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Travel and Engagement as Good Brain Exercise

University of Namibia

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is defined as “the abil­i­ty of the brain to rewire itself through expe­ri­ence”.

We typ­i­cal­ly sum­ma­rize a lot of brain research by encour­ag­ing Sharp­Brains read­ers is to seek for nov­el­ty, vari­ety and chal­lenge, as guide­lines for “brain exer­cise” that will help build new con­nec­tions in the brain, force one to be mind­ful and pay atten­tion, improve abil­i­ties such as pat­tern-recog­ni­tion, and in gen­er­al con­tribute to life­long brain health.

A friend just sent an update on her amaz­ing expe­ri­ence in Namib­ia (the pic on the right shows the entrance to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Namib­ia) that shows how Trav­el and Engage­ment with mean­ing­ful projects can pro­vide superb men­tal stim­u­la­tion, or “brain exer­cise”. This is rel­e­vant at all ages, and we are encour­aged to see orga­ni­za­tions such as Civic Ven­tures and Elder­hos­tel that offer oppor­tu­ni­ties for baby boomers and old­er adults who want to main­tain active minds.

Try pic­tur­ing in your mind, as you read this, all her dif­fer­ent brain areas that are get­ting need­ed stim­u­la­tion through her Namib­ia expe­ri­ence.

UPDATE: my friend just wrote to expand on the “be mind­ful” angle by say­ing that “it def­i­nite­ly requires pur­pose­ful pro­cess­ing of the infor­ma­tion that you are con­sum­ing in order to make it a use­ful brain exer­cise. For exam­ple, I always try to jour­nal or write thought­ful emails about my expe­ri­ence in order to try to best under­stand it.” Great point.

With her per­mis­sion, here you have:


Dear Friends,

I am just return­ing from Namib­ia and am buzzing with excite­ment about all of the oppor­tu­ni­ties for us to make an impact there when we return with our stu­dents next Spring.

Namib­ia is very dif­fer­ent than I expect­ed. It was the last coun­try in Africa to gain inde­pen­dence from colo­nial­ism, gain­ing inde­pen­dence just 20 years ago. Thus, it is much more devel­oped than any African coun­try that I have vis­it­ed, with rel­a­tive­ly good infra­struc­ture and no exist­ing debt. That said, the lega­cies of apartheid can still be felt in today’s soci­ety, and the peo­ple are very clear­ly deal­ing con­stant­ly with issues of race and iden­ti­ty. One of the most inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences that I had was attend­ing a “braai” (the Namib­ian ver­sion of a bar­be­cue which basi­cal­ly con­sists of a first course of a slab of meat, a sec­ond course of a big­ger slab of meat, and a dessert of meat with sug­ar on top…needless to say, Bar­bara, our res­i­dent veg­e­tar­i­an, went hun­gry that night). At the braai were a group of young white peo­ple (social cir­cles are still heav­i­ly seg­re­gat­ed), none of whom were more than 30 years old, and all of whom had seen the fall of apartheid with­in their life­time. While they had been born under a regime where all high-lev­el jobs were reserved for whites, where blacks were told where to live and how to act, they were now strug­gling very much with what it means to be “African.” These were peo­ple who, at a very young age, had to reject their par­ents’ teach­ing that “black peo­ple are dif­fer­ent” in order to con­form with the norms of post-Apartheid soci­ety. And yet at the same time, they are still faced with sit­u­a­tions where they are not con­sid­ered “African” because of the col­or of their skin, in spite of the fact that all of their fam­i­lies have been in Africa for sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions.

The next day, we had an amaz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the com­plete oppo­site side of the spec­trum at the New Covenant Pen­te­costal Church of Namib­ia. This rock­ing and rolling church ser­vice takes gospel to a whole new lev­el. And talk about dressed to the nines…when we arrived we were intro­duced to the pas­tor’s wife who very eas­i­ly could have been going to a New Year’s Eve par­ty giv­en her spark­ly attire. The African women were so glam­orous, dressed head to toe in col­ors so bright you could see them com­ing from miles away. The ma ss last­ed no less than four hours (my par­ents said I must have been mak­ing up for lost time!), and every­one in that church (our­selves includ­ed) were singing and danc­ing the entire time. To give you an idea, I could have yelled at the per­son sit­ting next to me at the top of my lungs and it would have gone unno­ticed, I kid you not. As the rock­ing and rolling cooled down mid-way through, and the pas­tor stood up to give his ser­mon, it became very clear that these parish­ioners (who were all black) were also deal­ing with their own issues of iden­ti­ty and empow­er­ment in the post-apartheid world. The pas­tor used the Bible pas­sage where David returns to Israel to claim his land as a metaphor to preach that every­one in that church should take own­er­ship over their own lives, and take ini­tia­tive to claim their own land, be it fig­u­ra­tive­ly or lit­er­al­ly. The con­gre­ga­tion was on the edge of their seats and, gaug­ing by the lev­el of engage­ment, the words could have bee n com­ing from God him­self. The inter­mit­tent “hal­lelu­jahs” and “praise the lords” were con­stant. It was tru­ly amaz­ing to see this group of peo­ple who, just like the white twen­ty-some­things we had dined with the night before, had seen the fall of apartheid with­in their own lives and were so empow­ered and full of hope for the future. I lat­er learned that, in fact, this com­mu­ni­ty of par­ti­tion­ers who appeared so glam­orous and togeth­er had once been quite poor. But through com­ing togeth­er as a com­mu­ni­ty and through the pos­i­tive spir­it of their church lead­ers, they had over­come pover­ty, with the major­i­ty of them liv­ing com­fort­ably in the emerg­ing mid­dle class of Namib­ia. To see the hope in these peo­ple’s eyes was one of the most inspir­ing expe­ri­ences of my life, and makes me very excit­ed about the work that we are going to be doing in Namib­ia.

