Omege, Our Village
3 November 2002
"Since I survived that year," he
always said, "I shall survive anything." He put it down to his
--Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
I don't even know where to begin. When I wrote last, it was from the Rural
Development Center in Ongwediva. Everything was still normal and fine then. The
group of volunteers we are with are just wonderful. I was having a good time -
it felt like camp. Now everything has changed. I should explain.
Learning about our host family
So, on Thursday night, 4 days ago, we found out our host family site. They
broke the 40 of us into groups ranging anywhere from 4-11 people each. Zac and I
were assigned to Omege, along with 5 other people. Omege is a small village
about 6 kilometers south of Oshakati. Oshakati is the largest town in the North,
and is considered the capital of Owamboland, which is the region of the North
that we are in. Along with our regional assignment, we received a sheet of paper
describing the family and house we were to move into. Most people's families had
10-14 children. Ours had 2 kids. Most people were lucky to have a latrine with a
roof on it - we had a "modern toilet". Even on paper it appeared we had an easy
assignment. I had no idea just how easy.
On Friday, they loaded us up according to which village we were going to- and
then took us shopping. Most people bought the same things as us: sheets,
pillows, laundry detergent, dish soap, lunch box (Tupperware), toilet paper,
towels, snacks. All this cost us about N $ 300, which is about US$30. But
we're getting paid in Namibian dollars, so it hasn't taken us long to quit
converting. Right now we get N $ 50/day or $5 a day. They took us to the big
shopping center in Oshakati, which would be like a strip mall in the US. The
stores have really high security. You have to show them your receipt when you
leave the store to prove you paid for the stuff you're taking from the store.
The security guards even frequently pat people down to make sure they are not
hiding things in their clothes. They did not pat any of us down. Actually, we
got to the stores at 8 am, but it didn't open until 8:30 am. Then after we were
done shopping, we sat around until 10:15am. People in our group complain about
all the waiting. But I don't mind. It is ridiculous to expect Namibia to
function on American time. Things just happen when they happen. Forget about
Moving to Omege
Then they took us to our village. Everybody was pretty somber on the way
there. I think we were all nervous because we didn't know what to expect. They
drove our van right into the schoolyard. All the kids gathered around us. We all
felt a bit silly unloading our bulky bags. We fit the "rich American"
stereotype all too well. We have still to learn how to live without
"stuff". Soon after we unloaded, a group of children, arranged in
formation, began marching by and singing a song for us. I can't remember all the
words but it was something like this:
"Our Peace Corps, Welcome, Welcome, We are happy you are here."
Something like that. I should remember every word since they sang it over and
over about 20 times. It was the cutest thing ever. They must think I am the
crazy white person because I kept crying. Zac keeps telling me to "be
strong", but things like that just get to me. It was a big deal that we
came to the school. We sat in chairs under a tree (everything revolves around
trees here because they provide shade) and all the school children gathered
around. Then there was a speech by the principal, another one by the headman,
then another song in their own language, then a speech by the Peace Corps
thanking the village for hosting us. Now remember, we only stay here for abut 8
weeks during the rest of our training. So we will not stay here for the 2
After the ceremony, we met out host parents, or some representative of the
family that could come to the ceremony. Our host mother was there, and I cannot
even tell you how happy I was when she spoke English. After finishing a heated
discussion on her cell phone, she took us to her house in the back of a truck,.
That is the mode of transport here. People drive trucks around with a ton of
people in the back. When we arrived at the house, I was so shocked. It is a
brand new house and it could easily be a house in America. So I thought, well
maybe everyone's house is this nice on the inside and they just look bad from
the outside. I had no idea how wrong that assumption was. So our new meme
(pronounced May-May) made us a lunch of rice, potatoes and goat. Zac and I
helped prepare the food because we don't want anybody waiting on us, so it is
best to help from the very beginning.
