A Day of Learning
31 July 2004
Today I took the HIV/AIDS club on a field trip to visit the New Start
Voluntary Counseling and HIV Testing Center, located in Oshakati, a town about
120 km to the north of Ekulo. Of course, it began with a fiasco.
I don't have to utilize any acting skills to convince the learners that I am
totally incompetent when it comes to planning things in this country. The good
thing is, the learners plan everything. The bad news is, the learners plan
everything-Ovambo-style. Therefore, due to a communication drought, Kristina and
Teopolina arranged for Mathew, the husband of a teacher at our school, to take
us to Oshakati in his mini-bus. Meanwhile, Fransina and Kornelia had arranged
for Mr. Somebody, the husband of Meme Ileni, a hostel worker, to take us in his
mini-bus. In the end, we chose Mathew, because his would hold 20 people and Mr.
Somebody's would only hold 16. But some feelings were hurt.
Saturday morning Mathew is supposed to pick us up at 8:00am. But he's late.
Really late. I have many opportunities throughout the day to contemplate the
truth of a quote from an Outside magazine article by Peter Maass about the war
in Iraq, "The cliché about a battle plan not surviving its first contact
with the enemy happens to be true. Improvisation is required in warfare, though
improvising is a way of acknowledging that the chaos is stronger than your
ability to master it." In fact, the whole of what I've learned in Namibia
could be summed up as learning that the chaos is stronger than my, or anyone's,
ability to master it. So I improvise, I go with the flow, I give up and wait.
While waiting, some of the girls loiter around my house. I use the informal
gathering to ask a few questions I've been wondering about. I ask, do girls at
this school have sugar daddies? There's a bit of silent panic at the question.
Finally Miina says, "Miss, we don't know. It's secret." So maybe they
have them, but they don't tell anyone? "Yes. You only find out when they
fall pregnant or commit suicide." Do girls at this school get pregnant? I'm
wondering because the teenage pregnancy rate in Namibia is high: four out of ten
girls will become pregnant in their teen years, but I've never noticed it at our
school. "Yeah," she replies, "but it's rare." Has anyone
gotten pregnant since I've been here? "No. But it's a big problem at the
village schools." Why? "They don't know about it. Here, we know."
Later, some of the girls are looking at my photos and asking about my family.
"Miss, do you have brothers?" Yes, I have one brother and one sister.
Kornelia says, "Oh, your family is small. Here, we can have even ten."
How many children do you plan to have? She holds up two fingers. Why? I ask.
"O! These people have too many children and then the parents just die. They
leave many orphans. That's why we have extended families. You cannot just leave
someone to suffer." Are many of the learners orphans here?
"Everyone." Everyone? That's not possible. "More than half,"
she corrects. "Even me."
10:20, Mathew and his mini-bus finally come. The excuse was that it had been
stuck in the sand, which I find doubtful, since it's not even the rainy season
and you just have to find a few people to push it out. At any rate, 19 learners
plus myself pile in. Keep in mind that the "mini-bus" is really just a
large van, extended to have four rows behind the driver, so the kids are pretty
packed in. The driver, Mathew, cranks up the radio and we speed off to Oshakati
at a rate of 140 kilometers per hour (87 mph).
I'm sitting in the middle of the front seat, with the driver to my right,
Kornelia to my left, and stuffed bee and giraffe toys dangling from the rearview
mirror right in front of me. We pass a truck that is probably going 80km/h while
the speed limit is 120. As we breeze past, Mathew nudges me with his elbow and
says, "Women drivers. They don't know how to drive." I turn to
Kornelia and say, our driver is misogynistic. "Yeah," she agrees.
"Freddy is like that too. He is always dividing men and women."
During the trip, Kornelia informs me that they make brown sugar from the palm
trees and that if you eat too much, it will give you a cough. She asks me if we
have cattle in the roads in America. I say no. We don't even have people beside
the road like here. "What? How do they hitchhike?" They don't, in fact
it is prohibited on the main roads. She laughs hysterically at my joke. She doesn't realize I'm
serious. I finally convince her and she turns to tell Penda. A big argument
ensues about whether Miss is lying or not. Finally Penda asks, "Ok miss, if
they can't hitchhike, how do people get around?" They have their own cars
or if you're too young, your parents drive you. "Oh! No miss." He
shakes his head laughing at all the funny stories I'm telling this morning.
"Miss is not serious." I am.
