Monday, September 19, 2011

This blog entry is long overdue!

Giving a computer class at the library

Pretending to be startled in the bathtub in an abandoned house in Kolmanskop

My co-worker, Laila, assisting with storytelling at the library

Hanging out braaiing a goat head on the homestead at night with Fillimon and Lynette, two of my host siblings
So although I'm pretty comfortable now living on the homestead, I still can't successfully carry a basket on my head!

And here is the link to the first newsletter put out by the Oshikoto Publicity Committee!

So...four months have gone by and I am MUCH overdue for a blog entry. But so much has happened, I’m not even sure where to begin.

I’ll start with the reason I am here...the library. It continues to operate daily and although there are still many kinks to be worked out, I do think we’re providing some pretty cool services to a lot of different people in and around Omuthiya. In August, we had over 2,000 visitors! That’s a pretty significant increase from the 1,100 that came to use it in July. Most people are coming in to use the computers and the free public Internet, but through a library orientation program that I began at the end of June, I hope more and more people will use the books and reference materials that we also offer.

The orientation program is something that will hopefully continue to improve and grow with the start of the new school term. I’ve been told by many Namibians and have realized through observation that because there is not really a library/reading culture here, it doesn't seem like people who come in really know how to use everything that the library offers. Most users make a b-line for the computers with free Internet and we don't have too many people coming in to study or do their homework or use the books and other resources. So, at the end of June, I decided to get the orientation program which I’d been working on since February off the ground. I made a presentation at a local school’s staff meeting directed at the teachers who are responsible for teaching BIS (Basic Information Science) classes. They were incredibly cooperative, and together we agreed on the details of the library orientation program. During the BIS period, I came to their classes to teach their learners all about the library (Dewey Decimal system, card catalogue, library benefits/resources, etc.). Then, during the school study hours at the end of the day, the teachers brought the kids in to the library for a tour and a scavenger hunt to practice what they had learned and how to find materials in the library...complete with prizes! My supervisor, Ingrid, told me that since I started giving these presentations she noticed that the learners (students) who come in are better behaved and less intimidated by the library so I hope they really are learning something. The classes were put on hold due to end of term exams in August, but after a meeting on Monday with my new colleague, Martha, we discussed how to expand the orientation program not only to the local school but to people throughout the region. We brainstormed a lot of really good ideas and with her help and the backing of the regional office, hopefully we can continue to build a really good program.

Speaking of my new colleagues, five staff that were previously working in Ondangwa started at Omuthiya Community Library on July 4th! Since I came to Omuthiya, the only library staff were me and a library assistant, Maria, which was pretty overwhelming at times. Since I last wrote, Maria took a new job but having all these new people with fresh ideas come has been great for the library. Things are more organized, users are being assisted better, and I have more time to focus on the computer lab and on community programs, like the library orientation program and several other things that we have been working on. I also REALLY like all of my new colleagues. Not only do we work together, but they have also become new friends.

Some of the programs we’ve been able to implement in the past few months include a budgeting class at the library which I worked on with a Peace Corps business volunteer, Dan, and an NGO that focuses on teaching business skills to youth; a weekly storytelling program where we read to little kids; and a weekly movie program. The weekly programs are still struggling to get off the ground but I know they will be wonderful additions to the library once we finally get the hang of them. Additionally, I have been teaching advanced computer classes (about Internet and e-mail) in the downstairs computer lab and more basic computer classes will begin soon upstairs in the new computer lab that I helped to set up. Things are not running completely smoothly yet, but they are improving all the time. If and when I get frustrated with what I consider slow progress or silly roadblocks, I always remind myself that a year ago, none of this stuff was here!

Going to the local school for the BIS classes has been really fun. Since I’m just teaching one class period, I’m definitely not sick of it and don’t experience the frustrations (or all the marking!) that other teachers have to deal with, and the kids all get really excited. I told my mom that I feel like Britney Spears walking into that school. Everyone says hello to me by name with huge smiles on their faces. I’ve gotten to know some of the teachers there and as a result, have been invited to take part in some school activities that have gone on after school hours. I was a judge at the school’s Ms. POP beauty pageant and also at a circuit-wide art exhibition. The winners got to display their art at the library so the library now has paintings, drawings and even a statue displayed from young artists throughout the region.

