Monday, November 15, 2010

Training is over! The whole process has not been easy, beginning from day 1 when I began the application process over 1½ years ago. Throughout the whole process I kept wondering if the hurdles would ever end, and after each hurdle cleared, I thought for sure that that was the last. Nope. I was wrong so many times. The Peace Corps is good at coming up with so much crap to put you through. But I guess it’s good and all for a reason. So, here I am at last… no longer am I an applicant, or a nominee, or a trainee. I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! And I have a Peace Corps picture ID to prove it!

I’ve been “on the job” for four weeks now and my official job title is Small Business Advisor. My responsibilities include working with the school, as well as, existing/potential entrepreneurs within my community. At the school, I am charged with providing technical support to the entrepreneurship teacher, in addition to, assisting her in developing new teaching methodologies to make the entrepreneurship curriculum a lot less theoretical and more practical and hands-on. These entrepreneurship classes (for grades 8, 9, 10) are completely new to the school curriculum and were added almost 2 years ago mainly because of the high rate of Grade 10 dropouts. The thought process here was to at least try to equip the learners with some business skills so that if - or when - they drop out, they have some knowledge/skills to potentially start their own business and take part in the country’s economic development.

In the community, I am charged with providing training to community members in areas of marketing, accounting, financial/business planning, feasibility/market studies, etc. I am also supposed to help community members understand the resources available to them as small business owners and assist them with creating income-generating activities to promote economic development. So, my responsibilities seem easy and straightforward, right?? HA! I wish!

The problem is my community is the bush and I live deep in it. Definition of bush: a particular area of land (lots and lots of land) scattered with small trees and bushes (lots and lots of small trees and bushes). Most people who live in the bush rarely leave the bush because for one, they simply don’t have the means to leave, and two, there’s really no need to, since they live off the land. They cultivate and harvest their own food - mostly mahangu (aka millet) - and that’s essentially what they eat to survive. I have discovered a couple of businesses in the bush, but they’re shabeens (aka bars), and that’s not exactly the type of business I’d like to incorporate into class assignments. Also, the nearest town is about 30 km away and I’ve been told that trying to arrange transportation with the Education Ministry to go anywhere for a school field trip is next to impossible, not to mention the school has no resources, and I could already see that it’s difficult for the learners to grasp many concepts as they are unable to put things into context because they’ve been trapped in the bush and not exposed to much of anything. So, how can I possibly develop practical/hands-on learning activities when the circumstances are as such?? I’m sure it can be done. It just won’t be so easy and straightforward.

I’m also very confused about my responsibility of working within the community. When I step out of my homestead all I can see is land and bush, in every direction. When I make the 2 km trek to and from school all I can see is land and bush, in every direction. I’m not really sure where this community is that I’m supposed to be working with. What’s amazing though, every day approximately 400 learners show up at school. So I guess there is in fact a community – somewhere out there. I just have to find it.

The first two weeks on the job were actually pretty demoralizing, and I experienced culture shock all over again. The fact that the school has no resources is a challenge in itself, but what’s worse, the learners have no self-esteem, confidence, or critical thinking skills, whatsoever. Sadly, most of teachers are the same way. But you can’t blame the learners or the teachers. Unfortunately, this is one of the devastating and lasting effects of colonialism and apartheid. Namibia was colonized twice, first by Germany, then by South Africa. The country only gained its independence 20 years ago, and prior to independence, black people were not allowed to think. If you ask the learners a question that requires them to think or to share their opinion, they immediately open their textbooks and flip through the pages looking for something to copy down. Plagiarism is huge problem here in the schools. I also looked at assignments turned in by the 10th graders (ages 16 – 22), and thought I was looking at work done by 4th graders. It’s shocking. Majority of the learners don’t even have an inkling of confidence or self-esteem to stand up in front of the class and speak. Some of them looked as though they wanted to die. I thought others were going to pee in their pants. There were some learners that would go to the front of the classroom but they couldn’t muster up the courage to turn their bodies to face the class, so with their backs to the class, they clung to the chalkboard, as if they could magically crawl into the chalkboard and make themselves disappear. Honestly, it was almost unbearable for me to see all of this. Also, even still today, kids in Namibia are disrespected and treated as if they don’t have any rights. They are called stupid – all the time, they are ridiculed in front of the class, and they are beaten for making mistakes. It’s also common to see children eating only after the adults have eaten, and typically, the meat is only for the adults. In some classrooms you will find posters about corporal punishment and learners’ rights. Even in a popular children’s magazine I read several articles talking about the rights of children and how children and adults should have mutual respect, no matter the environment or situation. These posters and articles constantly remind me of the little girl in my old Okahandja neighborhood who said to me, “We call white teachers heroes. They are kind to us.” Anyway, it seems that the country and the school ministry recognize this as an issue but it’s difficult to overcome a long history of thinking a certain way. It will take generations before they even come close.