A Tour of the Village
After lunch, she went back to work. Zac and I hung around the house for a
bit. We were meeting our 5 colleagues at 16:00 for a tour. Erasmus, the local liaison
to the Peace Corps came and got us to take us to the school. We met the 2 other
Peace Corps Trainers that live at our end of the village. One of the girls was
complaining about having to walk to the school. So Erasmus was lucky to have a
truck drive by & we climbed I the back and it took us to school. Now I
understand why people from other countries think it is weird when Americans have
such big vans and trucks with just 1 person in them. Here, you give rides to
everybody you see walking in the same direction you are going. Of course.
When we all met at the school, we discovered we were actually going to have a
tour of the village, given by our trainer, Otilie, & Erasmus. I was lucky to
have brought water and be wearing comfortable sandals. We just started walking.
Now, remember, we're in a desert here. There is no shade and we're walking in
sand. I am scared of the desert because it just seems like you will dry up and
die there. I don't know how the few trees even survive. I don't know how I'm
going to survive here for 2 years. I love water.
I keep reminding myself that we are here at the dry time, and that it is not
always this barren. It is the time before the little rains, so it has been dry
since March. And even then they did not get much rain. All of Southern Africa is
experiencing a drought. They say the food relief might come in a few months.
Anyway, so we start walking to where Jacque, one of our fellow volunteers lives.
We're literally walking down a sand road in the middle of nowhere. So when we
got to where Jacque lived, I began to discover the great inequalities of the
world. She is staying in a traditional homestead. Here is a picture. (Sera drew
a picture of vertical sticks, with an opening for a door, and a thatched pointed
The compound is made up of many huts, divided by walls made of sticks. Some
huts are made of cinder blocks. No kidding. Almost every compound has at least
one real building. The huts are used as different rooms. Even when it is hot
outside, it is still cool inside the huts because they are shaded. Some have
cement floors but most just have sand. I wonder what happens when it rains?
Jacque's room is in the real building. It is a dark and dirty and small
little room. The tin roof is the same as her ceiling. She seems ok with it, but
it just seemed awful to me. While we were looking at the room, her meme &
one of the sisters were rounding up chairs from who knows where for us to sit
on. So we all sat there, outside the room in the sand, staring at each other.
Then the meme started singing. I have no idea what the words meant. Then she
went and found some book and had our translator write all of our names in it.
She also wrote what we were wearing so the meme could remember who we were.
After we sat there staring at each other a while longer, we said goodbye and
Then we continued our trek across the desert to where Anand lives. Along the
way, Anand was drinking a Mountain Dew. He asked Otilie, our trainer, what to do
with the can. She took it from him and just tossed it onto the sand. We were all
horrified, until she explained, "someone will pick it up. There is a
refund." And so, that explains why there is trash all over here. They
figure someone else might want it or be able to use it. And they do. I am
telling you the truth when I say I saw a pigpen made out of old rusty car doors.
They're very frugal here, but nothing ever looks nice.
So, we finally get to Anand's homestead after several false alarms "Is
that your hut?" "No, I don't think so…" We got there and about
10 kids ranging in age from 1-13? hung around staring at us as we inspected
Anand's room. His was similarly small, dark and dirty. On one wall there is a
sheet covering what appears to be bird poop on the wall. We're still not sure
what it is. We have a strict policy here. Don't think. Don't think about home,
don't think about what's in your food, don't think about anything. Just get
through it until the next day.
That was my crucial mistake. I thought. We didn't have the policy at that
time. It was only our first day in Omege, and hadn't learned how dangerous
thinking was yet.
So we finally get back to our own house, and all our family, plus several
other miscellaneous people are there. I started helping to cut carrots for
dinner. Then they brought in the big bowl of freshly slaughtered goat meat.
