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An Interview with Sera

July 2004
An Interview with Sera

Amanda Taylor, a Periclean Scholar at Elon University, interviewed Sera.  Excerpts below:

Why did you join the Peace Corps?

Ah, that is the question. I got the idea in my head after a trip to Honduras to work on some development projects when I was 15. I thought, “these people are so poor, but so happy! I want to go live in a 3rd world county and help eradicate poverty.” Typical naïve response. But even as I got older and more cynical, I still had the idea of wanting to go live in a foreign country. I did a study abroad in England the summer after my 2nd year of college and I did a lot of weekend trips off on my own around the country, and it made me love traveling even more. So it was a combination of wanting to do something good, share the knowledge I was privileged to attain, and go experience life somewhere else. Also, I really enjoy learning about different cultures and societies-it proves somehow that everything is relative and what I hold to be true is really just a result of my culture/environment. As a result of this constant thought experiment, I pick and choose what I want to adhere to, leaving me not really integrated into any culture, my own included. I’m also interested in cultural anthropology and sociology–an amateur study of them.

 I am very interested in how religion affects the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

At our school, the kids seem very religious, at least in their talk. I can hardly have any debate in class without them referring to what God says about this idea. It’s hard for me to know how this translates into actions, exactly. It affects AIDS in the sense that many people want to promote abstinence and not condoms. This is a very good idea, but given the extremely high rate of teen pregnancy (4/10 girls) it is clearly not working. I know this is going to sound negative, but I often have the impression that there is no connection between what people say and do. This is a problem in every society, I’m sure, but it seems to be a much greater problem here. I guess my impression has been that religion is very good in helping to curb the spread of AIDS if all this talk about abstinence is actually practiced. I think it is negative if they talk about abstinence, then go and have sex without condoms because somewhere in their brain, they still think they’re abstaining. (Studies have shown that people sometimes think that using a condom is like premeditating sex, which is somehow considered worse than accidental/spontaneous sex. You know, it’s like people are playing mind games with themselves. I also read that people who are more open and honest with themselves about their sexuality are more likely to plan ahead and use condoms.) Overall, I would say that the religion has a positive affect on curbing the disease if it does actually help people to curb their sexual appetites. It’s hard to know what is really happening though, since they aren’t too keen on sharing their sexual activities with their English teacher, and I don’t want to freak them out by asking too many personal questions.

In the AIDS club last year, I brought up masturbation, just to see what they thought about it. They knew what it was, but seemed to believe it was bad, because in the Bible it says…blah blah blah. I said there wasn’t AIDS in the Bible and so they have to adapt. I wanted to promote masturbation as an alternative to sex (safe, no pregnancy), but it didn’t seem too popular, due to the religious connotations against it. It’s hard not to be frustrated by religion at times like that.

Another example is that on Monday, the principal reported at the staff meeting that there is a new mandate that schools need to integrate HIV/AIDS Awareness into all of the subjects and classes. He also said that we all had to put our personal and religious beliefs aside because schools are now required to provide condoms for learners, and teach about them in class. (He didn’t know I’d already done condom demonstrations to 3/5ths of the school, as well as providing condoms). One teacher, who is notoriously hyper-religious, raised his hand and said, “You can fire me if you want, but I won’t teach condoms. They should not have sex until they are married.” Yes, I thought, that is ideal, but…

Another thing you should be aware of is that this culture is traditionally polygamous, and various tribes here in Namibia still practice polygamy, although not the Ovambos. So it’s really not part of their culture to be monogamous, and so more often than not, they’re not faithful to their partner/spouse. This definitely compounds the problem.

Do you have any knowledge/anecdotes that relate to the role of women?

Let me just say I would not want to be a woman in this culture. On the surface, women are equal to men, and the constitution has them as equal. But in reality, women are still regarded as inferior. Women are supposed to cook, clean, take care of children, etc. A wife cannot tell her husband what to do (such as “wear a condom”). Furthermore, it seems like the female learners are kind of bullied by the male learners. Nothing really aggressive, but they definitely take on the submissive role. I thought gender equality was a lot better than it actually was, until I assigned the essay topic of, “Can men and women do the same careers?” Most people, male and female, said no. Women are weak, not as good at making decisions, will get upset easier, etc. It was really offensive to me and it was the most difficult assignment to mark because I wanted to write “WRONG! ALL WRONG!” in big red letters over the ones that implied women were inferior to men. It was really depressing.