So after the first 3 weeks I was already beginning to feel hopeless and could feel myself falling into a funk. But things changed a little last week. Three learners surprised me, completely out of nowhere, and it is them who inspired me to sit down and type this blog entry. So, to all of you who have been bugging me about updating my blog, you have these learners to thank. ;-) Their names are Sonia, Maria and Jafet. Sonia is a 3rd grader and last Tuesday she decided that she wanted to wear high heels to school, just like a couple of the teachers. So she took two 3-inch hammering nails and stuck one through each sole of her sandal and she pranced around proudly on the cement floors, making the clacking noise just like the teachers whom she looked up to. It was so darn funny! :-) Maybe this seems insignificant, but that moment restored some of the hope I had lost because what Sonia did required a thought process and creativity – two things that I was starting to believe did not exist among the learners. Granted, it wasn’t executed perfectly, but man, it was beautiful and so funny! Haha!

Then there’s Maria. She’s a 9th grader with a rebellious streak, I could tell. Last week I spent a lot of time with the English class that Maria is in because the teacher was out all week. (On a side note - there is no such thing as substitute teachers in Namibia. If a teacher does not come to school, then the classes remain unattended and the children do nothing). Anyway, I am determined to find this community of mine, so I implored the 9th grade English class to help me. I brought markers with me from Chicago and the Peace Corps gave me a pad of big flipchart paper, so with these supplies I had the class work in groups to draw a map of the community. All the learners seemed excited about this assignment except little Miss Maria. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. On the first day of the assignment she just sat there and barely even participated with her group. The next day she came to class with a short novel and sat completely engrossed in reading her book while the rest of her group continued with the map assignment. I just watched her. I couldn’t get mad at her or reprimand her… she was reading for crying out loud! I asked her if she liked to read and she said ‘yes’. I told her that that was great and that I was happy to see her reading. She smiled and then that was it. I left her alone and she read for the rest of the class period while the other learners finished their community maps. So the next time I escape the bush and go to a civilized town with a bookstore I’m going to buy her a couple of books and a dictionary. Maybe she’ll find a way out of the bush through reading.

Finally, there’s Jafet, whom I actually live with. He is my host-brother. Jafet is a 4th grader and a very cool kid. So every Friday morning we have a 20-minute assembly, which includes morning greetings, a prayer, a culture dance and/or song, and announcements. Last Friday’s assembly was lead by Jafet and he did such an awesome job! His English was impeccable and he spoke very loudly and clearly and showed tremendous confidence in front of the whole school. I was so proud of him. Then, Jafet and 5 other learners sang It’s a Small World, and of course, Jafet stood tall in front of the whole school and sang the loudest. Him and I had been practicing the song all week at home, so he was really good. ;-) His presence really commanded the attention of the whole school. It was so great…. a 4th grader! He did a WAY better job than the older kids the week before! Even all the teachers were impressed and a few of them said to me, “Ms. Jennifer, Jafet is really learning English from you at home!” Haha! He is such a good kid.

Anyhow, so Sonia, Maria and Jafet helped lift me from the funk I was falling into. I’ve figured out one thing so far, and that is, the next two years will demand lots of patience and require strategies; and any accomplishments will likely come in small feats.

Back to the community map – I am STILL very confused about my community. There were six groups drawing a community map and at the end of the assignment each group presented their map to the class. What’s interesting, no two maps were even remotely similar! HA! I think I’m going to walk (or ‘foot’ as the Namibians like to call it) the entire bush and hope that I don’t end up kidnapped in Angola! This community must be found, darn it! I will say, though, some of these learners are very talented. I was actually impressed with many of their drawings. They don’t know it yet, but I have some school projects in mind that will allow them to explore their artistic talent. I can’t wait!

One thing that I’m constantly battling with, besides spiders, cockroaches, and other ugly looking bugs, is unwanted attention. Most people stare at me blatantly, with their mouths wide open. It’s as if they’ve never seen a white person before. I guess it’s possible that they haven’t. When I’m out and about walking some people stop dead in their tracks and turn their heads toward me. Others continue walking in the direction they’re going but they also turn their heads to follow me until their heads can’t be turned any more. The best is when I bust out with at little of the local language. People nearly fall to the ground when they hear me speak Oshindonga. It’s quite funny. Some of comments I receive are shocking and funny all at the same time. The most common is, “Madame, take me to America with you.” My favorite exchange was with a Namibian man, and it went like this:

Him: Hello Madame
Me: Hello, how are you?
Him: I am fine. Are you married?
Me: No
Him: Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: No
Him: Do you have children?
Me: No
Him: I want to give you children?
Me: What?
Him: Can I give you children?

