Contrasting beautiful, Namibia
Namibian National Anthem
The sky is overcast and a cool wind sweeps the dust down the road. The cows in the field are starting to walk back to their kraals for the night. In some ways, as I sit here at the computer typing, I can forget we are in Africa. I feel like we are not so much in a different place as in a different time. But it’s a strange time, a combination of past and present, where life hovers between two extremes. Maybe it is timelessness.
From my classroom window, I can see a traditional homestead, with huts made entirely out of tree branches and mahangu stalks. Then I can walk to the office, where there is a computer, a broken modem, a telephone, a fax machine, an air conditioner, and all the teachers have cell phones. From there, I can see the dining hall with a big satellite dish for the TV inside. In back of the dining hall, two young boys with tattered clothes wait with a wheelbarrow to take the scraps of food away.
We have spent the week without running water. Some days it would come on for an hour, during which time we scrambled to refill our water containers, flush the toilets, wash all the dishes, shower, water the plants, and all those other things that are so much more convenient with running water. You know you’ve been in the bush for a while when you start thinking of water pressure as high-tech. However, we are probably the first Peace Corps Volunteers in Namibia to be in-country for nearly five months without experiencing the technical difficulties of the dreaded bucket bath. The appellation itself is an oxymoron because everyone knows that it is impossible for an adult to take a bath in a bucket. So the bath must come out of the bucket and onto the person. Herein lies the difficulty. Let it suffice to say that if I had to perform this bucket bath debacle for two weeks, I would shave my head and let hygiene go by the wayside. We were also plagued by power-outages this week, so one night I found myself bucket-bathing by candlelight. What century is it?
One day, I was trying to explain how different languages evolved to my 11th graders. So I took them way back in history and told them the theory that all people originally came from Africa, and then spread out to the rest of the world. They pondered this for a while, then one girl queried, “but Miss, why are you white and we’re black?” I tried in vain to explain the effects of millions of years of sun and evolution on skin pigment, only to have her ask, “like Michael Jackson?” It was an even more futile endeavor trying to explain plastic surgery.
Before reading an article in the English book about “Being Different,” I prepped my 9th graders with the question: Who is the most different person in this room? I naively thought they would choose the tallest person, or shortest. But they blindsided me when they chorused, “You Miss!” I had forgotten myself.
“Me? How am I different? I’m the same as you!”
“Noooo, Miss. You’re white.”
“I’m white? Like paper?”
“No, you’re somehow yellow.”
“No, you’re more gray,” another chimes in.
“Ah-ah, no, she’s pink.” A heated debate over the exact color of Ms. Arcaro ensues, with the conclusion that I am light orange. I also have red lips, blue eyes, yellow and white teeth and an “expensive” watch that they decided cost somewhere between 10 dollars and 400 dollars (they’re kind of like Rain Man when it comes to estimating the cost of things). Next, the discussion turns to my hair, which is apparently “black, brown and yellow.” They want to see how long it is, so I take it out of my ever-present pony-tail, and they squeal and clap with delight. Then, they ask if they can touch it and I figure, what the heck, I already feel like I’m in a zoo, why not make it a petting zoo? So they shyly come and touch my hair, which of course is falling out all over the place. They start taking strands of it and they hold out the two ends to compare who has the longest piece of my hair. Finally, after examining it for a while, one girl asks, “Miss, is it plastic?”
It turns out those two classes of geology that I suffered through in college were well worth it. Somehow I found myself explaining plate tectonics and mountain formation to a ninth grade class. Then, they asked how volcanoes were formed, so I likened lava to a pot of boiling rocks deep inside the earth that boils up a pipe and out onto the surface. I’m pretty sure the kids take my analogies literally, so I can only imagine what sort of visions of the world they’re having.
One evening, while I am supervising some learners on the staff room computer, another teacher engages me in a conversation comparing America and Namibia. He poses such questions as “Why are white people better at saving money than black people?” and “What are the traditional houses in America like?” To the former question, I just reply that it is easy to have a job in America, so everyone has money and we don’t have very big families, so the money we do make we can just keep for ourselves. He said that made sense, because here in Namibia, families are very large while only a few members will have an income, which then must be divided amongst the many needs. I also explained that we are used to having money, and are brought up with some sort of income from a young age, so we can have practice using it. I pointed out that in Namibia, people grow up with their mahangu fields, so they know how to cultivate in order to survive. They can subsist with no money, whereas it is very difficult to do so in America. He seemed surprised by this, saying, “So in America they just depend on money?!”
It is very interesting for me, as a connoisseur of propaganda, to be experiencing the war from an African perspective. Namibia is opposed to the war, and the paper has been filled with anti-war, anti-Bush/Blair editorials. There are fewer restraints on publishing gruesome photos in the newspaper, so every day there is a spread of mangled bodies (usually Iraqi civilians). No one thinks Bush is liberating Iraq, they see him as an invader. Namibians know all too well about powerful outsiders coming in and devastating an already struggling country for financial gain (in Namibia it was for diamonds). They see Bush as an oppressor who is only after oil. All the learners think America is going to lose the war, and they ask me if I am worried about my family. On the Voice of America on the short-wave radio this morning, we heard a clip from one of Bush’s speeches—the first we’ve heard of him since the beginning of the war. He was talking all about liberating Iraqi civilians. It was a bit startling to hear since we haven’t been getting that perspective at all. We turned it off.
In my classroom, I have posted a contest by the Namibian newspaper, where each week they will give N$50 to the best “letter to the editor.” Up until this week, none of my learners have shown any interest in participating in the contest. Then on Monday, two of my 9th grade boys came to me asking if all they really had to do was write a letter and they’d get fifty dollars. I confirmed this for them, and later that day they produced a two-sentence letter that was incomprehensible. Now, these two boys are not exactly the brightest students, but they engage in everything so eagerly that it is a pleasure to teach them. They are two of the four boys in home science and needlework class (9B). I told them to take some time, and a dictionary, and work on it some more. The next day they had a paragraph and I was delighted to discover that their letter was to the government thanking it for letting them sit in their chairs and write in their books in school. Normally I think of letters to the editor as complaints about something, but these two boys thought to write a thank you! I encouraged them in their writing, and told them to work on it some more. So each day they produced another letter with more things they were thankful for. I told them if they worked very hard to write a very good letter I would let them come to my house on Friday and type it on the computer. The prospect of being able to use a computer put them over the moon. So today I helped them to consolidate their rough drafts into a comprehensible letter, which they typed on our computer. Since they are day schoolers, they can’t eat lunch in the dining hall, so I made them some pancakes for lunch. It is so fun to teach computers to people who have never used one at all. They are so amazed by the spell-check, being able to go back and fix things without having to rewrite or delete everything, and the mouse just baffles them (they’re not too coordinated with it). The typing is painfully slow for them, but they like the feel of pushing buttons, so they don’t get discouraged. I will put the letter here so you can read it for yourself, and I am proud to say that it is all their own doing, I just helped them with the verb tenses.
We are two learners in grade nine. We are writing to thank the people who fought for our freedom like President Sam Nujoma, Andimba Toivo, and Tobias Hainyeko and all of them who fought for the independence. We would like to thank our Government because what it did for us is very good. We are happy for our Government because they fought for us until we got freedom.
We thank you because in the war we were not given the right to do every thing which was done by the people who came and colonized us and they were making us look bad and our land was destroyed and you, Government of Namibia, you fought until we got independence.
We thank them very much because after independence we benefit many things such as schools, clinics, pipelines of water to our villages, which were destroyed by the war.
We would like to say God bless them where they are now, especially the fighters, the government and the President.
Thank you for reading this letter.
Love always, Sera