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FAQs about going to Namibia as a Peace Corps Volunteer

clothes to pack | stuff to bring | housing | electricity | transport
food | shopping | books | safety | bikes | teachingadvice

 WHAT CLOTHES SHOULD I PACK?

My best advice to you is to bring comfortable shoes and clothes.  You will be doing lots of walking!  I brought all sorts of skirts and blouses, that I wore in the beginning because Peace Corps people told us to dress nice.  But after a short while, I and everybody else gave up and just wore khakis and more comfortable clothes.(Think "smart-casual" when choosing clothes to bring.  And remember, you'll be walking a lot, riding in the back of trucks, etc.)  I never wore shorts in public as my white legs would attract way too much attention, but I did wear some around the house.  Also, don't forget to bring some warm clothes, like sweaters.  In the winter, it doesn't get very cold (maybe the 60's, 50F at the coldest), but there is no heat, so it feels pretty cold, especially at night. Bring sturdy sandals--the shoes you can buy in Namibia are crappy, to say the least.  A lot of people either brought Chacos (brand-name sports sandals) or had some sent to them.  So a sturdy sandal like that is highly recommended (although it's quite expensive!).  Also bring some sports shoes if you plan to do running or anything, as the ones you can buy there are crap.  Bring a hat for the sun, and sunglasses.

 Another advice about clothes--bring light-colored clothes.  The sun is really hot, so you don't want to be wearing black.  Also, because you hang the clothes outside to dry, they will fade really quickly too.  They will also stretch out tremendously from the hand washing and line-drying, so try to choose a material that won't stretch too much.  I recommend only bringing one pair of jeans, because they are a big pain to wash by hand.  Light-weight Khaki type pants are really the best.

 WHAT OTHER STUFF SHOULD I BRING?

Aside from clothes and shoes, most other things you can buy in Namibia.  So I suggest you bring a lot of clothes and a few pairs of shoes, and not much else.  The supermarkets carry everything you could possibly want. Just bring a small bottle of shampoo, etc, to get you started, but don't waste weight on that stuff, because you can get everything like that with no problem.

 Some little things I was happy I brought were:

1. Purell hand sanitizer

2. a good flashlight (we recommend a small LED headlamp for those night trips to the latrine, or doing anything when you have no electricity and want your hands free)

3. a pocket knife (the kind with all the tools and stuff--like a leatherman or swiss army knife)

4. recipes (you'll be cooking a lot from scratch—but you can get most basic cooking ingredients with no problem. Pre-made stuff is rare)

5. a small (digital?) thermostat (just because it's fun to call home and say: "It's 105 degrees" and not be exaggerating)

6.  A few great books to read.  The Peace Corps office is well-stocked with books, but you might not go there right away, so you'll want something for the first few weeks

7.  Music, an MP3 player would be best

8.  Photos of your house, family, school, city, etc.  You'll spend a lot of time trying to explain life in America, and photos help.  Also, if you happen to have a lot of photos of yourself laying around, bring them to give to your friends.  I had a bunch of old senior photos left from high school that I brought and gave to my students. They loved them!

9.  Sharpie markers (great for making class posters, etc.).  You can buy markers there, but they're crap.  Also, don't let anyone, ever, borrow your precious sharpie markers.  You'll either never see them again, or have them returned to you ruined.  Hide them.

10.  Stickers are light-weight and a great reward for your students if they do well on a test.

11.  Pen pals.  The kids love having pen pals, so if you can arrange it with a school or youth group before you leave, come to Namibia armed with names and addresses.

12.  You might want to bring a short-wave radio as the BBC will become a good friend of yours when you're lonely out in the village.

 SHOULD I BRING A TENT AND SLEEPING BAG?

Don't waste your weight limit lugging a tent and sleeping bag over.  You can buy decent quality ones there, if you think you will use them, and they are much cheaper than in the states.  You can also sometimes get them from volunteers who are leaving, or borrow them from other volunteers.

 SHOULD I BRING A LAPTOP COMPUTER?

