Sunday, December 19, 2010

Working in Omuthiya

So...LOTS has happened since I last wrote. The first few weeks at site have been exciting and lots has happened with the new library. The 10 computers in the computer lab are all set up and the materials from the old library have been transferred over to this building. After LOTS of obnoxious phone calls on my part, an electrician and the internet technician came on the same day to work together to get us connected to the web. Now, community members will be able to use the internet for FREE when the library is finally open (although when that will be is unclear...and might not be for awhile). It also took FOREVER to shelve all the books that we already had even though the materials only fill three of our MANY shelves (our library is big - two floors!). The result is kind of a sad, lop-sided looking library.

I’ve been corresponding with a volunteer who will arrive when the new group of health volunteers comes in February, Neil, and mentioned to him how pathetic looking all of the empty shelves were. He jumped at the chance to help and has been running a book drive out of North
Carolina, where he lives, to gather books and materials for the library in Omuthiya. SO many people have been coming to the library to check it out even though it’s a bit of a walk off the main road. They all seem really excited and can’t wait for it to be open. Due to security, we aren’t allowed to let anyone use the materials in the library, but as people have been coming, I’ve asked them to write down what types of books and materials they’d like to see here. (I’ve also been asking them to write down their information if they are interested in taking computer classes when the library opens and we already have a full page of people who have expressed interest!) I passed the materials list along to Neil in North Carolina and he has been working his
butt off. What started as a small supply drive for the holiday season with the goal of collecting 10 boxes of books has exploded. So far, over 40 boxes of books have been collected and the drive is still going strong. Neil estimates that there are about 1,000 books worth $4,000 US dollars including atlases, dictionaries, encyclopedias, teacher resources, college textbooks, and K-12 textbooks. So many different organizations and entities are involved: the local Gold’s Gym, ECU AmeriCorps, the local NBC affiliate, several local schools, the local library and the local college bookstore to name a few. It’s been amazing to see how Neil has rallied his community to help ours here in Omuthiya and I can’t wait to see the results.

The one issue is getting all of the stuff that he’s collected shipped over here. It’s going to be VERY expensive and there’s also VAT tax that costs an additional 15% of the value of what is entering the country. I’ve been trying to figure out the logistics of shipping which has been (and probably will continue to be) a slow, frustrating process, but hopefully we can figure something out before Neil leaves to come to Namibia in February. Any ideas from anyone at home?

I am really excited about the opening of the library. As I said before, people inquire all the time about when it will open and it’s really tough to have to turn them away (by instruction of my boss) when I know there are so many great resources available to them here. One day, I saw two of the learners (what Namibians call students) who live on my homestead in town and invited them to come check out the library. They were astounded when they walked in. They both immediately picked up books and magazines, plopped on the floor and started flipping through totally enthralled. It made me feel really good about what I've been doing and really excited about getting the place up and running.

I’ve also been helping my supervisor work on a 5-year plan for all of the libraries in our region. I attended the meeting where the plan was presented and was pretty excited because I felt like the Ministry of Education employees were actually listening to me. It will be cool if/when the things that I helped to plan will actually be carried out.

Additionally, I met a local teacher at the event that Meme and Tate took me to where Namibia's first lady was speaking. He teaches English and I think is also the HOD (Head of Department) for English at the school in my village. I get the feeling that he is a real go-getter and I was excited to meet him at the event. A few weeks later, he called me to say that he had acquired a donated set of Scrabble and asked if I would be able to come help teach his English class how to play the game. Teaching those kids Scrabble was REALLY fun. They were SO enthusiastic about it would 11th grade American students be enthusiastic about Scrabble? I don't think so...) and were also pretty excited about improving their English. The circuit inspector (the person who is in charge of all the local schools in our circuit, or district) heard about what we were doing and was so excited about the idea that he asked us to teach all of the local principals about Scrabble. So this local teacher and I presented what we did at the circuit principals' meeting to about 40 principals in the area. It was exciting. I also gave my contact information to the principals to tell them I'd love to come help at their schools. I already got a call from one who needs help with the computers at her school so hopefully I will be starting that project after everyone returns from the holidays in January.

LOTS more has happened since I last wrote but I will stop here for now. This week I will be headed down to Swakopmund, which is a coastal town here in Namibia, for 10 days of camping on the beach and to celebrate Christmas and New Years with my fellow volunteers. I hope to get Chinese food and see a movie on Christmas because both of those things are available in Swakop! The entire area of Swakopmund is supposed to be beautiful: one of the few places in the world where the desert meets the ocean and home to the biggest sand dune in the world. We may also take a road trip up the coast for a few days and who knows what other adventures we’ll find while we’re there (skydiving, duneboarding, four-wheelin', bungee-jumping…)? I CAN’T WAIT!

P.S. Sorry no photos on this blog. I'm not typing from my own computer! I'll upload some photos of the library and the kids playing Scrabble ASAP!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hobnobbing with the Namibian Politicos (HA!)

