our celebration turned out to be a fitting testament to Vassar, which fifty years ago helped us grapple with life’s possibilities and who we would become. –Carol Ascher ’63 and Robin Ashman ’63

Photo Courtesy Carol Ascher / Robin Ashman

May 2011

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