The way this affects the AIDS crisis is that women really do not have the self-confidence to say no to sex or to insist on a condom. Similarly, the boys do not respect them as equals. Furthermore, girls tend to get self-worth and a feeling of being loved by being in relationships with boys, who insist on sex as an integral part of the relationship. If you look at any literature on girls in the States with low self-esteem, who are prone to teen-pregnancy, it’s the same situation.

I think girls here often try to fit into the role that they think is expected of them, rather than defining their own role in the relationship. For example, Fransina, who is the leader of my AIDS club, and a very strong person, turns into a ditzy, giggly, mindless girl when she’s with her boyfriend. It’s really annoying. But I think it’s telling of how even the most clear-minded person gets duped into fulfilling the cultural expectations.

Are any of your learners involved with sugar daddies?

Probably a few. But I don’t really know.

Do they talk or write about it openly with you or their classmates?

No. It’s funny now that you ask about it, but I realized that if it wasn’t for what I’ve read in the newspaper and as part of the HIV/AIDS campaign, I wouldn’t have a clue about sugar daddies. This is mainly because we are kind of isolated here at the school and don’t hang out at the bars. I would probably be more aware of it if I lived in a town and could see my learners hanging out with people in the shops. Also, relationships in general are very secret. It’s not like the states where you inform your parents you’re dating so-and-so and he comes and picks you up at the house before you go to a movie. They don’t tell their parents they’re dating anyone until they’re nearly engaged. Despite my being young, they lump me into the “parent” category and don’t tell me anything, nor do I really ask.

I am aware of several of the grade 12s that are dating each other, but I never would have guessed it except that one of them told me. Again, it’s not like the states where kids are making out and groping each other in the halls in between classes. They really don’t express any public displays of affection here. During training, Zac and I were told that we could not hold hands in public or anything, even though we’re married. So again, it’s one of those weird things where there’s all this stuff that’s happening, but it’s not out in the open, and is therefore difficult to address. The learners themselves have told me that that’s why they think there is so much adolescent sexual activity. Because the kids have to sneak around to have relationships, they do /everything/ when they are able to meet privately with their boy/girlfriend. Whereas, theoretically, if they are open about it and can be together in public, they are more likely to develop a friendship-based relationship than a sex-based relationship.

Furthermore, they’ve expressed the idea that because the relationships are secretive, there is no personal responsibility, like there would be if they were more public. They gave the example that if a guy and girl are dating, and the girl gets pregnant and confronts the guy for child support, he can just deny ever having anything to do with the girl. Since their relationship wasn’t public, no one can verify that they were together. (I know–you and I think, “just do a paternity test!” but that is expensive and not readily available here). Furthermore, the boys claim that since a girl can be dating more than one boy at once, she will just go to the richest one and claim that the baby is his. I asked the girls about this, and they said, very matter-of-factly, that yes, they would do that. My first response was, how awful! But from a utilitarian/survival point of view, it makes sense. And if the girl really doesn’t know who the father is, she might as well choose the one that would be most able to support her financially. Another thing that occurred to me during this discussion was that this secrecy is the very thing that allows the multiple relationships. In American high schools, where dating is a very public things, a person would have to be quite talented to maintain several relationships without them finding out about each other. But here, it is very easy.

Anyway, back to your original question about sugar daddies: I think it is very much there, but also very secret and somehow accepted, yet taboo, all at once. I know it is not culturally sensitive to say this, but the more I find out about their relationship culture, the more screwed up I think it is and the more pessimistic I get about the “war on AIDS.” One of the teachers here was complaining once about the rule against teachers’ sleeping with learners. He had already picked out a few of the girls he liked, but he wouldn’t tell me who they were. If a teacher does sleep with a learner and it is found out, the teacher is automatically fired. I thought this had been a longstanding rule, but one day in the staff room a few male teachers were reminiscing about the good ol’ days when they were allowed to sleep with their students. They said that learners liked it too, because if they got pregnant and it was by a teacher, their parents would be happy (because of the financial support.) Can you imagine!? The learners also told me that at Okongororosa, that school we visited with the AIDS club, teachers were sleeping with the learners. I don’t know how they knew this though. Another volunteer works at a senior secondary school and says that some of the girls cook for the male teachers and she is convinced there are also sexual favors involved.