Hahaha! Sometimes it’s all a bit too much. But I’ve learned my lesson. The next time someone asks me if I’m married, my answer will be “Yes, with 6 children.” Both, men and women, in Namibia can’t understand why I don’t have any children. I always get really strange looks, as if I’m from a different planet. But then again, sometimes I think Namibia can’t possibly belong to planet Earth! During my training I spoke to a man named Simon who was telling me about his business idea to start an ambulance service. He handed me a copy of his business plan and the name of the business written on the front page was 7 Stars Ambulance Service. Out of curiosity, I asked him why 7 stars. This is what he said to me: “at the time I wrote this I had 7 children, but this year I had 2 more children, so now it’s 9 Stars Ambulance Service.” Hahaha. Geez Louise!

So, my homestead life in the north is starting to feel normal. The monotonous food of sandy porridge and over-cooked, starchy macaroni is becoming more appetizing. I also get a thrill out of killing spiders, scorpions and cockroaches. I once read an article that said humans swallow, on average, 7 spiders during their lifetime. With the number of spiders I’m seeing, that number surely has to be much higher for Namibians. I kill at least one spider each day, and there’s more that scurry away from my failed attempts. It’s also now becoming a natural habit for me to duck before I step out of the pit latrine (aka outhouse). The first few times in the dark I hit my head because the doorway is made for a person who is 4 feet tall. I was happy the red mark on my forehead always went away by morning! Washing clothes by hand doesn’t seem so laborious either, probably because I’m doing a terrible job. Actually, I know it’s because I’m doing a terrible job. Also, I’m making do just fine without electricity. In fact, I am so thankful for not having electricity because dinner’s mystery meat goes down better if I don’t see it.

Clotheslines in Namibia are not just for hanging clothes but for hanging meat, as well. We don’t have refrigeration so we preserve meat by salting it and then drying it out in the sun. So the meat shrivels up and becomes very hard. It’s as if you’re eating a beef jerky. Sometimes I think I’ve been chewing on the same piece of meat for 5 minutes. I’ve never known eating to be such hard work, even eating chicken! The domestic chicken is a tougher meat, too. But maybe that’s the way chicken is supposed to taste before all the steroids and chemicals are pumped into it.

My permanent family in the north is pretty amazing and I’m convinced that I’m living with the best family in all of Namibia. Everyone makes me feel as though I’m a family member, not a guest. There’s Meme, Tate, 6 children, a house worker, the house worker’s 1-year-old son, and me. And if you count all the chickens, it’s a full house! :-) Meme is a lower primary grade teacher and Tate is a businessman but also a retired employee from the water utility company. Their eldest child is Tomas. He’s 21, very funny and very handsome. Then there’s Wilhelmina, who is 20. She’s living in Windhoek and studying Tourism at the University of Namibia. I haven’t met her yet, but will get the chance in December during the holidays. Next is Tobias, who is 19. He’s very soft-spoken and shy. He just finished Grade 12 and is waiting to see if his examination marks are high enough to get him into the university. Then there’s Liana. She’s a very normal 16-year-old girl. She has a very private side to her, too. There’s been many times I’ve noticed her deep in thought, completely tuned out to her surroundings. She has a boyfriend but her parents don’t know about him because dating is not culturally accepted in Namibia. Being friends with a person of the opposite sex isn’t even culturally accepted. Liana also doesn’t seem too keen about the gender roles her society expects of her. Gender inequalities are a huge issue in Namibia, but I think Liana knows better than to just give in. She really wants out and her dream is to study in the U.S. Next are Filipus and Jafet, 11 and 10-years-old. They’re a tag-team. I know I’ll be okay in Namibia as long as Filipus and Jafet are around. They’re always making sure I’m eating enough and that my nalgene bottle is filled with water, and at the end of every day they always tell me to sleep well. They’re such cute kids! Filipus is a very curious kid, always asking me ‘why’ and wanting to know how everything works. He also has to touch everything and examine things for himself, which is good. I’m expecting big things from Filipus when he gets older. Filipus can also be a little troublemaker at times, as he is always looking to push the boundaries. Jafet, on the other hand, is very different from his brother. Jafet is more of the quiet observer. It’s also important to Jafet that he gets to school early every day. It’s so funny how he rushes out the gate, and for no reason at all! When I say early, I mean close to an hour early! Jafet is a really good kid, though. I’m sure he’ll grow up to be the perfect gentleman. In short, Jafet chooses to obey the rules while Filipus would rather break them. Mamushka is the house worker. She’s 23-years-old and the nicest person you will ever meet. She’s always happy and you will never find her not smiling. Her 1-year-old son, Hishikushitya, is usually walking around the homestead with his bare butt exposed because babies in the bush don’t wear diapers. After he goes number two, Mamushka comes with a shovel, scoops up the poop from our dirt/sand floor and then, flings the poop out of the homestead over the tall, thick trees branches, which are erected as our walls. Some things are just too funny and I find myself laughing hysterically on the inside. I can’t wait to find out what potty training is like with a pit latrine in the bush. I’m sure it’ll be interesting… things always are! Also, unlike in the U.S., breastfeeding is not something women here do privately. It is all out in the open, boobs and all. We could be playing cards or eating dinner and there you will find Mamushka, topless and breastfeeding Hishi. I’ve also found myself squeezed into taxis with women who are breastfeeding, both breasts hanging out. But whether a woman is breastfeeding or not, she is usually walking around half-naked. This is something else I’m also becoming accustomed to – i.e. seeing half-naked women, not becoming one myself! This is one aspect of the culture I have not adapted to and don’t plan on adapting to! :-)

