Sunday, October 28, 2012

A final reflection

It’s been nearly three weeks since I’ve left Namibia and only now has my body and brain reached the correct balance of relaxation and deep thought in order to reflect on the changes I’ve seen in the last 60 days.  It took a three hour bus ride to find that sweet spot, and I’m afraid the halcyon moment may be fleeting so I’m going to write while the thoughts are flowing.  

Everyone is asking (and will probably continue asking once I’m back in America), “What did you learn?”  The answer is not simple, nor can I say I “learned a lot.”  It was life – two years of life, two years of experience.  Even if I’d stayed at home, I could’ve learned just as much.  About different things, of course, but it’s still learning.  They say life is what you make of it…and so is learning. 
I learned some serious things and some less serious things, so let me lay them out for you.


Being a celebrity sucks.  They warn you about this when you have your entrance interview.  And you really think you can deal with it.  And you really want to be in Peace Corps so you say you can.  But after months of someone watching your every move – washing your laundry, cooking your food, walking to school, reading in your room, going to the toilet…you reconsider your answer.  It’s much harder than it seems, and way less fun.  In my opinion, a good test for wannabe-PCVs would be 3 weeks in a glass house in the middle of Times Square.  If you can handle all the gawking, you can probably handle village life.  Or we should just send teenyboppers that want to be pop stars to a remote village for 6 weeks.  If, after that, they still want to be famous, then they should be sent for therapy immediately.  

Facebook gives you goggles.  For awhile, using the internet, especially Facebook, was difficult for me.  All I saw were people’s happy moments – new jobs, new homes, engagements, marriages, kids.  And when people would talk to me, they’d be jealous of my amazing experience or my vacation to Victoria Falls.  Or they’d say that living without electricity and water must be so hard and they could never do what I’m doing.  And finally I realized, no one’s life is ever as awesome or as happy or as difficult as you think it is.  Wherever you are, it’s just life – there are ups and downs, people and places change and we adjust.  And the grass is always greener on the other side.

We are what we know.  When my family came to visit the village, they wondered why we had a gas stove but still cooked most food on a fire outside.  I found the answer hard to explain – just because.  Because it’s tradition, because there are still enough trees, because sitting around the fire has an important social aspect, even if it’s inefficient, unhealthy and environmentally unsustainable.  You might also ask, how can students be satisfied with sharing textbooks and sitting on half a broken chair?  Because they don’t know any different.  We are a product of our realities, so if you don’t know that sharing a textbook isn’t normal, then it’ll never really bother you.  There’s probably some new gadget in America that everybody’s using and can’t live without, but I’m not bothered by it, because I don’t even know it exists.  

Does Namibia need us?  Perhaps the most difficult part of working in Namibia has been seeing the Genie coefficient in action (that is, income disparity).  While I know I had a positive effect on some kids’ lives and I wouldn’t take back the experience, it was difficult to teach in a tin shack or run a library out of the multi-purpose room when I knew that there were unused classrooms at other schools, or that some schools had computer labs that collected dust.  Even worse, I’d hear about (and occasionally attended) poorly run workshops where teachers missed school days but were still paid their salary, plus “per diem” (even though lodging and meals were provided) and learned very little information, often skipping sessions or missing entire days, especially at the end week.  As you go up the chain, the waste seems to deepen – more workshops, more per diem, more trips to the capital, even last minute flights.  While there were exceptions, it seemed to become more about enriching oneself and one’s family than enriching the lives of children with quality education.  

Spending time in bigger cities, especially Windhoek, made the disparity seem even worse.  When you can shop at a shiny mall, work out at the Virgin Active gym and buy Gruyere or Roquefort cheese, all within 200 meters of each other, you begin to question a country’s neediness.  Of course, this happens all over world – the juxtaposition of sickening wealth and equally sickening abject poverty is common.  But there’s not just one ritzy part of Windhoek.  Namibia, in fact, is a middle income country, one of the wealthier in Africa.  It has abundant natural resources and a fairly well educated population.  The government has money, sometimes left unspent, sometimes wasted, but often not reaching the people that need it most.  