Meme & Tate on stage with Madam Pohamba

President Pohamba speaking in Omuthiya

Dinner after President Pohamba's speech


The past few days have been crazy. On Friday night I stayed late at the new library helping a technician set up the tables and computer lab. It was a VERY long day but it’s pretty exciting to see the library finally coming together with my help! Anyway, when I got home Meme & Tate told me I would be going with them to a school inauguration ceremony the next day. I politely explained that I was very tired and just wanted to stay home and organize and clean my new house but they insisted, so I couldn’t really say no. I begrudgingly got up and got dressed the next morning and the three of us climbed into the cab of Tate’s pick-up truck and were on our way.

Well I’m glad they insisted I join them! When we got to the school, it turns out that the Namibian First Lady was there for the ceremony! Because Meme is Omuthiya’s Deputy Mayor and Tate is Ekulo Villages’ Head Man, I personally met and shook hands with the First Lady, Madam Pohamba, and was introduced to her as the new Peace Corps volunteer in Omuthiya. I also got to sit in a room with her as one of maybe 12 people while we waited for the ceremony to begin. During the ceremony, Meme & Tate were up on the stage sitting right next to Madam Pohamba and kept being introduced as “distinguished guests.” The ceremony was LONG, started late, and the microphone system kept losing power, but I enjoyed Madam Pohamba’s speech. When the whole thing was over, we proceeded to a local conference center.

At the conference center, we got a catered lunch with lots of VIPs including the First Lady and the Japanese Ambassador to South Africa. I kept feeling like somebody was going to ask me what I was doing there and tell me to leave, but people could not have been more friendly. Although I didn’t get a chance to chat with Madam Pohamba or Ambassador Sakamoto, I introduced myself to lots of other important community members - teachers, principals, bankers, etc. and was really excited about the day. When I thanked Meme and Tate for bringing me with them their response was, “Of course. You need to get to know how things work around here.” I wanted to hug them - I feel like they truly GET it and I feel SO lucky to have been placed on their homestead.

As if the First Lady wasn’t enough, on Monday, President Pohamba himself was in Omuthiya to inaugurate the new Town Council building. Since my Meme is on town council, she was asked to help cook the food for the post-speech meal, and I was allowed to skip work and go watch his speech. I think Namibia is going to make me a professional waiter. I arrived in town from the village around 11 and the ceremony didn’t start until 3. Although I wish I brought my book, it was pretty exciting just to observe all of the preparations. The crowd was buzzing and almost everyone was wearing the colors of the President’s political party, SWAPO. So I was surrounded by blue, green, and red as everyone speculated excitedly about when Mr. Pohamba would arrive. Unfortunately, since the president is from Owamboland, his speech was entirely in Oshiwambo but the woman next to me was nice enough to offer some translation. He spoke about Omuthiya’s development as a major town and all of the exciting new things that were coming (i.e. a big hospital). He also spoke about how Namibia itself is developing (how everyone has cell phones, how more roads are being built) but also about some of Namibia’s major problems (alcoholism, violent crimes). It was really exciting to see him speak and worth the wait, I’d say.

After the speech, I noticed a man walking around that I had met during the 6-hour church service I attended during site visit. I was pretty proud of myself because I even remembered his name, Mr. Shavute (most definitely spelled wrong). I’m pretty sure he’s also on Town Council but am not completely positive about what he does. He remembered me too and we had a nice chat about my move to Omuthiya and the President’s visit. Well, when I told him it was very nice to see him and tried to say goodbye, he gave me a confused look, and told me to come with him to the post-speech VIP dinner (?!?!?). Well, I was NOT going to say no to that, and Meme & Tate were nowhere to be found, so I went with him. Everyone at the door was pushing trying to get in until Mr. Shavute came through, and they all cleared the way for him. I guess I picked the right guy to chat with. As soon as he was inside, though, the crowd started pushing and shoving to get in, but he called me through, and everyone made way yet again. I have no idea how I joined the Peace Corps and managed to rub shoulders with all of these Namibian politicos, but Mr. Shavute pointed out some of the people who were there: the Mayors of various towns, SWAPO bigwigs, even military hotshots decked out in their uniforms. I’d never even been to a ceremony like this in my four years in DC! One of the coolest parts was that a few people I’d met previously greeted me by name and remembered me. During the first few weeks at site, we’re supposed to be working on integration and introducing ourselves to community members, so it felt great to be in there!

The ups & downs of the first week at site...


Meme & Ajax hanging on the homestead

Fillemon...milking one of the homestead's many cows

Group 32 at Swearing-In

So we’ve been at our sites for almost a week now and so far, so good. I was SO pleasantly surprised when I got to the homestead this past Saturday. When I was here three weeks ago for site visit, the house was FILTHY. I was prepared to come and clean the place for days. But when I actually arrived, it was relatively clean! No more bird poo on the walls and the bugs’ nests in the rafters had been removed! On top of that, much of the furniture was new (or at least clean!). My supervisor had apparently dispatched a cleaning crew before my arrival. I couldn’t believe it and it was certainly a nice and completely unexpected welcome to my new home.

