Saturday, November 19, 2005

Last-minute culture exchange

The entries on this blog are fewer than I’d imagined posting; to my failure in improving anyone’s English or critical thinking skills or attitude towards HIV/AIDS here, I can add the failure of sharing foreign culture with Americans. That’s two minuses out of a possible three; the only other PC objective was to show these guys American culture. Maybe I’ve done that, although to think that Jason and I might represent all of America for someone is laughable. They don’t know to categorize us as liberal or conservative, urbanites or country folk, lower or higher middle class. We’re not going to starve and we can use a computer, but beyond these qualities they impose superficial classifications: we’re rich, white, and . . . oh yeah, rich.

I am most consious of modelling American culture at the grocery store. Unlike a lot of volunteers who have to foot it home a few km into the bush, we can take a taxi up to the school gates. This means we can buy more groceries than we can carry, and we usually do this in order to cut down on trips to town. As the cashier scans all my frivolous selections—two kinds of cheese, crackers, lots of vegetables, chocolate, wine—I sense disapproval. I’m buying more diverse and just way more, period, than the general pop-in-for-a-bag-of-pasta customer who lives in town and can drop by daily. I buy two bags of pasta to last two weeks, then tomato sause, green peppers, garlic cloves, eggplant, . . . the items pile up on the small counter so that the cashier must pause in her scanning to start bagging the groceries. Then the bags take up all the counter space and she must call for back-up, someone to bring a cart over to hold my excessive purchases. She seems put out.

I feel guilty every time. Does she think I’m extravagent because I’m white? Am I consuming an inordinate amount of resources? I see Afrikaaners in Spar all the time loading up carts, so my spending can’t be that abnormal to the cashier. At home I would be affirmed in spending a lot, but here, the advertisements hanging throughout the store contradict what I feel the employees expect; the marketing tells me to buy more, their body language tells me I’m ridiculous for having more than a couple of bags.

There just isn’t nearly enough on this blog about the taxi service here, and that’s by far one of the richest cultural experiences. When we first arrived, I thought that developing certain skills would improve my taxi experiences. For example, I would learn the peak times of catching a ride and not have to wait so long for the trip to start, or I’d learn to distinguish between fast and slow, reckless and safer drivers. Wow. That was only a bit naïve.

I kept trying to decipher a pattern where there was none. Their “schedules” are determined by chance to an extent that defies trying to place a ball-park hour on best times to travel. I can recognize cars, and only just now, drivers, but the drivers are so many and changed so often that it’s impossible to associate one with a particular car. I’d ask the drivers to turn down their radio when they were blasting us all out on defunct sound systems, I’d ask them when they thought we might be leaving, I’d refuse to sit in the front seat on the hand break just because I appear to be a small girl to the tate who wants the seat. I thought I was being assertive, proactive, but I was really only making things hard for myself. Now I know the only way of improving taxi rides is to improve my own attitude about them as there’s no way to impose order on what can only vaguely be called their “system.”

About a month ago, Jas and I were going to a volunteer party. I’d just showered, was wearing a dress, and felt a faint recognition of the pleasure to be found in primping before going out. I didn’t wear sunscreen because I didn’t want to feel sticky. I was clean, dressed up, excited about the party, and I wanted to arrive that way.

A taxi picked us up; we were the first customers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t five other people lurking around ready to jump in because that happens a lot. But not that day. We circled through the village, once, twice, a third time. He picked up a man, then two very big memes who piled into the back seat with Jason and me. I knew I’d get sweaty during the ride, my illusions of going out had at least acknowledged that reality. But as one meme sat on half my left thigh, my shoulder happened to become positioned right under her armpit and I then had two people’s sweat to contend with. Luckily (?), the memes only wanted a ride to the petrol station, so we dropped them there, then went driving around town to look for customers again. This was normal, but I was still relieved when we finally left 45 min later.

As luck would have it, one passenger wanted to go to be dropped at the hospital in the next town—Oshikuku. This involved some off-roading, then the driver stopped to talk to some friends, then he hung out at the hospital chatting with some more people, drove around looking for new customers, and then stopped again to air up his tires. At every stop, we lost the benefit of the wind produced by moving. We’d been in the car for two hours at that point; it usually takes one to make the whole trip, and that’s considering the normal delays. Jason said what I’d been thinking myself: “Maybe we should just get out and catch another ride. We could be here all afternoon.” He was right. We weren’t just unlucky but on an usually frustrating ride. The problem was that the next ride might be just as bad. Plus, we’d have to stand in the sun indefinitely and pay extra to split up the trip. We decided to stay where we were. I had finally given up my unrealistic expectations about being fresh for the party.