Other things that have been going on at the library and with work in the past few months:

  • We held the first meeting of the regional publicity committee for the Ministry of Education, which I am on with 5 other employees from different divisions and from throughout the region. It’s cool to get to know people outside of Omuthiya and outside of the library and we all work pretty well together. We put out the first edition of our quarterly newsletter at the end of August, which was kind of a fun use of my journalism skills, and we will start working on the next one at the end of this month for publication in December.
  • UNESCO conducted a survey throughout Oshikoto region, where Omuthiya is located, to gauge how well the information centers here (including the library) are operating. In July, they called together representatives from the various centers around the region (including me!) to discuss the results and come up with a plan to improve all of the centers’ operations. This was a really good way to brainstorm improvements with other people who have simliar interests and to network with one another. The results still remain to be seen but a skills development center based in Tsumeb (a pretty large and developed town about 170 km south of Omuthiya), listened to our idea about bringing their trainings to the more rural areas i.e. Omuthiya and the surrounding villages. They came last week to meet with some stakeholders in Omuthiya (Ministry of Youth, NGO’s, the library and CLDC, etc.) about how to expand their trainings to our communities. Hopefully something good will happen with that!
  • Last week, the Director of Libraries for Namibia came in with the Director of Libraries for Tanzania on an official visit to check out the library and learn about the services we offer. It gave us all an excuse to clean and reorganize the library and it’s looking better than ever. The visit went really well as I think all of the bigwigs were impressed and gave us a lot of accolades to continue to do what we’ve been doing!

The entire donation from Neil has now made it to Omuthiya including six Leap Frog Learning Pads, which are a community favorite. Throngs of kids come in to use them everyday. They are so popular that we’ve designated a corner upstairs specifically for their use. In case you don’t know, the Leap Frogs are an educational toy that helps kids learn how to read and is a good tool for learners here to practice their English. They come with a pretty big box full of books which, to my chagrin, we had been storing in a closet. On a particularly frustrating day, I decided it was time for the Leap Frogs to come out of the closet and made it known to the entire staff that I wasn’t happy that we had been hoarding them. One of my colleagues said there wasn’t really room for them anywhere else, and I very angrily grabbed them to show everyone where I thought they should go. I walked the box over to their new home, and plopped it down, perhaps a bit too hard. As I bent over, I heard a giant rip and realized my pants had literally split from the waistband to the top of one of my knees. My entire butt was exposed to my colleagues (who I had just been yelling at not so nicely) and all of the library users, including a full computer lab. I immediately started laughing, unsure of what else to do, and when my co-workers realized what happened and saw my entire bare white behind, they started laughing too. Despite how bitchy I had been, my co-worker insisted on driving me home to get new clothes. This was definitely a good reminder that I wasn’t handling my frustration well nor was I being very nice and that I was taking myself a little too seriously. It was also a reminder that I could benefit from getting back into an exercise routine :-)

Outside of the library, things are still going really well and I’m enjoying living on the homestead with my family more and more as I become more comfortable there. One interesting thing has been watching the seasons change. Obviously, I’ve always been able to do this in the U.S. too but I feel like in the U.S., we’re pretty climate controlled. We get in our cars with AC or heat in the garage, drive to work, park in the parking lot and then sit in our ACed or heated offices all day. Here, I’m walking about 45 minutes to and from work everyday, I’m living on a working farm where the growing seasons completely affect how everyone spends their days and what work is being done, and I think people here just generally spend more time outside.

In addition to the fact that I’m walking to and from work everyday, the village I live in is pretty bush-y and I’m always finding little creatures in my house. A few months ago, I was doing a serious cleaning job when a giant lizard jumped out of a box I was going through. I screamed and my host sister, Lynette, came running with a stick. In her attempt to chase the lizard out of my house with the stick (because I told her NOT to kill it!), she whacked it several times and knocked its tail off. The blows must have been too much for the little guy because it died right in front of us and the tail kept wriggling for a good 15 minutes several feet away from its body. It creeped me out a LOT which my sister thought was HILARIOUS. She said she could tell I didn’t grow up in a village. I guess there are certain things which I’ll never get used to, no matter how long I stay here!

I’ve been able to continue to enjoy lots of cultural stuff including two weddings. The weddings were both lovely, and I feel like I’m a pro now with at least sort of knowing what’s going on at traditional Owambo weddings. One of the couples was a former Peace Corps volunteer, Patrick, who stayed in Omuthiya about 10 years ago and was living in my village and teaching at the school in town. He married an Owambo woman he met during his service which of course meant I got lots of questions about when I was going to settle down with my future Owambo husband. Additionally, about 15 of Patrick’s family and friends came from the states to witness the nuptials. I think his family was a little understandably overwhelmed that they couldn’t communicate with their in-laws and that their son was marrying into a culture that they didn’t understand but it was very interesting talking to them. I imagined how my own family would react in the same situation. It was cool having Americans in my village. I felt proud of it and of myself and was reminded in little ways of what life in America would be like if I had never come here.