Deciding whether or not to bring a laptop is quite a tricky question.  It basically boils down to: If you have electricity, you'll be glad you brought it.  If you don't have electricity, it was a waste of weight.  I should note however that a few volunteers in our group brought laptops and didn't have electricity at their site.  However, they could use it occasionally at the peace corps office, another volunteer's house, their school, etc.  So I guess even if you don't have electricity, you'll probably find some way to use it somewhere.  Therefore, I would vote in favor of your bringing one, but don't hold me accountable if you regret it. (-: 

 All of this is, of course, only if you already have a laptop or can get a used one (like we did.)  I don't recommend going out and buying a top-of-the-line laptop to drag to some hut in the middle of the Namib desert.  Also be aware that it gets quite hot in Namibia (depending on where you are, up to 105F) and it is always dusty.  Owning a laptop will also certainly tag you as being "rich" and you will constantly be barraged with requests to use it, or people will just ask you to do their work with it.  Another problem is that you may not have access to a printer.  You can buy one there for not too much money, but the ink is really expensive and seemed to run out really quickly.  So it has its disadvantages too.

 In our group, about one fifth of the people had laptops, so plenty of people survived just fine without one.  Just make whatever decision you think is best, there is no right answer to this question.

WHAT IS THE HOUSING LIKE?

Housing is different everywhere. Some rich families live in nice modern houses.  The poor families live in thatched huts.  More and more compounds are acquiring a mix of cement huts and traditional stick huts, combined with a modern building or two.  So there is quite a variety.   As to the living conditions, the Peace Corps has some standards.  For example, you won't be living in a hut.  They require you to be housed in a cement-block house with a decent roof and a cement floor.  You will have your own bedroom and kitchen. Beyond that, there aren't really any standards.  I visited the houses of many of the other volunteers and some were a little scary, but everyone got used to them pretty quickly. 

 WILL I HAVE ELECTRICITY AND WATER?

You might not have electricity--but they have kerosene lamps which you will also get used to quickly.  Many volunteers got in the habit of following the cycles of the sun, rather than their clock.  You might not have running water, but there will definitely be some clean drinking water at your house.  The thing to keep in mind is that you will be living with a family, and they all manage to live there, so you will be able to also.  There will be a lot to adapt to, without a doubt, but just know that many volunteers have gone before you and they all managed to adapt and you will be able to also!

 IS THERE GOOD TRANSPORTATION?

There are informal busses going between the major towns.  They gather in a certain place and leave whenever they get full of people.  Taxis also take people on the main roads.  Finally, hitchhiking is a major form of transport as well.  I found traveling very easy because all you really need to know is the name of the place you're going, and then you just ask people where to go for that bus or hitch point. It might sound weird to you, but trust me, it's easy.

 IS THERE A VARIETY OF FOOD?

The typical family does not eat a great variety of foods.  In the north where I lived, the daily meal was millet porridge and goat or chicken meat, maybe some spinach.  We shopped at the supermarket in town, and there we could find a wide variety of basic foods.  We cooked for ourselves the whole time and developed a lot of recipes.

 ARE THERE STORES FOR SHOPPING OR ONLY MARKETS?

In the capital city, there are large shopping malls and well equipped grocery stores. In the smaller towns, there are also some grocery stores and shops, although not as nice or plentiful.  We could find most everything we needed without much trouble.

 SHOULD I GET BOOKS DONATED FROM HOME?

Peace Corps of course wants to encourage "sustainable development" and having things shipped over from the US isn't exactly sustainable.  What I suggest you do is this: make arrangements before you leave to have the books sent via M-bag (ask at your post office—it’s a super cheap, super slow way to ship books).  You probably won't know your real address until you have been in Namibia for a month or so, so tell your contacts hold on to them until you can send your address.  The books take about 3 months to arrive using the M-bag, so by that time you can do some community research and find out where the books will be needed and where they can best be used.  The idea is not just to give things away, but just to find the best place for them by actively involving community/school members.  This is actually a bit harder than it sounds, but anyway, give it your best shot.  The thing is that money is so scarce in Namibia, that it's hard to justify NOT using your connections to get things shipped over.  PC has their reasons, but when you're actually in a village and people keep coming to your house asking if you have any books to read, well, it's a different story than the one the PC administration experiences everyday from their office in the capital. I got a lot of books donated and only good things came of it.

 It's also a good idea to ship some books to yourself.  Two years without any movies or TV is a long time.  You can ship those to the PC office in Windhoek (which is probably the address they gave you) and they will get to you eventually. 

 IS NAMIBIA SAFE?

The country was generally very safe.  Granted, I felt extra safe because I was usually with my husband, but there were many single girls who were volunteers and they didn't experience any problems.  Of course, you will receive lots of marriage proposals though!  Generally, what happens is that your community will like you and take care of you.  My students worried about me more than I worried about myself.