When we finally left left the tin shack where young barefoot boys had been cajoled into giving the taxi driver some air, we stopped again upon pulling onto the tar road. The taxi driver’s phone was ringing. I couldn’t repress a groan. “Hallow! Hallow?” he screamed, then again, and again. A stream of Oshiwambo followed at a volume that one would expect to use when addressing someone across a field. I exchanged looks with Jason; we were on the taxi ride from hell. The driver talked on and on, shouted, actually, for maybe five minutes. Even the other Owambos in the cap were beginning to express impatience, not that that ever helps. Finally, the driver hung up. He looked at the person beside him and laughed, “Wrong number!”

“Wrong number?” I said aloud, incredulously. “Wrong number?” Though I was merely repeating the words the driver had just said, nobody but Jason understood me. It was OK, because I was really talking to myself anyway. I began to laugh uncontrollably. “Of course! Of course we sat here baking on the side of the road while you went on and on with someone you don’t even know, while you conversed with a wrong number!” (I could say whatever I wanted as they could only understand my tone.) Jason looked at me with concern; I appeared to be cracking up. But the only problem was that I couldn’t stop laughing.

It was probably a healthy response. We finally made it to Oshakati after three hours and fifteen minutes. It was a record—one I hope not to break.

Today I’m going into town. I knowledge I have now, as an experienced volunteer, entails no special techniques for catching a good ride. Instead, I know to resign myself to whatever I get, short of a very drunk driver. I know that nothing I do will alter the course of the taxi ride I’m destined to take. So, I hope I get lucky.

Friday, October 28, 2005


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”
“And champaign!”
“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.’
‘Afternoon, Sir.’
‘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.’
‘No, sir.’
‘You stole it.’
‘No, sir.’
‘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.

Friday, October 14, 2005

new posts, finally

I had a brilliant idea this past week that involved fabricating some posting dates on this blog so that
a) I could blame the 3-mo absence of posts on a technicality and
b) produce lots of short, quippy posts for you to digest easily at your leisure.

At your leisure . . . cliché?

Unfortunately I barely know how to make a post to begin w/ and don’t have time to figure out how to get the blogger to help me lie, so you must suspennd disbelief and pretend that the dates below are true.


4 Oct. 2005 (real)

I’m in the library typing up emails I can send to professors I have selected from the faculty profile websites of schools to which I’m applying. I am doing what application forms term ‘making contact,’ which involves me looking for holes in degree program outlines that will warrant me sending an email to ask a question. So far I don’t have any questions for NYU of UPENN.

You will be interested to know that I am typing this to you in celebration of Teacher’s Day in Namibia. You didn’t know there was a Teacher’s Day in Namibia? Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know it was Teacher’s Day either until 4th period today when the principal walked into the faculty room and said off-handedly to about five of us that we could go celebrate if we wanted. ‘Does that mean there are no more classes today?’ asked one teacher after he left. ‘Kandi shi-shi’ said another. (For those of you who haven’t condescended to learning Oshiwambo yet, allow me to translate: ‘I don’t know’). So this new schedule for the day didn’t seem entirely legit yet. I had already taught half my classes and still, idealistically, try to keep them on the same lesson, so I planned to go ahead and finish the day. In the middle of my next class, though, a teacher popped in to announce that teaching should cease at 11 am so that teachers could go celebrate. Once the kids know that there shouldn’t really be any teaching going on, it’s not very fun to try to teach them. So, I gave in, am going with the flow, celebrating Teacher’s Day in actually, now that I think about it, the most fitting way that represents teachers in Namibia—by bunking classes.