Unfortunately, one thing that wasn’t working when I arrived was my (gas) refrigerator so I survived on macaroni and potatoes for a few days. WELL, the repairmen who came to fix it decided to come when I was at work, and since I didn’t know they’d be coming, the door was locked and I didn’t leave a key. SO they decided that the best course of action would be to...break into my house!!! Very logical, I know. As a result, the front door to my house wouldn’t close (or lock). When I thanked the repairmen for fixing my refrigerator and inquired about fixing my lock, he told me he was only responsible for the fridge and the door wasn’t his issue. I thought that was a rather interesting perspective. Eventually, someone came (they remain a mystery) and my door now functions normally, but there were a few days there where I was convinced a chicken was going to wander in and I’d get a new roommate...

Our swearing-in ceremony seems like it was forever ago already even though it was actually less than a week! It was awesome though. The best part was getting to sing the songs that we’d been singing every morning at PST as a group although it was bittersweet since it was the last time we’d be singing them all together. After the ceremony, a bunch of us went hiking with lots of celebratory drinks. It was so much fun, and nobody got overly dehydrated or accidentally danced their way off the mountain. It did make the 7-hour ride to site the next day a little rough but we all managed.

Living on the homestead is definitely full of new, constant challenges, and I’m finding that I’m dealing with all of these challenges by laughing at myself A LOT. I have constant visions of being stampeded or head-butted by all of the animals that roam the homestead (goats, cows, donkeys) and everyone who lives there thinks my fears are hilarious. This morning, I woke up early to help Fillemon, a learner on my homestead, milk the cows. By help I mean stand 300 feet away and try not to make eye contact with any of the giant beasts but my reluctance provided an early morning comedy show for everyone. More comic relief: my skin is not reacting too well to constantly sweating (because it is HOT here), and I get questions about “the mosquito bites on my forehead” at least once a day. Everyone wants to know “WHAT HAPPENED?!” to my face (with genuine concern). I guess acne does not exist in Namibia? One of my favorite hilarious moments so far was when I was changing my shirt in front of my 23 year old host sister in Okahandja. She looked at my bare stomach, gasped, and immediately grabbed my love handles. “THIS IS SO NICE!!!!!” she exclaimed as she proceeded to tug on my fat. “YOU WILL LOOK SO NICE IN A SKIRT!!!” That’s not usually the first thing I think when I notice my love handles, but what else can you really do in a situation like that except laugh? No matter how hot it is, or how long it takes for something to get done, or even how badly things are going, the Namibians that I’ve come into contact with seem to all have the “everything will be OK” attitude. As I discovered with my host family in Okahandja, Namibians love to laugh and do it as often as possible at everything they can. That’s one lesson I’m really hoping to take from this whole experience, and so far it’s serving me well!

My walk to work at the CLDC is not going to be easy but I’m thinking (and hoping) that it might become one of my favorite parts of the day. It’s about 4 km (2.5 miles) through thick sand in the blazing sun and as I’ve clocked it so far, takes me about an hour. I did the trek for the second time this morning and it actually wasn’t so bad. I popped on my headphones, blasted some Dr. Dog, and enjoyed the scenery. And since I am surrounded by nothing but muhangu fields, you better believe I will be (and have been) singing, whistling, snapping, and clapping out loud along to my music. It’s kind of nice to have some built in exercise/”me” time in my day where I don’t have to try to figure out something new or struggle to communicate with anyone. I’d love to see myself walking, though. I probably look ridiculous.

I experienced unbelievable Namibian kindness yet again yesterday. I spent the day traveling with a man who works for the Ministry of Education (which is the Ministry that brought me here). I got the chance to check out several different libraries, which was nice since I will be a librarian, and also see some of the fixes he applied to the library computers which is another part of my job description. One of the most exciting parts was that I got to travel further North than I have so far and see a different part of the country. At the end of the day, we realized we were running really late and my ride back to Omuthiya wouldn’t wait so he agreed to bring me ALL THE WAY HOME even though it was about 260 km out of his way (which is 160 miles or so). I had mentioned at some point during the day how I still needed to buy some things for my house that weren’t available in Omuthiya or even Ondangwa so he offered to stop in Oshakati and we went shopping there for AN HOUR. Not only did he wait for me while I got stuff for my house, but he also drove me all the way home, and when I continuously thanked him profusely, his responses were simply, “It’s not a problem” or “My pleasure.” Would that happen if he were American? I’m thinking no....

So after about a week at site, there have been lots of ups and lots of downs, and it’s a little bit overwhelming just because there are so many new things to get used to. Despite the frustrations, I am enjoying learning and laughing at myself. I’m really looking forward to feeling more settled here in Omuthiya and starting some meaningful work.

Wrapping things up in Okahandja...


Ester & Emily at Host Family Appreciation Day

Stephanie cutting up some veggies for our pizza.

Caitlin dancing as we were serenaded and surrounded by learners.