Contrary to what you may think, rural life in the bush is far from being boring. UNO, dominos and regular card games are great for passing the time. We also jam to iTunes on my computer. Even Hishi gets into it and shakes his little naked butt. Monopoly is the next joy I plan on introducing my family to, once I can make it back to Windhoek where I can buy it. The games and music are fun, and I’m definitely glad I brought them with, but the real entertainment comes in the form of goat stampedes and cobra killings, not to mention the random events and sightings I find myself being a spectator to during my visits into town.

Some words of advice: if by chance you find yourself living in the bush and owning 27 goats, be sure to close the gate (aka front door) of your homestead while your goats are out grazing. Otherwise, you will have your home raided by 27 goats and they will eat all the plants in sight! This is what happened to us, but the goats weren’t in the house very long before Jafet and Filipus chased them out. I was standing back watching these events unfold, and before I knew it, everything around me turned into very loud mayhem. Jafet and Filipus were chasing the goats, screaming at them; the goats were bah-ing very loudly and quickly rushing towards to the gate, while the chickens were running in every direction looking for a safe haven and making all the chicken noises that chickens make. The chaos culminated into a goat stampede with one chicken dead. It was crazy!

But it gets crazier! The other day I came home from school and my tate told me about the 4-foot black and white cobra that he and Tomas found in one of the storage huts in our house. I asked Tate what he did with it and he said they burned it. I didn’t think anything of it until it was time for dinner and saw a new type of meat on the table. This new meat wasn’t hard and dried out either. And as Filipus kept saying “this is nice meat” over and over again, I couldn’t help but wonder what “burned it” really met. I was too afraid to ask if I was eating snake. The meat tasted ok, I guess, but it was definitely different. I only had a few bites and gave the rest to Filipus because the thought of snake just didn’t sit well with me. I can do caterpillars but I’m not ready for snake just yet. Here, in the backwards north, people also eat dog. So far, I know I haven’t eaten dog meat, at least I don’t think so. When I come home from school everyday, I’m always so happy to be greeted by all three dogs. I hope one doesn’t go missing one day.

One of the many things I find strange about Namibia is that goats, cows, and donkeys have the right-of-way on the roads, yet pedestrians receive no mercy, whatsoever. It’s very strange. Even when you leave the bush and go into town there are animals roaming freely, and cars must slow down or stop because these animals just hang-out in the middle of the road. I often wonder who is the owner of these animals and if they know their animals are parading around town causing traffic jams. Also, most people who are considered wealthy in Namibia keep their wealth in livestock, so when I see roaming animals in town, I think to myself, ‘shouldn’t the owners of these animals know where their money is, and wouldn’t they want their money to be in a safe place?’ Anyhow, forget about making a quick trip into town because you will have animals to contend with, not the kind of animals you and I are accustomed to dealing with on the road, but that kind that walk on all four. ;-) Plus, when you get to town you may find that the stores are closed due to the town’s electricity being turned off because the municipality owes NamPower (Namibia’s electric company) N$12 million. I was thoroughly confused when this happened, but then again, there’s a lot I don’t really understand. Often times, I just shake my head and ask myself ‘why’. I usually fail at coming up with a plausible answer but I continue on with the ride anyway. It’s always an adventure!

There’s another thing I don’t quite understand: my family has a house in town, yet they prefer to live in the bush. It is a normal, western-style home with running water, electricity and a flush toilet. I don’t get it. Liana and Tobias use the house during the week when school is in session because if not, the commute in and out of the bush would be too costly. But at the end of the day, the whole family, with the exception of Liana, would rather live in the bush. Maybe there’s something to be said for living in the bush. I don’t know what that something is, but I have two years to find out.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

So I’ve been in Namibia for about 7 weeks now and it certainly has gone by fast! It’s actually crazy and sometimes difficult to wrap my mind around everything because there’s been so much happening. I somehow feel like I’m missing out on so much back home, purely based on all the changes/events I’m experiencing here in Namibia.