The library is trashed because yesterday I had forty kids in here doing some extra assignments for me. These assignments have been amazingly popular so far; about 95% of my students chose to earn them when they turned in trash for homework. Here are the assignments, which are to be written ten times each and checked for accuracy by yours truly:
1. When my teacher, Mrs Hickerson, told me to use full-stops and capitalise the first letter of every senttence on Monday, 7 September 2005, I listened. From now on, I will always use full-stops and capitalise the first letter of each new sentence I write. Here are some examples of capital letters: P, Y, I, M, W, G, S, N, F, J, K, O, R, and B.
2. When my English teacher told me it was important to spell words that are written in the article correctly, I believed her. From now on, I will always be sure to copy words I use from an article correctly, and I will check my work to make srue I have done a good job before I say that I am finished.
3. I promise myself that I will always do my best to follow the instructions that my teacher or my assignment gives me. If I am not sure what I am supposed to do, I will ask a friend. If my friend cannot help me, I will ask my teacher to explain the directions. When the teacher is giving instructions to my class on how to complete an assignment, I will always listen and give her my full attention.
I always thought writing lines was a stupid punishment, but as we in grade 11 are still debating whether or not we think it’s important to be the least bit precise when our life futures hang on the results of next year’s exam, I think it’s appropriate this once.

On the way to the library the principal called me over and said, ‘These two girls want to talk to you.’ He disappeared, the girls hid their faces in their hands, and I said two or three times, ‘What can I do for you?’

Finally, ‘Miss, we want accomodation from you for exams.’

‘Accomodation? You want to stay at my house?’ She nods.

It seems an absurd request, of course they can’t, until feelings I’ve repressed—guilt over having such a big house and the desire to please my principal, to be a PCV superstar—spew forth and complicate everything. Crap. Really, I know I’ve already decided, but I don’t want to tell them now. I opt for the Owambo method of dodging commitment: ‘I should talk to Jason about it. Come find me tomorrow and I’ll tell you what we decide.’ The idea is that they’ll never come back, or never find me.

Six months ago I might have really mulled this situation over, stressing out. ‘Am I generous or selfish? Should I try to be more like them, more communal, or am I hoarding my possessions like a materialistic, capitalistic jerk? They’ll need a key to the house. . .’ The situation certainly has the potential to be a beautiful story in a collection of PCV profiles, a nice bit of propoganda for recruiters:

I have never felt so fulfilled than when I took in a couple of grade 10 girls so that they could study for their national examinations during my first year in Namibia. The bonding that we did, braiding each other’s hair, quizzing each other with potential exam questions, listening to their stories— I knew I was making a difference in their lives.

But I’m not thinking about that. Instead, I’m reveling in how revealing my principal’s avoidance of the situation is, how it’s completely characteristic of the way he sluffs off anything that might make him look unpopular. ‘What a poor leader,’ I say for the hundredth time to myself. ‘He didn’t want to tell them there’s no place for them to stay so he put it on me,’ I think. And then suddenly, I wonder if maybe he had expected me to accept them instead. Does he think I should let them stay with us? We only have three extra rooms after all. He’ll think we’re complete asses if we don’t say yes, huh? And now I’m waffling again. They will steal everything in our house, they’ll kick my pregnant cat, they’ll eat everything in the fridge. Man am I selfish to worry about that, but I want to go to South Africa next holiday and money is running out. But people will think we’re the most paranoid, selfish bastards ever if we don’t let two little girls stay in our monstrous house. And so on. (Yes, just finished a Vonnegut book).

Thankfully, rationality returns. I gave up rapport-building with the principal shortly after he sent us that text message saying ‘I can make life difficult if you know what I mean,’ so why do I care what he thinks now? I didn’t ask for a huge house, I’d wanted to rough it actually, to have a family and live simply, so too bad for him, misallowcating his accomadation resources at the school. Whether or not these girls pass does not hinge on staying inside the school; I can’t possibly believe they’d actually study more here than at home. They’re not homeless. And I am not paranoid to be afraid of theft after losing so much stuff already. There’s not much left to take, but not being able to find anything because unbeknownst to you it got jacked gets to be stressful after a while. Those girls don’t think stealing is a problem, perhaps even feel entitled to whatever I have and they don’t. They would definitely take something, piss me off, and what would I do then? Go tell the principal who still believes that we accused him of stealing our cameras and doesn’t believe they were ever taken? I’m not a PCV superstar; I’ve got to be realistic. Plus, I’ve got to protect my freedom to walk around naked.

August 4 (fake)
Jason and I are eating breakfast at the backpackers lodge in Livingstone watching the BBC news about Katrina when a middle-aged European-looking woman walks up and comments, "Now they're going to buy up all the oil and make the prices sky-rocket again."

"Mmmm" I manage to get out, through a mouthful of omelette.

She continues, leaning on my chair back over my food: "The U.S. just buys and buys and then no one has any oil or can afford it."

I'm afraid to actually speak lest she recognize my accent, but I venture a lame comment like, "Really" or "It's a problem." Then I ask her where she's from.


