Wow...I have LOTS to catch up on. I just got back two days ago from the past 6 weeks traveling around the country. Since mid-November, I have been home in Omuthiya for only 3 days total and for 2 of those, I was at my site with other volunteers who were visiting me. You can imagine it's been a bit of a whirlwind but it feels great to be back and not living out of a backpack. It will be a bit of an adjustment not having Americans around all of the time, but I'm looking forward to getting back into a routine again.
Highlights of the past six weeks:
I learned to make oshikwila, a delicious traditional Owambo bread! Apparently my Meme is well known for being great at making it. It’s really easy: butter, sugar, hand-pounded muhangu (the traditional grain), and water all poured into one of the huge cast-iron pots they use to cook and left for about 40 minutes on the open fire. I took some liberties with it and cooked the batter in a pan on my gas stove like pancakes. I also added some strawberry yogurt. Although it wasn’t exactly traditional, my family loved it!
I've also been trying to run (or at least go on walks) a few times a week. It's nice getting some exercise and it's definitely mentally healthy to have some alone time to think and not struggle to communicate with anyone, etc. I also like exploring the village to see what's around (even though it's mostly just the bush). I also go at a certain time so that by the end of my run the sun is setting and I can watch it. Anyway, one day as I was running, I heard "Julie! Julie!" And a girl that I'd met earlier in the week saw me and wanted to run with me. We picked up another kid along the way, too, and pretty soon the homestead dog joined us as well. We must have looked like such a spectacle: me in my running gear - sports bra, nike shorts, running sneakers, ipod and the kids: wearing normal clothes and no shoes! At the end of the run, I was TIRED, really sweaty and out of breath and these kids hadn't even broken a sweat! I was amazed and I’m excited for my little running club to continue.
So at the beginning of the 6 weeks of travel, I went to a workshop for librarians in a beautiful town called Ruacana about 3.5 hours northwest of Omuthiya. Ruacana is way greener than Omuthiya, built into mountains, and filled with red sand. There were librarians there from all over the country which was very cool and I think the best part of being there was the cultural experience.
I roomed with 2 of my co-workers, including one who has a 4-month old baby, Danke. Little Danke was actually one of the highlights of the week - he is ADORABLE and was so much fun to room with. The ministry made arrangements so that my co-worker could bring him along with a babysitter since she is still breastfeeding (and in Namibia, breastfeeding happens anywhere, anytime...). It’s kind of cool that the Ministry provides for childcare. I don't think that'd be the case in the US. Anyway, one of the most interesting things about being in Ruacana is that my roommates prayed and sung (in Oshiwambo, the local language) in our room for 2 hours every night we were there. They are a lot more religious than I realized and trying to explain Judaism to them has been surprisingly difficult and made for some very interesting conversations during that week. Being a Jew in Namibia in general has actually given me a pretty interesting perspective on religion but being in Ruacana has really made me think about it. People here are very overwhelmingly Christian - I think 98% of the population. Most aren't anti-semitic. They just have no idea what Judaism is. I've tried to explain that Jews don't have the New Testament & don't believe that Jesus is the savior but I usually just get blank expressions. I think Namibians have a hard time understanding that someone could believe that Jesus isn't the savior since mostly EVERYONE thinks that here. This experience is definitely making me appreciate and embrace the religion more mostly because I have to think about and explain it more. I don't consider myself very religious but I now definitely see what is meant by "cultural Judaism."
Another interesting cultural thing I noticed during the workshop is the personal hygiene. Everyone here thinks it's weird that I don't shower twice a day and they scrub, scrub, scrub their bodies when they shower. There's obviously nothing wrong with that but they also think it's weird that I can shower in 10 minutes as they're scrubbing and pumicing every part of themselves for 25. Very interesting. Also interesting is the communal shower room (the accommodations are hostel-like). I have now seen all of my co-workers and supervisors naked. And they've seen me naked too! Another thing to love about Namibia haha....