My first moments in Namibia were interesting. We were greeted at the airport in Windhoek (commonly pronounced Vintook) by Peace Corps Staff holding big serving platters of tasty homemade fat cakes. Then we all loaded up on a bus and headed 45 minutes north to our training center located in Okahandja. The drive was my first feel of something safari-like because giraffes, baboons, and warthogs were common sights along the way. We were met with another warm greeting upon our arrival at the training center - this time from all the Namibian trainers. It was so wonderful! They were clapping and dancing, as well as, singing welcome songs in many of the Namibian languages. Believe it or not, there are 12 local languages! It was actually quite nice. That welcome greeting alone made the 18-hour flight entirely worth it. The trainers also had guava and mango juice for us, too - which was so perfect and much needed at the moment! Shortly after we cooled down with the refreshing drinks the real business began. We were ushered into a room, given 1 of 3 rabies shots, and handed our mosquito net and mefloquine (malaria prevention pills). Then they told us that a common side effect to mefloquine is hallucinations. It's been about 7 weeks now, and so far so good - no hallucinations; however, vivid dreams - yes.

So those were my first moments on African soil. Of course I went to bed that night thinking about the day and while tucked cozily in my mosquito net I couldn’t help but smile and laugh to myself.... I was actually in Africa!

My home in Namibia has been with a host-family in Okahandja. They are originally from Ovamboland, which is in the northern part of the country. Ovamboland is also where I'll be living/working permanently once training is over. My host-family is made-up of a mom, a dad, and a very cute 3-year-old boy with chubby cheeks and the cutest smile. Joyce, a family friend, also lives with the family. I really could not have asked for a better family - and they are brand new to Peace Corps so this is their first time experiencing an American. The mom and dad are my age so I don’t refer to them as "meme" or "tate." I just call them by their names: Aina & Iipinge. The little boy’s name is Asser. The family is really great and I feel so comfortable with them. They are not extreme in any way… just a very normal family. They’ve had some struggles in life and used to live in the Katutura area of Windhoek. This is where black people were forced to relocate into haphazard tin shack settlements during apartheid. Our house in Okahandja is western-style with electricity and running water, but no hot water. The evenings are my favorite because I usually spend them talking with Joyce & Aina about all sorts of things. It’s really nice because we usually sit outside on basket-woven chairs and chat away as the sun goes down. I have to take a moment to describe this sunset. It’s perfect and I’ve never seen anything like it. Every evening there is a big, perfectly defined orange circle, front and center in the horizon; and it hovers over a silhouette of mountain peaks that line the horizon while the foreground is dotted with sparsely spaced trees. At this point during the sunset there are no rays or heat. It’s just a bright orange ball in the sky. I think it’s so spectacular. The very last moments of the sunset are my favorite…this is when the orange ball closes in on the horizon in a manner that is very slow and seemingly calculated. You can actually see the sun physically falling lower and lower… and in a matter of seconds the big orange ball gracefully drops out of sight behind the mountain peaks. I’ve never seen the sun just fall from the sky like this. I guess there are benefits to be living in a country where time is a renewable resource. In Namibia, you'll never feel as if it's a race against time. You have all the time you want to stop and smell the roses, or perhaps, to watch a sunset. I love it.

My mornings are awesome, as well - and for two reasons: firstly, I get to see the sunrise as I walk to training class. It’s just as spectacular as the sunset, except lately there’s been a few clouds in the morning sky, so these very vast, majestic sunbeams peer through the gaps in the clouds and extend high into the sky, and secondly, we kick-off each day’s training session by singing 3 or 4 songs in the different local languages. It’s a lively musical assembly – EVERY morning! It’s great. In my former life, my mornings consisted of hour-long traffic jams, train rides crowded with nothing but human shells, lots of superficial small-talk at the coffee pot, and maybe a half-hearted "good morning" from a colleague. Things are definitely different in Namibia. You cannot pass a person on the road without saying hello and asking the person how he is and how the day is going. And people here are always tuned into each other, not their ipods or iphones.

Dinner is always simple. Most nights my host-family eats porridge – about 4 times a week. We all crowd around two plates on a tiny rectangular table in the living room. One plate has a big blob of thick porridge (think play-dough and grey in color) and the other has meat and gravy. The meat is always very little and it’s usually chicken or chunks of beef. No silverware either. Your eating utensil is your right hand – and right hand only! You first scoop out some porridge by digging two or three fingers into the big blob of porridge. Then you sort of play with it in your hand by moving your wrist up and down and letting the porridge roll around in your hand, forming it into a ball. Then, you smash the ball of porridge into the gravy and eat it. It’s actually not bad. Some nights it can be a bit gritty and sandy-tasting but I still eat it. So I hear that sand is bad for the enamel on your teeth... I may be in big trouble with my dentist when I return to Chicago because there’s going to be a whole lot of sandy porridge in my diet for the next 2 years!