"And what types of alternative energy sources do ya'll use in Germany?"

"Oh, solar, wind, we're diversifying. And where are you from."

"The U.S."

"Mmmhmm. Where exactly?"

Wait for it . . .


"Ah hah. You're at the source."

"Yep. I didn't vote for him though."

The conversation goes on like this for a while until I tell her we really must leave to go catch a bus out of town. She happens to be leaving that morning too, taking the Intercape. We're planning to hitchhike, but after buying so many crafts to take home as gifts, I'm dreading it. I envy the easy ride she has in front of her.

After we've checked out and are walking down the main street without any destination in mind, I ask Jason if he'd like to just take the Intercape bus too. "What? We're deciding this now?"

"Well, there's a lot to carry"

"I can't believe you waited until now to decide. I thought you had this all planned."

"Hitchhiking is a rather nebulous plan . . ."

As we're arguing, the German lady walks past us with a determined gait. "Are you taking the Intercape?"

"We're deciding, actually."

"Well, good luck" and she's off. We should steal her ticket! But we are two.

We stand on the side of the road for ten more minutes discussing our options until we decide to just go and try to buy Intercape tickets. The guys at the bus outpost say we have to wait for the bus to arrive before we can try to buy them, so we sit down and calculate how much it will be, when we could get back to our house, and talk ourselves out of the Intercape again. The German lady is there, trying not to stare. We decide to go the adventurous, albeit cheap, route and try to hitchhike after all, once we get to the Namibian border. From Livingstone to Katima, we've decided on the Mazandu Family Bus, locally owned and operated out of Livingstone.

We're impressed when a huge charter bus pulls up to take us all to Namibia. We jump on board, but the only problem is that there are no free seats. I get back off and talk to the ticket-seller, who says, "Ok. I will be right back." I never see him again. When the bus is about to leave, we decide to sit on the steps. It actually turned out to be a comfortable ride, excluding the 50 stops we made to let off kids to pee and let passengers buy raw fish. It only took us all day to get to the Namibian border, putting a hitch in our hitchhiking plans.

In Katima, a guy offers to drive us from Rundu to Tsumeb for only 4x the normal rate. It doesn't always pay to be white. So we stand on the side of the road flagging people down. All the nice cars keep disappearing into a nearby lodge; it's too late to really get a ride out I suspect. I flag down a trucker who stops at a weigh station across the road. He says he's not really allowed to take people, but he'll talk to his driving partner about it. If we're still around when he comes back by after dinner, he'll take us.

I'm exultant! I really want to get home the next day, feeling guilty about our cat starving outside for a week now. I tell Jason the good news, and we wait. and wait. and wait. It's getting dark. I'm so stupid! Of course he wouldn't just say no, he would say I'm coming back. How many times will I fall for this trick?

Jason goes into the service station to ask if there is any cheap accomodation around. He's ready to turn in, I'm desperate to get on the road. "Let's just wait ten more minutes. It's not entirely dark yet." And at that moment, out trucker comes down the road. . .


Saturday, May 28, 2005

At the theater

Still livin it up in Pretoria. I've had the most incredible luck getting my wisdom teeth taken out. Another volunteer serving in Madagascar arrived in Pretoria right after my flight on Sunday, med-evac'd for wisdom teeth extraction as well. We saw the same oral surgeon, scheduled our surgery for the same day, went to the hospital together, and have recouped together. It was so fortuitous to have someone distract me from the horrific dramas I would have inevitably played out in my mind time and time again waiting for the surgery; once we'd been admitted to the day ward, Kelsy started doing Tai-chi to get her circulation going. I followed along through a couple of routines, and then the anaesthesiologist swept me out of the room into the theater. That's right, surgeons perform in theaters here rather than operating rooms. Finally! Some culture!

So it was nice to go to the theater with someone else rather than completely alone. I think our surgeon was wonderful; I felt terrific the evening after the operation, felt exhausted and swollen yesterday, but haven't been in pain so long as I stay on the medication he prescribed. The worst part was just being in a hospital as a patient rather than visitor and dreading the general anaesthesia. Thankfully, I didn't wake up sobbing or vomiting, and the hospital staff was super nice.