Could a teacher from Namibia move to a Spanish-speaking inner city neighborhood in America and be an effective educator while helping implement programs to aid development in the community?  Probably not.  But what about a Spanish-speaking teacher who grew up in that neighborhood?  Much more likely.  There are many young people in Namibia that, with a bit of training and support, could make big changes in their communities.  If they wanted to.  Motivation is key.  


Pee is smelly.  Ever used a chamber pot?  Squatting over a basin probably doesn’t seem ideal, but it’s better than stumbling outside in the middle of the night.  The convenience of having a toilet right next to my bed is something I’ll miss.  Through this experience, I mistakenly found out that if you leave your chamber pot in your room while you’re at school (particularly on a hot day), it’s pretty smelly once you get back.  

Free exfoliant.  At first I was horrified when my soap fell on the ground and got covered in sand.  And as I washed, the little buggers continued to work themselves further into the tender bar.  As time went on, however, I came to realize that sandy soap was a free, natural exfoliant.  Move over loofas, Neutrogena, spas with hot rocks and mud masks…Namibian sand soap comin’ through.  

Traveling is a lot of work.  (Yes, parents, I know you already know this.)  Three weeks in, my vacation, while interesting, has been anything but relaxing.  I really don’t know how these people who backpack for an entire year do it.  After some time (days? months? years?) I’ll get restless again, but right now, I’m ready to come home. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

It's Not a Shortcut Unless You Know Where You're Going

In Namibia, there are three school holidays – four weeks in April/May, one week in August and 6 weeks in December/January.  Most of the time, PCVs use these breaks as an opportunity to travel around Namibia and southern Africa; Swakopmund (on the coast), Cape Town, Victoria Falls, Malawi and Mozambique are all popular destinations.  I’ve done my fair share of traveling, so this past April/May, I decided to keep it local and avoid the typical tourist traps.  Instead, I answered the invitation to do two hiking trips – Naukluft and Fish River Canyon, both national parks.  Quite a non-traditional holiday, but it sounded like an interesting adventure so I was game. 

 Our Fish River Canyon hiking group

Almost immediately, I realized the irony of my decision to go on two hiking trips. First, I’d never hiked before.  Despite the abundance of (probably beautiful and well-groomed) hiking trails in Wisconsin, and America in general, I’d never hiked before.  It’s a bit like deciding to do a marathon when one’s never run before.  Second, I despised hiking-type activities in my previous life in America.  In college, I was once dragged along on a walk through the woods in some of central Wisconsin’s public hunting land.  At the time, I thought that was the most boring, most pointless two hours I’d ever spent in my life.  Thinking back, the longest “hike” I’d ever been on was probably the time I’d begrudgingly followed my mom up some large hill to a lookout point somewhere out West. 

But hiking it was…and I was not going to be caught with my pants down, either.  In the months leading up to the holiday, I tried to jog several times a week so I’d be in peak physical condition.  On a trip to Windhoek, I enlisted the help of the trip leader, an experienced hiker, to assist me in picking out some hiking boots.  I knew I had to break the boots in, but I had difficulty finding the opportunity.  Due to some small sliver of latent fashion sense, I couldn’t bring myself to wear the black monstrosities to school with my flowing hippie skirts.  Nor did I like wearing them with jeans – or really at all.  Subconsciously, they reminded me of high school and the aptly named “shitkickers” that kids used to wear.  Finally, however, I managed to get in an 18 km walk that gave me two nice blisters on the balls of my feet.  I felt satisfied.  I was prepared.

It’s walking, not mountain climbing, I thought, how hard can it be?  But I was wrong.  Naukluft is 7 days and 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) of open plains, rolling hills, river beds, canyons, cliffs and mountains; quite different than the flat expanses of Owamboland where I’d done my pre-hike preparation.  Following the advice of a friend, and experienced hiker, I packed as light as possible – minimal clothing, no books, no journals, no playing cards, no hairbrush, no perfume – nothing but the necessities.  But those extra pounds, no matter how small, plus changing topography still add extra pressure to a hiker’s most valuable asset – her feet. 

