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Beheading Chickens and Battling the Ministry

Beheading Chickens and Battling the Ministry
4 June 2004

The second school term has started up again and on the 27th of May, I taught my first class of grade 12 English. It’s ironic how, due to my surgery and dismissal from The Peace Corps, I ended up with my dream schedule. This term I am only teaching the honors grade 12 English (3 classes, sized 15, 15 and 10–beautifully small) and Life Skills to grades 10-12. During my months in exile, I had plenty of time to come up with teaching ideas and it feels wonderful to finally be able to begin implementing them.

My parents were still here for the first two days of school, and the learners were thrilled to meet them. On their last night at the Arcaro Rest Camp, I had two of my grade 10 learners slaughter one of our hens and one of our roosters (I couldn’t watch the beheading) and make a traditional supper for my parents consisting of the chicken, some spinach we bought from the agriculture students, and oshithema (Laimi pounded the mahangu herself). Of course, everything tasted really good and the oshithema had hardly any sand in it, so my parents no longer believe all my horror stories about how bad the traditional food is here. (We should have slaughtered a goat.) To simulate the way food is eaten in a homestead, we all sat on the floor in our house and ate the food out of communal pots just using our hands.

My parents were here at a lucky time, because two sets of chicks hatched during their brief stay at our house. The original hen had 9 chicks and one of the daughter hens had 5 (there were 9 to begin with as well, but one disappeared and 3 drowned). So our net chicken value is currently 17. I was happy with this before I witnessed the process of turning a live chicken into dinner. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to be spared the gruesome details.) After beheading the chicken, they pour hot water over the body, to make it easier to remove the feathers. Then they take out the guts. This was particularly interesting in the hen, because she had a bunch of immature eggs inside (they looked like small yolks-which the girls removed and cooked separately because they are “more tasty than regular eggs.”). The grossest part was when they singed the chicken feet to remove the toenails easier. I’ll leave the smell up to your imagination, but let me create an image for you: Laimi is holding the naked, headless chicken, its scrawny legs outstretched in belated protest, its neck dripping blood on our kitchen floor, while she methodically sears the toes over the blue flame. Then she rips out the toenails. Later, the feet are put in the pot with the rest of the chicken. Ines gets to eat the feet. I can’t watch.

At 3:30 am, Friday morning, I drive the rental car, my parents, and Anand, down to Windhoek. The car needs returned Saturday morning. My parents fly out Saturday afternoon. Anand has a Peace Corps workshop near Windhoek starting on Monday, and can’t pass up a free and comfortable ride to Windhoek, even although it means leaving at an absurd hour. And why are we leaving at such an absurd hour, you ask? Well, as promised, here is an account of my battle with the Ministry of Home Affairs over my passport extension:

May 3: I call the ministry and try to get information on how to extend my passport beyond the 90 days allotted to tourists. The man who answers the phone refuses to answer my questions, because “the queue is very long” and informs me that I “must come to Windhoek and wait in the queue” myself. This is doable, since we’re meeting my parents in Windhoek anyway.

May 10: I go to the ministry and wait in the queue. The lady gives me a form to fill out and says I must pay N$138 for the application fee. I go back to the hotel and meet my parents, just in from the airport.

May 11: I go to the ministry with the completed form and the money. I pay in one queue, then turn in my form and receipt in another queue. They take my passport and say, “Come back in 7 days.” I say, “What?” (They never told me they were going to confiscate my passport for some time. I thought they would just stamp it then and there. Foolish me.) A man in line behind me kindly helps, “Come back on Tuesday, that’s seven days from now.” Never mind that we’re leaving for our tour of Southern Namibia (you need a passport to travel even within Namibia because there are “security checkpoints”). Never mind that we’re coming back on a Saturday, when the ministry will be closed and have reservations at Etosha on Sunday and can’t stay in Windhoek. I get some official paper saying they have my passport.

May 21: We cut our trip one day short in order to be in Windhoek during business hours on Friday. I go to the ministry and wait in the queue. It’s been 10 days. I wait in the queue for an hour and a half before the lady even comes to the window. I turn in my official paper. She opens a file drawer. My passport is not under “A”. She gives me back my official paper. “Come back on Monday-maybe Tuesday.” “But it’s been 10 days!” “It’s not here. Try again later.”