Pension day or opezela is another cultural phenomenon that I’ve gotten to experience. This happens once a month when all of the area’s pensioners line up to get photographed and fingerprinted by this crazy high-tech machine that then spits out money at them. Keep in mind that this high-tech machine is brought to a field in the middle of nowhere and used by very traditionally dressed Kukus and Tatekulus (Grandmothers and Grandfathers - the pensioners!). All around these machines, people set up tents to sell lots of good stuff and everyone hangs out and drinks lots of beer and omalovu (traditional beer) and it just becomes a huge party. On the day that I accompanied my host parents to the pension party, they were there to sell lots of good stuff that we produce at home on our farm. This included ondunga (a fruit from the palm tree that’s very tasty but kind of hurts your teeth), enyangwa or pumpkins, potatoes and live doves, which my Meme keeps on our homestead to sell. Before heading back to the library, I made sure to greet all of the people who showed up for the party and fill my belly with iikuki (fatcakes, pretty much just fried balls of dough) and efukwa (these starch-y bean things that are my new obsession. Openzela is so much fun!

A few months ago, some of the girls in my village expressed to me how much they would like to learn how to play soccer, which is a sport mostly played by boys here as there are no girls’ soccer teams in the schools. Even though I am incredibly unathletic, I thought this might be a cool opportunity to get a soccer club started and I approached the principal and the sports teacher at a local school to ask if I could borrow a soccer ball from them for the weekend. Because I have a good relationship with them and they trust me, they agreed. I was SO EXCITED and told the girls that we’d play a pick-up game on Sunday so I could gauge their interest. I noticed the ball was a little bit flat so on my way home, I took it to the local tire shop or Tyre Shop, as its spelled on the sign out front. In hindsight, I should have taken this spelling error as a huge red flag. I asked the man inside if he would blow up the soccer ball for me using a tire air pump and he agreed even though I noticed that the pump looked much larger than the hole on the ball. Sure enough, in attempting to pump more air into it, he made a huge hole in the ball, making it completely unusable! I angrily asked him what I was supposed to do now and he shrugged and grinned at me helplessly. I walked home pretty bummed out until I showed the ball to my little brother, Fillimon. An ever resourceful village kid, he asked me for some newspaper and duct tape and proceeded to crumple up the newspaper, put it in his mouth, and stuff it in the hole which he covered with duct tape. The ball was once again usable! Unfortunately, I still felt like I had to replace the school’s soccer ball and ended up buying them a new, rather expensive one with my meager volunteer stipend. And once Sunday rolled around, none of the village girls even showed up to play. I ended up playing one-on-one soccer for about two hours with my sister, who later told me that the girls in our village said soccer was a boys’ sport and they’d changed their minds. Another lesson in not sweating the small stuff...At least my host siblings now have a soccer ball of their own to play with.

Peace Corps has afforded me the opportunity to do some traveling for work-related stuff lately including a midservice (we’re halfway through!) and all-volunteer conference in Windhoek, a conference for IT volunteers all the way down in Luderitz and Camp GLOW, a leadership camp that I helped with for smart learners from all over Namibia.

The IT conference in Luderitz was definitely the most memorable because of how cool of a place Luderitz is. Luderitz is a VERY remote town on the southwestern coast of Namibia. It’s beautiful with a cool mix of desert, mountain and ocean landscapes and is quirky and charming with lots of character including a small bohemian community and lots of European-esque architecture. As we were driving, there was literally NOTHING around and then all of a sudden this beautiful little modern town emerged from the desert after more than two days of travelling. During one of the days in Luderitz, my friend Matt and I did some sightseeing including to visit an abandoned diamond mining town that the desert is literally taking over called Kolmanskop. These huge mansions were left there and are now filled with sand! It was a very eerie but cool excursion.