Since most of the other volunteers will be teachers at schools (I am actually one of only two in our group of 44 who will not be), we have been assigned to different schools around Okahandja this week to observe and practice co-teaching classes. It’s actually pretty interesting being at the schools and while there are definitely a lot of differences between American and Namibian schools, the kids are the same. A 13-year-old Namibian is really very similar to a 13-year-old American. As far as I could tell, the main difference in the schools are the teaching and discipline methods. While I was in school, I have memories of kind, supportive teachers oozing with positive reinforcement for their students, and that’s not really the case here. It seems like kids rarely get praised for their work and that the teachers tend to be very strict and serious in order to maintain control of their classes. They take no crap and I think their learners are kind of scared of them. This also means that corporal punishment is a reality here. I’ve definitely been trying to see it as a cultural difference and not impose my American opinions because it’s just so far removed from anything we’d do in the US, but it’s a pretty difficult thing to get used to. In the staff room one day this week, I was having a conversation with a teacher and another volunteer who grew up in Korea. The other volunteer’s opinion on corporal punishment was very different since she was hit in schools as a child, and we all agreed that this is an interesting time to be in Namibia since corporal punishment was made illegal recently so the country is kind of in a transition phase. One teacher explained how she really does not want to hit her learners, but she doesn’t feel like she has any alternatives to keep control of her classroom. That conversation definitely got me thinking about ways to help educate teachers about alternatives to corporal punishment.

One highlight of the week was when I helped another volunteer, Caitlin, teach a science class about ecosystems. The learners finished their group work pretty quickly and before we knew it, we were surrounded by 8th graders touching our hair and asking us questions about ourselves. “Did you know Michael Jackson?” “Are you friends with Rihanna?” “Have you ever been to a Chris Brown concert?” All very important questions. The circle of kids decided they’d like to show their singing talents off to us and pretty soon we were all dancing and singing “Stand By Me” together. This was definitely one of my more amusing moments in Namibia so far.

It hit me how sad I was to be leaving Okahandja when I got home on Wednesday of this week. On Tuesday night, I had showed Emily (my little host sister) all of the stains in my clothes which my handwashing skills are not yet quite adept enough to handle, and she agreed to help me with them the next day. Well, when I got home the following day, I looked everywhere for the dirty laundry to get started on it, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Emily was laughing as I looked around in every room of the house and sorted through all of the closets and hampers and claimed she had no idea where it went. And then she brought me outside. All of my clothes were clean, stain-free, and drying on the line because she had decided to surprise me by washing them. I was amazed. It is literally one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I can’t believe I have to leave this amazing family in one week! Not to mention the 43 other American trainees who I have spent every day with for the past two months!

There are a few things going on as we approach our final week of training. We have our final language exam - I’m excited for that one to be over. We had a host family appreciation day today where we recited speeches in the Namibian languages we’ve been learning to thank the families and cooked American foods for them. We weren’t sure the Namibians would like the food we made but it was a definite hit - there was NONE leftover. My family found it hard to believe that the chocolate chip banana pancakes were actually a breakfast food and LOVED pumpkin pie. Chili, fajitas, pizza (which is what I made!), mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, baked beans, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, onion rings, and fried chicken were all also on the menu. It was pretty nice to eat American food and I think we were all kind of food coma-esque when the day was over. At the end of the week, before we actually go to our sites next Saturday, we’ll have a swearing-in ceremony. It’s weird because it really feels like something huge is coming to an end, and in a way I guess it is, but really everything is just beginning!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

So THIS is Africa!

Inside the CLDC where I'll be working

Meme & Lynette sorting some beans on the homestead

My future little house on the homestead

One of the homestead's many huts

Yesterday we got back from site visit and I got to spend a few days in Omuthiya, where I’ll be living and working for the next two years starting October 16. The experience started with the bus ride there. We stopped several times so the driver could do errands, listened to the same scratched reggaeton CD the whole ride on repeat, busted and changed a tire, and also picked up a few random people along the way. After about 7 hours of traveling, we finally arrived at Omuthiya Community Learning and Development Center (CLDC) where I was met by my new supervisor, Elizabeth, who could not have been more enthusiastic. She greeted me with a huge hug and kept calling me darling and proceeded to introduce me to the library staff. They thought it was HILARIOUS when I greeted them and introduced myself in Oshindonga but hopefully that means I made a good first impression!

The CLDC, where I’ll be based, is relatively small but seems to be pretty popular and widely used among the community members. At one point during my days there, a few girls were hanging out and playing Scrabble and there was always at least one person there reading or working on the computers (which unfortunately DON’T have internet). As far as I understand it, my primary job responsibility will be to help transfer materials and set up a new library that they’re hoping to open nearby. I think I will also be able to start my own projects, too, after doing a community needs assessment. I’m excited to get there, find out and get started!

The town of Omuthiya itself is a pretty interesting place and kind of an anomaly. It is the capital of Oshikoto region and has several pretty key amenities - bank, gas station, medical clinic, post office, and a hospital that’s being built. Its classification was upgraded from village to town by the government in 2008, but it’s still definitely in the process of developing and is not fully developed yet. The developed part of town is surrounded by villages like the one I’ll be living in, Ekulo, and there are still goats roaming all over the place and an open market in the center of town.