So far it's been lots and lots of porridge, but when it's not porridge, it's macaroni or rice. The Peace Corps however had a cultural food day for all the PCVs, our host families, and the trainers. We cooked outside in iron pots over an open fire. This is how it's done in the villages where we'll be living and working. It was nice because we cooked with the trainers & host families and learned about many of the traditional foods that are eaten in the different regions – Kavango, Caprivi, Damaraland, Kunene, Owamboland, etc. Now brace yourself…. a common food in Owambo - my permanent living/working site - is caterpillars. Brace yourself again…. I ate one! Don’t judge!!!!! It really wasn’t bad… it kinda tasted like a little sausage, but it definitely looked like a caterpillar - even after cooked, so you have to get passed the whole mental/visual thing and just do it. Other interesting foods were cow and goat stomach. The trainers also pinned live chickens down with their hands and cut off their necks - in front of us! Then we helped pluck and clean them. Many of the chickens had an egg inside of them too. So we had chicken and scrambled eggs. Also, lucky me, I got to sit next to the live chickens in the van on the way to the food day. I had to listen to them bawk-bawk and see them scramble around in the box, and then for lunch I was eating them. Several times during the day I thought to myself 'what in the world did I sign myself up for??'

So, yeah, the sights and sounds of Namibia are indeed very much alive. I also love the kids that greet me everyday in my “hood” when I come home from training. They’re usually playing football (aka soccer) and creatively use tin cans to mark the goal nets. These kids are tough and their feet are even tougher – they play barefoot even though there are big rocks, glass, and other sharp objects everywhere! It's truly amazing. I am now their best friend because I bring them chocolate, and everyday they run towards me, hoping I have more chocolate.

One of the neighbor children also told me that she is afraid to go into the 6th grade because the teacher hits the learners in the head with her high-heel shoe for every little mistake. My heart was breaking as the little girl was telling me this, but unfortunately, corporal punishment is still commonly used here in the schools, even though it is against the law. I really hope I don't have to witness this in the school I'll be working in. It's horrible enough just knowing it exists and listening to/seeing the fear in a child when it's talked about.

Also, the other day I read an article in the newspaper on forced sterilization of HIV+ women in Namibia. Various human rights groups are urging the President of Namibia to put an end to forced sterilization. We, of course, had lots of training sessions on HIV/AIDS. In Namibia 1 in 5 people are HIV+, and because of this pandemic, the life expectancy for Namibians is low: 50 years for males, 48 years for females. Most HIV+ people end up dying from malaria or tuberculosis. There’s also a terrible stigma put on HIV+ people, and if you’re skinny, people automatically assume you have HIV/AIDS. Namibians want to be fat and love fat people. My host-mom and her sister-in-law say it all the time – “I want to be fat” and “I must eat to become fat”. You would never hear this in the U.S.!

So there are times when my host-mom really cracks me up. She says some very random things at very random moments. The other day she said to me “how come your colleagues don’t have a buttocks, but you have one and it’s a nice one.” hahaha! The interesting thing about all of this, though, is that while she has been wondering about the butts of Americans, I have been wondering about the breasts of Namibians. These Namibian women have really big boobs – even women with the tiniest frames. I just don’t get the boobs… just like how she doesn’t get the butts, I suppose. I find a lot of humor in this. hahaha!

Anyway, so every night I find myself lying in bed recapping the day’s events. It’s usually the small things/moments that I find myself thinking mostly about…. things like the little boy who said, “I hope to taste a strawberry in my life” or like the message “not for baby feeding” that is written front and center on the packaging label of all the coffee creamers at the grocery store or even like the two police officers I saw handing out bottle openers at the Okakarara Trade Fair… this happening a few days after we had a training session on alcoholism and how it’s a very serious problem in Namibia. We’re obviously not accustomed to hearing/seeing such things so it’s stuff like this that stops you dead in your tracks; and it’s these little things that tell the real story of Namibia.

Life certainly is not easy here, and I wonder how I’m going to combat many of the challenges/obstacles. My permanent living/working site for the next 2 years is a small, rural village near the town of Outapi. I am very close to the Angola border. The unemployment rate in this region is 78.6% - yes, 78.6%. Last week I spent 5 nights at my permanent site and got to experience some things first-hand. The people in this region have nothing. The school I’m assigned to also has absolutely nothing: no computers, no library, there are not enough text books, the learners must share chairs and desks (which are in horrible condition and falling apart), the learners don’t have pens/pencils or paper, and worse yet… the learners sit and do nothing because the teachers are unqualified and/or don’t care and lack even an inkling of motivation to do anything. It is so terrible. In the 2 days I spent at the school, I witnessed teachers just leaving their classroom for the whole period, and many of the other teachers who stayed in their classrooms just sat there and did whatever while the learners socialized with one another. I wanted to cry. This whole experience so far has been a bit of a roller coaster, filled with many ups & downs, and I definitely hit my lowest point that first day at school. I also learned that several years ago the Namibian government addressed a teacher shortage by implementing a program that allowed people to go to school for free to become a teacher - with no conditions, stipulations, monitoring or anything in place. So therein lies problem number one. With unemployment SO high, of course the program would attract people - all sorts of people, including people only looking for a pay check to feed their families. So most of these teachers do it for a pay check and nothing more. It's all very sad.

