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23 Dec 04

The Last Days
23 December 2004

Hello Everyone,

Zac and I have arrived back in the U.S.A.  It’s cold here!  But since you already know all about that, let me instead give you an account of our last couple of weeks in Africa.

On December 1st, there was a goodbye party for us and the other 3 teachers who were leaving the school.  It was held in the staffroom, which Ms. Petrus had decorated with orange tablecloths and fake flowers. It was supposed to start at 6, but Zac, me, and Mrs. Mbambus, who is also leaving, were the only ones there on time.  In true Namibian fashion, the rest slowly drifted in and the party finally started at 7.  There was a prayer, and a few short speeches, all of which included the popular cliché that “It is easy to say welcome, but it is always difficult to say goodbye.”  In the principal’s speech, he thanked Zac for teaching math, but mostly for “increasing the wealth of the school by getting laptops donated.” Then at the end mentioned “and of course Mrs. Arcaro helped as well.”  It was a bit disappointing to think that after all our struggles and our few successes at Ekulo, the legacy the principal will remember is the laptops.  My favorite speech was a short one by Mr. Mafwila, who stood up and said, with a shy grin, “There is a Chinese proverb that says, ‘If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.’  You have really taught us to fish.”  I could have cried.  Mr. Mafwila knew we were going to China next, and was excited for us.  His few words said so much.  A few others spoke, then we and the other departing teachers gave short speeches.  After that, everyone ate macaroni salad and meat.

The last week of school was boring.  All of the learners were gone, and the teachers were just finishing all their paper work.  I passed all my lesson plans on to the other English teachers.  Ms. Petrus agreed to do the AIDS club next year, so I gave her a large box with all of the AIDS club books and supplies.  She is a new teacher and seems eager to continue the club, so hopefully it will still exist next year.  Friday was our last day of school, so as Dolly Parton sang on the staff room computer, we bid farewell to our colleagues.  I didn’t feel very emotional on this last day, compared to how sad I felt when my learners left.

We had arranged to go back and visit our host family from training before we left the north.  So on Friday afternoon, we took a taxi to Oshakati and met our meme at Nando’s.  As she drove us back to her house, she informed us that she had had a baby and that’s why she kept putting us off.  On the way to her house, we stopped to pick up her sister, Emily, who now works as a clerk at the Oshakati state hospital.  The house in Omege had changed a lot in the last two years.  When we were there during training, they had just moved in, so it was pretty sparse.  Now it seemed much more like a home.  They had also built a fence around it and had added some cement block houses (progressive huts) in the back, giving it the look of a modern homestead.  There were still many miscellaneous people that greeted us but we weren’t really introduced so I don’t know exactly how they relate.  The two boys, now in kindergarten and grade 5, seemed to not have grown at all in the last two years.  They weren’t quite as shy as before though.  The bathroom had the same strange smell from the soap and brought back a flood of memories from my first night there, when I spent a lot of time in the bathroom vomiting.  Luckily, they didn’t slaughter a goat for us this time, just a chicken.

Emily ate supper with us, and told us a story from a long time ago, before Namibia had independence, and was still ruled the apartheid South African government.  She said the South African Defense Force (SADF) soldiers were looking for insurgents in the villages, and came to their homestead.  The kids heard them coming, so everyone ran out of the house, and went to sleep with some neighbors.  The next morning, they needed their books for school, so they went back to their house, but the soldiers had slept their during the night and were waiting for them.  It is unclear to me exactly what happened, but Emily just
kept saying, ‘Oh, that day we were beat like nothing!”

Our meme and tate told us about their trip to the U.S. a year ago.  The trip was a reward for being the tops sellers of Forever Living Aloe Vera Products, a pyramid selling scheme that our meme is near the top of.  They were with a large group of other sellers from all over the world, and were wined and dined in grand style.  We asked what they thought of the U.S. Our meme said she was surprised at how helpful and friendly the people in the shops were (Zac and I chuckled, since we had often lamented the lack of customer service in Namibia). They said it was clean and that “In Texas, everyone is rich.  We never saw any people walking.”  The food was ok, they said, but I think they were just being polite.  I mean, how can hamburgers possible compete with oshithema?

Our host parents were still busy, and actually didn’t spend much time visiting with us.  Namibia had just had the regional elections, and one of our Tate’s friends had just been elected counselor, so he went to visit him with hopes of being appointed to a better job, although he is already the city planner for Oshakati.  Our Meme also left to take some food to someone who was in the hospital.  So we watched the Namibian Music Awards on TV with the kids, and Zac connected their digital camera to their computer and discovered that the printer wasn’t actually broken, it was just out of ink.  He could not, however, get the kids’ playstation to work, because it was missing some wires.

