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My Experiences in Namibia
by Sera Arcaro
15 February 2004

When I was home for surgery, my church asked me to give a speech on Namibia, and this is what I gave them: 

I am here today to share with you my experiences in Namibia, a country in Southern Africa.  Now, I am not going to talk about the HIV/AIDS crisis, or the poverty, or how you all better not have wasted any food today because there are starving kids in Africa.

Instead, I'm going to tell a story about two different cultures, how they met, how they collided and how they merged--a little.  I'm going to tell a story that thousands of people experience every year.  A story about leaving your family, your home, your country, your culture, and your ice cream, and everything you know and understand, and going to live somewhere else.  Finally, this is a story about the goat that I ate, and the goat that I became.

 My husband, Zac, and I arrived in Namibia at the end of October 2002 as Volunteers.  We were going to be teachers for two years.  But first we had to go through a ten week training period where we lived with a host family in a village, in order to experience the culture, learn the local language, practice teaching, and basically make lots of mistakes and embarrass ourselves in a village different from the one that we would be working in for two years.

 A big SUV dropped us, 5 other volunteers, and 560 pounds of luggage off at the village school in Omege, where we would be ceremoniously welcomed by the village headman and meet our host parents.  What actually happened was that all the school children left their classes to form a large staring circle around the funny looking white people.  Or not so white, as our group of seven included an Indian American and an African American. 

 After several speeches, we were introduced to our host family.  I can't tell you how happy I was when my meme, or "host mother", greeted me in perfect English.  Although English is the official language of Namibia, we were warned that many people, especially in the villages, still did not speak English.  So we were lucky. 

 Our meme drove us back to her house in her truck, but only after she finished talking on her cell phone.  As we entered the house, I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect for my living conditions.  But we entered a large white house with smoothly painted cement walls, a beautiful blue tile floor, a modern kitchen complete with a fridge, freezer, sink with running water, and a full size gas stove and oven.  The living room had couches, a TV, and long lacey drapes covering the windows and a sliding glass door.  She showed us our bedroom, which was sparsely furnished with a double bed a ceiling fan and a light.  Our room was adjacent to a bathroom complete with a toilet, sink and shower.  So we were lucky.

 For lunch, our meme prepared some goat meat, rice and potatoes.  Nothing had any flavoring on it, and the goat meat smelled unappetizing and was tough to chew.  After lunch, she took us to the homestead adjacent to the house, where her mother-in-law lived.  The homestead was traditional: an outer wall made of sticks enclosed a series of small huts that functioned as rooms in the house.  This inner compound was subdivided by many walls made of mahangu stalks, creating the impression of a maze.  Instead of a Minotaur at the center of the labyrinth, we beheld a topless kuku.  The grandmother emerged from a dark cement-block room, wearing nothing but a faded skirt. 

 I found myself face to face with a National Geographic image: this was the real Africa.  Wasn't this what I came here for?  I contemplated this as we walked together to another section of the compound and shared a traditional drink made from fermented mahangu grains.  It was scooped out of a clay pot and drank with hollowed out gourds.  It was bitter.  I realized the National Geographic images were misleading: they didn't show the foreigner sitting nearby, awkwardly wondering what to do, what to say, wondering how to be polite, how to appear to like the drink without inviting more.

 Later that afternoon, we met our trainer and the other volunteers back at the school.  We all started walking to where Jacque, another volunteer, lived.  We were literally walking down a sand road in the middle of nowhere. Now, remember, we were in a desert, where it hadn't rained in 8 months.  There was no shade, we were walking in deep sand, and it seemed like we would dry up and die there, because that's what everything else had done. 

 When we got to where Jacque lived, I began to discover the great inequalities of the world.  She was staying in a traditional homestead, with no electricity or running water.  Her room was made of bare cement blocks with a tin roof. It was a dark and dirty and small little room.  Then we continued our trek across the desert to where Anand was staying.  We got there and about 10 kids ranging in age from 1-13 and wearing clothes that were in the process of becoming rags, hung around staring at us as we inspected Anand's room.  His was similarly small, dark and dirty. 