I think that the learners at my school are probably less vulnerable to sugar daddies because they seem to come from wealthier households and have more self confidence. But I think the poor village girls are really at risk because the temptation to gain money would be great, and they wouldn’t have the confidence to resist pressure. Another thing that perhaps complicates it is the culture’s insistence on respect for elders as well as the male-dominated society. So if a girl finds herself being told to do something by an older male, due to her cultural conditioning it is very difficult for her to disobey, even if it is regarding her own body.

How has the role of women in Namibia affected your experience or the experience of other people/teachers around you?

I personally haven’t been too affected by being a woman here. I think it’s because I’m a foreigner, so they don’t apply their same expectations to me. Plus, I walk around with the attitude that I’m equal to anyone, so I don’t fall into the trap of fulfilling an inferior role. Furthermore, Zac respects me, and I think that shows and gives some indication for the other men to follow. For example, sometimes the principal will take women a little less seriously than men, but never me. Probably this is also because I’m white. Another factor is that when I’m traveling, I’m always with Zac, so I don’t get harassed. The few times I traveled by myself, I got constant marriage proposals by men. I attract a lot of attention just being a white girl, not because I’m beautiful or anything. They just want a green card to America. Another volunteer here, Jacque, has had a lot of problems being discriminated against for being a woman. Her principal does not respect her at all, her male learners are extremely degrading towards her, etc. So every circumstance is different. Generally, the more educated/affluent people have more progressive attitudes towards women.

In addition, I think a lot of the discrimination and traditional gender roles occur within the household, and not as much in the workplace. For example, girls will be expected to do all of the chores, and the boys have to go look after cattle. Girls are definitely in a subservient position within the household, but that doesn’t affect me very much, since I just live with Zac. One time, some learners came over and wanted to talk to Zac. I said, “He’s mopping right now, can you come back later?” Laimi said, “Oh, miss! You should do that, not sir.” I explained that Zac was better at mopping than me. She said I was the wife so it was my job. Another example is that whenever Zac does laundry outside, if people walk by and see him working they will call him, “meme”-essentially saying he is a woman.

As far as the other teachers, unfortunately I’m am not on intimate enough terms with any of them to really know. Eg-I don’t have any stories from them. All that I know is stuff that I’ve observed, read in the newspaper, and gleaned from the learners.

Is there any beginning of a women’s rights movement over there? Is there any need for one? How do you think that could happen?

There is not really a need to for a women’s rights movement because they already have the same rights as men, protected under the constitution. The problem is with changing cultural beliefs, and these beliefs affect some of the more minor laws. For example, when we first came here in November 2002, they were trying to pass a law protecting women and children from domestic abuse. In the end it passed, but it was quite frightening that there was so much/any resistance to a law that seems obvious to me. Currently, they are debating a law that would make it illegal for a husband to sleep with his wife without her permission (marital rape). Again, many, many people (men) are opposed to this law. But at the same time, it is encouraging to see so many women actively pursuing the full protection of their rights under the law. I think these laws are definitely interrelated with the AIDS epidemic. For example, women want the right to refuse sex if their husband won’t wear a condom. How can they refuse if the law won’t protect them from being then raped and beaten up by their husbands?

Do your students have any personal stories about AIDS?

I’ve tried this before and came up with nothing. The kids all swear they don’t know anyone with AIDS. Which is, given the statistics, impossible. But I think what is happening is that people die, but because it’s always from another disease (TB, Malaria, a host of other “mysterious” diseases) they don’t admit that AIDS is the underlying cause. Plus, there is still so much discrimination that I think even if the kids did know someone with AIDS, they wouldn’t admit it to anyone.

Are you very aware of the virus in everyday life? Are there a lot of funerals?

This is the funny thing. AIDS is so much here that it’s not here. Everywhere you look and everything you read, there is something about AIDS. Everybody talks about it all the time. Sometimes I think it is an overload-they are constantly bombarded by it, and so it becomes meaningless and they just block it out, in the same way that I don’t hear the roosters crowing at 3am anymore.