Also, EVERY SINGLE CHILD at that school is dirty and wears a school uniform that is filthy, torn, and in most cases, too big or too small for the child – probably because it has been previously worn by at least 3 older siblings. And with some children, duct tape has become a part of their school uniform because the uniforms are so severely torn that something is needed to hold it together. It’s just bad. Many of the children don’t even have shoes. They come to school barefoot. Other learners are wearing two different shoes or shoes that clearly don’t fit. And most of these children have to walk several kilometers to get to school. It’s unbelievable. I lie awake at night wondering what in the world am I going to do, and it becomes even more daunting when I factor in a teaching staff that doesn’t seem to care. The passing rate for 10th graders at this school is 42% and that's based on a grading scale in which the letter grade "D" – a passing grade - is 40-49%. Most kids in Namibia end up dropping out of school after the 10th Grade. It really is all very overwhelming and disheartening but I am going to dedicate myself to those learners. Those kids deserve at least a chance, and if I can open the eyes of one or two learners and maybe ignite a sense of curiosity, then I’ll be happy. Maybe I'll start with a map of the world.

I am finally in the home-stretch of training. Between the Oshindonga language classes and business trainings it’s been a bit intense at times but it’s definitely worth it. There are 10 business PCVs, myself included, and our training is very practical, project-based, and involves a lot of interaction with the community. We’ve had to write business plans and perform feasibility and SWOT analyses – all for real/potential businesses. In the process, I've learned many interesting factors at play - for example, only 0.99% of the land is arable, yet 70% of the population is supported by agriculture. The National unemployment rate is at 52%, and 35% of the population lives on $1 per day while 56% of the population lives on $2 per day. Also, Namibia’s gini index is close to one – the worst in the world. Also, in the U.S. we’ve always known that buying larger sizes or in bulk is cheaper. That actually does not hold true in Namibia. Most smaller-sized products are actually cheaper per unit of measure than the larger-sized products, and that's because there is very little demand for the larger sizes due to lack of household disposable income. At first the pricing on the supermarket shelves seemed strange but after talking about it the dynamics all make sense.

Next week already is the end of training. Training felt too long and too short all at the same time. I can't even begin to explain it. Next Friday is our swearing-in ceremony and 16 October I move to my permanent home in the north. Then life will surely get more interesting. The 5 nights I spent last week in my permanent home gave me a taste of my life for the next 2 years. The directions on how to find me are as follows: first find the middle of nowhere in Namibia, then drive for about 1/2 hour on dirt paths that wind around through lots of bushes and trees. Do not turn onto anything that resembles a road. Stick only to the maze of dirt paths. You will pass a couple of mahangu fields and maybe some grazing cows and goats along the way. Eventually, it is there where you will find me - DEEP in the middle of nowhere.

My home is essentially the outdoors. I will be living on a homestead with a family. Imagine this: lots of tree branches, about 3-5 inches in diameter and 6-7 feet tall, one by one jabbed into the earth to form one massive circle. This circle of branches is the wall of my house. Our ceiling is the sky. And beneath our feet is soil, but Americans would probably refer to it as sand because to us, that’s what sand looks like. Within the massive circle of tree branches there are several small thatched-roof huts. These huts are used for storing farming tools as well as the all-important mahangu – the stuff that porridge is made from. But also within the “walls” of my home there are three small cement block buildings with tin roofs. One of these buildings is my sleeping room. Peace Corps requires that PCVs have a “secure” room to sleep in with a door that locks. However, the structural integrity of these building is definitely questionable. We do not have electricity; however, the family uses solar power to charge cell phones. They also have a solar-powered TV but during my short stay they barely even used it. All of our time is spent outside. Our kitchen is an open fire outside, our dining room set, also outside, was custom built by the father with scrap materials welded together. We eat outside, read outside, play cards outside, do homework outside, chill outside… we do everything outside - even bathe outside. Oh, boy, I can’t wait to bathe during the winter months! NOT! So the bathing area is a somewhat enclosed area made of cement blocks and a cement floor. The walls come up to my shoulders and half of one wall is missing, as this is the entryway. It’s a bucket bath and I use what I like to call the splash method. It works if you splash just right. :-) Fortunately, clean drinking water is not a problem in Namibia, and luckily, my family has a ground tap within 50 meters so I don’t have to go very far to fetch water. The toilet is a pit latrine, which is of course, located outside of the homestead. It’s similar to an outhouse but a 15-foot hole is dug and something shaped similar to a conventional toilet sits over the hole. So it’s like sitting on a real, shiny porcelain toilet, except you don’t have to worry about flushing. It may sound nasty and disgusting but it really isn’t that bad… but then again, my standards for cleanliness dropped my first week in Namibia. Inside the pit latrine is a small bucket filled with torn sheets of newspaper. This is the toilet paper. There’s no market for Charmin in Namibia.

