Thursday, January 27, 2011

THE LIBRARY IS OPEN!!!!!!!!! (or sort of at least)

The library's youngest users

A library user being helped by Helena at the front desk


After setting up a system for library users to check their bags at the door and getting a very modern alarm system installed (not so different from the one in our house in Scotch Plains), we are FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY open! The alarm system was quite a triumph since I knew we couldn’t open until it was installed so I have been working towards that since I got here. To have it completely installed now is really exciting. We haven’t started promoting the library yet in the community mostly because we are not completely open. People can use the internet, the space, and the resources we have but we are not allowing anyone to check out books because we’re not yet completely organized. Despite not actually telling anyone that the library is open, people are streaming in! Most of the people who come want to use the internet but some are taking advantage of the tables and chairs to study and read, looking at all of our newspapers and magazines, and some little ones have even come in to read and play with our small amount of kid-friendly materials. I can’t wait until this place is open in full swing.

I’ve encouraged the kids who are living on my homestead to come in and use the computers, and they’ve started to listen. On the first day, Sakeus came in with a friend after school and it was pretty clear that at 17, he’d never even placed his hand on a mouse before. I explained to him that he could basically find and do anything with the internet and after a few minutes of contemplation, he said, “I want to look at pictures of Michael Jackson.” So I quickly taught him the basics of Google and Google Images and he got to work. While I walked away to help someone else, he had figured out how to get back to the search page and found pictures of Gazza, a very popular Namibian rapper.

There is also a woman who came in and expressed that she was really interested in starting her own business. We couldn’t find any entrepreneurship books in the library so I got to searching online myself after she had already left one day. When she returned the following day, I showed her the website of a Namibian bank that gives small business loans and explained how to search online for tips on starting a business. I also showed her a template for writing a business plan, which she would need if she wanted to apply for the loan. I explained to her that I would love to help her but she also needed to put in a lot of work herself, and she seemed really excited and motivated. I’m thinking if she finishes her business plan, I can find a Peace Corps SEED volunteer (who are here to help the country’s small businesses) to assist her further. I think she has awhile to go before that happens but she has been coming to the library searching and reading and learning more everyday. Through the opening of the library and computer lab, my amazement has been renewed for all of the things you can find on the internet. (Someone asked us to help him search for a meat bandsaw the other day - whatever that is! But sure enough we found information on it for him!)

So before the library opens in full capacity, a librarian sent by the head office in Windhoek is going to come for two weeks in mid-February. He will help us set everything up properly, decorate and help us with a user-friendly layout, and explain to us all of the necessary procedures to make sure the library runs smoothly. A librarian from the regional office and my supervisor also said they’d come to help. I’m hoping this will be the last push we need before actually opening and then we can start hanging fliers around town, talking ourselves up to anyone and everyone, and sending an announcement into the local Oshiwambo radio station. From there I kind of feel like the possibilities are endless and I have lots of ideas for projects, etc.

Aside from all of the logistics of opening the library, Neil, the future Peace Corps Namibia volunteer, and I are continuing to struggle to find a method to get the 1,341 books and other materials that he was worked tirelessly to collect shipped to Omuthiya library from the States. In addition to all of the atlases, dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, etc. that have been donated, Neil will send notebooks, craft supplies, games (thanks David for those Bananagrams!) and several LeapFrogs, which are an educational toy that helps young kids learn to read. We keep finding shipping methods that seem like they could really work, and then for whatever reason fall through. Of course it is a bit frustrating at times, but it’s been awesome working with Neil, who has truly made the process a pleasure. He is a ROCK STAR and is incredibly dedicated and I can’t wait to see what he gets accomplished once he actually comes to Namibia in February as a volunteer. In the meantime, we’re still looking for viable shipping options (affordable/subsidized/free?!).

So while all of this has been going on at the library, I was lucky enough to get a non-volunteer VISTOR! Rachel, one of my closest friends from GWU, just moved to Cape Town in preparation of starting her Master’s Degree in February and before classes started, hopped on a 2-day bus to come visit me in Namibia! It was really amazing having her here, especially since I hadn’t seen her in 8 months basically since we graduated college. We had LOTS to catch up on and it was so nice having someone around who knows me from life before Peace Corps especially to see what my day-to-day life is like here. Having two worlds collide - college and Peace Corps - was also awesome and she met several of my volunteer friends.

