This German Activist Started a Nonprofit at Age 20 to Help Keep Kids in School in Namibia

Pia Gralki


Why Global Citizens Should Care 
To break the global cycle of poverty, and achieve the UN’s Global Goals by 2030, children have to get the best start in life — across nutrition, health, access to education, and more — to help ensure they can achieve their real potential. Join the movement by taking action here to help protect and support children around the world. 

For Lena Palm, Namibia has always been a part of her life. As a child, she accompanied her mother on numerous research trips to the country, to which she dedicates her life today. 

After graduating from high school in Germany, Palm returned to Namibia for six months to help out as a volunteer in a children’s home in Katutura, a former township of the city of Windhoek. During this time, she learned a lot about racism, poverty, and hope. 

Back at home in Germany, she felt one thing above all: a thirst for action. The contrast between her own life and the living conditions of the children in Namibia made her feel the need to help more. Then, in February 2015, at the age of 20, Palm founded her own aid organization. 

Among her circle of family and friends in Namibia, Palm found the support she needed to bring Wadadee Cares to life. 

Since then, she has been running and supporting diverse projects with volunteers from all over the world and local staff in Katutura, including pre-schools, children’s homes, afternoon care, kindergartens, and soup kitchens. 

Image: @wadadee.cares

All these initiatives, while also supporting adults in the community, particularly focus on the children. Children who otherwise often would not have safe shelter, stable access to nutritious food, or access to education. To be able to best support these children, Wadadee Cares works together with local partner organizations. 

For her work, Palm was given the honorary “A Heart for Children” award, at a gala in December 2019. At that time, just like the rest of the world, she couldn’t have known that her work in Katutura was about to change fundamentally. 

Here, Palm talks with Global Citizen about her motivation, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in Katutura, and about the life she would like to see for the children she supports. 

What does Wadadee Cares stand for — literally and for you personally? 

Wadadee comes from the language of the Damara — a Namibian ethnic group — and means “it’s everybody’s” or “it’s for everybody.” 

Historically, Katutura still has a very negative reputation today, because South African apartheid policy was introduced here. We would like to do something about this so that the children and young people who grow up there have the courage and opportunities to take their lives into their own hands in order to make a difference. 

No matter what language you speak, no matter what color you are, and no matter if you are rich or poor — everyone is welcome and can join our mission. 

Image: @wadadee.cares

Which of the Wadadee Cares projects is especially close to your heart? 

I think that education is the highest good in our society, and starts with the smallest among us. Although school attendance is compulsory in Namibia, there aren’t enough school places for all the children in Katutura. So many children don’t have the opportunity to go to school, especially if they don’t speak English. 

This is where the private initiatives we work with come into play, to help prepare the majority of all children in Katutura for school, teach them English, and make sure they get a school place. Without these kindergartens and preschools, many children would be completely denied access to education. 

Without education, no child can go far — and they are then threatened with the devastating cycle of poverty, unemployment, and disease. 

What are the biggest hurdles for the children you help support? 

From hunger and language barriers, to destitution, disease, racism, and violence, it’s all there. I think the biggest hurdle for many children here is the assumption that they can’t escape poverty anyway. 

In society, the image is often conveyed that living in Katutura is a bad thing and that therefore children have no chance of accessing education and getting a good job.

Image: @wadadee.cares

Traumatic childhood experiences such as violence and rape also play a major role. What good is it for a young girl to go to a good school and receive the best education if she is so traumatised by rape she won’t be able to lead a normal life? 

Especially in the last year, we have devoted ourselves to this issue and try to support our children holistically through close cooperation with psychologists and therapists, not forgetting mental health. 

What influence is the COVID-19 crisis having on your work? 

The Namibian government decided on early intervention. Schools, kindergartens, preschools, and creches closed from March 14 until the beginning of July. For children’s homes, it was decided that children wouldn’t be allowed to have social contacts outside their institution. 

We have of course implemented these regulations with great care because of our responsibility towards the children, employees, and our project partners. Their safety and health are very important to us and have top priority. 

The Namibian government reacted very offensively and quickly, and has since been able to slow down further spread. 

Image: @wadadee.cares

A major problem, however, is the lack of tourism. Wadadee Cares cooperates with local partners in tourism as an income-generating measure. Together, we want to use sustainable tourism to help generate jobs in Katutura and a regular income for our mission. 

The fact that all international tourism has completely ceased, our perspective and existence is also in danger. Of course, we are not alone: 950,000 people in Namibia are unemployed — which is more than half of the working population of the country. 

The economic upset is correspondingly significant. Tourism especially is an irreplacement economic sector for Namibia, which makes a big contribution to the environmental and natural protection in Namibia. This damage will be felt for a long time to come.

What consequences did COVID-19 lockdowns in Namibia have for you? 

From March 28 until May 5, we lived in lockdown in Namibia. In the course of this, the German Embassy in Namibia and the German Foreign Office initiated a retrieval action for all tourists stranded in Namibia. For security reasons, all our volunteers left us. 

In addition, the lockdown forced our partner projects to temporarily close down either completely, or being able to work only to a limited extent. As a result, significantly fewer children got a hot meal every day, and school support was completely eliminated. 

As in Germany, most schools set up a home schooling program. However, most families have neither an internet connection nor the necessary equipment to teach their children from home. Many children have therefore been completely excluded from access to education. 

Image: @wadadee.cares

How are you currently trying to protect yourself and your children from COVID-19 and its acute effects? 

We try to support the families by distributing food packages and school materials, but without volunteers this is a logistical challenge for us. We also try to financially support our partner projects, among them especially many privately initiated kindergartens. 

In our self-operated children’s home, preventative quarantine and contact restriction is being carried out as recommended in order to protect the children. But the children are trying to make the best of the situation, and we all hope to be able to return to our everyday life soon. 

We’ve also distributed face masks, soap, and disinfectants for all other projects. In a kindergarten, which until a few weeks ago had hardly any access to clean water, we were able to build a sink for hand washing at the entrance. 

The children, who have previously got daily meals in the kitchen, are now only allowed to come with their lunch boxes to take their lunch home or to receive food packages for themselves and their families, to keep contact to a minimum. 

What future do you want to see for the children that Wadadee Cares helps support? 

My wish for the future for all of our children is the same as for my younger siblings in German: for them to have the freedom to choose how they want to live, and for them to have all options open to them, regardless of their skin color or origin.

What advice do you have for Global Citizens who would also like to take action? 

I can only advise anyone with a vision to just start, just do it — and even if it’s “just” on a small scale, it might be the beginning of something big.