So the first night in my sleeping room was not so pleasant. My mattress is basically a piece of foam so it felt like I was sleeping on the hard ground. And I just couldn’t sleep with all the sounds that the cows, chickens, roosters, donkeys, and dogs were making. It’s funny… I can sleep like a baby through the loud sounds of airplanes, trains, and car horns/alarms, but not of farm animals. The second night I had tiny ants in my bed, which grossed me out, but I took care of it and got over it pretty quickly. I really have no other choice. I’m seeing all sorts of bugs/insects/spiders that I’ve never seen before, and the strangest-looking bugs just fall from the sky and land on my lap. I guess some things just take some time getting used to. During the first 2 days I was asking myself what the heck did I get myself into and even wondered if I can actually do this for 2 years. But each day you’re adapting so it gets better, and during my last night on the homestead I had a moment – this time a good moment. All of us were together – the whole family – and we were eating dinner (outside of course)… then we cleaned up, sat around some more, talked some more, laughed some more... and before we knew it, it was bed time. So we all said goodnight and off we went to our sleeping rooms. So as I was walking to my sleeping room, with torch in hand (a flashlight is called a torch in Namibia), I just happened to look up and noticed a billion stars in the sky. And then I realized that during that whole evening I had forgotten that my home did not have a ceiling. It felt like a normal home. It was the strangest moment but it was exactly what I needed.

There are also live chickens EVERYWHERE within the homestead. They come in all sizes and colors and their characteristics/appearances embrace the whole gamut of ugliness. Have you ever seen a chicken up-close and personal?? They are u-g-l-y, period. They like to scamper across your toes, and a couple of them are feisty ones that like to sneak up on you while you’re cooking/eating and steal food from you. There’s this one chicken that really cracks me up because it is always so determined to steal food. It hops onto the stones that are used as a stove and gets very close to the open fire to peck at the pot that is cooking with food. That damn chicken doesn’t have feathers on its head and I wonder if it’s because they all got singed off. I’m sure the family can’t wait to fatten this chicken up because he’s nothing but trouble. I actually get a kick out of it and realized that chickens have personalities too! I also got to witness a chicken chase, which was HILARIOUS. The two younger boys (10 & 11 yrs-old) were running around the entire homestead trying to catch a chicken for slaughtering. OMG, the chase was so funny. HAHAHA!! I will have to videotape at least one chicken chase before my 2 years is up. Also, in the Ovambo culture, it’s tradition to kill a chicken for dinner when a new visitor comes to the homestead. And when a person leaves for a long journey it is also tradition to bid farewell to that person by giving him a chicken to eat during the journey. So, of course, my family sent me with a whole cooked chicken for my 9-hour journey back to Okahandja. The chicken must also be given whole; giving a person a chicken that is cut into pieces is disrespectful. OMG, I’m talking too much about chickens! I’ve been learning so much about large livestock, too…but I’ll save that for another time. Look out - this city girl is turning country! ;-)

I have to be honest - I'm already missing two things back in the States: a shower and a washing machine. I absolutely HATE washing my clothes by hand. It’s horrible and I suck at it. Every Sunday is laundry day and I dread it. As far as I’m concerned, the washing machine is the GREATEST invention EVER!

So, yeah, things are interesting …and becoming even more interesting with each passing day. But life is good.

Peace Out!

Monday, August 16, 2010

At 2am I begin the long trek to Namibia, and 36 hours later I will be completely immersed in an unknown land and culture - all in the pursuit of helping those less fortunate and expanding my understanding of life. But before I fully embark on this Peace Corps journey I wanted to say one last THANK YOU. Words cannot express how grateful I am for all the farewell cards, gifts, and going-away parties/dinners/get-togethers. Your encouragement throughout has truly been amazing and I know I wouldn’t be on the verge of actually following my dreams and passions without your tremendous support.

They say that Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love”. I am ready to discover this for myself, while leaving behind the comfort and security of my surroundings in the U.S. I know you’ll be there cheering me on along the way!

Stay tuned…