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Obsession with Fences

An Obsession with Fences
26 December 2002

 We thought of some little things you might be curious about, and we figured we should write them soon because already all these things are beginning to seem normal to us. For example, I don’t even blink an eye when a woman walks to the Cuca shop carrying a live chicken, and sets it on the ground (its feet are tied together) in the shade while she has a few beers.


We are 7 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

Most people here don’t wear watches. They vaguely know the time by the sun. Our friend lives with a family that has no clocks or watches, and one morning they all showed up for church an hour early, just because they didn’t know. At school, some kids arrive really early and some arrive late. Time is imprecise here. I asked the kids how long it took them to walk to school, and many said “5 minutes” which is impossible because there are no homesteads within a 5 min. walk of the school. What does amaze me is that they always know the date. At the top of every paper they always write the date. I don’t see calendars anywhere, so I don’t know how they know. Years are also very important (the word for year and rain is the same). When I ask about events, they always respond with what year something happened.


Food here is insignificant–it’s just something to put in your mouth to keep you going. There is no attempt to make it taste good and recipe books are unheard of. The staple food is mahangu (pearl millete), a grain that grows in sand. They pound this into flour and mix it with water to form a porridge called Oshithema, which they eat every single day. Over half of my students claimed that oshithema and water were their favorite food and drink. They put ketchup “tomato sauce” on rice. We grilled hot dogs at a Christmas eve party here and I asked for tomato sauce. They were really confused by this and said, “you mean what you put on rice?” They eat virtually no fruits and vegetables here. They aren’t too big on desserts either (Zac and I will do our best to counter this trend). The grocery stores do have real food and if you hunt long enough you can find most of the basic things you find in the U.S., but we still don’t know who buys this food because we don’t see anyone eating it. Even our family, that is well off, still eats oshithema and goat almost every day. Also on Christmas eve we went to the Oshakati Country Lodge for lunch. We had crocodile rib, ostrich and springbok. My favorite was springbok but Zac liked the ostrich best. But these are foods prepared for tourists. The regular people here don’t eat them. The only other really weird thing I have eaten (Zac refused to) is the mopane worm, which is actually a caterpillar and is really disgusting. Our family also cooked the big bullfrogs that came with the rain, but neither of us ate them.


They have one store in Oshakati that is on par with a department store in the U.S. It is called Game and it is recently opened. We were surprised to find that we can get just about anything there, computers, DVD players, TV’s, desks, tables, tools, camping stuff, Playstation 2, vacuum cleaners, Herbal Essence shampoo, toys, board games, darts, treadmills, etc. It is interesting to note that this stuff is way too expensive for the vast majority of people here; I can’t even begin to explain how ironic it is that they sell treadmills here. The other department stores are more for the typical Namibians and they are of Big Lots quality or slightly better. Clothes can be bought at these cheaper department stores and also at stores that only sell clothes. All the stores have security gaurds and you must show your receipt and they check your bags before you can leave the store. The north isn’t very touristy, so there aren’t too many places to buy local crafts, but at the tourist places you can get stuff. I would imagine, because we haven’t really been anywhere touristy yet.


While we have been here the US dollar has ranged from a high of 9.9 to a low of 8.8 Namibian dollars. Thus it hasn’t been too hard to quickly convert between currencies, we just move the decimal one place and there you have it. For example, a liter of milk costs $N7.00 so that means it costs US$0.70. The US dollar is very strong compared to the Namibian Dollar (or Nab) so for most of the time the equivalent item in a store here is cheaper that the equivalent item in the States. Actually, this holds true for even exact equivalents. Before we left the US we bought a Oshakati stock of razors but it turns out we should have just bought the same razors here for less money. If I walk into a grocery store here with $N100 dollars it is like walking into a US grocery store with US$50; this is significant because $N100 is only about US$10! Unfortunately this relationship doesn’t hold true with electronics, etc., which are at US prices or slightly higher. So, everyone who comes to visit us will be pleasantly surprised to find that you can take us out to a fancy dinner and pay less than US10 per plate (actually I haven’t seen any plates over US$7, but you might have to buy us dessert too).   During training we have been paid about N$50 dollars a day, or about US$5. This has been working out pretty well; we can live quite nicely on this since we don’t have to pay for housing, or insurance, or really anything but food and transport. We get paid in Namibian dollars and our pay is directly deposited into accounts that the Peace Corps set up for us. We can access our money at ATM machines, which are common here. I think most Namibians have direct deposit because the ATM’s are so busy that they run out of money frequently, especially on paydays. Big stores do take credit card but really cash is really the main method of payment around here. We can also access our US bank accounts using the local ATM’s.    


The seasons go in this order: Spring (now, the time of the rains, when things grow) Fall (the time of the harvest), Winter (when it gets cold and things die), Summer (it’s HOT! and things aren’t growing yet). So now we’re at the end of summer and beginning of spring. Go figure.