Kornelia, referring to my question earlier that morning, tells me a woeful
story of her friend. The girl dropped out of school around grade 8 and started
going with the boys. "And miss, you know how I like church. So I go to her
house with my Bible and start reading to her. But she just chases me away,
saying, 'What do you know about life?'" Later, the girl has both a Sugar
Daddy (around age 40) and a boyfriend, and she falls pregnant. She doesn't know
which one is the father, so she tells the Sugar Daddy that the baby is his,
because he is rich. The boyfriend assumes the child is his, but finds out about
the Sugar Daddy when the girls tells him that it's not his child but someone
else's. So the boyfriend drops her. Then, after some time, the Sugar Daddy gets
really sick and dies. The girl is suspicious, so she and her baby go for an HIV
test. The results come back HIV+ for both of them. "But miss, now she has
another Sugar Daddy in Windhoek." Has she told him she is HIV+? "No,
she is still fat. He won't know." But how can she do that??? "Miss,
people are saying they don't want to die alone." The girl is only 18 years
We arrive at the New Start Voluntary Counseling and HIV Testing Center around
noon. We wander around the unmarked buildings a bit, trying to find where we are
supposed to be. The only humans we find are two nuns sitting at the front of a
room of school children. We interrupt their session, all the children stand up
and Ooooh and Aaaaah over the white person with two Ekulo learners in tow, and
we are told to go back to that empty looking building and go down the hall and
around the corner to reception. Yes, of course, why didn't we think to look
Back in the proper building, down the hall and around the corner, I introduce
myself to Letta, the senior
counselor. I'm happy that she got the message we were coming and is prepared.
She leads us upstairs to a conference room. Here, she explains in Oshiwambo how
the testing program works. Basically, you come and speak with a counselor about
why you want to be tested. The counselor then explains about the test, and gives
you the different options according what the results are. (There is a high rate
of suicide among people who find out they are HIV+, so they have counseling to
teach you how to live positively with the disease.) Then you get a card with a
number (to assure anonymity) and a fake name. Next, you go and get tested. Then
you come back in 3 days for the results, bringing your card. When you receive
your results, you will receive more counseling, either on how to remain HIV
negative or on how to cope with the disease. The cost is N$10, but is free to
school kids. The learners then ask her a lot of questions such as, "Can you
get HIV from saliva?" Only if you drink a liter of it. "Can someone
test positive and then come back later and test negative?" Yes, it's
possible, if they are using anti-retro-viral drugs that make their viral load so
low that it is undetectable, but they still have the virus.
all the questions have been answered, she gives us a tour of the facility-where
the testing occurs, who the counselors are, and concludes by taking us to the
waiting room where we watch a video about the testing and counseling process.
Some of the learners (brave souls!) have decided to be tested. This was what I
was hoping for, but I didn't want to pressure any one. I also didn't want to
stigmatize anyone by asking why they decided to get tested ("What risky
behaviors have you been engaging in, young lady?"). I am worried about the
results for Ruusa, who chose to be tested. In her essay last year on "My
Most Memorable Day" she wrote about walking along the road one night and
being raped by some anonymous men who were passing by in a car.
As we wait for all the learners to get tested, I ask Kornelia if she'd like
to be a counselor like the one who talked to us today. "Oh! Yes miss! I was
just wishing it could be me!" I ask her if she would like to be a pastor,
since she likes church so much and leads the school church service. "No.
When you're a pastor you're just talking at people. I like conversations."
While I'm at it, I ask if she wants to be President of Namibia. "Oh! Miss!
President! No, I wish Sam Nujoma could be president forever. But you know, those
boys, those Freddys and Mikes, they don't believe a woman can be
president." It's just because men are usually president. But look at the
world, look at history. We've always been ruled by men and what do we have? War
and poverty. They've had their chance and they've failed. Let women rule for a
while and you will get cooperation and plenty of food. Think of women-what do
they do? They feed people. Put women in charge of the world and they will keep
everyone fed. "Ja, Miss. Women, we must take control of the world."