While well-devel­oped for African stan­dards, the extreme pover­ty th at we asso­ciate with the devel­op­ing world was not absent. One day we took a tour of Katatu­ra, which was orig­i­nal­ly where the blacks were forced to live in sep­a­rate quar­ters dur­ing apartheid. Beyond the evi­dent pover­ty that exist­ed in these neigh­bor­hoods were miles and miles of shan­ty towns that had sprung up with the onslaught of peo­ple who had come from rur­al areas for work in Wind­hoek. More than half the pop­u­la­tion of Wind­hoek lives in these make-shift homes, made of cor­ru­gat­ed met­al if they were lucky, or old car parts, tree branch­es, used bill­boards or any­thing else they could get their hands on if they were not. You can imag­ine the stench in the air from no run­ning water or toi­lets. And the meals were sparse — most lived off of a litre of liq­uid a day, which was a com­bi­na­tion of yeast, flour and water and made to be fill­ing in spite of the fact that it might be their only meal for the day (we had a taste of it — it was some real­ly hor­ri­ble stuff). It was not my first time see­ing such deep pover­ty, but every time I do, my Catholic guilt begins to set in, fol­lowed by a rag­ing desire to do some­thing about it. In my search to fig­ure out how I could do my part to help, I found many non­prof­its on the ground in Namib­ia doing incred­i­ble work to com­bat HIV/AIDS and pover­ty. I will not go into detail about their incred­i­ble work here, but would be hap­py to share if any­one is inter­est­ed.

And of course, there is the rea­son that we were there in the first place: to devel­op the projects for the Stan­ford law stu­dents that we would be bring­ing in the Spring. Giv­en Bar­bara’s past work in Namib­ia, we were lucky to have access to many of the key play­ers who are build­ing the democ­ra­cy in this coun­try. Meet­ing these inspired indi­vid­u­als made me think of what it would have been like to go back in time to meet our own found­ing fathers. Like the founders of our own democ­ra­cy, these are peo­ple who have a vision for mak­ing Namib­ia a mod­el for democ­ra­cy around the world. They have the advan­tage of being able to see how oth­er democ­ra­cies have emerged and to learn from their fail­ures. Namib­ia wants more for their coun­try. On a con­ti­nent that has seen some of the worst human rights abus­es in recent decades, Namib­ia wants to set the stan­dard. Some of the projects that we will be work­ing on in order to help them get there are research­ing and draft­ing leg­is­la­tion to imple­ment the Con­ven­tion Against Tor­ture, bring­ing a claim for land on behalf of the San peo­ple in the north­ern part of the coun­try, assist­ing in the imple­men­ta­tion of cus­tom­ary trib­al law into the judi­cial sys­tem, and devel­op­ing a project that builds the capac­i­ty of the judi­cia­ry to com­mu­ni­cate amongst them­selves, there­by improv­ing con­sis­ten­cy of prece­dent in their com­mon law sys­tem. I am real­ly ener­gized about all of the work that we will be doing over the com­ing months and have no doubt that it will be an incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence for all those involved (myself includ­ed).

I hope that you all share with me in remem­ber­ing how very lucky we are dur­ing this hol­i­day sea­son.

Hap­py hol­i­days and a joy­ous new year!

Lots of love,




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11 Responses

  1. Just read­ing your friend’s let­ter is already enough to stim­u­late my brain. I don’t have to be in Africa to think about the dif­fer­ences in every cul­ture. Just from the let­ter itself, I have found myself becom­ing a bit involved with the sit­u­a­tion in Namib­ia. It gave way for a tru­ly sin­cere reflec­tion.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Jay, hap­py that the post was use­ful!

  3. Not only does pro­longed Inter­na­tion­al trav­el stim­u­late the mind it also allows you to see the world through a dif­fer­ent par­a­digm

  4. Alvaro says:

    Great point. That change of par­a­digm is pre­cise­ly what stim­u­lates the mind, and helps cre­ate a vari­ety of new con­nec­tions in the brain, in a deep­er way than, say, do one more cross­word puz­zle, or take on one more famil­iar work chal­lenge.

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