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Time Is Going

Time Is Going
21 August 2004

“You may ask why I’m saying all this.  I say it because I fear for the younger generation, for you people.”
           —Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

In the beginning, we told you there were four seasons in Namibia. That was what they taught us during training, along with the convoluted order of Spring, Fall, Winter, Summer. But there are really only three seasons here in Namibia, and they coincide perfectly with the school calendar. First term (Jan-Apr): hot and wet. Second term (May-Aug): cold and dry. Third term (Sep-Dec): hot and dry. The three weeks of exams at the end of the term always mark the brief transition period between seasons, and over the holiday the weather gains momentum, so that when the next term starts there is no turning back, no wavering weather.

We’ve just finished the second term and are relishing a short holiday before the third and final term starts. The weather is getting hotter already, in the mid 80’s, but the nights are still like cold tap water. The days are full of dust and wind, grit in my teeth, sand in my eyes. The dust hovers on the horizon, making dull sherbet sunsets and foggy headlights. Normally, this time of year, I start to thirst for the rains, to quench the parched earth. But not this time. For I know that when the rains come, it’s time for us to go. The dust means we’ve still got a little bit of time here yet.

In the beginning, I said time was arbitrary in Namibia. But it’s not. It keeps going forward just as persistently as anywhere else on the globe. I can ignore it, the principal can thwart it, the teachers can waste it, the learners can wish for more of it during their exam, but it just keeps going the same as always. Jacque’s standard greeting is how many days are remaining on her volunteer contract: “Only 117 days left!” because she is miserable at her site and can’t wait to go. But her greetings always remind me: only 117 days left.

I fear for my learners. What will become of them after they leave school? A few, maybe 10, will go to the university. Several more will go to various other training institutions and technical colleges, and many will just sit around the village, twiddling away the days drinking traditional beer and waiting for the government to hand out jobs. I want to prolong the inevitable. I want them to stay in my classroom discussing Things Fall Apart and Master Harold forever, where it’s safe and life is lived through characters and filled with symbolism, and nobody contracts HIV.

John, whom I had offended earlier, finally comes to have a discussion with me again. I communicate with John primarily through books and magazines; our conversations revolve around literature. It started with Things Fall Apart in class, when I noticed he had the gift of thinking and questioning. I then gave him Ishmael, because he was so sure development was a good thing and I wanted him to question that, to put it into perspective with human history. Next I gave him Jane Goodall, because he didn’t believe me when I said chimpanzees were our distant cousins. He fell in love with Jane and her optimism, and wouldn’t part with the book. From my hiatus in America, I brought him No Longer At Ease, where he concluded that the main character’s downfall was his culture. The books were interspersed with magazine articles such as one from Discover about how lab mice recover quicker from diseases and learn better if they live in stimulating environments. Then, at the beginning of this term, it was God’s Debris, a little book depicting most of the basic philosophical/religious dilemmas that an aspiring philosopher would need to ponder. It is this that John is returning to me which forces him to break his discussion boycott.

“Miss, that was really a good book,” he says, placing the small volume tenderly on my desk.

“Which chapter did you like the best?”

“The one on free will. It’s really a problem. If God knows everything that’s going to happen, then how do we have free will?”

“So what do you think? Do we have free will or not?”

“I think we don’t.”

“Really? But here,” I indicate his exam composition that I just marked, “you say that success is just a matter of working hard. It seems like you want to believe in free will.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem. It really makes me think, debate.”

“So, John, what about your future? What are your plans after you finish grade 12 in November?”

“I will go to Unam. It’s really the only option–it’s the only university in Namibia.”

“And you will study what?”

“Geology, I think. I’m really interested in it.”

“So do you think you will like the job? What will you do?”

He explains something about mining or oil companies. Then, on a whim, he asks, “Miss, what do you think? What should I be?”

I want to tell him, be a teacher. Use your mind to inspire others. Help the fumbling education system. But teaching here, I’ve learned recently, is not a respected field. The requirements and qualifications are few, the training is free, and given the questionable caliber of my learners who say they are going to be teachers, I now fully understand the education crisis in Namibia. It would be insulting to tell John to be a teacher, since he is one of the smartest kids in the school. I’m trying not to insult him anymore. So I say, “Well, maybe you could be a professor. I know you like to think about things.”

He mulls it over. “Yeah, I would like to be a professor, maybe teach at the University.”

After a while, it seems we’ve run out of things to say to each other, but John doesn’t leave yet. He stands by my desk, skimming through a Smithsonian magazine I’ve just lent him. I tap my pen on my teeth, my mind spinning. What I want to ask, instead of this small talk about University is, who will give you interesting books to read once I’m gone and you’re gone? How will you keep your bright mind alive in this country of sand? University here isn’t like college in the States, where students study many different things and can take interesting classes, coming out with a well-rounded foundation. Here, they train students only in their field, so if John goes for geology, that’s all he’ll learn about. His literature classes end with me. Libraries are few and far between, books are too expensive. He’ll read the newspaper and watch TV, but where will he encounter fate vs. free will?

After a few minutes of silence, he leaves my classroom and heads back out into the glaring light and whirling sand, armed only with a thin Smithsonian magazine. I want to heap magazines upon him, I want to shout, read while you can! Talk to me while you can! Time is going, I’m going!

Love, Sera

PS-Chickens are also going. We sold our rooster, pictured here, to another teacher who took it to her farm. So our mornings are quieter now. We also sold 10 of the adolescent chickens to another  teacher who thought they looked tasty. But then our black hen showed up with nine dusty newly hatched chicks, and Zac said, “Oh good. I was just thinking we needed some new babies.” Will new teachers hatch after we’re gone?

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