We stayed the night, and the next morning was devoted to a photo shoot with the baby and the white people. Out meme was out visiting someone and our tate was working on the fence surrounding the property.  Shale, the boy in grade 5, produced a brand new Monopoly game and asked me if I knew how to play.  So Zac and I taught South African monopoly to Shale and Emily.  The properties had different names and the money was in Rand, but everything else was the same.  Shale’s favorite properties were the water works and electricity.  He enjoyed all the exchanging of money, although he had lots of trouble with the math, and soon became more interested in watching cartoons on TV.

When our meme came back, we ate a quick lunch, then she drove us to the hitchpoint to get a ride back to Ekulo.  Before she dropped us off, she stopped at KFC and bought us some fried chicken.  When we got back to our house that afternoon, we ate our chicken and looked at the bare walls and empty house and reminisced that it was almost the same as when we had arrived two years ago.  Our meme had bought us KFC then too, and we sat in our empty house eating it, wondering what lay ahead.  That evening, we finished our last minute packing and watched our last sunset at Ekulo.

On Sunday morning, a ministry van picked us up to transport us to Windhoek.  It was already carrying a few other volunteers and many bags--we had to do a bit of finagling to fit our luggage in as well--but in the end we still had a fairly comfortable 6-hour ride to the capital.  It was quiet and air-conditioned, and it was hard to believe we were really leaving.  I thought the ride south would be quite momentous and emotional, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t feel much of anything. I fell asleep.

In Windhoek, we stayed at the Schwabbenheim, a self-catering apartment style place, on the Peace Corps's tab (I wasn’t really there) with some other volunteers who were heading out at the same time as us.  We stayed a week while Zac went through his close-of-service business with the Peace Corps.  Most days we went shopping, did little errands, and watched TV.  We even saw a few of our learners in the Post Street Mall tourist markets.  As aspiring musicians (rappers), they were down there to record their music. On another night, we went to a ritzy club called the Blue Note to listen to a Zimbabwean jazz band with some other volunteers.  It was Human Rights week, so there was a film festival going on at the American Cultural Center that we went to a few times.  Most of the films focused on segregation and other violations of human rights in U.S. history (because surely we aren’t doing any of those bad things NOW…). 

One afternoon, we met with Lucy, one of the founders of Catholic AIDS Action, an NGO that works with HIV/AIDS prevention.  She is an American, who is actually Jewish, but has lived in Namibia for the last 7 years and now calls it her home.  Since she’s really been working at the center of the AIDS epidemic, I asked her a question that has been haunting me lately: Is there any hope?  Will it get better?  She cited some statistics that had just been released, that Namibia’s HIV/AIDS rate has dropped from 21% to 19%, but then qualified that statement by saying that it could just be because so many of the HIV+ people are dying.  She said that she did believe that a core group would survive the epidemic, and that hope was for them. 

The week passed easily enough with warm days under the clear blue sky.   We said goodbye to the other volunteers who were in town, and on Monday, December 13th, we boarded the Intercape Mainliner bus headed to Cape Town.  The bus was delayed for two and half hours because a connecting bus broke down outside of Swakopmund.  While waiting for the other bus, we loitered in the parking lot opposite the Kalahari Sands hotel and watched our last evening descend on Windhoek.  The Christmas lights lining Independence Avenue flashed and I tried to think significant thoughts about leaving Namibia.  The other bus finally arrived and we left Windhoek around 8:30 pm.  Despite being nearly the longest day of the year, it was already pitch black with only a sliver of a setting moon.  We left Namibia in the dark, under a bowl full of stars, and crossed the border into South Africa around 5am.

We arrived in Cape Town Tuesday afternoon and took a taxi from the bus station to the Big Blue Backpackers Hostel, which was big but definitely not blue.  Located up a narrow street from the Buddha Bar, it was pale yellow on the outside and deep red on the inside.  We dropped off our 5 bags at the hostel and then walked down to the water front.  Cape Town was beautiful, and practically designed for tourists, but without being too gaudy about it.  The waterfront was populated with restaurants and shops, with an amphitheater in the center where street performers made a meager living during the day, and operas and orchestras performed at night.  The demographics were far more diverse than Windhoek and with a population of 3 million, the area had more people than all of Namibia.  On our first evening, we just walked around and enjoyed all the different dining options (finally settling on fast food Thai).  The Cape Town Opera was performing at the waterfront amphitheater so we were entertained, for free, by first class musicians singing everything from “Climb Every Mountain” to the drinking song from “La Traviata” to “Old Man River” sung by a tall, skinny guy that resembled Chris Rock.

On Wednesday, we toured a few of Cape Town’s museums. The museums were quite sophisticated compared to the museums in Windhoek, which had resembled sixth grade diorama projects.  The Castle celebrated South African history and had a new exhibit commemorating the 10-year anniversary since the end of apartheid.  It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until 1994 that South Africa permitted universal suffrage and had free and fair elections (Nelson Mandela became president when his ANC party won 63% of the vote).  We also went to the District Six museum.  District Six was an area in central Cape Town where the blacks and colored lived, but in 1966 it was declared a “white area” and all of the inhabitants (60,000) were forcibly removed to the outlying Cape Flats; their homes were bulldozed. Later that evening, we again ate supper at the waterfront while an interracial choir, dressed in African robes, sang Christmas carols in the amphitheater.