After spending some time at the library, Tate Nakaziko, my host dad, met us to take us to his homestead. As soon as we turned off the main road, a bumpy sand road began and pretty soon we were in the bush surrounded by muhangu (spelling?) fields and termite mounds. It’s hard to believe that a decent sized town is just a few kilometers away. I was amazed when we got to the homestead - it is HUGE and filled with round wooden huts! People were everywhere speaking Oshindonga a mile a minute and working - sorting beans, pounding muhangu (a traditional grain) and tending to the animals. We walked through the soft sand with chickens squawking at our feet until we got to my section of the compound. My little house has four rooms - two bedrooms, a common room, and a kitchen. It needs some serious cleaning and the current bug residents need to vacate but it has lots of potential. I’m PSYCHED to move in and get settled (even if it’s not a hut!).

Nights on the homestead were the most interesting. I definitely have never given a second thought to walking into a room and turning on the lights but wow! It’s definitely an adjustment to not have electricity. What is most amazing is that the work never stops on the homestead, even when the sun goes down. My meme and the rest of the women kept working, even in the dark, until they finished what they needed to for the evening. Although it was a little bit frustrating not having lights, there was also definitely a certain romance to having dinner on the sand by starlight and eating with my hands and then reading by candlelight after dinner. I think I will slowly get used to not having electricity...and will get a lot of reading done!

On Saturday, I hung at the homestead all day and helped sort some beans and pull the seeds out of these little nuts for one of the ingredients for traditional bread, oshikwila (which is delicious!). Sunday was a different story. It was decided that I would go to church with Meme & Tate. Going to church here is a good way to get to know people and make them aware that I’m here and will be working in the community so I was all for going. Well, I should have known this wouldn’t be any normal church service when Tate kept asking me if I had enough water and Meme insisted that I take some oshikwila in my purse. Nobody really explained this to me beforehand, but it turns out we went to a different church than the family normally goes to. There was a collection competition between two towns to see which could raise more money to build a new church. So aside from the normal service, there were several rounds of people dancing up to the front of the church to put money in a basket or give food or promise to give goats, chickens, or cows as part of their donation. This process took SIX hours and the whole thing was in Oshindonga so I really had no idea what was going on. Of course, I did my dancing up to the front to participate too, which was pretty fun. All in all, the whole experience was pretty amusing. At one point during the service, the pastor pointed to me and said something in Oshindonga (as if the whole church wasn’t already staring at me curiously), and I’m still not quite sure what he said. So I survived my first time at African church and it was quite the experience. It paid off, too. On Monday, as my supervisor took me around town, a few people came up to me, introduced themselves, and exclaimed that they had seen me in church on Sunday!

The trip to Omuthiya made it all real for me. I was on my own (without the 44 other Americans) for the first time in the country, and as you go north, the landscape definitely changes and becomes more like stereotypical Africa. After a few days in Omuthiya, I was exhausted and definitely ready to come back to Okahandja. The greeting I got from Ester and Emily made me a little sad because I realized how soon I’ll be moving out of here and leaving them. Of course I’m excited to get started with what will come next but it’s definitely bittersweet to leave my Okahandja family and the rest of the Americans and start all over as I’m just starting to get comfortable here...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Settling into training...

After being here for almost a month, this is the first time I saw clouds! This picture was taken from my front yard.

Mapone worms cooking...yum?
The only proof that I have that I helped pluck feathers off of the chicken -- notice my hand in the lower left corner!

So I’m starting to settle in more and more to life here during preservice training (PST). Training sessions or other Peace Corps events are 6 days a week and the sessions are from 7:30 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. On some days we have four hours of language which can be a bit much but hopefully it will be worth it when I get to site and - fingers crossed - at least have very, very basic proficiency in Oshindonga. We have all types of other sessions as well. Namibian social workers came in to talk to us about the problems young people are facing. We’ve had sessions about religion in Namibia, male-female relationships here, safety procedures, malaria, and the list goes on and on.

A lot of the sessions are based on the education system or being a teacher here since the majority of our group will be teaching in schools (English, Science & Math). Although these sessions don’t directly relate to what I’ll be doing as an ICT (Information & Communication Technology) volunteer, they are still usually interesting to sit through. Apparently in past PSTs, there wasn’t much specific ICT training, but they’ve really made more of an effort during this training to fix that. Today, for example, me and the other three ICT volunteers visited a school and talked with the teachers responsible for computer classes. Tomorrow we will travel to the capital, Windhoek, to visit the Ministry of Education and talk to a few people there about ICT in schools. Next week, we find out our permanent sites (FINALLY!) so I will have a ton more specific information about my job and my living situtation for the next two years. I CAN’T WAIT!

Aside from all of the lecture sessions, we also get to do some fun cultural stuff, too. Last Saturday, the vans picked us all up bright and early and we went to the local municipal hall (where we’ve been having our sessions) to start cooking. Our language trainers were in charge and each language/tribe had open fire pits set up. My language, Oshiwambo, was the biggest group because the majority of the trainees are learning either Oshindonga or Oshinkwanyama (the two main Oshiwambo languages). We had chicken, traditional porridge, a traditional drink with the same grain used to make the porridge, mopane worms (which I tried and did NOT like), and lots of other dishes. Because I live with an Oshiwambo family, I’ve already been eating a lot of these dishes at home so the coolest part for me was that we got to sample dishes from lots of different tribes within the country (there are a TON, I think we had 6 represented). It is amazing how much diversity there is within Namibia and it was really cool to see our trainers in their element cooking dishes that are so new to us but that they’ve been eating and preparing since childhood. The craziest part of the whole day was killing the chickens we cooked. I helped pluck out the feathers on one - whoa! Some of the other trainees actually killed them (slit their throat, waited for them to die, then cut off their heads! AH!). I don't think I was at that level quite yet and when it came time to eat, I skipped the chicken (even though it was probably way fresher and healthier and less processed than chicken I've eaten in the US!). At some point, we (the American trainees) get to cook AMERICAN food for the trainers. That should be equally as fun, but I doubt we’ll be killing any chickens.