That trail blaze is not confusing...not at all!

Then came the first day – 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) spent winding around the sides of huge hills.  By the time the day was over, I wondered if my lilt to the right, to avoid tumbling to my death off the side of the mountain, would be permanent.  These hiking trails were rugged, just as I imagined African hiking trails would be: sometimes steep, sometimes winding; uneven, with obtruding rocks strewn about; poorly marked; simple dirt paths, probably unchanged from the time when early explorers first walked them.  But I survived.  Despite the two massive blisters that had formed on my feet, I felt good. 

And then came day two.  It’s one thing to walk with a blister while it’s forming, but it’s another ballgame to walk with two raw, quarter-sized wounds on your feet.  Through a riverbed.  For 12 kilometers (7.4 miles).  And then to realize that, the next day, you have to walk right back up the canyon you just walked down.  No, seriously.  You go down the canyon, with its river rocks, boulders and chains (for near-vertical ascents and descents), and then go right back up it the next day.  It was on day two that I started to feel panicked.  I was 24 kilometers (14.9 mils) away from civilization and I now had FOUR huge blisters on my feet that stung with every single step.  The next morning I was told that I’d been moaning in my sleep, probably because I could still feel the open wounds stinging, even without shoes to rub against them. 

As the days went on, I got better at wrapping my blisters, but I soon came to realize that I was quickly running out of gauze and tape.  As we walked, I’d often joke about how a helicopter was coming to rescue me.  Or that I was going back to base camp with the park worker who’d come to the shelter to drop more food for us on day four.  I was always at the back of the pack because I simply couldn’t go any faster.  Every single step, on flat ground or steep hillside, was painful.  As we moved along, I often came close to tears – out of pain, out of frustration, out of anxiety.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to stop.

And then on day four, the stars aligned.  At about 1:00, after 14 kilometers of trail (8.7 miles), we ran into a park worker just a few hundred meters from the shelter.  If I wanted to go back, it had to be now. 

Two of four blisters (3 months later)

A few hours later, I was back at the base camp.  That night, I slept alone in the hiker’s house.  Fourteen beds and just one occupant.  I had no headlamp (dead batteries), no matches (left them with the others), no cell phone (no reception), no iPod (batteries died), and no book (I packed light, remember?).  I managed to scrounge up a piece of paper with one blank side and wrote a letter in the tiniest handwriting imaginable.  I worked on some friendship bracelets.  And I waited.  Until morning.  When I waited again.  Just after sunrise, I was already sitting patiently by the park entrance, hoping some tourist heading to Windhoek would have sympathy on me and give me a ride.  And lady luck struck again.  At noon, I got in the only vehicle going east that day; two German brothers dropped me in the tiny, dusty outpost of Reitoog, the site of another PCV, Caitlin, whose house keys I had.

The next 3 days was just me, some books, peanut butter and bread, chocolate pudding and my raw bloody feet.  By the time of the rest of the group arrived on Sunday, I was tipping dangerously close to insanity.  Even for an introvert like me, 72 hours is a long time to be alone with your thoughts – no TV, no radio, no cell phone, no iPod, no other humans (which is really my fault because I locked myself in the house, but I couldn’t go very far hobbling around like an arthritic centenarian anyways). 

In the end, calling it quits was the best decision I could’ve made.  As my friend Ben told me, making the decision to turn back when conditions get too difficult takes more courage than pushing forward (that’s why so many people die on Everest).  And I never would’ve made it through the 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) on the last day.  No way Jose!  Obviously, I wanted to finish, but I wanted to enjoy my vacation, not just survive it.  I didn’t let pride trump pragmatism.  Admitting defeat and bowing out gracefully is not easy (just ask Brett Favre), but it’s a necessary part of life; it allows us to move on to bigger and better things.  Which is just what I did…Fish River Canyon. 