 So we finally got back to our own luxurious house, and all our family, plus several other miscellaneous people were there.  I was helping to cut carrots for supper when they brought in the big bowl of freshly slaughtered goat meat.  That's when things started to go terribly wrong.  I will spare you the details, but let it suffice to say that as the evening progressed, and as the smell of cooking goat meat wafted through the house and penetrated every corner, I became progressively more and more sick.  The goat that was already in my stomach clearly did not want his colleague to join him.

 To make matters worse, I kept having visions of what I had seen that day: the old grandmother, the vast sand, the poor living conditions, the dirty children, everybody staring at us...  I just couldn't take it.  I was hit with the full force of culture shock.  How could these two worlds, the modern and the archaic, coexist?

  I wasn't prepared for seeing everything I saw that day. Strangely, what bothered me most of all was that the people were walking around like all of this was normal.  Didn't they know they were miserable?  I certainly was.  I kept thinking, how can I possibly live here for two years? And I got more sick…

 So that was how American and Namibian cultures met, and collided, in my stomach.

But, time takes care of everything.  Soon enough, I too began walking around like all of this was normal.  I became accustomed to seeing cattle, goats, donkeys, chickens and dogs wandering freely, everywhere.  I got used to greeting every single person we met on our 45 minute walk to and from the school where we had our training classes.  I began to look forward to shouting "Hello" back and forth about 20 times each morning with a group of kindergartners, who anxiously awaited our passing.  We solemnly waved to the grave diggers in the church yard next to the school as we picked our way around the growing pond, because the rains had begun to fall.  The barren sand miraculously gave birth to a plethora of green, the flies increased tenfold, frogs appeared, and the weather became unbearably hot. 

 Gradually, we got to know our family.  The kids no longer ran from us terrified, but eagerly explained things to us and invited Zac to join in their soccer games.  We learned how to hitchhike into town with the other volunteers. We figured out that if we greeted taxi drivers in their own language, Oshiwambo, they were more likely to drive us all the way back out to the village.  All seven of us would pile into one small taxi.  Somehow I even got used to that.

 Even as we got settled in, we were never able to forget how different we were.  The grandmother told me I was a woman; I should be pounding mahangu.  The kids at the school still stared at us through the classroom windows as though we were animals in a zoo. 

 Just as we were getting used to things, it was time to move on to our permanent site.  Zac and I were placed at Ekulo Senior Secondary School, a rural boarding school, with students from grades 8-12.  I was to teach English to grades 9 and 11, and Zac taught math and physical science to grades 11 and 12.  We were happy to finally have our own home and looked forward to a little bit of privacy. 

 But, it was not to be.  Since we lived in teacher housing on the school grounds, the students were constantly walking by our house, coming to borrow a book, ask for help with their homework, or to just ask me questions, such as: 

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Miss, do you eat goats and frogs in America, like we do?

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Do people in your country live in stick houses and shanty towns?

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Miss, do you live next to Eminem, The Backstreet Boys, or Michael Jackson?

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Did your house burn down during the Sept. 11 war with Afghanistan?

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But Miss, why does President Bush want to colonize Iraq?

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Oh miss, you're the last born?  How can you be here? You should stay at home to take care of your parents by cooking for them, fetching firewood and water, cleaning the house, and looking after the animals.

 I underwent this battery of questions with good humor, just glad that someone seemed interested in getting to know me, and eager to share my own culture.  I greatly enjoyed teaching my students, both in and out of the classroom.  But I also learned a lot from them, such as:

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The color red attracts lightening

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Oshithema is the best, healthiest food on the face of the planet

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The world is round like a dinner plate, not round like a ball

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My skin is not white, it is in fact light orange

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Zac should have given my family two cows when he married me

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My hair is very long

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I walk too fast 

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And I don't speak English very well

 So, I had to learn to speak Namlish. 

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When I wanted to keep something, I would ask, "Can I go with it?" 

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When I would be right back, I would say, "I am coming now" even although I was actually leaving.

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When the temperature reached 105, I would sigh and say, "O! My dear, it is too hot!" 

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I learned that I did not grade papers, I marked them

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I learned to put trash into the dustbin

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markers were "Cokie pens" and

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an eraser was a "duster" or a "rubber." 

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I learned to call my students "learners" because students were in college.