I’m still also really enjoying living with the host family and I think we’re all getting more and more comfortable with each other. I feel pretty comfortable in their house, at least. I hope they feel the same about having me here. One thing that really strikes me is how much I HAVE even though I thought that when packing up for 2+ years, I didn’t bring that much with me. I took my contact lenses out in front of Emily and Isak, for example, without thinking much of it, and they were floored. They’d never seen anything like it before and erupted in hysterical laughter. “PLASTIC IN YOUR EYES!?” Even my pens amazed them. When Emily saw the pack of pens I bought at Target before I left, she was astounded. “These pens are SO NICE! How do you have so many of them!?!” Even all of my colored sharpies were treasure to her. And forget about my laptop, my iPod, my digital camera. It is really hitting me how much STUFF I have and have taken for granted. Despite what they do or don’t have, these kids laugh and smile so easily. They find entertainment in the most minor things and I don’t think ever complain about being bored. Even though I’m often the source of their laughter (especially when I speak Oshindonga -- or at least attempt to), I love how happy they sound. If I could, I would bottle Emily’s laughter with me and take it wherever I go. I’ve never heard anything so genuine.

The area I'm living in is pretty up to date, definitely not the bush, but its probably close to what you might think of when considering an African suburb. The “city” we are living close to, Okahandja, is about as urban as it gets in Namibia, but isn’t really what we might consider a city – it’s really different than New York or DC. The houses in my suburb are modest (although I have a running shower & flushing toilet – YES!) and there are always tons of people and tons of stray dogs walking around the neighborhood. One difference about dogs here and in the US is that Namibians usually own them as guard dogs rather than as pets so we were warned that they may not be the friendliest. I didn’t take that too seriously (I LOVE DOGS!) until I was jogging one morning and suddenly realized I had a teeth-baring, growling dog chasing me. I guess he felt that I was running too close to his yard’s fence and that I seemed like a suspicious character. At that time, we’d had only two of our three necessary rabies shots so my brisk jog turned into a quick sprint all the way to my front door.

When I walk around, people are very curious as there aren’t really many white people in my neighborhood (and definitely no white people with big North Face backpacks and nalgenes). I definitely stick out and people tend to stare. Despite that, greetings are really big here. We spent what I thought was a ridiculous amount of time on greetings and extended greetings in language class but it definitely paid off. When I say hello, it seems to make people very happy – especially if I am using one of the 10 (I think?) languages spoken in Namibia. As long as I smile first, I pretty much always get a huge smile back. It’s a nice feeling.

Living with a host family...

My language trainer, Maria, & me at Heroes Acre

Handwashing my laundry...with Sara's help!

Me, Sara, & Tuwilika enjoying the "pizza" I made

The host family experience has been great so far - mine is AMAZING. I actually don’t have a host mom (meme), but I do have 4 incredibly gracious sisters: Ester (33 - it’s her house), Sara (23), Emily (14), and Tuwilika (14). Honestly, the actual relations between them all is really confusing to me. It’s been explained and what I got from the explanation is that none of them are really related very closely. The whole family is of the Oshiwambo tribe which is located in northern Namibia (which is also eventually where I’ll be living for my two years of service). They speak Oshindonga which is what I’m learning at training but also all speak English pretty perfectly which has definitely made the experience more comfortable for me. We will live with these families until October 15, which is the end of training, when we will go to our sites.

Ester, the oldest sister, is busy planning and preparing for her wedding which will take place in December. On my first night here, I went into my room to go to bed, and there was a beautiful handmade invitation to the event on my pillow. I am so flattered and really hope I will be able to go. It will be SO cool to see what an Oshiwambo wedding is like. Since I’ve been at homestay, Ester has been up north visiting family and friends and preparing for her wedding so I haven’t gotten to spend much time with her, but I’m excited to get to know her more when she comes back.

Judging by my family and the other Peace Corps Trainees’ families, it seems like families here aren’t necessarily the nuclear mother, father, and children living together like we have in America. Extended families seem to be much more important here and it also seems like people tend to live with whatever relative is located most conveniently to their job or education. I’m living in the “location” of Okahandja, which as far as I can tell is the same thing as the suburbs. Ester’s home is really nice. We have a fridge, a flushing toilet, and running water including a shower with hot water some of the time. It seems to me that her home is set up basically to hold as many visitors (extended and adopted family) as possible and the whole house revolves around the common room, which is where everyone congregates. Right now, Sara’s boyfriend, Jaydee and a cousin, Isak, are staying at the house in addition to the normal 4 that live here. There are 4 pretty large bedrooms. Sara, Emily & Tuwilika sleep in one bed and sharing doesn’t really seem to bother them. I am lucky enough to have my own room with a double bed. I unpacked and settled in a little bit and even hung some stuff up on the walls, including the sheet that everyone signed at my going away BBQ in DC - the host sisters LOVED seeing that!

