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.