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To give directions, I learned to say "just there" and point in the general direction while snapping my fingers to indicate how far

 And then there was time.  Time is arbitrary in Namibia.  If the learners planned an event for 7pm, we should show up at 9pm.  But the bi-weekly staff meeting always occurred at 6:30am sharp!  "Now" meant sometime.  "Now-now" meant sometime relatively soon.  We learned to ask a learner what time they would come for help, not tell them, because the former would be more accurate.  And we learned to set appointments relative to other things: after study, before supper, during free time.  Sometimes they will still communicate time by referring to the level of the sun.

We learned that taxi drivers were our best friends, but we couldn't believe a word they said about when they were going.  Every Saturday we went into town to do errands and meet with the other volunteers.  Our last stop would be the grocery store, so that hopefully the cold things would not melt during the hour-long ride home.  There was a short walk from the store to the place the taxis collected.  As we got close enough, they would recognize us, and we would be besieged.  They would take our bags and pull us towards various cars, saying "Ekulo, Ekulo!  We go now!"  Well, we NEVER went NOW.  We had to wait until the car was full of people all heading in the same direction, before we would go anywhere.  Then we would stop for gas.  Then we would drop something off somewhere.  Then we would pick something up.  Meanwhile, we are squished cheek-to-cheek in the small taxi: 4 in the back and 3 up front.  Once a driver even put someone in the trunk.

 But, we got used to even this.  I eventually realized that the people didn't know they were miserable because they weren't.  This was life as they knew it, and it wasn't bad or good, it just was.

 You could say our two cultures began to merge as Zac and I adapted to life in Namibia, but there were always little reminders of our foreignness.  The learners thought it was strange that Zac knew how to cook, that we did laundry together, that we did not own any cattle or goats or chickens and that we bought all our food from the grocery store.  Strangers often asked us for money just because we were white, and therefore rich.  We would be asked why we were bombing Iraq.  When we were standing by the road trying to get a ride, groups of children would come and sit at a distance just to stare at us.  We could never be anonymous.

 Nevertheless, we grew to love Namibia.  Since we didn't have a TV, the goats and donkeys replaced Comedy Central.  Fierce thunderstorms replaced thrilling movies.  A chic flick consisted of watching our pet chicken develop a relationship with the schoolyard rooster.  We read lots of books and cooked everything from scratch.  We learned about the lives of our students, posing such questions as: "If you acquired a lot of money, would you buy a computer or a cow?" They invariably chose the cow.

 I loved my job, and on good days it didn't even feel like a job.  I loved teaching.  It was difficult at first to adapt to the different education system, but the learners and teachers helped me to figure it out.  Although it was frustrating at times, and progress was slow, I am very thankful for all the help I received.

 I only taught for a year.  Did I make a difference?  Did I help one person?  I think so.  But more importantly, I got to know my learners and some of my fellow teachers.  You could even say we were friends, despite all our differences.

 One of my last memories of Namibia was a couple days after I had dislocated my shoulder and I went to class holding my arm like this.  (demonstrate)  9B was full of questions, mainly, "What happened?"  I explained how I just reached behind to turn off the light switch, and it dislocated.  (They all grabbed their own shoulders--afraid it could happen to them).  So I tried to explain how I had loose ligaments and they were so stretched out that they didn't hold my shoulder in anymore.  They looked confused.  I tried to explain again.  They were still confused, still holding their own shoulders.  Finally, one boy said, "Ah, I understand." 

 "You do?  Could you explain to the rest of the class what ligaments are?"

 "Yes Miss."  He turned to face the class.  "You know when you're cutting off the goat's leg" (he demonstrates) "all those things you cut through?"  A wave of comprehension swept through the class.

 "Exactly," I praised him.  "I am just like a slaughtered goat."

 So that is the story of how I became a goat. 

 But it is also the story of how I learned what it was like to be a foreigner and a racial minority trying to live in a different country.  In college, I was friends with many people from different countries who had come here to study.  I never really thought about the transition they had to go through.  After living in another country myself, I now have a better understanding of how difficult, yet rewarding, such an experience can be.

 I would like to leave you with one final thought.  Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?"  As the world grows smaller, you may find "foreigners" moving into your neighborhoods and communities, doing weird things and wearing strange clothes.  They may not even speak English properly.  But, like anyone else, they will need neighbors.

 I think Jesus today would reply, "Hispanics are my neighbors, Somalians are my neighbors, Muslims are my neighbors…"

 Namibians were my neighbors and I will always remember them.

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