October 19, 2006
I thought it might be helpful to give a little background information, so this dispatch will be an overview of my service so far.
I joined Peace Corps for the same reasons everyone lists for joining Peace Corps. I had a vague notion that the scales of justice had been weighted enormously in my favor and I wanted to give back; I'd been abroad enough to get a taste of the world's dislike of America and it appealed to me to be a part of something America is doing that I'm proud of; and I wanted adventure, or at least something more thrilling than copyediting.
Namibia is not the Africa I imagined. I have electricity and running water, and the only times I've gone to the bathroom outside have been on hiking trips. Peace Corps began working in Namibia after independence in 1990. Before independence, Namibia was Southwest Africa, a colony of South Africa, and its citizens were governed by the South African laws of apartheid. Since independence, Namibia has been working hard to overcome the problems of racism, poverty, and AIDS. Namibia has the highest number of AIDS patients undergoing treatment in the world.
I've been an official Peace Corps Volunteer since January, but I arrived in Namibia for training last November. Training was both fun and overwhelming. There were a lot of really long sessions about diarrhea, and how many times a volunteer was allowed to have diarrhea before said volunteer should call Medical (lucky number 14: 13 is not serious, 15 and you're dead). Those sessions took place as a whole group (58 of us) in Omaruru. We also had a separate home-based training when we were divided into small groups and sent to different towns to live with families for a month, to study a language (I studied Khoekhoegowab), and to practice teaching. During home-based training, I did such things as nearly die on a hike through the desert (would've been smart to bring enough water), go for a ride in a donkey cart driven by one of my learners and crash into a fence (the donkey escaped unscathed), learn to cook porridge over a fire (and then eat it with my hands), and celebrate my 23rd birthday with the slaughtering and skinning of a goat.
My group, the 25th group of volunteers in Namibia (in the areas of Education, Health, and Information Technology), was sworn-in in January, and we left each other for our permanent sites. My original site was in a small town called Witvlei, located 2 hours east of Windhoek. I lived in the school hostel, which is sort of like living inside a cardboard box in the middle of a room filled with 150 Kindergartners playing with very loud toys, and there are no adults around, and also they've just been fed pure sugar. I taught English, Math, and Physical Education for grade 6 and Arts, Religion, and PE for grade 5.
The children in Witvlei are amazing. I loved to listen to them singing because they were taught to harmonize as young children, and because Khoekhoegowab is a language with four clicks, so it has a lovely natural percussion. Much of their days are spent in unsupervised play, and I was constantly amazed by their creativity. They made toy cars out of bits of wire fencing with sections of cooldrink cans for wheels, soccer balls out of bunches of tightly bound plastic bags, and paper doll worlds out of magazine pictures. Every single child in the Location* knew my name, and I couldn't go anywhere without being followed by a chorus of "Hello Miss Irene." It was sort of like being a celebrity, only minus the Versace dress.
Teaching was a huge challenge because all of the subjects are taught in English**, but the children do not speak English well, and in some cases, at all. In my grade 6 class, I had 42 learners, aged 11-18,some of whom were working at grade level, some who could not even read their own names. They were often out of control in the classroom, partly because the other teachers beat them at the drop of a hat, so my "Respect Your Neighbor" policy didn't pack much punch. But at the same time, they were easy to fall in love with. Most are just desperate for attention, and eager to please. Children here grow up essentially on their own, and they possess a heartbreaking mixture of innocence, and maturity forced on them by necessity. One minute a ten-year-old girl might be playing paper dolls, and the next minute she must find dinner for her five younger siblings.
Peace Corps moved me out of Witvlei because I was being stalked by a taxidermist, which was no fun at all. In September I started the third school term at my new site, a school called Baumgartsbrunn located 50KM west of Windhoek. I worried it would be too difficult to start over, that I would feel too guilty about leaving my kids in Witvlei, that I didn't have the energy to do it all again, but I was so wrong. My job is made easy by the simple fact that the children are so receptive, and the teachers and school workers at my new site are incredibly kind and hardworking.
Baumgartsbrunn is a farm school, which means there is nothing here but the school: no other houses, no shops, no weird taxidermists, nothing. Just hills and rocks and grass. I have yet to go for a run without seeing either kudu, oryx, or baboons, and there are giraffes at a nearby game reserve. I'm sure it's partly the newness of the place, but I'm impressed every day with its beauty, the vivid colors of a sunrise in smoke from the veldt fires, the empty promise of rain in the dull, heavy clouds that linger on the horizon, and the way the land changes color in the fading light of dusk.
The teachers here live in housing on the school grounds, and all the children stay in the hostel. Most of the learners come from farms and are Khoekhoegowab speaking. When they come here, many have never heard English spoken, seen a television, or even been to Windhoek. Their parents are employed by white farmers who pay them so little they can barely manage the annual school fee, which is less than 8 American dollars. We also have a small group of children who come from an orphanage in Windhoek, and these children generally speak better English because they attended city schools.
I only teach BIS now (Basic Information Science: take out the I and you've pretty much got it) because I started third term, but I'm okay with that. There's always next year. I use my class periods to teach English anyway, and I'm also in charge of the library. I have more time for extracurricular activities, so I started a drama club, and we're rehearsing a Christmas play now. I'm also training a group of 12 learners who will run the Lucky Star Marathon from Walvis Bay to Swakopmund, two coastal towns, this weekend. They are very excited; they have never seen the ocean.
So, that pretty much brings us up to date. More later on the day to day.
*Location is a word used to denote an area where black people were forced to live during apartheid. The word is still used because these areas have remained virtually the same since independence.
**Namibia's official language since independence has been English. Before 1990, the official language was Afrikaans, and the transition to English has not been smooth. Children are taught in their mother tongue up to grade four, then they switch to English for all the subjects in grade five. The failure rate is very high.
(NOTE: The contents of these e-mails are mine personally and do not reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of any institution or individual mentioned, including the U.S. Government, U.S. Peace Corps, the Government of Namibia, or its citizens. - Irene Harvley-Felder)