One of my favorite parts of being at the workshop was the amazing landscape that surrounded us. Each day, I rounded up some of the other librarians to get some exercise. Most Namibians (or at least the ones I was with) aren’t into exercising and healthy eating like some Americans are but they were all pretty good sports about it and watching them exercise made for some hilarious moments. On the first day, I was jogging with one of my co-workers and we were laughing and having a grand old time. Suddenly, I looked over and realized she was no longer next to me but was 20 feet behind me sprawled out on the ground and panting. That was her overly dramatic reaction to getting tired but I laid down on the road right next to her and we shared a good laugh about it. We also went on several hikes that week and some of the women were wearing high heels. Climbing back up from inside a beautiful valley was hilarious - the women were shrieking and struggling the whole way.
On one of our hikes, we ran into some Himbas who were traveling by foot back to Opuwo (an over 130 km walk). The Himba are a nomadic people that live mostly in NW Namibia and that live traditionally without too much modern influence. If anybody saw the movie "Babies,” the Namibian baby in it is a Himba. They're pretty recognizable because they paint themselves red. One of my co-workers spoke a dialect similar to their language and it was amazing to see and speak with them a little bit. This was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Namibia so far.
One of the most valuable parts of the workshop was that I got to talk up the library in Omuthiya to all of my fellow librarians and the bigwigs who are in charge of the country’s libraries. I even convinced them to come see our progress so far and on their way back to Windhoek, several of the workers from the head office came to check it out. I think they were impressed and they told us to contact them if we needed help with anything in the future. I will definitely be taking them up on that offer!
After spending a week in Ruacana, I was home for one evening before traveling down to Okahandja for a Thanksgiving celebration with a few of my fellow volunteers. I stayed with my host family from training while I was there and it was GREAT seeing them. I compare it to coming home for a weekend from college: just long enough to make you remember how much you love it there but not so long that you want to kill your parents. When I arrived at the house, I asked where I should put my bags and my host sisters looked at me like I was crazy. “That will always be your room,” they said and pointed to where I had stayed during training. I’ve never felt more at home in Namibia than I did in that moment.
Minus a few minor setbacks like losing power while the food was in the oven and on the stove, the Thanksgiving meal was unreal (and the power eventually came back on!). We had sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies, roasted chicken (no turkey in this country!), corn, beets, rice, etc. etc. It was a feast and made up for the fact that it was the first Thanksgiving away from our loved ones. One of the best parts: I went to an agricultural project on my way home from Ruacana where I was able to pick the corn and sweet potatoes myself. It may have been some of the freshest veggies I’ve ever had on Thanksgiving!
After a few days in Okahandja, the traveling continued down to Windhoek where the 43 of us who came with Peace Corps in August had “Reconnect,” which were debriefing sessions to discuss our first six weeks at site. The best part of Reconnect was spending 2 weeks with all of the other American volunteers. We had a doppelganger party where we all dressed up as each other which was HILARIOUS and we took lots of hikes and watched lots of Glee. I think we were all kind of in disbelief that we were in Peace Corps. The conference center where we stayed was up in the mountains just outside of the capital and was absolutely breathtaking. Most of us are at sites where the landscape is very flat and that have no stairs at all so we were NOT used to the constant uphill walks. That was probably the only bad part, though. There were amazing sunsets daily, the food was almost as awesome as the views and one day a few of us took a hike to watch the sunrise. What an AWESOME two weeks!
Also while in Windhoek at Reconnect, I was able to see the new Harry Potter movie. I wasn’t terribly impressed but sitting in a movie theater eating popcorn was pretty exciting. I also went to a steakhouse there famous for their “meters” of beer and for serving tons of funky meats. I was able to try zebra, crocodile, oryx, kudu, and ostrich. I think my favorite was oryx but I’ll have to head back there again to confirm that...