The extra few days of rest allowed my feet to heal to a tolerable level, and then it was off on another 4 day, 85 kilometer (52.8 mile) hike through the world’s second largest canyon.  After Naukluft, Fish River seemed like a breeze!  Minus the long, precarious descent into the canyon (which cost me seven toenails), it was fairly pain free.  The most challenge moments were the river crossings (there’s nothing more demoralizing than getting ¾ of the way across a 15 meter-wide river only to slide off a slippery, underwater rock and feel your boots fill with river water), and the time we got lost (in an attempt to take a shortcut we ended up wandering through the arid hillside without water for 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) until we got to the edge of the park and turned around, following a dry riverbed that finally led us back to the river/trail.  Needless to say, that “shortcut” did not save us any time).    

 As the doctor put best, "traumatic toenail loss"

Though it was neither glamorous nor relaxing, my April holiday was the most meaningful vacation I’ve ever taken.  By golly, did I learn a lot – about hiking, of course, but also about pain, perseverance and failure.  Will I hike again?  You betcha!  Yes, it’s challenging and exhausting, but a day on the beach can never compete with putting supplies on your back and heading out into the wilderness – rising with the sun and sleeping under the Milky Way, building fires and sharing stories with friends.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Drop in the Bucket

In Namibia, resources seem to come in windfalls. A goat is slaughtered and must be cooked, dried or sold before the meat spoils. Ripe eembe (berries) drop from the tree in the strong winds that precede thunderstorms and must be gathered before the rain arrives. Paychecks are issued at the end of the month and spent within a week or two. Ombidi (wild spinach-like greens) sprout in the fields and must be collected and dried into cow pie-looking patties before disappearing from the earth as quickly as it arrived. Rain falls in torrents that cause temporary floods, and then not a drop falls from the cloudless sky for the remaining nine months. When it floods, the fish “run” and must be caught and dried before the ephemeral oshanas evaporate.

These cycles of abundance and drought create periods of intense work, like the kind I stumbled across last week. Upon entering the homestead, I walked into a group of memes sitting under a tree with a massive pile of marula fruits making omagongo (marula juice). Like everything else in Namibia, I immediately decided that I needed to try it, at least once, so I joined them in the shade. After some confused laughter and quick observations I got to work on a small pyramid of marulas, using a cow horn to pierce the fruit and loosen the skin, letting the juice drip down onto a plastic plate and all over my hands. An hour later, the plate was only beginning to look full. Clearly, I forgot to mention one very small, very important detail: marulas are 10% skin, 10% juice and 80% stone. As auto-pilot took over (puncture, loosen, squeeze; puncture, loosen, squeeze), my mind began to contemplate the process occurring under the tree.

PHOTO: Marulas ready to be juice and cow horn to help with the job.

For some unfortunate reason, clichés are always at the forefront of my mind, so I couldn’t help pondering the “drop in the bucket” theory that was unfolding in front of me. As overused as it is, it’s true: we may feel that our action is only a drop in the bucket, but over time these drops add up ounces, ounces to pints, pints to gallons. And location matters naught – a drop is a drop; a drop in Africa is a drop in America is a drop in Asia.

Just a few days before, I’d listened to NPR’s broadcast of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I’d heard it many times before, but this time it was different; I didn’t just listen to the speech, the speech spoke to me. It reminded me that we all have rights – and along with those rights come equally important responsibilities. Among those responsibilities is public service; to serve our communities, wherever they may be, in whatever way we can. By some convoluted logic, people seem to think that drop in rural Africa is somehow bigger than a drop in urban America or in one’s hometown. But it’s not. A drop is a drop. So let’s keep Dr. King’s dream alive by serving our communities and speaking out for human rights, wherever we are, however we can. Drop by drop.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Pages

Water's receding, school grinds on. Nothing interesting to blog about, but I've added two new pages LIBRARY and CAMP GLOW for your reading pleasure.

And, of course, a new post wouldn't be complete without a picture of my favourite little Namibian making a sandcastle.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Justy's Cupcake

In addition to a Playskool kitchen and Barbie dolls, an Easy Bake Oven is one of the classic toys for little girls. Despite often making cookies with my mom, I still looked forward to using my Easy Bake Oven because I felt like I was baking on my own. It is, I believe, that sense of independence and personal accomplishment that that makes an Easy Bake Oven so special to a little girl.

