So, the trucker said his name was Mosi, a nickname deriving from that of the standard beer in Zambia. He was super nice, offering us beers and cokes and cookies, alerting us to potential wildlife spottings (unfortunately, nothing appeared that night, but I saw a giraffe the next morning), and regaling us with stories of trucking accidents, attempted hi-jackings in Joberg, and life growing up as an Afrikanner in Namibia. He dropped us at a truck stop on the edge of town in Tsumeb at about 3am where he thought we would be safe to wait until dawn for another ride. The store was closed and the area deserted. We huddled up in a corner with our bags, eventually unpacking them to get out the sh’tangas we’d bought in Zambia to wrap up in to keep warm. We caught a ride up to Ondangwa around 9 the next morning, making it from Katima to Okalongo in less than 18 hrs. That’s gotta be a record.
School’s slowly winding down here. Last trimester, some teachers at the school said we would only be teaching a month and then testing the other 2.5 months, so I hadn’t planned to cover much material. Then my head of department said testing would begin first of November, so I tried to wrap everything up before then. And now the principal says we will begin mid-November. Why didn’t I just go ask the principal you might wonder? Because you can’t take anyone’s word on anything here; it would have only prompted another false expectation that would rile me when broken. So while its nice to have extra time to cover more stuff, I feel I’ve been tying up my classes for about four straight weeks now.
We had our HIV/AIDS awareness club party a couple of weeks ago. I asked the kids what they wanted me to buy in terms of food and drinks . . .
“Let’s get a goat”
“Yeah, and have a braai”
“We need some Smirnoff. Get Smirnoff for me”
“But no Tafel”
After reminding them we only had $200 bucks and couldn’t afford an all-out barbeque, I had to break the news that there would be no alcohol.
“But Miss! It’s a party!”
And you’re in school, in the HIV/AIDS responsible kids club, we discourage alcohol, remember? That’s what I said to them in fact. I’m glad our club sessions have been so effective in getting through to them the need to be role models, the danger of poor decision making when drunk, etc.
Jason and I made peanut butter cups, cookies, pizza, and dip for crackers . . . all which were immediately consumed by the club members, who shamelessly stacked and stacked and stacked food on their plates. Latecomers walked around chanting “donations, donations.” Then a few random teachers who’d got wind of the event crashed and requisitioned some of the learners’ plates. We all played charades and made the teachers heads of the teams. When the winning teams got prizes, the teachers kept sending learners up to me to ask where the teachers’ prizes were. I guess I should have made some party-crasher prizes.
OK, so I just paid off a UNAM student to give me his computer where, maddeningly, he was playing solitaire while I desperately try to jack into the internet. I came in, the receptionist said laconically, “All the computers are taken. Wait an hour” which would give me 30 min before they closed IF I even got on. Best ten bucks I’ve spent in a while. Hope you’re all good, below are some excerpts from Jason’s email to his parents
I’m sitting in the library tutoring math kids. Actually, I’m teaching an advanced algebra (take that ‘advanced’ with a box of salt) class for my brighter learners. They’re doing well - much better than I expected. Right now they are doing the classwork/homework and I’m waiting to mark their work. I woke up exhausted this morning and I’ve just been waiting all day to be finished so I can take a nap. It’s just now 5pm and it looks like we will be here awhile – I don’t know when I’ll get home.
I started reading Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan again. It’s so great, but I really need to get on to other things. My pace has slipped in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction/biography stuff that takes a while to get through. I know you don’t care about my reading habits at all, but I have little else to say about my day-to-day life other than complain about my colleagues or talk about my classes and even I’m tired of those topics. Nothing else goes on. Unfortunately, nothing goes on and on.
We haven’t even been to Oshakati in the last couple of weeks. A fact attested to by our empty cabinets – we had pasta with butter today and it was the last of the pasta and the butter. There was nothing to eat with it. I don’t know what we’ll eat come tomorrow. I think we have two potatoes that weigh about a gram each. Friday can’t come soon enough. And then there’s the taxi ride.
I’m winding up here. I’ll write more later.
I’m back, waiting for my guys to finish their homework so I can mark it. Energy is low today, not for me but for everybody. It’s been threatening rain for two days. I wish it would rain good and hard for hours, but the most it will do is sprinkle for seconds and let up. At least it has cooled off slightly. To contrast that advantage, though, it’s caused the water to stop working. Who knows when it will return. It took all my energy to make it through the day today. I wanted so badly to skip my after-tea classes today (they call it ‘bunking’ here) but I managed to hold out. I dragged myself to seventh period with a determined air of responsibility to find an empty classroom. A girl informed me that the class was in the physics lab – I had misread my timetable and was late by forty five minutes to my last and only class of the afternoon. So much for that determined air.
