Where the Tire Meets the Road
Monday 8 Sept
Monday was the first day of school for teachers, which usually consists of us sitting around the staff room waiting for the meeting to start at some arbitrary time. But this time it was different. Well, it was probably the same, but we don’t know because we weren’t there.
About a week ago we received a message from the Peace Corps saying that the world-wide Peace Corps Director from America was coming to Namibia and he was also going to come to our house. Zac called back and said that was fine, but reminded them that our house, being an actual house, is not typical of volunteer housing. We also found out that all volunteers had to report to the Cresta Lodge in Ondangwa for a meeting with the Director on Monday. We told our principal we wouldn’t be at the meeting Monday, which he said was ok, since we had other “official duty.”
At Cresta, we milled around with the other volunteers until the Director made his appearance. The Peace Corps had arranged for a cultural group to perform, and after that we went into a conference room for a speech by the Director. He asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves. This is a typical feel-good ice-breaker, designed to make us feel important, but with us it turned into a giddy debacle. Namibians are generally very formal and respectful about such things, and they esteem rank, status, and especially VIPs. But we are American, and even worse, we’re Peace Corps volunteers, and so not only do we think we are equal to anyone, we think we are better than any high-ranking politician wearing machine-washed clothes, that has never tasted oshithema or bucket-bathed. We had discovered early on that satire was our best weapon against depression, and consequently, our introductions were riddled with inside jokes that the poor Director just didn’t get. “I’m Frank and I live in Oshiyagaya, or trash.” “Hello, I’m Jacque and I “teach” math and English.” “I’m Scott and I’m a republican.”
The Director went on to speak about funding for The Peace Corps, bi-partisan support in congress, new recruitment initiatives, and a bunch of other things that seem completely irrelevant when you’re actually here doing it. Then he opened the floor for questions, and we hit him with our agenda. “You spoke about increasing recruitment, but what plans are there for ensuring the quality of experience once someone is in country?” “You mentioned more funding. Will we see any of that?” “If you notice a country has a high rate of ET-ing [“early termination” when volunteers leave before their 2 years are complete] do you try to find out why?” etc.
After lunch, it was arranged that Zac and I would ride back to our site with the Director, his two assistants, one of the associate Peace Corps directors of Namibia and the driver. The Director settled in for a little snooze, so we visited mostly with his assistant (we forget her name), a friendly, chipper lady with blond hair and a frequently expressed fondness for termite mounds as well as goats, donkeys, dogs, or anything that crossed the road during the 80km drive to our house. During the ride, she received a call on her cell phone from the country director, informing her that “Oshiyagaya” was oshiwambo for “trash” and that’s why Frank said his village was trash, it certainly wasn’t that he personally thought it was trash.
About half-way to our house, the Director came to, and we talked with him about his job. He has known the Bush family for a long time, worked for the senior during his presidency, and when W took office, he was appointed as world-wide director of the Peace Corps. He has a great job and gets to travel a lot. He said he likes to get out there, and “see where the tire meets the road.” It was an ironic analogy. Because if he only goes to where the tire meets the road, then he’s not seeing the whole picture. A lot of volunteers are at villages where there’s no road and no tires.
We arrived at our school, and the driver had to honk several times before the guard woke up to open the gate for us. Once inside, we were delivered nearly to our front door. Everyone piled out and took the grand 30-second tour of our house. We tried to emphasize that none of the other volunteers live the way we do. The principal came over to greet the Director. He too had his agenda. “Why do volunteers only stay for two years? Why not three or four?” But the Director could only stay for 5 minutes. The entourage soon had to rush off in order to get through the Etosha gates before they closed at sunset. The Director was whisked away to see where the tire meets the elephant.
Tuesday 9 Sept
Tuesday was the first day of school for the learners. In theory anyway. The school is going to have a big fund-raiser event thing so the learners were all asked to bring something back with them from the holiday. For example, grade 9 had to bring chickens. Grade 11 had to bring beans or traditional butter. Grade 12 had to bring sorghum. Of course, half the learners forgot, so they were sent back home to get it. The front steps to the office were littered with empty boxes from the chickens. I absent-mindedly threw a piece of trash into one of the boxes and it chirped. I looked inside and discovered that the chicken was still in the box, tied in a plastic bag. I had a rush of adrenaline and I instantly devised my chicken-rescue plan. I went and found the agriculture teacher.
Wednesday 10 Sept
Learners evidently had a tacit agreement to prolong the inevitable, by just staying in their homeroom classes (called “register classes” here) as long as possible. This was fine with me. I put my class to work installing the new “stop deforestation” and HIV/AIDS posters I picked up at the trade fair. First they had to take down all the stuff that was already on the walls, then wash all the dust and dirt off so the sticky-tack would actually stick to the wall. Then there were prolonged discussions and arguments amongst the new interior decorators about the placement of the posters: “The National Anthem must go next to the President.” “No, that poster is about solar ovens, it can’t go next to this one about condoms.” “But look, this one is red and this one is red, so they go together.” “Put this one up high because people will steal it.”
In the midst of all this, the teacher who beats learners came in needing to speak to some learners. She looked around warily at the learners swinging rags around the walls, sweeping the ceiling with the broom (to remove spiders), standing on chairs and desks to put up the posters, and the general mayhem of the class. She didn’t say anything though. A while later, one of the department heads comes to the room, and it’s still in a general state of disarray, complete with learners still standing on desks around the room. She looks at me and says, “What is going on here?”
I try to act nonchalant. “We’re putting up posters,” I reply, like isn’t this normal?
“The learners are supposed to go to class.”