Having her as a visitor was also an excuse to do some traveling and we spent her last weekend here in Opuwo, which is a really beautiful town in NW Namibia. Opuwo is surrounded by lots of nothing (which is pretty common in Namibia, the 2nd most sparsely populated country in the world!) and you have to drive for miles on a dirt road to get there. Once you do, however, the scenery completely starts to change: trees, mountains, red sand, and the Himba. The Himba are a tribe who still follow a really traditional way of life. Their standards of beauty and dress are really visually stunning. The woman paint themselves and their babies with a red mixture of ochre and butter or fat and coat extensions in their hair with the same mixture. They wear animal skins, lots of ornamental traditional jewelry, and bare breasts. One of my favorite Himba looks is how the adolescent boys wear their hair very short except for one long chunk of hair braided towards the back of their heads. It makes for a cool ponytail and they usually wear something around the chunk of hair that covers it (it’s either cloth or animal skin, not sure). Opuwo is a pretty modern town by Namibian standards. There are gas stations, electricity, running water, and 2 grocery stores. The combination of the scenery, Himbas walking around next to people dressed in western clothing, and all of these modern amenities really gives the town a magical feel. It is a cool place.

Rachel and I borrowed a tent from another volunteer who lives in Opuwo and set up shop at a campsite in town. There was one other guest there, a German guy, Hardy, who was in Namibia on business but was traveling before he had to get to work. The first night we were there, Rachel, Hardy, Brian (another volunteer who lives in Opuwo) and I sat around chatting with the campsite owner, Westin, a Himba man. Well, Westin had quite a story to tell. At around 13 years old (he’s unsure of his age because Himbas don’t keep track), he decided that he really wanted to ride in a car. He had seen kids from other tribes in the area get picked up and driven to town because they had to go to school and decided enrolling in school would be a good way to make his dream of riding in a car come true. So one day mid goat-herding, he left the goats and started walking. He walked the 100 km (about 62 miles) from his homestead into the town of Opuwo. He explained that because it was not long after Namibia became an independent country (in 1990), the new president had declared that all children should go to school and receive equal education, which they hadn’t been receiving under the recently abolished system of apartheid. Because of the president’s declaration, Westin was immediately enrolled in school and lived in the school’s hostel when he showed up there after his 100 km walk. At 13 years old, he started in grade 1 and quickly excelled in school. He mentioned that it was a bit awkward heading back to his Himba homestead on school holidays since his parents originally thought he had died, but explained that they eventually forgave him. Westin completed all 12 grades and even transferred to a school in Swakopmund that specialized in his favorite subject, science. After grade 12, he was asked to stay and teach because he was such a good student, and did so for a few years before getting his master’s degree. He now owns his own business (the campsite where we stayed) and told us that since he was the oldest boy in his family, he also became the village Chief after his father died. Although he lives a modern, westernized life in Opuwo, his village cannot make any big decisions without his approval. Every two weeks or so, in Western clothing, he travels that 100 km back home to decide which cattle to slaughter and make other important village decisions. He was beaming as he told us that he drives to get back to his village, and I thought it was pretty cool since riding in a car was the original reason he left. These days he owns a car, a motorcycle, and a 4-wheeler quad.

Also that same evening, we got to chatting with Hardy, the other guest at the campsite, and he told us he was taking his 4 wheel drive car to check out Epupa Falls the next day on his own. Epupa Falls is a four hour VERY bumpy drive away from Opuwo on a gravel road. It is something that we’d discussed trying to do but just didn’t have the finances to afford renting or hiring a car to get there. When Hardy invited us along after we hinted heavily that we wanted to go, we jumped at the chance and couldn’t believe our luck. Early the next morning we bought some picnic ingredients & beers and hopped into the back of his covered truck to head to Epupa. Epupa Falls and the surrounding area is absolutely beautiful. We went at a great time because it’s currently rainy season and the falls were flowing in all of their glory. We hiked up a bit on a mountain next to the Kunene River and could see miles and miles of the river, tons of different waterfalls and into Angola which is the other side of the river. It was a great day with breathtaking views which we had a hard time believing were real. At one point Rachel mentioned that it looked like we were in the movie Avatar and I think that’s a perfect way to describe it.