May 28: We leave at 3:30 am in order to arrive in Windhoek before the ministry closes at 1pm. I go to the ministry and wait in the queue. It’s been 18 days. I turn in my official paper. The file drawer opens-there is nothing under “A”. Can you check under “S”-maybe they put it in the wrong place? It’s not there. She calls some lady upstairs, spells out my name, yes, they have it. “It’s in the pile to be discussed at the meeting today. Come back on Monday.” We left at 3:30 am for nothing.

So I stayed at a backpacker’s hostel in Windhoek over the weekend. Anand and I watched 8 videos and ate at KFC. We were having one of our numerous discussions that falls under the broad topic of “Why does the Peace Corps admin do stupid things?” when a random girl on the couch opposite says, “What group are you?” Group 20. And you? “14.” Turns out Jen finished The Peace Corps Namibia in 2001, and was now in grad school studying International Education and had obtained an internship with UNICEF in Namibia for 3 months. We spent the rest of the night finding out how The Peace Corps in Namibia has changed over the years (trying to figure out what went wrong). I also asked if she could hook my HIV/AIDS club up with some UNICEF stuff. Sure, no problem.

Sunday night, I met two 19-year old German girls who had been traveling around the world for 10 months, but were understandably tired of being tourists. They wanted to see non-touristy northern Namibia, so I invited them to come up with me on Monday and stay at the Arcaro Rest Camp, visit the school, whatever. They thought it was a good idea.

May 31: I go to the ministry, but there is no queue. It’s been 21 days. I show my official form, the file drawer opens. There is nothing under “A” or “S” and no American passport to be found anywhere in that drawer. She calls upstairs and finds out that, “They didn’t have the meeting on Friday. The senior ministers were not around.” When will they have the next meeting? “Maybe Wednesday.” This is getting ridiculous. I feel like that guy in Kafka’s book, The Trial, who is tormented by a faceless, dehumanizing bureaucracy. I explain my situation to her, how I am living 6 hours away in the north and it is really difficult for me to keep coming down here. She must have had pity on me, because she gives me the secret phone number to call upstairs myself, so I can check when it is done. She says I can give my form to a friend to pick it up for me, when it’s finished. A day ago, I didn’t know anybody staying in Windhoek, as all volunteers are out in the bush. But wait! Jen!

I go back to the hostel, and leave a note for my new Windhoek friend, Jen. I give her my official document and ask her if she can pick it up for me, when I find out it’s done, and send it up. I collect the German girls, and we get on a mini-bus headed north. At the check-point just north of Windhoek, the bus we’re on gets pulled over for a random check. But what’s this? Three white girls in the back? Let’s harass them. The officer asks only us for our passports. But of course, none of us have them. I show my driver’s license, which in no way proves that I am legally in Namibia, but it’s good enough and one of the German girls, Christine, also has some other form of identification that proves nothing other than she is who she is, but it satisfies the police. But Claudia, she left all her documents at the hostel in Windhoek, so she is “put under arrest.” All three of us get off the bus, and luckily get our money refunded. Christine and I hitchhike back to Windhoek, get the passports that they left at the hostel, get on another bus and wait for 2 hours while the bus slowly fills up. We go back through the checkpoint. Christine gives Claudia her passport, she shows it to the police officer. The police woman only looks at the photo page (not the page with the stamps indicating that Claudia has legally entered Namibia) and we’re happily on our way for the six-hour ride north. During the ride, the woman behind me tries to sell me some life insurance. I tell her I’m planning on dying in America, not here.

June 4: I call the ministry, at the special upstairs number, and I inquire about my passport. It’s been 25 days. She says it has been approved, and just needs some official signature. I can pick it up Monday. I call Jen and she says she’ll check for me on Monday and send it up. I won’t rest peacefully until it’s all approved and back in my hands, but it seems like in the end, maybe it all worked out ok.

Teaching is going great this year. I think I’ve found my calling in life: teaching really small classes of smart twelfth graders. Who wouldn’t love this job? Their first writing topic was: Describe the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. I was imagining most would write about magnificent sunsets or landscapes. But no, all of that is commonplace here. Instead, they wrote about the first time they saw a town, a cell phone, an elevator, a BMW, an aquarium, a cartoon picture seen on TV, and money. To them, technology and modernity were the most beautiful things they had ever seen. Since the classes are so small, they are also much more conducive to class discussions. Today I had them write for ten minutes answering this question: If it were possible, would you want to live forever? Then they divided into the yes group and the no group, and had a wonderful argument. When the bell rang to end class, they ignored it and kept raising their hands and began shouting over the external commotion to express their final opinions. To me, that is the most beautiful thing.

Love, Sera

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