Each night, everyone eats a family style dinner together around the TV, and it seems to always be a meat and a carb. Before and after the meal, a dish of warm soapy water is passed around so that everyone can wash their hands. The most interesting thing I’ve eaten so far is a traditional Owambo dinner porridge (oshithima, probably spelled wrong). It’s served on a big communal plate and each person takes what they want with their hands, rolls the cream-of-wheat-like substance up in a ball and then dips it into the sauce of the accompanying meat. The first time we had it, my family made extra food for me for dinner in case I didn’t like it, and were really pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastic I was about it - but it is GOOD. One thing that strikes me is that the whole family POURS ketchup, which they call “tomato sauce” on the carb of the night (whether that be macaroni, rice, etc.) - AH! My oldest sister Ester asked me what I liked to eat on my first night and when I replied “fruits and vegetables,” she seemed rather confused. Meat, meat, and meat is the staple of the diet and I, the former vegetarian, find myself picking up the bones with my hands and biting the meat off like the rest of the family.

In an effort to make an “American” meal, I offered to make dinner one night and the enthusiasm I got when I mentioned pizza convinced me to try it. The dough came out pretty good, but tomato sauce like we have at home was hard to find so I had to make it from a powder in a packet - eh, not quite the same. On top of that, the girls went to the supermarket before I came home and I didn’t specify cheese they bought gouda. Jaydee also INSISTED on putting ground meat on top of his pizza (what a shocker, they wanted meat), and they weren’t thrilled about my veggie suggestions for toppings. So although it didn’t really taste anything like the good old Gennaro’s or jumbo slice pizza I’m used to, it wasn’t all bad.

I also decided to make guacamole since their reaction to the word itself was hilarious (they’d never even heard of it). Not to mention it’s delicious. That came out AWESOME but something about the texture and the color or both must have freaked them out. It wasn’t a huge hit until the next day when I brought it for lunch and the other Americans attacked it. At least someone enjoyed it. I’m hoping to try to cook them another American meal soon. Suggestions?

The whole family hangs out a lot - literally all day - and life kind of seems to revolve around TV, which is almost always on, in the common room. We’ve watched some American movies (Little Man) and I introduced Glee which Tuwilika seems to like, but mostly we switch back and forth between watching “soapies” and the news. It seems like “soapies,” which are Brazilian telenovelas dubbed into English, are their favorite. The shows are REALLY dramatic (they kick our soap operas’ asses) and are actually pretty entertaining. A good majority of the other Peace Corps trainees say their families also tune into the same soapies so it’s fun to come back to training during the day (which goes from 7:30 AM until 5 PM) & talk about what’s been happening on “Shades of Sin” or “The Storm.”

Of course, other things do go on at home besides TV watching. We played volleyball the other day outside, I handwashed all of my laundry with Sara’s help, we had a dance party which I DJed from my computer, and we did a mini beauty parlor and painted all the girls nails and even one of Isak’s hands. It can get a little tiring communicating and trying to be conscientious of everything, but it’s honestly really fun living here. There is a lot of love, laughter, and a HUGE amount of hospitality. Example: I highly doubt any of my family members at home would help me scrub my dirty underwear by hand.

Each day, I walk to a bus stop and am driven to “school” where we have hours of training sessions on subjects that range from information about malaria to information about the history of Namibia. As for the language instruction, there are only four of us in the class which is awesome and I LOVE the teacher, who is 26!

In addition to the sessions at NIED (National Institute for Educational Development), we were taken on a trip to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, where we did some shopping but also learned a little bit about the country’s history. We were given a tour of the neighborhoods that were forced into being separated by race during Apartheid and visited Heroes’ Acre, which is a truly breathtaking monument to those who were killed during the fight for independence. The monument was beautiful, built into a mountain, and really meaningful since the country won its independence only 20 years ago.

For the first few days of training, the younger girls in my family walked me to the bus even though it was 6:30 in the morning and they’re on vacation from school. They also waited for me at the bus stop when I came home. They are very eager to help me with anything, whether it be assisting with my Oshindonga homework or answering my probably very ignorant questions about their lives here. They are so sweet and considerate, and always have a smile on their faces. I really think I lucked out!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Training Begins!

So....things are going really well so far! We’ve been here for two days now but it feels like we’ve been here forever. We arrived in Okahandja, our site for preservice training, after an over 30 hour travel day. We checked out of the hotel at 2:30 AM in Philly, drove to JFK, waited 6 hours for our flight to Johannesburg which was about 16 hours, waited another few hours for our flight from Johannesburg to Windhoek (which is the capital of Namibia) and then drove an hour and a half on a bus to get to Okahandja. On the way to Okahandja, we saw wild babboons and giraffes along the side of the road which was AWESOME. The scenery was also very beautiful - lots of mountains.

