November 2, 2007
FIRE THREATENS TO TAKE SCHOOL, THEN DOESN'T
GIRL SURVIVES BEAUTY PAGEANT SWIMWEAR CRISIS WHILE COOK CHOPS HEADS OFF CHICKENS
AS IT TURNS OUT, NAIL POLISH NON-TOXIC WHEN EATEN
I'm looking at my journal trying to figure out where the days have gone.
There was a Sunday when I hung my laundry on the line and listened to the children singing in the church nearby, their voices clear and unabashedly beautiful. I will miss that sound.
There was a Wednesday when Mornie, Michael, Roberto, and Elifas asked me to watch them practice their kwaito dance for the Day of the Namibian Child Celebration. They'd been practicing all week in secret and I was honored to be their first audience.
There was a night with no moon, so dark that when I looked out the window it felt as though my house had sprouted wings.
There was a day when the world was aflame. At noon a worker made the mistake of dumping a heap of live coals in the veldt. I imagine the flame caught the months-dry grass like a predator. By mid afternoon, smoke was billowing into the sky, flames taking everything in their fury and greed.
The dirt road is all that separates the primary school from the college, but by some miracle the wind never changed in such a way that the flames reached us. Instead, the children stood against the chain link fence around the netball court and watched the fire transform the landscape into ash. At midnight I watched from the hill as it inched toward the college from every direction like a mouth of flame. I don't know how it's possible that the college didn't burn. No one was fighting the fire; the only thing influencing the direction it took was the wind. I couldn't sleep for the longest time, the air in my bedroom permeated by the smell of smoke.
At dawn I awoke to the sound of rain on the tin roof. It was the first rain of the season, and Selma and I had to run to get the clothes from the line. After it stopped, I walked to the top of the hill and looked down at the charred land. The fire covered an area of at least 5 square kilometers, maybe bigger.
Two weeks later, the land has yet to heal. It's black all the way to the horizon: the shadow of a cloud that isn't there.
On the Saturday after the fire, the school held its annual "Fun Day." The "fun" is supposed to be for the kids, and the day is supposed to be organized by the teachers, who each host some kind of game in their classrooms. I was impressed to hear teachers volunteering to let kids bob for apples, fish treasure out of a jar, and some other things I didn't understand but that sounded cool. There was at least one other farm school scheduled to come and play soccer. But when the Fun Day dawned, most of the teachers didn't turn up, the ones who did hadn't bought supplies for their games, and the bus didn't have a drop of diesel to fetch the learners from the other school. The one random thing that did work out was the "jumping castle," an inflatable castle like the ones you see at carnivals. It was really small, but that didn't stop it from being THE center of activity for the entire day. I think they were paying to jump on it for a while, but there came a point when there was a kind of coup d'etat, and then it was fair game for whoever.
Another volunteer, Angela, was visiting me that weekend, and we spent several hours painting fingernails. It had been my plan to do real manicures. I'd had fun training some of the learners the day before to do the massages and the lotion and to clean and file fingernails. But then it turned out every single girl at the school wanted nail polish at the same time, so in the end we just painted. It probably didn't help anyone that we were doing it for free, but it was too hot to try to think of a scheme for collecting money. At one point, Angela noticed that the smallest girls were eating the nail polish off their fingernails and coming back for a second turn. It was unclear whether they enjoyed the attention of getting their nails painted or if they just thought the polish tasted good, but either way it was disturbing. Angela works at a junior secondary school in a town, so she doesn't have much experience working with children who literally don't understand one single word she's saying. I think she enjoyed herself.
Eventually, to avoid sunstroke and mental incapacitation from the fumes, we went back up to my house to hide. But on the way, Connie, one of the kitchen workers, stopped me and asked me to make the sashes for the beauty pageant that evening. They needed sashes for Ms. Baumgartsbrunn, First and Second Princess, and Ms. Personality. I agreed because pageants here are funny and I like making stuff that sparkles. Throughout the afternoon, teachers kept coming to my house to ask for last minute things, like the numbers that get pinned on each contestant, and help with writing up the categories for judging. They seemed genuinely surprised that I had no idea how to judge a beauty pageant. I thought about suggesting they borrow my multiplication flashcards and have some kind of around-the-world elimination round. But in the end they settled on some boring categories like smile, walk, and attire.