“Yes. Ok. I just thought because nobody was coming…”
“They must go to class.”
“Ok.” I address the class, “You must go to economics now. But you have me fourth period, in five minutes, so we can finish then.” They leave reluctantly. I sigh. I wonder what the other teachers say about my teaching?
Wednesday afternoon was also the first meeting of the HIV/AIDS club. You know, that club I said I was going to start last term? But then the teacher I was going to work with disappeared for a month and then I was busy with computer training and then exams started…so anyway, here we are.
Mrs. Ndove and I meet at 2:30 to discuss what exactly we’re going to do at the meeting at three. We’re making our plans, but learners keep coming to the room early so we tell them to come back in a few minutes and then we’ll start. Kleopas rushes in.
“Kleopas, just come back in five minutes and then we’ll be ready.” He is still standing at the door, looking nervous. “Kleopas, we’ll begin at three, it’s still early.”
“But I was supposed to tell you the HIV/AIDS people are here.”
“Yes, I know, we told them to wait outside until three.”
“No, it’s other HIV/AIDS people, not the learners.”
“What? What other HIV/AIDS people?” Mrs. Ndove and I look at each other thinking, we are the HIV/AIDS people. “Kleopas, who sent you?”
“The secretary. She is calling you.”
“Ok, we’re coming.” We’re still entirely confused. We decided I would stay and start the meeting and she would go see what the HIV/AIDS people were all about. I start the meeting just by explaining the purpose of the club. We’re going to take a peer education approach. That is, we give the learners correct information about HIV/AIDS, sex, condoms, etc. and then they share the information with their friends and communities. We also plan to do some programs for the school and whatever the kids come up with. The turnout was decent, about 20 people, mostly from grade 9 and 11, my classes. They were mostly the smart, outspoken learners, which is good because the other students will listen to them.
After some time, Mrs. Ndove returned and said that there were people here to speak about HIV/AIDS. They had made an appointment, it’s only that the principal forgot to tell everybody. Or anybody for that matter. So we cut our meeting short and joined the other learners at the dining hall for the assembly. It was a man and woman from the Elcin church. The whole program was in Oshiwambo, so one of my students translated for me. They began with a Bible reading and a prayer. Then the woman started by telling an HIV story, using simple posters. Next, the man gave a long speech covering everything from how HIV is transmitted to prevention (emphasizing abstinence and barely mentioning condoms), proper nutrition for HIV+ people, non-discrimination, etc. At the end, learners were able to ask questions. They asked very good questions, which showed that they were paying attention. One myth they brought up was particularly disturbing. Apparently, people don’t want to go to clinics to get tested for HIV because they believe that when the nurses take their blood for testing, they are using needles contaminated with HIV. You don’t have to look too deep to guess how this myth got started. “Gee honey, I don’t know where I could have got HIV from. Maybe when the nurse took my blood she injected me with contaminated blood.”
Thursday 11 Sept
School really started on Thursday. I began by passing back their exams from the previous term, which I am not supposed to do. According to the principal, we cannot give exams back to the learners because then they will ask “why did I get this question wrong and she got it right?” and then we will have to explain it, or change their marks, which leads to a big disaster. Now, this is the sort of “logic” that I am thoroughly opposed to, so I choose to be civilly disobedient. Since exams are so important here, I think it is crucial for learners to get direct feedback on how they did, so they can learn from their mistakes. Plus, I think I should be held accountable for my marking. I discussed this with the English department chair and the other English teacher, and they both fully supported my covert operation. The learners also want to see their exams, so I tell them I will give them back on the condition that they don’t tell anyone. I encourage them to ask me questions if they don’t understand why they got something wrong.
Friday 12 Sept
Since Zac and I are “computer experts” and have a digital camera, the principal asked us to design an information brochure for the school, to be sold at the fund-raiser thing. This is all well and good, except that it involves carry the camera around school and taking pictures. Cameras are people magnets here.
I started with 12B, the agriculture class. I tried to explain that it didn’t look natural to have 30 people weeding and watering a 4×8 (ft) plot. But they all wanted in the photo. I managed to get about two photos with only three people in them. Then we moved down to the chickens. I wasn’t sure what sort of photo to take with the chickens, so I asked,
“What do you do with the chickens?”
“We catch them.” Yes, of course. There were lots of chickens, from all the ones the learners had brought. There were a few minutes of intense squawking as the entire class lunged at chickens (for the BTSD people, their technique greatly resembled the first move of bassai). After catching one, they would crowd around me and strike various chicken-holding poses.
Then it was on to geography, where 30 people pointed at maps and globes. Needlework wasn’t bad, because they only have four sewing machines so I only took photos of those four people. For home science, I documented people pretending to stir pots and taste imaginary food. In accounting, I got some great shots of the kids using rulers to draw columns on their papers, because apparently that’s what accounting consists of.
One thing I learned by going to all these classes is that I must be a lot different from the other teachers. For example, I talk to the learners like they are human beings.
At the end of the day, I went to take pictures of the physical science class doing some important experiment involving lots of tubes and chemicals. But their teacher wasn’t there because she was helping another teacher redo all her reports because she had calculated the percentage wrong and gave everyone an E instead of an A. The class was 11B, my favorite, and I didn’t have a class that period, so they asked me to stay for a palaver. I asked if they had any questions about the HIV/AIDS talk from Wednesday. They asked a lot of good questions that I couldn’t exactly answer properly, because I’m a little rusty on the science of the virus, but I did the best I could. One kid asked if it was true that the U.S. had a rate of infection of less than one percent. (Here it is 20%-30%). He asked why? But I really didn’t know what to say.