Even today, the “Easy Bake Oven Theory” still applies. After a tiring day at school, the simple act of making the family’s oshithima all by myself, from start to finish – no easy task when neither the flour is measured nor the boiling timed – brightens my day and sends me to bed physically tired but mentally satisfied. Despite the tortures of inhaling smoke for an hour while my eyes burn and my nose runs, the sense of accomplishment that I get from contributing to the family’s chores makes it more than worthwhile.

But learning new things should always be a two-way street, so I’ve started teaching the girls on my homestead how to bake. After the last lesson, with the desire for independent oshithima-making on my mind, I suggested that Justina try making a chocolate cake by herself sometime. She eagerly agreed, and a few days later I set her free in my kitchen while I took over the oshithima.

I must admit, I was nervous; a year ago, she’d never even read a recipe, not to mention used measuring cups involving fractions, the boogey-monster of the math world. In the end, I had no reason to worry. On her first solo baking attempt, she passed with flying colours. The texture and consistency were correct, all the ingredients included and the batter well mixed. The only hangup was the cocoa powder – 3 t instead of 3 T, but this is a mistake many American adults, would make, not to mention a novice, ESL baker! And the cupcakes still tasted great, which is really what counts in the end.

As she was taking them out of the pan, I realized that I needed to capture this momentous occasion, so I tucked one cupcake into the fridge. The next day, armed with my camera, I asked Justy if she wanted a picture. Again, she eagerly agreed – but first needed to bathe and change clothes.

So now it is preserved forever: Justy’s first cupcake – the first of many baking accomplishments.

[Afterword: Last night Justy asked me if she could make cupcakes again. There was still some sour milk stinking up my fridge so I consented and she got to work while I stirred the oshithima. After the porridge was finished and I was thoroughly smoky and sweaty, I went into the kitchen to check on her cupcakes. It was a sad but familiar sight: flat, greasy-looking cupcakes. I summoned her in and we discussed what might’ve gone wrong. Just as I suspected - not enough flour. After this, I quoted an important English phrase and life lesson: Live and learn. Next time, I said, she’d get it right.]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's moderation

We’re asked to do, use or consume in moderation all the time – sugars, oils and fats; alcohol; watching TV and playing computer games. So if humans have to keep urges in check, isn’t it fair that Mother Nature should also practice moderation?

Photo: Just leaving the homestead can be challenging!

The moderation I’m looking for is in the rains – we’d like the thirst-quenching, life-giving amount, please; not the crop-drowning, knee-deep type. After the skies opened up and rain fell for several days straight the oshanas filled up with cool, crisp rainwater. Too bad north-central Namibia is just a long series of oshanas strung together, all ultimately heading south to the Etosha Pan.
Photo: Aipinge plays in a puddle on the homestead

The rain has its perks – cool weather for bearable days and sleep-able nights, free water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing, great puddles for children to splash in, and abundant fish and frogs. But too much rain causes a flood, which is exactly what we have on our hands right now. And crossing long stretches of deep water can be time consuming and dangerous – most people don’t know how to swim, and even for those that do, the bottom is often obscured by the murky water making every step a guessing game (how deep? a plant? a fish? a stick? a rock? a slimy creature?)

Photo: Even the goats are refugees!

For the safety of the learners, classes were suspended last week, and the school will remain closed for the remainder of this week. It was rather anticlimactic – having two days of school and then shutting down. But hope is on the horizon: it hasn’t rained in 6 days and the water has been steadily, but slowly, flowing downstream.

Photo: Free water! A precious gift in a country as dry as Namibia

If you’re getting a feeling a déjà vu, you’re absolutely correct. This same thing happened last year – only in April, and school was closed for an entire month. The fact that it’s only January is slightly worrying; there’s still a long rainy season ahead and potential floodwaters from Angola on the horizon. But, for now, we’ll march forward optimistically – and hope that Mother Nature can keep it in moderation.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Glorious rain!

Collecting rainwater from a refreshing evening shower.