Speak to anyone who has interacted with the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia and without fail, sometime during the conversation, someone will say, “There’s something about Mary.” They are, of course, referring to Dr Mary Seely, the executive director of the DRFN, who is now as synonymous with the Namib Desert as a fog-basking beetle.
So what is it about her? Is it her monumental knowledge about desert ecology, her long and distinguished directorship of DRFN, her humble attitude to the avalanche of awards and degrees bestowed upon her or simply her untiring drive to follow her desert passions?
To me, and to the huge cohort of students, academics and fellow workers who have passed through her hands, it’s none of these that comprise the ‘something’. Of course we stand in admiration of all the above, but the ‘something’ overshadows all. It is simply her power to inspire and transmit that inspiration to individuals. It is, after all, as an inspired individual capable of achieving virtually anything that she has been able to direct the DRFN to such heights, alongside the people she has powered up over the years.
So what inspires the inspirer? Why would someone with a PhD in biochemistry from a Californian university shift herself and her focus to Namibia? Coming to Namibia as an assistant to the founder of Gobabeb, Dr Charles Koch, was the first step and then, Dr Seely adds, the beauty of the scope and diversity of people, environment and situations was addictive. Instead of being a focused biochemist with an interactive circle of like-minded colleagues, she was facing workers, ministers, students, invertebrates, floods, fog, steep slip faces, in fact, anything that Namibia could throw at her, and perhaps a little biochemistry too.
To watch Dr Seely in her varied array of interactions is a tonic. Each interaction has one common denominator. She is always alongside, never in front, working you through a situation rather than pulling, guiding instead of directing. It is this simple brief togetherness that injects a desire in you not so much to follow in her footsteps, but to use this newfound footing and take it further. It is this difficult-to-define ability of stimulating achievement that has made Dr Mary Seely a fundamental instrument in advancing science in its many forms in Namibia.
This article appeared in the 2005/6 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.