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!