Went to see Kensey last night and loved it. I'm out of the loop regarding the movies that are out now, but the volunteer from Madagascar is into family planning and sexual health, so she knew who Kensey was and drug some of us to the cinema to see it. There was a wine tasting at the mall that night but my mouth was so sore. Today, however, I can't resist; none of my meds say no alcohol, so I'm going to zip by and have some of South Africa's finest. Then maybe a musical tonight and Veronica Paeper's La Traviata ballet tomorrow afternoon.

It's horrible that Jason's stuck up in the North while I have access to so much here. He would love to go to all these events, and I wish he was here to laugh at my puffy cheeks and tell me which wine is the best. It seems as though he will be starting school without me as the earliest I can be back is Wednesday, and I needed to be there for that. But I can't leave until the Peace Corps doctor talks to me, and as Monday is the U.S. Memorial Day, it will be a few days. Depending on how things turn out, Jas and I might make it to Cape Town at some point and enjoy South Africa together.

Love to you all, and hope you're enjoying the end-of-school festivities. A PCV next to me is playing a live feed of the Wolf--a country station out of Dallas. Country isn't my favourite genre, but it sure makes me homesick. Iuh miss ya.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Med-evac'd: an extended holiday

In the volunteer lounge of PC South Africa, waiting to get my wisdom teeth taken out, here's the dish on the latest:

Flyin in

Flying from Windhoek to Joburg, I sat next to a really nice man from Mertle Beach, SC. He seemed reticent to talk at first, giving me a vague reply of "home" when I asked him which paper the crossword puzzles he'd clipped were from. "And where is home?" I pressed. When he answered South Carolina, I extended my hand and said, "Great! I'm from Texas." I guess my excitement over running into another American was infectious or he was just really accomodating; we talked the whole flight, and I even had a sip of his vodka and tonic. I'm reminded of Vonnegut's jab at the shallow Hoosier in Cat's Cradle who gushes about the connection they feel in meeting a fellow Indianan, but the truth of the matter is that a chance meeting with someone you identify with is sometimes a truly exciting event regardless of how superficial the relationship might be.

PC had arranged for me to meet a shuttle at the Jo'berg airport, so I walked around the lounge reading all the placards people were holding for strangers to meet them. No one had my name, and having become accustomed to waiting at least an hour for any and everything here, I set my bag down by the terminal exit where the placard people were gathered to wait for my ride to show up. I'd taken this position so I could spot my ride easily, but I couldn't stop looking at the arriving passengers, as though the attention of the crowd around me was sweeping my attention up with theirs and focusing me on the incoming travelers. So I watched people arrive, alone, sometimes kissed by a friend, sometimes attacked by a relieved, expectant mother, and then, sometimes applauded. The applause was rather strange; I thought that perhaps the person had taken a difficult trip and friends/family wanted to congratulate him on making it through. But after multiple spurts of applause, I noticed that the people being applauded had the same brand of luggage. A team of some sort? After the next burst of applause, I leaned in to the man clapping next to me: "Good day. May I ask why you're applauding these people?"

"Ah, it's the northern - - - rugby team coming home."

"Wow. I see. And you came here just to see them come off the plane?"

"Ah, certainly. We only live 7 km away, so it's not a big deal."

"Good deal." It's actually not a bad idea because these fans were within 10 ft. of the star athletes, almost meeting them. We were so close to them that five of the rugby stars had almost run into my bag walking by me. I realized that a large part of the crowd gathered around the gate was probably there to see these athletes, and I was blocking their view on the off-chance that my shuttle rep would think to bring his sign over to that area. So I gave the sports fans my spot and eventually called a different shuttle to come fetch me once I'd met the hour mark.

Posh Pretoria

Med-evacs are put up at the Rose Guest House in Pretoria, a bed and breakfast with a pool, classical garden, china and silver, maids who wear maid Halloween costumes (frufy hat and all), a terrycloth robe and a silver tray of chocolates waiting on the bed. So. This is PC. Writing an airmail to my mom the other day, I talked a bit about what a dizzying effect confronting the dichotomy between village and urban life has on me. After being in the middle of nowhere for a few months where the only options for entertainment are going to a shebeen for a beer and game of snook, going to a really horrible "restaurant," or listening to Namibia's finest music (The Dawg) blaring out from another bar across the street, it's overwhelming to be in Pretoria and eat out at real restaurants and pick up a local paper and have to choose between a philaharmonic concert, ballet, and musical that are playing that weekend. Cooked Mexican food last night with other volunteers, and guess what we found at the supermarket? cilantro! The best part of being here, though, is the impression I get that the people in the area are creative, can think critically, are competent in carrying out tasks, and that they don't drink 24 hours a day or use all their free time to sleep. Of course these are generalizations, and from a tourist perspective at that, but they make my cultural life in the bush seem rather desiccated.