I just noticed that one of my students is wearing ‘Dickey’s’ brown coveralls unbottoned to his ribcage with a large faux-gold chain. The back of his coverall reads ‘NW&S’ in faded marker block letters. He’s probably at the height of fashion. The ‘kids’ at our school are somewhat wealthy compared to the norm, as I’ve said before, so these excursions into fashion are pretty common. Needless to say, it adds a little spice to life to see someone change out of their drab school uniform to change into their gangsterwear. I notice he has a dog tag on his chain. It’s British and I’m wondering where he stole it. I found another boy yesterday with the same type of tags.
‘Good afternoon, Lukas.’
‘What is this?’ I asked.
‘Yes. What is it called?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘It’s called a dog tag. Where did you get it?’
‘China.’ This is what they call the Chinese-run shops in town.
‘You stole it.’
‘You stole it.’
‘He stole it,’ I said to his friend, who smilingly nodded.
Thievery, like dishonesty, is a part of life here. It’s not taboo, carries no stigma and, due to the quality of the police, no penalty, and, also like dishonesty (see the above dialogue), is even expected on some levels. Early in the year I asked a fellow teacher why everyone I’d met owned a cuca shop (the concrete block ‘bars’ that dot the landscape like pox) and he replied with incredulity, ‘You can’t invite your friends to your house. You must have a cuca shop.’ The idea is: inviting your friends into your house is tantamount to leaving your TV, VCR, radio, etc. out on the lawn. They won’t be there in the morning. And these are you friends.
On certain levels, of course, thievery is frowned upon and even condemned. When asked, Lukas didn’t volunteer that he had stolen the tags he was wearing, though it was obvious. This can partially be explained by the fact that honesty is not largely valued in Owambo society, but even so, it would have been strange had he stated openly that he had stolen it. There is an oshiwambo word botsotso that, like all oshiwambo words has no direct translation into the romantic languages. However, one could say that a botsotso is a thief, has a bad character and is probably a Rastafarian (think Bob Marley, dreds, mary jane and a too-liberal outlook). This word is thrown around a lot with the usual Owambo propensity for loud, anonymous derision and a lack of real expectation for altered behavior. The principal shouts it regularly during morning devotional. It’s one of his favorite words. His favorite phrases are, ‘I try my level best to . . .’ and ‘I know damn well that . . .’ The pomp is real, but the words amount to the same thing: There must be structrure regardless of substance. The result of all this is that thievery is attacked occasionally, but it’s mostly just a sideshow. Of course, when the target of such thievery is (perceived to be) rich, an outsider, white, or all of the above, even the doggerel botsotso is forgone.
That’s all I have time for today. It’s time to go home and eat the last remaining item in the house. Our last onion and those one gram-potatoes flavored the pot of lintels I cooked for lunch. With a little curry, we’ll eat for two days. Thankfully, we can go to town in two days and replenish the stock because that’s the best we’re going to do for food until then. Will write again soon.
It’s 9:45am and I have an off period before tea after three successive maths classes. We are reviewing simplifying algebra terms in the regular class. We’re tying up multification and division of terms and about to begin a comprehensive multiplication/division and adding/subtacting terms lesson. Putting ideas together here is very difficult. These 'kids’ are not good at building upon previous knowledge, which is made even more difficult as their knowledge base is shaky to begin with. Every day is a new day. Nothing is remembered from week to week and applying knowledge is an unknown concept. According to my students, I should teach every possible method for solving every possible problem humanity has encountered in the field. They don’t put it forth like that but it’s implied in everything they say and do. They don’t understand that I can do these problems in multiple ways because I have a basic knowledge of math and apply it to each problem. They aren’t interested in basic math skills (they have that magic calculator), however, and I have thus far failed to excite them about the idea of attaining them. I’m sure to someone who doesn’t have a basic understanding of the subject would find solving simultaneous equations and manipulating algebraic formulae daunting exercises in memorizing ‘magic’ methods. I have tried to explain that teaching them all methods of a problem would be like attempting to show them this: ∞
Somehow the analogy didn’t help.