As soon we arrived at the training site, all of our trainers greeted us with traditional Namibian songs. I’ll try to get video of that up here if I can. Over the next two months, these trainers will be teaching us everything from language to cultural sensitivity to safety and security to technical things about our jobs. The living situation here is also really nice. We’re staying at the Namibian National Institute for Educational Development (NIED) compound in hostel-style living. I am sharing a room with another trainee, Jeannine, and there are flushing toilets and showers with hot water and better water pressure than my bathroom at home. The food here is good too and there’s always plenty of it. On Tuesday, we’ll move in with host families for the remainder of the two-month training period but will be coming back to NIED everyday for classes. Living with a host family will be another transition, and we’ll also hopefully be able to practice whatever language we are learning at the same time in training.

The other trainees are all great. There are 45 of us total, a few more women than men, and of all ages (many that just graduated college recently like me but also a few older people who have grown kids my age and people of every age in between). We will all mostly be education volunteers - teaching computers like I will be, English, Science, or Math - but there is another group of business volunteers that are starting the Small Enterprise and Entrepreneurial Development program. This year is the program’s first year so I am REALLY excited to see what they will be doing. It’s so cool that they get to pilot a program. The other trainees are from all over the United States. I’m the only one from New Jersey and the only one who graduated from GWU. It’s really cool to meet so many people from all over the US (Montana, Wisconsin, Alaska, New Mexico to name a few). The one thing that everyone does share, though, is that they are all so so nice. Everyone is so positive, down-to-earth, friendly and just so equally excited about what we’re doing and that makes it incredibly motivational and fun to be around them. I kind of feel like I’m back at Camp Lohikan...but then I look up and see the brightest moon and stars I’ve ever seen, hear the random peacocks walking around the grounds of where we’re staying squawk (they make the weirdest noises!), and remember that the mosquito net I’m sleeping under is there for a reason and not a princess canopy.

Today, we discussed with one of the staff members our potential site placements which will be made definite tomorrow morning, but we won’t find out the actual location until later. I’m not really sure why Peace Corps does this but I have another meeting tomorrow at 8 AM so I’ll ask. Because there are only four ICT (Information and Communications Technology) volunteers total, they told us the four sites we’d be placed at and that if we could decide amongst ourselves, we could have the site we choose. So now, I know a few details about where I’ll be working for my service! The site was actually my second choice since we compromised as a group, but as I’m thinking about it more, I think it should have been my first!!!!

I am going to be living in a homestead! which means I’ll be leaving in a compound with a family. I am THRILLED about the family part. Hopefully, I will truly be exposed and eventually integrated into the culture and will also make some amazing Namibian family members. Dad, I know your dream is to have another foreign family so hopefully you’ll get it! I really hope I get to experience the amazing African hospitality I’ve heard about through the family that I’ll be living with. I am pretty sure that the bathing room and kitchen will be shared but within the compound, I’ll have my own room. I will also have running water and POSSIBLY even electricity. So I’ll at least have water to drink - and apparently the water in Namibia is pretty clean. We had a medical briefing today and the nurse told us that Namibia’s water purification system is one of the best in Africa and that Namibia is generally also one of the healthiest countries in Africa. I figured that could be another birthday present for you, Mom. Anyway, running water doesn’t necessarily mean a flushing toilet or a running shower (here I come bucket showers!) but I feel great about adjusting to that and am SO excited about my living situation.

Also, I’ll be living in a semi-urban area in the North of the country which we were told would be between the size of a village and a town. That means I get the benefits of the hospitality and sense of community I’ve heard about that comes from living in a small village and the benefits (hopefully) of living in a town - like a close-by grocery store. I have a feeling the term “town” isn’t defined like we would define it back in the US.

For my work, I’ll be working at some type of community center (not many details yet) and will be providing computer classes to learners (what students are called in Namibia) and community members. I guess I’ll find out what my students want to learn about and then decide what to teach but the staff made it seem like it’s REALLY basic computer stuff - even how to turn on a computer or use a mouse. I am a bit worried that since the classes won’t be within a school curriculum and mandatory, no one will want to come to them, but the PC staff assured me that there is massive demand for computer classes and I may even have to turn people away. Aside from teaching these classes, I will also be setting up and maintaining libraries and computer labs in schools. I should have more details soon. We will also start learning a language soon and that will give me a hint as to what region I’m in. I wonder if the language will be one with clicks....

Sunday, August 15, 2010

And so it begins... the day is finally here. After years of wanting to join the Peace Corps and an 11-month application process, today is the day that I finally embark on my 27-month journey! At 3:27, I'll board a train to Philadelphia where the lovely and gracious Michele Style will pick me up from the train station and bring me to the hotel where my pre-departure orientation, or staging, will be held. After lots of shots (not the alcoholic kind) and icebreakers with my fellow volunteers, I'll fly to Windhoek, Namibia by way of Johannesburg on Tuesday morning. I CAN'T WAIT! Of course, I'm so so sad to be leaving all the love and support I have at home (and thanks to everyone for all the well wishes!). I'm also nervous about all of the unknowns that lie ahead but more than anything I am INCREDIBLY excited.

Stay tuned!!!!!!!!!!!