A project changing lives in the Namib Desert wins UNESCO sustainability education prize

The Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET) is one of the three winners of the 2018 edition of the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development. Director Viktoria Keding spoke to UNESCO about the win.

'This is a special gift and an honour for us and we are absolutely thrilled,' said Viktoria Keding, Director of the NaDEET Centre which runs live-in programmes offering hands-on practical learning about Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) deep in the 2150 km2 NamibRand Nature Reserve.

'It feels like such a fitting time for us to receive this recognition,' she said as the centre celebrates its 15th anniversary on 24 October 2018.

The Prize, which rewards the three winners with US$ 50,000 each, will be presented at a ceremony at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris on 9 October 2018.

Impactful teaching of environmental education

NaDEET Centre, a key partner of the UNESCO Global Action Programme on ESD (GAP), was created in 2003. It all started when Viktoria came to Namibia to teach environmental education and saw there was a gap to be filled by a less traditional, more impactful way of teaching environmental education. She also realized that such education could not be taught effectively and honestly if the learning environment was not itself setting an example.   

‘Then I had this amazing opportunity to start a brand new centre in the desert from scratch and make it as sustainable as the Namibian context will allow,’ she said. ‘Here we are aware that we must constantly evolve and adapt in big and small ways. For example, when we opened the centre, LED lights were not readily available.’

Today the NaDEET Centre offers everyone from schoolchildren, their parents, educators and community groups the chance to spend almost a week living in a purpose-built sustainable environment. Learning by experience involves bucket showers, solar cooking, total waste recycling and learning how to make firebricks for fuel as well as dune walks to learn about local flora and fauna and practically apply English, maths and science. Since its inception it has welcomed more than 10,000 beneficiaries and is consistently booked to capacity.

An authentic ESD experience

Viktoria puts the centre's success, including the prize win, down to the authenticity of the experience it offers. She also paid tribute to all staff and her husband Andreas, the Technical Director of the centre.  

'I really feel that it is the way we do environmental education that makes it work. We may not reach millions of people with a massive campaign but we offer a quality transformative experience. We truly practice what we preach and those who come here not only change their behaviour and attitudes, but they start learning from the moment they arrive.'

NaDEET’s work fits under three broad categories, centre-based environmental education, environmental literacy and outreach community development. What is learned there feeds directly into school curricula and teachers have remarked on its positive influence on pupils’ knowledge. It is also a powerful hub for knowledge exchange. For example, language teachers who came to undertake the programme also translated the centre’s It’s Time to Grow booklet into three local languages.

Viktoria says there is enormous satisfaction in watching the transformation first hand of those who spend time there.

‘Some people leave with very specific projects to start a clean-up where they live or make the recycled firebricks themselves. For others, it is a long-term change in how they define their relationship with the environment. One of the most satisfying things is to see teachers who were here as pupils return with their students,’ she said. 

Time to reflect

She says the prize money will make an enormous difference to the centre. 'We always had small funding. This will give us time to breathe for a moment and reflect. We have so many ideas about how we would like to expand. This prize will act as a catalyst,' she said.

Ideas for the future include developing an academy for youth and education professionals at the centre but first there will be added scope to finish the building of a model sustainable house. As part of their GAP commitment, working on accelerating sustainable solutions at the local level, NaDEET staff are developing a model house in Swakopmund where their head office is based.

‘It will be somewhere people can see that it is not only the materials that a house is made out of that counts for sustainable living but behaviour, how we source food and how we manage the use of water, energy and waste.’

Viktoria says the house will act as a stepping stone to focus on working nationally and reaching as many Namibians as possible.