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:
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.
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.