Discussion Topic: Cultural Comparisons--How possible?

But isn't the bush exciting? Isn't there rich cultural exchange to be had once you've integrated into the community? My primary basis for joining PC was to have this cross-cultural exchange first-hand and develop cross-cultural understanding in myself, to experience what I believe literature can help us achieve. And then when I'm here, I often wish these encounters were stories in a book that I could put down and avoid or ignore until I'm ready to take them on again. At some point it must become valid to say, “I don’t especially like this culture,” which isn’t meant to vilify its members or presuppose that I despise everything about their lifestyle, but that overall, I don’t see a lot that enriches my view or experience of the world. Admittedly the criteria for what qualifies as enrichment is determined by my identity--as an American, a lover of art and dialectics, a woman, etc. I’m not denying my bias; perspective is inescapable. So, acknowledging that this judgment is made according to my own pre-existing values, I believe I can admit a general distaste for Owambo culture not be guilty of bigotry.

But if I move from the personal to the general, I am in fact making a chauvinistic claim in saying that I think my culture is better than Owambo culture. I feel that this is a rather taboo statement to make, and the issue at stake here is whether I can make this claim and still be culturally sensitive and open-minded. So let’s qualify “better”--by what standards? I’m assuming a basic, universal ethics transcending religious and ethnic values, an ethics stating that everyone should have relatively equal access to the world’s resources and be able to live freely without encroaching on other’s freedoms (right to life, speech, free movement), and that we are to some degree responsible for each other’s welfare. That’s a bit vague, but I want to keep it simple. So as globalization accelerates, intercultural relationships are not only unavoidable but, in my opinion, offer us a myriad of world perspectives that can enrich our own. I don’t expect this exchange to lead to world peace or some other utopia, but exposure to different views is inarguably advantageous if you want to stimulate growth and development towards those ideals.
In my eight months experience in Owamboland, I’ve made a conscious effort to see their worldview as disinterestedly as possible, without forming concrete judgments. But when I finally do look at my observations, it seems that the best I can do in regard to being open-minded is admit that my interpretation isn’t the only possible one. For example, most Owambo families have a very loose structure. The mother stays on the homestead she and her husband have inherited from their families, seeing her husband and children only two months out of the year as they work and attend school on the opposite side of the country. If she has more kids than they can afford, she will send them to a relative to raise, and see those children only at family events. Often the father has another family in the city where he’s working; at least a girlfriend and the children that resulted from that relationship. We could say this is a negative effect of Namibia trying to modernize (in some ways synonymous with Westernize?), because the family used to stay together on the homestead and survive on subsistence farming. Nevertheless, they are all spread out and remarkably independent now.

I look at this situation and think Owambo families aren’t very attached to each other, that their children aren’t emotionally nurtured or especially valued, that the father is irresponsible and is usually an agent in spreading HIV to his family by contracting it in the city where he works and taking it home to the village. In my view, it’s a disaster--every man for himself as the family tries to eek out a living. The wife will never confront or leave the husband because she’s culturally nothing without him; her freedoms are incredibly restricted and her husband can be a complete tyrant. The children are taught to look out for themselves and never question authority, to beat offenders instead of discuss problems, so civic responsibility and reasoning are lost on them. I see this version of family life as detrimental to all involved, so it’s one point for my culture and zero for theirs. I can admit that this view is personal to me, that I’m open to others, but is that enough for me to continue to define myself as cross-culturally sensitive and open-minded?

This is a recurring question for me. Sometimes I have these absurd thoughts, like, “maybe the Owambo’s continual thievery is a legitimate way of reallocating wealth more fairly” when I try to rebut my own judgments about their way of life. But in the end, I’m still pissed off when they repeatedly steal from me, lie to me, “forget” to do most everything they say they will do, beat each other and any animal in sight, and take any sort of confrontation personally so that it’s impossible to work through or change anything. There are some minor things I like about their culture, like how they look after their extended family and are so uninhibited and performative. But these positive things affect me much less than the negative things, so I still have this overall dislike for them. I work through that in dealing with individuals--I love my Meme Nangula to death--, but can I go so far as to say it’s an inferior culture?