  However, there is a lot of petty theft, especially towards the foreigners, and especially in Windhoek, the capital.  In Windhoek, never carry anything valuable around with you.  In fact, just don't take anything valuable with you!  In Windhoek, NEVER carry a backpack or a purse.  There are many poor people who are not necessarily criminals, but they can't resist the temptation of a white person's bag--because they imagine it to be loaded with riches.  Many, many people got robbed or pick pocketed.  Zac and I never did because we never took anything with us that didn't fit in our pockets.  If we wanted to carry some snacks or a water bottle when we walked around the city, we carried it in an ordinary grocery store plastic bag--much less tempting to the thieves!  But in your village, you will be perfectly fine--because everyone will know you and they will all think you know them (even if you don't). 

 The good thing is that although people got robbed occasionally, no one ever got hurt and there was no assault or anything close.  Should you ever be robbed, just hand over your money, and you'll be fine.  I know I make it sound like it happens all the time--but don't worry--it doesn't!  It's just that we were there for two years  and whenever a minor thing happened, everyone heard about it.  I'm not sure where you're from in the states, but I think you should just take some common-sense precautions like what you would do when visiting any big city in the U.S.  You should bring a money bag that can hide under your clothes and then you won't have to worry.

 CAN I BUY A BIKE?

Peace Corps will reimburse you if you buy a bike, but they won't go out and buy one for you.  All taxi drivers will be perfectly willing to transport your bike from town to your house though.  A lot of things sound hard when you're in the comfortable U.S. but Namibia is a country of adaptability and you'd be surprised what you can do there.

 I AM A NEW TEACHER, WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ME?

As to teaching, I have a bit of very important advice for you.  Be really strict and really tough in the beginning.  I got to my school and was totally duped by all these cute, poor African kids saying, "yes, miss" to everything I said.  I loved them, but within a few weeks they were nearly uncontrollable, and it was really hard to turn around and be strict and expect to establish discipline.  Their idea of discipline is much different than ours.  However, they can adapt to our ways, as long as you come up with a strict discipline plan and stick to it, no matter what!  It'll be hard in the beginning, because you'll feel kind of alone and you'll want the kids to like you.  But trust me, they will like you and respect you if you are a strict, but fair, teacher.  I cannot emphasize this advice enough!  I really wish I knew it before I started because it could have saved me so much trouble!

 HOW ARE THE STANDARDS IN THE TEACHING PROFESSION?

The teaching profession is mediocre to say the least.  Students who don't qualify for the real university then go to the teachers colleges.  The result is that the teachers often don't know much more than their students.  A lot of education revolves around rote memorization and unquestioning obedience.  It was quite different from the western style.  A lot of teachers also only know their subject and don't have a very good general knowledge.  At a lot of the rural schools, the teachers even appear not to care and sometimes have been known to sleep in class.  English is supposed to be used in the classroom, but some of the teachers don't know English very well, so they end up teaching in their native language.  This is problematic because the national exams at grade 10 and grade 12 are completely in English.  At the typical rural school, only a few kids will pass the grade 10 exam to go on to grade 11.

 WHAT GENERAL ADVICE DO YOU HAVE?

I guess the main thing I would tell you is to be flexible and try to go in with as few expectations as possible.  Many people can get frustrated with teaching in Namibia if they come in with too many expectations about themselves, what they want to achieve, and what they hope to find and do in Africa.  Try to go in with an open mind, and as blank of a mind as possible.  That way you will find it much easier to adapt to your new situation.  I went to Namibia with a much different attitude than when I left. 

 A specific example would be, when you go to your school, you'll probably have an idea of some secondary projects you would like to do.  But a better thing would be to go to your school and ask them what they would like to do.  It's so important to work with your school and leave any American concepts of time and efficiency behind!  I'm sure you can learn a lot from my website, because I was writing all that as I was going through it, so you can see my learning process and my slow coming to terms with Namibia.

The one expectation you should have is that it's going to be really hard.  I was lucky because I was with my husband, but all the other volunteers were single and had a very hard time adjusting to living in a village all the time and feeling like they had no one to really talk to.  Of course, by the second year nearly everyone had made some good friends in their village.  But Namibia is a slow place, and friendship takes a long time there.  So, if you expect anything, expect it to be hard, and right in the beginning, you may even really hate it (like I did) but in the end I loved it more than anything.

 Any more questions?  Please e-mail me at arcaro4@yahoo.com

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