Thursday was a national holiday.  December 16th is the Day of Reconciliation: “Afrikaners traditionally celebrated 16 December as the Day of the Vow, remembering the day in 1838 when a group of Voortrekkers defeated a Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River, while ANC activists commemorated it as the day in 1961 when the ANC started to arm its soldiers to overthrow Apartheid. In the new South Africa, it's a day of reconciliation, a day to focus on overcoming the conflicts of the past and building a new nation.”   On this day, we took a tour of Robben Island, located about 11km from Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was held for 17 of his 27 years spent in prison.  Mandela was the leader of the ANC, the main political party working to bring down the Apartheid regime that ruled South Africa.  It should be noted that the U.S. government opposed the ANC because it had vague ties to Marxist communism, and being the cold war, that was somehow more important than the fact that millions of blacks and coloreds were being denied basic human rights.

The tour began with a ferry ride to the island and then a bus tour around the island.  In addition to the prison facilities, the island also once housed a leper colony.  The males and females were kept separately, and yet 43 babies were born on the island.  We were shown the quarry where the prisoners were forced to labor.  Lastly, we took a tour of the prison, led by a former inmate.  The prison was divided, keeping the common criminals separate from the political prisoners.  The common criminals generally had more freedoms and received better treatment than the political prisoners.  The tour guide showed us the food ration cards, which allotted different amounts of food according to race.  He proudly told us how despite the government putting them in prison, the inmates turned it into a university by tutoring each other and taking correspondence courses.  He told of immeasurable suffering, but the prison buildings were just buildings and failed to convey the magnitude of past torments—only humans can do that.  We saw the cell where Nelson Mandela spent nearly a quarter of his life.  It was small.

That afternoon, we went to Company’s Gardens where there was a big festival to celebrate Reconciliation, and a decade of freedom from apartheid.  We bought plums, which turned out to be nectarines, and a sat on the lawn, in the shade of a statue, watching people mill about.  Zac commented that the architects of apartheid would be quite upset to see such an intermixing of people in their esteemed gardens.  While seeing social integration is heartening, it is important to remember that although the formal separation of races ended ten years ago, South Africans still experience vast economic inequalities. The Gini coefficient is a measure of inequalities in wealth.  It is a number between 1 and 0.  1 is total inequality, where one person has all the wealth, whereas 0 is total equality.  South Africa’s Gini coefficient is about 0.58, the second highest in the world (Brazil has the highest, the U.S. is about 0.4, while developed European countries are around 0.2 to 0.3).  Overcoming the poverty created by five decades of apartheid is a difficult task, which is now compounded by the formidably high rate of HIV (nearly 30%).  Ironically, the evening entertainment at the amphitheater, on this Reconciliation Day, was the South African Army Band playing Christmas tunes.

Friday we climbed Table Mountain and realized that living in a very flat region for two years had serious disadvantages.  We started from the Kirstenbosch Gardens, and huffed and puffed our way up the mountain to experience great views of Cape Town and the Atlantic.  At the top, there is a restaurant, snack bar, toilets and a cable car.  We paid to take the cable car down, but it only went about half way down the mountain.  We had about another hour of walking to our hostel.  This was our last full day in Africa.  All week, we’d been counting down the days, but it was still hard to believe.

Saturday morning we lugged (ok, Zac lugged) a 12kg box of books and papers to the post office to mail to ourselves in the U.S.  The airline had strict luggage weight limits for our lowly “economic class” ticket, and it was cheaper to ship some weight home than pay the airline fines.  Then we went to the Nelson Mandela museum, which highlighted the struggles of the ANC and other opposition parties, as well as abuses committed by the apartheid government.  The exhibit, consisting of photos, posters, pamphlets and personal accounts, was quite moving.  I wondered how supposedly rational human beings could continue the oppression, which was so clearly morally wrong, for so long.  I’d like to believe that such discrimination is a part of history, only existing now in museums as a lesson to make sure that history does not repeat itself.  But it seems that people still haven’t learned, as gays are denied equal rights to marriage, Muslims are harassed, and detainees in Guantanamo Bay are not permitted access to lawyers or to even know the crimes of which they are accused.

We left Cape Town Saturday evening, thus officially ending our 2 year sojourn in southern Africa. We had a 12 hour flight to Frankfurt, a five hour layover, then a 10 hour flight to Charlotte.   Now we’re home, and there’s strange things like high speed wireless internet access, “low-carb” bagels (???) and lots of snow.


Sera and Zac

Ps—what on earth are “trans fats”?

click here for more photos of Cape Town, Table Mountain, and Robben Island

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