Well, this is enough to read for one day. Let me know what you guys think; there’s plenty of ethnic tension in Texas now for you to contribute your experiences. (Translation: I want comments!) Love you all.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

On Holiday!

Perhaps this is a European thing, a British English thing, I suspect, but if you're taking a break from work, driving around, eating out, and enjoying loads of free time, you, my friend, are 'on holiday,' not 'vacation.' On holiday, on vacation, whatever, but yea for May break!

So I met a guy from PC Namibia group 3 at the Windhoek premiere of Episode III the other night. He flies over from Jersey several times a year to work with the ministry here, and when he asked how I liked Namibia, I couldn't help myself: "Well, I've really enjoyed being a tourist here." Not the most positive comment, I admit, but it was a sarcastic attempt at humor that I, at least, enjoyed. Jason and I felt depressed when we had to leave Swakopmund; it was so beautiful, and, yes, so refreshingly Western. All I can say is, imagine Fredericksburg on the beach plus some sand dunes, tropical plants, and thick fog that rolls in every afternoon. We mainly ate, read, got coffee, ate by the beach, read, tried a different coffee place, watched a movie, ate dessert . . . you get the picture. It was a relaxing time. The more active, exciting events took place before our friends left town. Jason went sandboarding with several other people from our PC group (I was still fighting a phlegmy cough, so I was the photographer), we went sea kayaking with Mike Lawson where we played with seals and saw some dolphins, pelicans, greater and lesser flamingos, and we ran into Tamara and her parents towards the end of our stay who treated us to a fine bottle of shiraz and banana splits. Good times . . .

We had a go at hitch-hiking, and a tourist from Italy picked us up, a retired wine exporter. How Italian, right? When we told him why we are in Namibia, he exclaimed, "Oh, so you are teaching the black children?" I've thought about that question off and on since then. I guess it's fair, but if flies in the face of being pc about aid work. Plus, there was a black kid who had hitched with us in the car, acting as my conscience? What did he think about that question? I felt so white. In the north, we are pretty much the only white people and don't have to deal with other whites viewing us as part of the "racist Afrikaaner" demographic. This guy wasn't even Afrikaaner, but he seemed to view us as citizens of the West coming to instruct the African indigents. In the end, our response was, "well, yes, our students are black" as we eschewed his inuendos that they are inherently difficult to teach. The truth of the matter is that they are hard to teach, but it's because of the poor quality of their primary level education, not their skin color.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Waking Life

During our psuedo-Spring Break, Jason and I spent a night with some other PCV's who have, amongst other luxuries, a laptop and DVD player. We surfeited ourselves on movies, one of which was Waking Life. I recommend renting it, assuming that it's available in Abilene. If you are prejudiced like me, you probably passed it over as "one of those lame cartoon movies," but it's the best movie I've seen in the last year or so (smirk). But seriously, I enjoyed it immenseley-- the philosophical cameos, the dynamic artistic depictions, and the play with the life-as-dream conception were not only captivating and pretty funny. It's definately a must-see for you, Jeremiah. Anyways, I had already been toying with my own skills at dream interpretation after talking to one of the PCV's here who worked for a dreamologist interest group, efforts that amount to writing down interesting dreams and then employing my acute critical/analytical skills to decipher the images that were dredged up from the bottom-most realm of the unconsious the night before. The most recent (and memorable) dreams I've had are particularly revealing and will bring you up-to-date with our stat over here in Owamboland.