It's after 3pm by the time everyone gets tested, and the headless group
moves, amoeba-like, down the street to the northern branch campus of the
University of Namibia, where I want to show them the library and the small
campus. We get there only to find that it is closed and gated. So I call Mathew
to come and pick us up. He arrives promptly, and we go to Pick-N-Pay to buy some
food, since we're all quite peckish. But alas, Pick-N-Pay is also closed. Next
Luckily, we find that Shoprite has decided to be open for business on a
Saturday afternoon. As we all walk into the supermarket, some boys are hanging
around the door and shout something to us in Oshiwambo. Kornelia is kind enough
to translate, "Miss, they said we are all ugly." After I buy some
bananas and a candy bar, I go back and sit in the van, eating and waiting for
the learners to trickle back. Mathew starts saying something about the Mafia
being here, but I don't really understand what he's talking about. A few minutes
later, the Shoprite security guards are chasing down those same boys who said we
were ugly. Mathew is smug. "I told you the mafias were here." You have
the Mafia in Namibia? Nobody here is organized, least of all the criminals.
Later Kornelia confirms, "Yes miss. Did you see those mafias being chased
by the security?" Kornelia, what is a mafia? "It's just a criminal,
someone who steals. When those boys called us ugly they probably wanted us to
stop and shout back at them so they could grab our bags." So there you have
it. We survived a mafia plot.
We spend a long time in the Shoprite parking lot. Helvi comes back from the
nearby KFC with an ice-cream cone, then everyone wants ice-cream. And fast food
in Namibia is by no means fast. Meanwhile, the learners who did not get
ice-cream are sitting in the van being hit on by some boys. Our bus is full of
schoolgirls (of the 19 learners, 15 are female) and is a magnet for all those
weird men who will ask where you live and pretend to be your new best friend
within two minutes of meeting you. Katrina, unfortunately situated in a window
seat, is doing her best to dissuade the gentlemen's advances.
Finally, everyone has acquired their ice-cream, so we leave Shoprite and head
towards Ondangwa, stopping at a few places to talk to various people that Mathew
sees and knows along the way. He pulls into the hitch point in Ondangwa to talk
to some friends. I notice a large mini-bus entitled "Passenger
Paradise" with the slogan "You'll Never Ride Alone." A nice
euphemism for "You'll Be Squished In My Bus With At Least 30 Other Smelly
People." Since we pause at this place, our van is again assuaged by young
men interested in the Schoolgirl Mobile. One guy stands in front of the bus and
blows me a kiss through the bee and giraffe, to the extreme amusement of the
learners. An old man who is sitting in a chair next to a vacant bus starts
whipping the men with a piece of cord he's found. "Down boy, down!"
Next, we pass a cuca shop named, "The Bingo Bar and Bottle Store."
The whole bus echoes with the kids shouting, "Bingo!" They had never
heard of Bingo until I used it in class a few times as a review. For example,
they make a bingo board on their paper but instead of numbers they put
vocabulary words. Then I read off definitions, and they try to match the
definition with the correct word. When they get five in a row, it's
"Bingo!" and the rest of the learners groan because they were just one
word away from having a Bingo! themselves. Maybe they imagine the Bingo Bar is
dedicated to inebriated vocabulary acquisition.
Our next stop is the Sun Shine Container Bar Car Wash. We all pile out and
Mathew pays N$20 to have the
van cleaned inside and out. (Doesn't he realize this will be futile since 19
sandy learners are going to get back into the van?) So there we are, at the bar.
I hunker down at a plastic table and read my book, giving a clear indication, in
case anyone should doubt, that I am a genuine nerd. I alternate between reading
about low-wage workers in America and trying to keep an eye on all the blue and
white uniforms that keep drifting off. Kornelia and Kristina go to the Normal
Bakery (clearly, the title wants us to know, not one of those weird bakeries).
Diogenus and Penda walk across the street to the gas station. Sam and Teopolina
go down the road to the open market by the hitch point. The rest of the girls
drink coke and dance in front of the cuca shop. The music is so loud it vibrates
my book. Once again, the girls have worked their magic and a crowd of men is
assembling. When I get back to the states, and presumably become a teacher, I am
definitely unfit to lead field trips. How could I create a permission slip for
this sort of outing?
After the van is shiny-wet clean, we're back on the main road and shoot
straight for the large full moon rising. We arrive back at the school around
6pm, and Mathew, to the cheering of the learners, drives right into the center
courtyard between the girls' and boys' hostel. I thank him for his
chauffer service and hand over N$650. As the learners unfold themselves
and pile out, like large clowns emerging from a small vehicle, I remind them to
tell all their friends what they've learned about HIV testing today. "We
will, miss. We will!" Kornelia goes even further, "Me? Even if I don't
know someone, I will just tell them, 'You must go get tested.'"
After all, as the New Start slogan says, "Life's about Knowing."