Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Vacation and Post-Evacuation

A birthday surprise

Rachel appreciating some of the art at AfrikaBurn

Serendipi-TEA at AfrikaBurn

Lynette and Sakeus helping out in my garden

A library user enjoying a LeapFrog learning pad, one of many things in Neil's donation.


After spending almost two months away from my homestead, I finally came home last week. Although I really missed Omuthiya, evacuation wasn’t all bad - I got to see and live in a southern Namibian town, Mariental, for a few weeks and got to do a bit of traveling. I took trips to Keetmanshoop, Swakopmund and Okahandja where I got to visit with my host family from training and attend the swearing in of Group 33. It’s so hard to believe that there is already a new group of volunteers beginning their service in Namibia. Didn’t I JUST get here?! Time is definitely a weird concept here, sometimes it goes WAY too slow but other times it seems like it flies by (9 months in Namibia already?!).

One of the evacuation weeks was spent in Windhoek at a two-part workshop for us put on by Peace Corps. The first part was Project, Design & Management (PDM) where we learned about implementing community projects. The second part was Male Engagement (ME), a workshop to discuss gender inequality in Namibia.

For me, the best part of the week was that I got to celebrate my birthday with a lot of my fellow American volunteers. They all made me feel SO special - singing happy birthday to me various times, writing and performing a rap for me and giving me incredibly thoughtful cards and gifts (Jeannine and Allie!), organizing me an AWESOME party, and even arranging for me to have SEVEN birthday cakes (Thanks, Lance!) of which not a CRUMB remained, of course. During the day while we were in one of the training sessions, I wasn’t really paying attention (shocker). Suddenly, I looked up, and the entire conference center was staring at me. Another volunteer, Dorothy, had taken a photo of my during the day and arranged to have it put up on the big screen in front of everyone attending the session. From there, Allie ran over to me with a princess crown and everyone started singing happy birthday. Once I realized what was going on and stopped freaking out as to why everyone was staring, I had a huge smile on my face.

Also on my birthday, I booked a bus for a very impromptu trip to Cape Town four days later. I decided since I had to be evacuated anyway and didn’t yet have permission to return to Omuthiya, I would visit my friend Rachel from GWU. Rachel is getting her Masters’ Degree at the University of Cape Town. Scott refers to her degree as “becoming a superhero” but it’s actually in “Political Studies & Political Science with a focus on international conflict resolution and transitional justice.” Superhero is a bit less of a mouthful yet just as accurate. The trip to visit Rachel was LONG - 18 hours on an overnight bus but when I got there, I could not have been more excited. When Rachel and I get together, regardless of how much time has gone by, we are so comfortable with each other and we pick up right where we left off.

The first week I was in Cape Town, we spent five days camping at Afrika Burn, a festival that’s South Africa’s version of Burning Man. At Afrika Burn, 4,000+ people from all over the world (although mostly South Africa) gathered together and created a temporary community of campsites filled with love, art, music and creativity. There is no money exchanged at Afrika Burn. You bring what you need - A LOT OF WATER...and beer! - and trade for things or gift things to other people and get things gifted to you. Our crew (Rachel, myself and her two friends Chris & Caroline) brought lollipops as our gift to hand out and other burners were incredibly generous with their gifts. One favorite was “Serendipi-TEA,” a tent where you could relax and have tea (hot or cold) and cookies any time of day. Other gifts included crepes, hammocks, alcohol, hugs and music. At Afrika Burn, you are surrounded by other people’s unbelievably creative art installations and the incredible scenery of the Tankwa Karoo desert (middle of nowhere even by Namibian standards). The people you are surrounded by are wearing costumes, face paint, fake eyelashes, or nothing at all and the friendliness and openness is something I’ve never found anywhere else. Afrika Burn was amazing. Both Rachel and I, and I can pretty confidently say everyone else who attended, had a blast.

After Afrika Burn, we returned to Cape Town and I had the week to explore the city before returning to Nam. And what a beautiful, bustling and fantastic city it is! Being in a city and living with a student reminded me a lot of being back in DC at GWU which no longer felt 100% normal. That was a weird revelation but I enjoyed my time in Cape Town regardless. Some highlights:

  • Walking around and exploring - Especially the Long Street/downtown area and the waterfront
  • INCREDIBLE views from everywhere - Mountains, beaches, forest...you name it, Cape Town has it. Cape Town is built along the bases of three mountains - Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Devil’s Peak - and is also surrounded by beautiful beaches. Makes for breathtaking views from everywhere at every time of day!
  • A sunset hike up Lion’s Head with Rachel - It’s hard to say whether I enjoyed the exercise, the views or the company and conversation the most.
  • A coastal drive with two of Rachel’s friends, Caroline & Carilee - BEAUTIFUL!
  • SUSHI! - Ate myself sick and it was glorious (although it was no Nagoya...). The abundance of salads, fresh vegetables and bacon egg & cheese on croissant sandwiches was also quite a highlight.
  • Wandering around Kirstenbosch - This is Cape Town’s national botanical gardens which showcases Southern Africa’s flora and fauna and is built on a slope of Table Mountain - quite a place.
  • Live jazz - For a moment, I regretted quitting the saxophone in 8th grade
  • Seeing a movie - Although the movie itself, Rabbit Hole, was kind of depressing, sitting in a movie theater and eating candy ROCKED!
  • Robben Island tour - Beautiful views, interesting history, perhaps a bit overpriced...
  • Stellenbosch and wine - Our neighboring campsite at Afrika Burn consisted of several wine enthusiasts/winemakers from Stellenbosch (an area outside of Cape Town with lots of vineyards and wineries) who agreed to show me around and set up a wine tasting and tour for me the week after Afrika Burn. This was probably one of the highlights of my trip.
  • Biscuit Mill Market - This weekend market in the Woodstock neighborhood was AWESOME. There was every type of fresh food and drink you could imagine, live entertainment, jewelry, flowers, etc. and the atmosphere was incredible. Very, very cool although doesn’t exactly compare to the traditional open market located in Omuthiya (I’m biased).
  • Bo-Kaap - Bo-Kaap is an area of Cape Town built on Signal Hill (more awesome views of the city) where a majority of the city’s Muslim population lives. It is known for its cobblestone streets, colorful houses and delicious Cape Malay food all of which I enjoyed very much when I explored the area with Rachel’s friends Carilee and Laura.
  • Nightlife - Going out and being a “normal” 23-year-old was thrilling...and really nice.

