Unemployed, Desperate But Still Hopeful

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Hundreds of men gather on the streets of Windhoek every morning in the hope for a job. The Men on the Side of the Road Namibia is an innovative project reaching out to help these job seekers.

By Catherine Sasman

WINDHOEK

“I’ve been sitting here since January,” said 52-year-old Herman August, from where he made himself slightly more comfortable on a large stone, leaning against a lamp post on a busy road in Olympia, Windhoek.

“I am looking for any kind of job. We are struggling to find work, but do not get any. We do not feel good about ourselves. We have children and wives, but no work to support them.”

August has come from Ombalantu to look for work. His wife and six children –
most of whom are still at school – wait there for him, hoping that he will return after some months with money.

After working for Trans-Namib on a contract basis, he finds himself in a very precarious situation: he has no skills to offer, and his advanced age disallows him to easily access meaningful training that would make him more competitive on the job market – albeit the unskilled labour market.

From the group of men who have scattered around corners and hiding behind the few trees along the road at the slightest sign of a camera, few regrouped in curiosity when the New Era vehicle pulled up on the pavement.

“Don’t take our pictures,” they protest, mostly out of shame for the situation they find themselves in.

Japhet Elifas (48) stands closer, and with a hopeless shrug of his shoulders and downcast eyes, says: “Our problems just seem to grow.”

Elifas came to Windhoek from Ondangwa and has found himself on the side of the road for two years in the hope that individuals or private companies would stop to give him stitch work, anything that will allow him to live from day-to-day while he is away from home, and some to take home on his occasional trips back to his family in the North.

Because they do not have money, hundreds of unemployed men from as young as 16 and sometimes older than 60 trek on foot to designated areas in Windhoek where they put themselves on display for work. Then they sit in all-weather conditions and wait, and wait for someone to offer them the odd job, or, sometimes even longer terms of employment.

In the meantime, they play cards or games devised on the spot, or they chat up motorists stopping at stop signs, or drape themselves over the pavements in half-sleep, or sit around listlessly as they watch the cars – and days – go by.

“This is not a life,” said one, who preferred anonymity.

“We are young, but we cannot work. We cannot go home because there is nothing for us.”

On average, said Men on the Side of the Road Namibia (MSR Namibia) fieldworker Thomas Shilongo (31), who found himself in the same predicament, most men work for an average of N$50 or N$100 per day, if they are lucky.

Janet Wicks at the organisation’s small office at Maerua Park said the MSR Namibia recommend a payment of at least N$10 per hour.

“These men are driven by the need to survive, to feed their families, and they will do any job that comes their way,” said Wicks.

Mostly, these men get the odd jobs twice a week. But they still hope for better days to come.

And there is hope for them in the form of the MSR Namibia, a social franchise of South Africa, that has since late last year started to develop a database of the hundreds of men – and to a lesser extent women – who form a growing army of unemployed on the side of Windhoek’s streets.

The MSR Namibia, an incorporated association not for gain, aims to connect these unemployed men and women with job opportunities, said Wicks.

The organisation was launched in October 2007 after being formed from an initiative of the Dutch Reformed Church in Eros, Windhoek.

“Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, sitting at these sites with hundreds of other unemployed, not having any skills on offer that could give you an advantage, being unprotected from labour exploitation, and being stared at and insulted by passers-by. How would you feel?” asked chairperson of the MSR Namibia, Johan Swanepoel.

The organisation currently working only in Windhoek – which is the main centre attracting unemployed from all over the country, though most of those waiting on the side of the road are from the northern regions.

Wicks said MSR Namibia has so far registered more than 800 names of those who are actively seeking employment.

“We try to find out as much as possible about these men and women; we find out their career history, and try to get an idea of the skills and attitudes,” said Wicks.

Most of the men and women on the roads are unskilled, many have never been exposed to formal employment but, said Wicks, some have high levels of skills such as a Grade 12 certificate, a driver’s licence, computer or other artisan skills such as welding, plumbing, and painting.

Jobs on offer are for unskilled or semi-skilled labour such as gardening, domestic work, work at commercial cleaners, and general labouring.

The most successful project so far, said Wicks, is the City Drop project, where workers drop a monthly company-to-company booklet around the city.

Part of the process of registering these men and women is to verify the level of skills, sometimes with on-the-spot questions to see if indeed the potential workers do have the skills they claim to have.

What also put many at a disadvantage is proficiency in Afrikaans and English, said Wicks.

“This is always a bit of a challenge, but there are language courses available and we encourage them to do that,” she said.

“One thing we have realised is that we have to work hard to increase their job readiness to reach the expectations of employers.”

The project targets this growing pool of potential workers and has the support of the City Police and municipality that have established shelters – mostly from the sun – at specific meeting points in Eros, Pionierspark, Olympia and Khomasdal.

Direct and continuous contact is maintained through a field worker who assists in updating the client database and is able to assess the work interest and motivation of potential workers.

The MSR Namibia then brokers work engagements, mostly with small companies on building, landscaping projects, cleaning firms, and so on. MSR Namibia, together with the clients (the job seekers), conducts a work satisfaction assessment to categorise specific job seekers. Those deemed acceptable and recommendable remain in the MSR Namibia work pool.

Training and skill enhancing are available to those who initially receive a poor assessment, depending on the capabilities and career preferences.

Wicks said that the organisation has so far been able to place 100 people in permanent or semi-permanent jobs, and provided training opportunities for between 50 and 100 more. Over 200 have gone for job interviews.

“The outcomes of these interviews are varied, but it still provides the opportunity for work,” Wicks said.

“Every interview experience has to be a learning experience.”

With partners in the private sector, MSR Namibia arranges training courses to the job seekers. The most recent training is the truck driving projects with 10 men identified. Other training opportunities are gardening training, in partnership with landscaping companies and a training provider. Up to 20 men will receive training, which includes life skills through a mix of on-the-job training, formal classroom tuition and self-learning through action plans.

Then there is the Mission Road project that was initiated when it was noticed that the area around Mission Road was overgrown and neglected. Here, a team of the men on the side of the road cleaned up sidewalks and pathways for pedestrians. Homeowners and the municipality financed this project.

An upcoming training course will be in building maintenance, sponsored by Metropolitan. The Kayec Trust will offer this course. The organisation is currently putting together a “farm worker” training course.

And then – “of course” – a money management course is offered “because everyone needs to know how to do that even if you have all of it or none of it,” said Wicks.

“We can only offer opportunities to these men and women,” said Wicks. “The MSR Namibia was set up with the vision to reduce poverty. We are sowing the seeds, and some of these may germinate, even though it may take time. But we believe that we are raising expectations and self-esteem.”

“We just want jobs to live,” said August. “Government does not know people who are unemployed.”

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