On one of the last days of Reconnect, I left at 5:30 in the morning to head up north to attend the wedding of my host sister from Okahandja. Traveling there was a bit of an ordeal but arriving on the homestead where they were preparing for the celebration was an experience! There were people, food and meat EVERYWHERE and everyone was buzzing with excitement. Traditionally, an Owambo wedding is two days long. The first day takes place at the bride’s father’s homestead and most of the guests (including me) set up tents there and stay overnight. The second day is a repeat of the first but at the groom’s father’s homestead. This wedding was a mix between traditional and modern customs and it was really interesting getting to witness it. After the church ceremony, all of the guests made a procession in front of the bride and groom waving horse tails, dancing around and shouting “lalalalalalala” back to their cars (which I attempted to participate in). Most were wearing traditional Owambo outfits. The whole process took about 30 minutes. The “lala’s” and the dancing and the procession continued back on the homestead where everyone lined up to give gifts after another short ceremony and eventually we all got to eat and drink. The food was homemade collectively by all of the guests and there was a TON of it: several types of meat, fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni and ketchup, sweet potatoes and more!
After the excitement of the day died down, my host sister asked me if I wanted to take a shower and I agreed without realizing exactly what I was getting myself into. On this homestead (which was pretty rural), there was no running water or electricity and that meant I’d be bucket bathing. A bucket shower is basically an outdoor enclosure with four walls and stones to stand on to bathe. It’s pretty open and you use a giant bucket filled with water to clean yourself. I didn’t think about how strange this would be to do while surrounded by several hundred people still partying and celebrating a wedding and walked into the shower with another older woman who I’d met before and didn’t think much of it. Aside from being surrounded by all of the wedding guests, it turns out washing my too-long hair in a bucket bath is NOT easy. The meme I was with saw me struggling and grabbed my bucket from me to help. I should also mention that Namibians use the shower area to urinate especially on a homestead like this one, which had no plumbing at all. To relieve yourself on a homestead without a pit latrine, you can either go to the shower or walk way out into the bush, and most people choose the shower. So this Meme and I were standing there completely naked and she was washing my hair as multiple wedding guests came in to pop a squat. I have a strange suspicion, though, that they may have just wanted to see a white girl naked...
Once both days of the wedding were over (which was more than enough for me!) I spent a few days in the North traveling to visit other volunteer’s homesteads. It is REALLY interesting to see each other’s sites - even though they are all Owambo homesteads they are all really different. It’s also really nice having people see my site so they understand where I’m living. One of my favorite parts of that week was when two other volunteers, Ryan and Allie, came to visit and we decided to teach the learners on my homestead about Hanukkah. Mom sent me candles and a menorah and Grandma sent me gelt and a set of dreidels so we told them the story behind the holiday, lit the candles and taught them to play dreidel all underneath a thatched hut on my homestead. I think they probably enjoyed playing dreidel the most, especially when we revealed that the gelt was actually edible. It was really cool.
Spending 10 days camping on the beach in Swakopmund with other volunteers was awesome as our campsite was a 5 minute walk from the beach and a 5 minute walk from a bar. Swakopmund definitely highlights the HUGE income gap and crazy amount of inequality that exists in Namibia. It is a beautiful coastal town filled with boutiques, upscale restaurants (sushi!) and even two movie theaters with a consistent ocean view. Its charm kind of reminded me of Newport, Rhode Island.
On Christmas morning, we all woke up and exchanged gifts through our Secret Santa. One of the volunteers made everyone stockings and another made Christmas cookies with green icing! My gifts were awesome - a beautiful bracelet from the Kavango region and a shitenge which is basically a big, colorful multi-use piece of fabric. I also got little tags to tie onto my stuff since I guess I’m known for losing everything (funny how these people know me so well already...). It was the best first Christmas celebration I could have asked for!
New Years was also pretty cool. We partied on the beach all day next to the local bar and a huge bonfire was lit at midnight. Shortly after the bonfire, however, I was attacked by a giant tidal wave which cut the evening short. (Continuing the party soaking wet wasn’t so appealing). But it was a blessing in disguise because I changed into sweats and roasted marshmallows at our campsite with some other volunteers.
One of my favorite parts of the week was climbing Dune 7, one of the highest sand dunes in the world, with two of my friends. It was hard work but well worth it once we got to the top of the natural wonder. Although I’m still picking sand out of my ears, running and rolling down that dune was definitely a highlight of my time in Namibia so far.
So I’ve had an awesome time in the past few weeks. Now I’m back in the village waiting for things to pick up again after the holiday! Stay tuned!