The trip home took two and a half days (I left Cape Town Sunday morning and arrived to the homestead Tuesday afternoon) but it felt GOOD to be back when I finally did arrive. I got incredibly warm greetings from my entire family, my garden had actual vegetables in it (tomatoes, spinach, peppers, beetroot) and things at the library seemed to have gone really well while I was gone. For one of the first times in this country, I actually felt like I was coming HOME. My house was filthy when I arrived (2 months of no one living inside except spiders, ants and lizards) but my host sister, Lynette, immediately started helping me clean it when I got home, and it was back to normal just a few hours later.

Since arriving back to the library, we’ve had several new additions including a flat screen TV with surround sound speaker system and DVD player, a digital camera and video camera, chairs (we previously had a ton of tables...and very few chairs), furniture for the “Kids’ Korner,” water coolers, a desk for an upstairs reception area, a huge bulletin board for community notices and lockers for people to put their bags in while using the library. There is also now a literacy class taking place several times a week in our group study room upstairs to help Omuthiya residents become literate.

In addition to all this great stuff provided by the regional Ministry of Education, about half of the materials that were donated with Neil’s shipment have arrived. During evacuation, I spent a day in Windhoek helping to organize the other half which are still at the Community Library office in Windhoek being processed. In the meantime, though, the half of the donation that has already made it to Omuthiya is being put to good use. This includes construction paper, pens (which are comparable to crack in Owamboland), scissors, a set of puppets, several videos and several instructional tapes (i.e. a tape set instructing about financial management). Also included in the shipment are a set of LeapFrog Learning Pads, which are an educational toy that helps kids learn how to read interactively. I’ve taken them out to show them to a few kids and they are a HIT. Helena and I will meet sometime this week to discuss how best to utilize the LeapFrogs and other items that were donated. I’m happy that I’ve returned to a place where there is lots for me to do (Let’s hope that continues!). Things at the library continue to improve.

Today, I spoke with my Peace Corps supervisor, who is an Owambo women and has lots of friends who are from the Omuthiya area. She told me that during holiday, she returned to Owamboland from Windhoek, where she lives and got together with her friends. She sat quietly as her friends all raved about the new library that was in Omuthiya, unaware that my supervisor had any involvement with it. She said there’s lots of buzz in the community about everything we offer, especially the computers and free public Internet, and that her friends all spoke about the library very excitedly. This was really awesome to hear, especially because we still haven’t done any official promotion. People in the community are finding out about us solely by word of mouth which means they like what they see when they pay us a visit!

This past weekend was very eventful. After a presentation on Friday to regional Ministry of Education employees about the library’s progress (which went VERY well!), I found out that one of my very good friends and fellow volunteers, Lance, was going back home to America. This was really sad news and a bunch of my fellow Owamboland volunteers and I decided that we’d have a farewell get together for him. We ended up going to a concert (Gazza, one of two of Namibia’s most famous rappers) and all really enjoyed ourselves...except for the fact that three of us were robbed during the show. No one was hurt but I got my digital camera and wallet stolen, Lisa got her cell phone stolen and Jeannine got her cell phone and wallet stolen. These must have been some seriously professional thieves because not one of us realized what had happened until well after the fact.

The next day, we decided to head back to the concert venue, Bennie’s Entertainment Park, to check if anything had been recovered. There, we met the owner of the place, Bennie, who felt horrible that we’d been robbed. It turns out both my wallet and Jeannine’s were recovered, without the money of course but with all of the documents inside, but Bennie still insisted on buying all eight of us breakfast as an apology. At breakfast, we got to talking to him and realized that he is one of Namibia’s most successful businessmen and he has quite an interesting success story. We really hit it off and he ended up offering to take all of us to Etosha game reserve (about 3 hours south...) that day with him and his friends. We saw oryx, wildebeest, giraffe, zebras, springbok, kudu...all out of the window of his iced-out Hummer truck. We were treated not only to park entrance but to an amazing picnic lunch and money for taxi rides home. What a day! Since Etosha, we’ve heard from Bennie several times. He is insisting on paying for what was stolen at the concert including my camera and Lisa and Jeannine’s cell phones. He is an incredible guy. This COULD be the only time in history that anything positive came from a robbery!

So, after two months away, life continues on for me in Omuthiya. The break, although a bit long, was nice. I feel like I’m refreshed and remotivated and ready to get back to work!