The pageant was supposed to start at 7pm, but since I know better than to believe in something like a starting time, we wandered down with the sashes around 8. They weren't even close to starting. Children were crowded around the doors of the dining hall trying to push their way inside, but the head cook (who is large and imposing like the prow of a ship) and Connie (who has a little bit of a beard) were guarding the door and refusing to let anyone in who didn't pay. The contestants came in with their "hairs" carefully covered in headscarves, each of them wearing the one shade of lipstick they'd passed around. They hid in the kitchen, which is walled off from the hall, and changed into their "swimwear." Because almost no one had an actual bathing suit, the swimwear ranged from a brand-new black one-piece, to some cut-off cotton shorts and a piece of something that used to be a tank top, to a pair of lacy black underwear and a neon green sports bra. Most of the clothes were literally in tatters, but the girls, who ranged in age from 8 to 13, didn't seem to mind. It would have been disturbing if it wasn't so cute. There was a lot of trading back and forth of outfits and practicing of walks. Angela and I stapled numbers on outfits, tied halter tops and bathing suits, and reminded the girls to smile. Another hour passed while the dining hall filled up, the girls becoming more nervous and giggly by the minute. At the very last minute, they all had to pee, so we snuck them out the back door to pee in the bushes (there is no toilet). Then, finally, the pageant finally began.
The minister was the emcee, and he opened the show by strutting his stuff on the catwalk (constructed in the shape of a T out of dining hall tables). Whatever he was saying, the audience was falling out of their seats laughing. And then the music came on--Stanley, everybody's favorite Khoekhoegowab singer--and the girls all walked out together. There was a clothing crisis when Stefni's bathing suit came unsnapped (she'd traded at the last minute with a smaller girl) but she handled it like a champ and just ran back inside to change.
After that, things went smoothly. At one point, the cook tottered into the kitchen and started cutting the heads off a pile of chicken carcasses with a big cleaver. I guess she was trying to get a jump on Sunday lunch. While she chopped, she watched the girls strut their stuff from one end of the kitchen to the other, perfecting their walks. It was just like I always imagined beauty pageants back home: Miss Lee County Fair in her sequined ensemble, and in the background somebody cutting up dead chickens.
Angela and I didn't stay for the end, but the next day, Seigried came over to return the high heels she'd borrowed and to tell me she'd won, and I was so excited because she's one of my learners and she's very clever. One of my grade 7 girls took First Princess and another grade 6 got Miss Personality, so overall I was very pleased.
I'm writing this on November 1, and from today there are 37 days before I fly home. In these last days, I will have my last girls club, finish rehearsals of the Christmas play and see it performed in the church, host the grade 7 farewell dance party, mark 125 math and natural science exams, attend the wedding of another volunteer, and say goodbye to 350 learners, 10 colleagues, and 55 volunteers who have become my best friends. I don't even know how I feel about leaving; my head and my heart are all over the place. At times I want to soak up every second and spend as much time as I can with the kids and with my colleagues who I likely won't see again. At other times I want to hide from all of them because I can't stand the anticipation of goodbye. Tomorrow, Group 27 lands in Windhoek. There will be 70 of them, the biggest group of Peace Corps Volunteers Namibia has ever had. It seems like such a short while ago that we were the ones arriving, stepping onto the tarmac and feeling that first wave of stifling heat. These have been amazing years.
From my journal last week: It's raining the first real downpour of the season. The smell of rain is pungent like a living thing, more wonderful for having gone so long without it. Some grade 5 girls made a playhouse out of found objects on the concrete slab outside my window. When the rain began, they had to grab their things to save them from a soaking. They were laughing hysterically, their bare feet smacking the sidewalk as they ran for the hostel.
One day two Decembers ago in those last days of training, a friend and I went on a long run down the deserted streets of Omaruru and while we ran, it began to pour. But we didn't stop because the rain was a wonderful relief from that desert heat; we only ran faster until our clothes were clinging to our bodies and our shoes soaked through. It was only a day, maybe two, after Christmas, which had seemed a sham in a country that looked nothing like Christmas is supposed to look. But it didn't matter so much because everything was upside down then. We had not yet begun; we were still at the start of the beginning.
As I ran, I felt near to bursting with restless energy, that
intensity that came from being in a strange country with a
group of people I hardly knew, but who had become everything
to me in such a short time. When we arrived back at the camp
we were both laughing. Some of the others were sitting at
picnic tables beneath the shelter, and I was half
embarrassed, half proud of my rain soaked self. There was
nothing for any of us then but possibilities and
expectations. The rains had washed everything clean and new.
(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)