Dream 1
I've returned home from Africa and my family is celebrating by taking me to a movie! We are all very excited, and the venue we choose is one of those vulgar gargantuin movie complexes--very, very American in that there are marketing posters plastered everywhere and there are so many things available for you to buy, buy, buy. I feel overwhelmed by all the color and people and especially the ease with which we simply waltz through the doors, plop down some cash, and walk directly to the toilets or viewing rooms or snack bar w/o having to stand in long lines or be badgered by hawkers. Jeremiah and I decide to buy some snacks while everyone else goes on to get seats. The "snack bar" has a rather special set-up; it reminds me of how the Cracker Barrel is arranged, with a curio shop at the entrance and the dining hall behind. This movie house has a full-fledged bakery reminiscient of Fredericksburg at the entrance that doesn't match the gaudy coloring of the rest of the movie house. Jeremiah and I are awed by all the baked goods we can buy; we split up. I am side-tracked by a stand of cloth purses (I've been wanting to buy a purse) and pick one out that I think Kara will like. When I get to the counter, the purse seems to be entirely different; instead of an earthy, cloth pouch it's morphed into a cheap turquoise and white plastic thing that is u-gly. But it's too late, the cashier was too fast for me and I will feel stupid if I ask to have my money back now.
Jeremiah shows up with some cinnamon rolls, and I remember that I wanted some baked goodies, too. "Hurry," he says. "The movie's about to start." I turn to go, but Mom has come to rush us on in. She sees the purse I bought for Kara and says, "Oh! That will match these other things I bought for her birthday just perfectly!" She starts hauling out all these little curios from her purse, all which are torquoise and white. I thrust the purse at her and tell her I'll meet her in a bit, have to get some snacks, will get her something special. I take off down an aisle of wooden shelves filled with breads and cookies. I am overwhelmed by the selection; I can't decide. Suddenly two little German girls with long blond hair, wearing pinafores, come skipping down the aisle. They are eating cookies; they look like fairies. One smiles shyly and says, "You should really try some of these delicious curry cookies!" She giggles and runs off. I understand that if I get a curry cookie, I'll be as happy and carefree as those girls. I set off searching. I finally find the cookies, and as I turn to go pay, a skinny Namibian boy comes through the door screaming for me. I know that he is my neighbor, and I freeze. I have to escape! "Why won't you play with me!?" he wails, running around the store looking for me. I'm scrambling to get out, but he finds me and jumps on me, chanting "play with me, play with me!" I tell him I can't; my movie is about to start, and there's no way he's going to the movie with me. I think, "He's not supposed to be here! I'll promise him some candy, and then run away." So I tell him to stop jumping on me so I can give him some candy. When he stops, I turn to run, but he foresaw my plan; he grabs my hand and bites down hard. I howl! He is biting me so hard and I can't get away and I'm missing the movie I came to see with my family.

Dream 2
Jason and I are sitting in Nando's in Oshakati, discussing something. We are upset; Something has happened. Jason looks at me and says, "Let's go home." I'm surprised, but then realize I want to go home, too. We go directly to Windhoek, fill out some papers, and fly home that same day. Our families are happy to see us initially, but the I feel that everyone is quite dissappointed that we quit and came home early. Jason is happy to work on his photos, but I left all my books and grad school forms and research at home in Okalongo and I'm still sorely unprepared to apply to the institutions I'd hope to join. We are dirt poor, and I have to take a really boring, cheap job in Abilene. I have this heavy, portentious feeling that I have just ruined my life and will never be content again. Most of the dream is constituted by this feeling of extreme failure and defeat.

So, the first dream was pretty funny and rather revealing. We have the utopia I erroneously imagine home as being spoiled by the demands of a Namibian I can't escape. The Owambo culture is not shy about asking for anything, be it money, food, whatever they see you with or think you might have. While this is pretty taboo at home, it's the norm here. Learners come up to me and ask for gifts or candy all the time; you can't walk down the street or go to a market without someone trying to bum a dollar or an apple off of you. Their thinking is that we are so much wealthier than them that we can afford it and, perhaps, owe them these types of things. Even though we're volunteers and pretty poor according to our standards, we are a lot wealthier than them. We aren't going to go hungry, and in two years we'll be returning to a lifestyle that would be completely anomolous in our community here. I often feel guilty for not complying with all these demands; they are, after all, quite small, but it gets really annoying after awhile and I don't want to be swarmed by additional opportunists.
The second dream rather unnerved me; I woke up feeling terrified. Leaving early has never been an option to us, so I wasn't too worried about it. However, whenever I have these dreams that are dominated by a certain emotion, I have dejavu later on in real life, experiencing that emotion in a certain milieu. As it turns out, that nightmare was prevenient of the theft fiasco we are currently dealing with. The current list of things stolen is: my camera plus two lenses, Jason's camera and one lense, his CD player, 3 leathermans, and $50. The total value is about US$4000, leaving us rather devastated. Every time I discover something else that's been taken, it feels like I've been robbed all over again.Without Jason's camera here, it may not be worth staying another year and half, going further into dept and his photography skills waning. I'll refer you to his email for more info on that.
Internet time is up; have to go have a "friendly chat" with our principal, who, by the way, says he is no longer our friend and warned us last night that "he can be difficult" if we don't know. I can't wait. The past week has been a rather rude awakening to what I might pessimistically call "the real world," where everyone you meet is a pathological liar and known thief.