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...