My Experiences in Namibia
by Sera Arcaro
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
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?
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:
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."
Could you explain to the rest of the class what ligaments
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
Namibians were my neighbors and I will always