That's when things started to go terribly wrong. To make a very long story
short, let it suffice to say that as the evening progressed, and as the smell of
goat meat wafted through the house and penetrated every corner, I became
progressively more and more sick. I had it coming out of both ends. Water
wouldn't even stay down. To make matters worse, I kept having visions of myself
being all alone in the rooms that Anand & Jacque were staying in. I just
couldn't take it. I was hit with the full force of culture shock. I wasn't
prepared for seeing everything I saw that evening. I don't know what could have
prepared me for it. I see now that everything was escalated because I was sick,
and that nothing was as bad as it seemed to me then. But I just kept thinking,
how can the Peace Corps just leave us to fend for ourselves in this godforsaken
But Saturday was another day. The sun came out and all was good. Well, not
exactly. I still felt sick and I had no energy. So Zac went to training and I
stayed home and slept. I was wholly convinced that I would never eat Namibian
food again, especially not goat, and that I could survive for 2 years on just Gatorade
So I spent Saturday napping and drinking fluids - including re-hydration
salts, which are disgusting. The Peace Corps people were really worried and
took me into see the Peace Corps medical officer. I just told her I was having
a bit of culture shock combined with goat meat, and that nothing was really
wrong. She understood completely. It's ironic that Zac and I have it so easy
compared to everyone else - and yet I'm the only one to get sick. I'm telling
you, these volunteers are strong people. I don't know how they make it here
On Sunday, I woke up feeling great and I was back to my normal self. I was
even hungry enough to break my strict Gatorade and apple diet. We all piled in
the back of a truck and sped down the road to the Catholic church. When we got
there, everyone was standing around waiting. For what? I don't know.
Let me tell you about something else here that I don't understand. Everybody
is really poor. Most live in huts with no running water. We're in a desert. And
yet everybody dresses up all the time. There's ladies decked out in their
finest, riding to church down dusty, sandy roads in the back of pick up trucks.
I just don't understand any of it. And the shoes people wear! Considering
everybody has to walk everywhere I would think they'd have practical shoes. But
no, the same ridiculous shoes that girls in the US wear, they wear to traipse
around in the sand. I don't understand. If I just saw a picture of these people
standing around waiting for church, I would have no idea they all lived in huts.
I don't know how they do it.
Eventually, after some unseen signal, everybody poured into the church. They
crammed onto benches. The church was packed. What was so astonishing was the
ratio of adults to children. There were at least five kids for every adult. And
they were all staring at us.
Now, I didn't understand any of the church service. It was foreign in so many
ways - partly from the language, partly from it being a Catholic service, and
partly because we're in an entirely different culture. But the best part was
towards the end when this miserable looking couple were called to the front of
the church. They stood there looking extremely depressed, while 4 older women
came out with what looked like big feather dusters and started waving them over
the couple, while doing that shrill yelling that you've probably seen on TV.
Meanwhile, everyone else was singing a song and thumping their hymn books. I had
no idea what was going on. Turns out, the couple had recently gotten married and
their marriage was being blessed. Who would have guessed? I thought someone had
At the end of the service, everyone went out to the cemetery to visit their
relative's graves, and there was more singing. I think they did this because it
was All Saints Day or something. Also, a woman came to tell us she got
sick from potato peels. Zac, in a cross-cultural effort, made mashed
potatoes for our host family and whoever else was around, and had left the peels
on like normal. Turns out that's really bad. Here, people will eat
rancid goat meet but claim they get sick if they eat potato peels.
Sunday afternoon, a truck came to take us to the RDC for another vaccination.
I've had so many shots in my left shoulder that I don't even feel them anymore.
Zac is even beginning to get over his fear of needles. It was great getting back
together with everyone to hear how their host families are. From what I could
tell, Zac and I have the easiest placement out of everyone. I'm not sure how we
got so lucky. But I'm really hoping this doesn't mean we'll have the worst
placement for our two-year assignment. I sort of feel that Zac and I aren't
having the true host family experience. Everyone else is eating horrible food,
hovering on the brink of starvation, learning to communicate in the local
language, and making friends with their host siblings. Although Zac and I aren't
exactly eating as good as we were in the states, we're not starving because we
can usually cook for ourselves. Our host family speaks English, and our siblings
run around scared of us. Although the nine year old did say "Good
Morning" to me today, even though it was 6 pm.
Well, this letter is already too long, so I'll wind it down now. Just know
that we're doing fine.
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pictures of Omege and our