There aren’t too many of these in the north. Most people live in huts. We are fortunate enough to be staying with a family that has a real house. Nice houses, such as ours, have nice ceramic tile floors, with some throw rugs spread about. Other houses have concrete floors and huts have dirt/sand floors.   The walls to our house are painted, smooth concrete walls. The huts have poorly made concrete block walls loosely cemented together, or stick walls. There is no carpet here. I don’t think it exists. They also don’t have screens, ever, so there are lots of bugs in the house, especially at night, and especially the day after it rains when all the bugs hatch. At night, they close all the windows and complain about how hot it is. The solution seems simple enough to Zac and I, but apparently screens just haven’t caught on here yet. No houses are 2 stories tall. Furthermore, the workmanship on the houses is very poor. Even our family’s house, which is 3 months old, has already begun to fall apart in places. Our future house at Ekulo is only 5 years old, and already all the baseboards have been eaten by bugs, the paint is chipping off the  walls, and the door to the shower was also “eaten.” Another problem is that the houses are cleaned everyday, and yet remain sandy. It’s like constantly being at the beach–no matter how hard you try, sand still gets everywhere. Houses also rarely have built-in closets. Instead, they sometimes, if you’re lucky, have a closet-cabinet thing with a bar to hang clothes from and some shelves inside. Zac put together a computer desk for our family and when he was putting in the drawer, our 9 yr old host brother Shali asked “What is that?”   Beds can range from a foam mattress on the floor to a real bed with box springs and everything. Furniture here is cheaply made and of poor quality. Most people’s couches would hardly be worthy of being a “porch couch” in the OSU student ghetto–they’re all old and dirty looking. Most rooms are sparsely furnished. White plastic deck chairs are staple furniture.


Soccer is very, very popular here. Students also play netball sometimes.


They have an obsession with fences here. Few fences are chain-link. Most are made from wire being strung horizontally from one stick or pole to the next, then reinforced with many more sticks placed vertically in the ground. These are animal fences, designed to keep the goats out of the mahangu fields during the growing season. In our walks through our village, we have become experts at finding ways through the fences. Unfortunately, so have the goats. The fences around buildings for security involve lots of barbed wire.


There are no books. People do not read for pleasure. In our home stay, there are NO books. There is not a bookstore to be found in the north here that sells books just to read. People only have schoolbooks and hymnals. If anybody feels like sending us anything, find some good books and send them our way. You can get an M-bag at the post office to send them for really cheap.


Our village has electricity, but it only got it 3 years ago. The village just down the road still does not have electricity, and that is the story for the majority of villages in the north. The electricity goes out often and randomly. Just this evening, on a perfectly clear, still day, it went out for about an hour. People pay for their electricity by buying electricity cards from the elec. company and then insert them in the elec. box in their house. In this manner, you don’t have bills to pay.


There is no junk mail here. There are no personal mailboxes here. In fact, there are no addresses or street names in the north here. If you’re rich, and expect mail, you get a P.O. box at the post office in town. Otherwise, you just don’t get mail. Most businesses have P.O. boxes, but that’s about it. On the rare occasion you should need to send mail to someone, you just use a personal courier, which is much more reliable than the mail anyway. At Ekulo, where we will stay for two years, we will use the schools address and it should be reliable. The principle goes and collects the mail from the post office frequently.


There is quite a variety of clothes here, and matching is completely optional. The older women wear traditional dresses. Men in general just wear shirts and pants, to whatever quality they can afford. Young adults dress according to what they can afford. If they are richer, they attempt to emulate the dress of MTV. If they are poor, they wear old dirty clothes because that is all they have. Girls wear pants as well as boys, but only kids wear shorts. For shoes, if they are lucky enough to have them, most people wear some form of sandals. I wore my brown leather shoes one day, and the principal asked me, “Aren’t those too heavy to walk in?” Apparently girls never wear real shoes, only sandals.


I have yet to see a Namibian smoke. It’s just not popular here at all. I don’t know if it’s because they can’t afford it, or just don’t want to smoke, but nobody smokes. They do have cigarettes at the gas stations, and about 4 or 5 of our fellow volunteers smoke, but that’s all.


Because it is so hot, women walk around with umbrellas for portable shade.


Pop (or soda) is called “cool drinks” here. It most often comes in bottles that you return and are reused over and over again. Some have plastic screw-tops, but most have the kind of top you need a bottle opener for. Or so I thought. But here in Namibia, where people are ever-resourceful, they open the bottles with their teeth. It is quite impressive to see. I personally will stick to bottle openers though.


Drinks are the one thing this country does right. The juices are all wonderful, with flavors like watermelon (Zac’s favorite), litchi, mango, passion fruit, etc. The soda here seems better as well, our favorites being lemon twist and granadilla.

love, Sera & Zac

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