While Rachel was here, we had two noteworthy cultural DUH moments. As you can imagine, these happen OFTEN here but it was pretty nice having another American to share them with. Since returning from vacation, rainy season here has really picked up and is now in full swing. On the one hand, it’s really amazing how quickly everything became green and it’s really cool getting to witness and participate in the farm work that my entire family does in Tate’s fields now that the muhangu is growing. On the other hand, however, getting caught in the POURING rain is not uncommon (and seems to always happen when I have my laptop with me) and my normal route to walk to the library is now literally a lake. One of the kids on the homestead showed me a better route to take to get into town that’s much more bush-esque (think tiny walking path through grass up to the knees) with lots more jumping over fences, trudging through muddy fields of muhangu and absolutely no chance of a car coming by to offer a ride. At one point in my first walk on the new route, I noticed a huge thorny branch (and by branch think half of a thorny bush) blocking part of my path and moved it. The next day it was there again...and the next day...and the next day and I continued to move it and usually pricked or scratched myself somehow in the process. I was starting to get really fed up and assumed that someone was being spiteful and didn’t want me to walk through their property. I told this all to Rachel who saw it on our first day walking to the library together. Good friend that she is, she dragged the branch and hid it really far away from the spot in the path where it was being placed. We felt like that would send the message that we wanted to give and went on our merry way feeling pretty proud of ourselves. The next day the thorn branch was back in the exact same place except it was now tied to a tree with wire making it nearly impossible to move. We were besides ourselves. When we realized that the owners of the land were watching us struggle to move it again, we decided we’d need to confront them and ask them what the deal was. After a very broken conversation in Oshiwambo (and lots of help from a village kid who spoke decent English), we discovered that the landowners were not even being a little bit spiteful. They were equally as perplexed about the branch as we were and didn’t understand why we kept moving it. This is when we discovered the term “traditional door.” LIGHT BULB! It turns out the people who owned the land couldn’t afford/didn’t want to buy more modern gate materials and used the thorn branches to keep their goats and cattle in. We felt a little silly after that. Why was our first reaction to assume that someone was out to get us? Whoops. So now everyday on the way to and from work, my skin continues to get a little tougher as I move a half of a thorn bush out of my way and politely place it back where I found it.

The second DUH moment we had was the morning that we were set to leave for Opuwo when we needed to get into town to start the journey early. Unfortunately, it was POURING rain and we didn’t want to walk there and get soaking wet. We decided to ask my Tate for a ride into town and assumed he’d be in his room hiding from the rain and trying to avoid getting wet which is what we were doing. With this assumption, we stood outside the door of his bedroom for about 25 minutes dressed in complete rain gear and with our backpacks on calling his name and knocking on the door. We were really confused when he didn’t answer and thought he might still be sleeping. Rachel then made a genius (DUH) suggestion. Rather than just standing there, why not call Tate and see what he was up to? He picked up the phone and agreed to bring us into town with a true Namlish (Namibian English) “I’m coming now.” About 10 minutes later, he appeared as a soaking wet figure ready to drive us. Why did we think just because WE wanted to avoid the rain he would be doing the same thing? As one of the hardest working 70-year-old men I know, he was true to form out in the fields hoeing in the pouring rain. Also as one of the nicest 70-year-old men I know, he stopped his work in the pouring rain to hop in his truck and drive us into town.

After spending 12 days hanging with Rachel and doing lots of fun stuff and moving non-stop, it was kind of a bummer when she left. Having someone to share every funny/crazy/scary/sillly/thoughtful/(fill in the blank with adjective here) experience with was really nice and I was sad to see her go. On the day she left, however, I was walking home feeling kind of bummed out and suddenly 5 learners (schoolkids) appeared on the path next to me all in their matching school uniforms. This included Lynette, one of the kids who lives on my homestead. I swear it was cosmic and they were sent to keep me company and cheer me up! Well, thanks to Michele for sending me lots of current American pop music and to Apple for making the iPod Touch play out loud because we ROCKED out on the way home and my sad mood flew right out the window. The kids giggled, I sang a horrible rendition of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry and the walk went by quickly. “Miss, can you dance?” “Miss, what does “S-O-L-O spell?” Giggles and hand-holding all around. I especially enjoyed translating “Ridin’ Solo” by Jason DeRulo since it obviously has a very deep, philosophical meaning. The walk was a reminder that life here is rarely dull unless you allow it to be and that moods can (and usually do) change in an instant.

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