On my way back to Windhoek from Luderitz, I stayed at another volunteers’ house overnight since I couldn’t make the journey to Windhoek in one day! There were a few other volunteers also staying there (which often happens at volunteer houses in towns) including a couple who I have met before and am friendly with. We all fell asleep on mattresses in the living room that night and I was awoken at about 3 AM by a poke on my arm. “I’m cold,” said the person who poked me, who I couldn’t see because I didn’t have my glasses on. So, grumpy and confused, I handed this person my blanket and rolled over to go back to sleep. Suddenly, the person got into bed with me and started cuddling me and even went to kiss the back of my neck. Well, now I was certainly awake! I sat straight up and got close enough to the person to realize that it was the male half of the couple who was also staying there. He was HORRIFIED to see that it was me and not his girlfriend, who also happens to have long brown hair, and we both sat there for a moment in the dark looking at each other, equally shocked and appalled. “I’m going to find my girlfriend,” he said. (It turns out she had gone into one of the empty bedrooms to sleep.) And he got up and ran out of the room. HILARIOUS!

It was really nice to get home from those two weeks of traveling, especially to talk to my brother, Sakeus, who had gone on a Peace Corps managed program called Diversity Tour while I was away. On Diversity Tour, orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) from all over Namibia are taken to visit places all around the country, in this case Windhoek, Etosha and Swakopmund (the beach). This is something Sakeus would definitely not have had the opportunity to do otherwise and hearing how excited he was when we got home was really cool. He was raving about swimming in the ocean, how amazed he was by the waves and how scared he was to walk out onto the boardwalk. He also seemed excited to have met new friends from tribes all over Namibia since where we live is very homogenous with the same tribe, Owambos. I got him a disposable camera for the trip and am excited to get those photos developed when I go to Windhoek this week to see the trip through his eyes.

SO this is probably the longest blog I’ve ever written but I think that’s a good sum-up of the events that have happened over the past FOUR months!

I have been in Namibia now for over one year :-) which is very exciting.

Also, Mom, Dad and Scott will be coming to visit in THREE WEEKS! I can’t wait to see them and share my world here with them. It will be so amazing for me to have them see and learn about all of this stuff first-hand!


  1. Hi Julie,
    I loved reading your experiences in Namibia. I can feel your love for the place. Your work in the library-setting it up, teaching, showing them how to use it is wonderful. I cannot imagine life without books. The search is often my favorite part.
    Exposing the girls to soccer was great. Your efforts and your brother's are appreciated. You are showing them what girls can do. And we would absolutely have just thrown the ball out here in the US and bought another one. We could all use a lesson or two in the value of things.
    You have immersed yourself so well into the culture there. I am sure it must be hard at times. I am sure the weddings are different and beautiful. Walking so many places in weather is so different like you said.
    Your story about staying with the couple made me laugh.
    Most of all your stories warmed my heart. You are amazing and wonderful. I am glad you are there.
    Have a great time with your family when they visit. I KNOW they can't wait to see you and your new world and hug you tight.

  2. Good morning how are you?

    My name is Emilio, I am a Spanish boy and I live in a town near to Madrid. I am a very interested person in knowing things so different as the culture, the way of life of the inhabitants of our planet, the fauna, the flora, and the landscapes of all the countries of the world etc. in summary, I am a person that enjoys traveling, learning and respecting people's diversity from all over the world.

    I would love to travel and meet in person all the aspects above mentioned, but unfortunately as this is very expensive and my purchasing power is quite small, so I devised a way to travel with the imagination in every corner of our planet. A few years ago I started a collection of letters addressed to me in which my goal was to get at least 1 letter from each country in the world. This modest goal is feasible to reach in the most part of countries, but unfortunately it’s impossible to achieve in other various territories for several reasons, either because they are countries at war, either because they are countries with extreme poverty or because for whatever reason the postal system is not functioning properly.

    For all this I would ask you one small favour:
    Would you be so kind as to send me a letter by traditional mail from Namibia? I understand perfectly that you think that your blog is not the appropriate place to ask this, and even, is very probably that you ignore my letter, but I would call your attention to the difficulty involved in getting a letter from that country, and also I don’t know anyone neither where to write in Namibia in order to increase my collection. a letter for me is like a little souvenir, like if I have had visited that territory with my imagination and at same time, the arrival of the letters from a country is a sign of peace and normality and a original way to promote a country in the world. My postal address is the following one:

    Emilio Fernandez Esteban
    Calle Valencia, 39
    28903 Getafe (Madrid)

    If you wish, you can visit my blog, where you can see the pictures of all the letters that I have received from whole World.

    Finally I would like to thank the attention given to this letter, and whether you can help me or not, I send my best wishes for peace, health and happiness for you, your family and all your dear beings.

    Yours Sincerely