On the personal level, I haven’t experienced it at all. A lot of the other volunteers have been to many funerals and have had host-relatives die, but it is never said that it is from AIDS. Medical care is terrible in this country, so people could very well die at a young age of something like appendicitis, but I’m sure a lot of the deaths are also from AIDS.

How have you grown from your experiences in Namibia?

I’m definitely more aware of how culture affects life. I’m more aware of the problems facing developing countries, and the aid organizations operating in those countries. I’m also more cynical, in the sense that I don’t harbor any delusions about how life is in third world countries. It’s neither horrible nor a happy simplistic life. It’s complex, it’s good and it’s bad. On a professional level, I’ve gained a lot of teaching experience, and I think that if I can teach under these circumstances, any job in the states should be easy. I also think I’ve gotten to know my own strengths and weaknesses a lot better-as they will always emerge more clearly when dealing with challenging situations.

How has your marriage grown?

We’ve eaten a lot of cookies together, so we’re both probably fatter. (Sorry for the sarcasm, I really don’t know how to answer this question.) Let me say I’m glad we got to do this together, because it would be really hard to explain, but definitely something I would want my husband to understand. We haven’t faced too many hardships (other than a severe lack of cheesecake) and so maybe our first years of marriage were actually a lot easier than if we had stayed in the States. We didn’t have to worry too much about all those things that can normally bog down a relationship, such as finances, jobs, etc. We put aside these two years as a “whatever, nothing really matters” time. It feels in some ways like our real life hasn’t started yet. We’re putting it off as long as possible.

What will you miss most when you leave?

-Hitchhiking/taxis (every trip to the grocery store is an adventure)
-The interestingness of it all
-The crazy things my learners do, say, and wear
-Feeding our chickens
-Being uniquely intelligent (as in I know about a lot of stuff that no one else here knows, but that would be common place amongst other liberal arts people in the states)
-The two-minute walk to work every day
-Having the classrooms outside (independent buildings as opposed to one big building connected by hallways)
-The sunny, warm weather (Ohio weather sucks)
-All the animals everywhere
-The other volunteers (best, funniest, toughest group of people I’ve ever been a part of)
-The whole experience of teaching in Namibia. I’ll be a teacher in the states, but it won’t have the same eccentricity.

Any regrets?

That I dislocated my shoulder and lost 3 months of my life in Namibia. This will always be my deepest regret. Secondly, that I’m not more outgoing and better at being friends with the other teachers. I don’t regret this too much, because it’s just part of my personality, and it’s not something I can really force. I’m really not social (the learners laugh when I tell them this and absolutely don’t believe it, so I must hide it well. But it’s true.)

If you could tell the world anything you wanted particularly pertaining to your experiences in Namibia, what would it be?

I guess I just want to say that I’m a very cynical person, but only because I’m determined to see things as they really are. After my trip to Honduras, I eventually realized that I was just projecting my ideas onto the people, and not really comprehending their actual life in those conditions (both the good and bad). So I’ve made every attempt here to see things as they really are. Granted, I still interpret what I see and try to make sense of it, but I try to avoid clouding everything with pity or some romantic view of a developing country. This is what I was trying to convey in my story about the “bare feet or smiles” from August of last year.

I did one of my student teachings in an inner-city school in Columbus. My supervising teacher would tell me every pathetic story she knew about the students’ home lives, as some sort of rationalization for why they didn’t turn in this assignment or did poorly on that test, etc. I realized then that while the background of a person is important, you should still just let that person be a person, a student in this case, and not attach to them all the baggage of their past. She felt so much pity for all of the students that she didn’t expect them to amount to anything. I know she meant well, but I really think this affected her teaching and her expectations. Pity can be very condescending, and that is what I despise about it.

Consequently, when I look at my students here, I don’t look at them as orphans, poor children, or victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I think such labels are dehumanizing. I know the backgrounds of only a few of my learners, what they’ve told me or divulged in their essays. I don’t want to look at Freddy or Sandra and think, “they are orphans” and love them out of pity. Instead, I think, “Freddy is really creative in his writing and is fun to banter with.” and “Sandra is very helpful and serious. I enjoy having conversations with her.” These may seem like mundane thoughts, but I don’t want to label the kids according to their backgrounds. I try to see the humanity instead of the circumstances.

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