A few of the learners in one of my classes are fairly upset that I’m teaching a separate advanced algebra section to which they are not invited. These are the same ones that failed the basic algebra test, failed the last mock exam, failed the April exam. Somehow they think they are ready for the advanced stuff. In class, I’m teaching the basics and they are ignoring me to peruse their IGSCE Extended books where the more difficult problems can be found. By coaxing a correct answer to an advanced question out of themselves now and then, they assure themselves that they are ‘ready’ for the advanced math. I wonder if this is a problem in the States. I don’t remember myself pushing ahead blindly. I don’t remember caring enough to even try, acutally. All this supports the feeling that I’ve been having lately that school is just a game to everyone here, the students, the teachers, everyone. We’re playing school. I hope we’re having fun.
One of my learners, Lukas Linus, was one of those that was most upset. After a heated ‘debate,’ I told him to speak to the principal about it if he thought it unfair. He did, with a group of his friends, and I sat through a four-minute meeting with the principal about it today. Apparently, it was important to discuss the situation with me as it had been discussed with him. In the meeting I was informed of the situation which I, of course, knew all about. There were no suggestions made, no changes desired, no information to glean. Our Head of Department was present. No doubt this is a bureaucratic necessity. There will probably be notes drawn up and typed by the secretary to go into the dusty file in his office, recording everything that was said in the meeting. Once again: Structure regardless of substance. I was dismissed promptly having learned nothing and with no action expected of me. We’re playing school. I hope we’re having fun.
The bell for tea has rung. Crystal is going to Oshakati today for groceries and internet. I’ll try to round this out before she leaves and have her email it today. Until then.
Sixth period. My English Second Language class just finished. We are finished for the year which wasn’t difficult as there is no concrete syllabus to direct the topics for class. The class is the plaything of my every whim. All of my marks are collected, tallied and recorded for the year, so I’ve been covering topics that can be covered with a minimum of marking in the upcoming days and weeks. Right now we are half-finished reading the book Amistad (junior version). In class, I read aloud and the learners sit and listen. We stop and review the action after each chapter which is about once every two pages in a book of this reading level. We have only one copy of the book; the one book of which we have multiple copies is The Old Warrior, a story about a young Zulu warrior in South Africa that we read at the beginning of term 2. It works well enough and, for the most part, they are engaged and trying to learn. I also photocopied a world map to describe the setting of the story as it ranges three continents and four countries. On the back of the page they are to complete various assignments such as, ‘4. Draw a box 5cm2 in size in the bottom right corner. Draw the slave ship Amistad inside the box and colour it with coloured pencils. Draw stars spinning in the sky above the Amistad.’ The specific directions help them to improve their English and make it all but impossible for me to assign grades – perfect.
After reading chapters six and seven today, I gave them fifteen minutes to work on their assignments. Everyone in the class immediately drops English and speaks Oshiwambo for the rest of the period. I try punishment. I kick and scratch. I declare that, as nobody wants to learn English, I will be teaching in Spanish come Monday. The idea excites them. I draw a dotted line in my head between their excitement and my grade 11’s desire to forego the basics and study advanced math. They probably think they’ve mastered English and are ready to move on to other things. I erase that dotted line I drew and keep my sanity.
There are exactly sixty-five minutes left in my official work day. In its wisdom, the time table has declared me free for the remainder. Normally, I would be teaching English again, but in its wisdom, the Ministry of Education decreed some time during term two that grades 8 and 9 should reduce their English load by one hour per week. I guess the Ministry thinks them ready to move on as well.
Normally I would ditch at this point and head home as I’ve nothing to do but sit in the ‘staff room’ and listen to loud talk and guffaws in Oshiwambo. Lately, most of the talk centers around one word: ocorruptiona. Pronounced the way it looks, this word is the Oshiwambo equivalent of corruption. I would guess about three-fourths to nine-tenths of all English words have no Oshiwambo equivalent. This is solved through a simple and elegant modification of the word: Add ‘o’ to start; add ‘a’ to end. A few examples to delight you and your friends: ocomputera, oboarda (chalkboard), ocara, etc. In fact, the system works just as well with English words that are translatable into Oshiwambo. Yesterday, Crystal overheard a fellow teacher counting to himself. He said, ‘. . . osixa, osevena, oeighta, . . .’ Oshiwambo does, as of about fifty years ago, have its very own words for numbers. Why that teacher chose to use the strange bastardization of English numbers remains unanswered. I find the idea comical and exasperating in turns.