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Irene Harvley-Felder grew up in Sanford and graduated from Elon University in 2005 with a degree in English/Creative Writing. After graduation she worked briefly as a copy editor for The Education Center in Greensboro before joining the Peace Corps. She arrived in Namibia in November 2005, completed training in the town of Omaruru, and was sworn in as a Volunteer in January 2006. She is currently teaching at a primary school called Baumgartsbrunn, which is located 45km south of Windhoek. She will complete her Peace Corps Service in December of 2007. Irene can be contacted at: irenefelder@gmail.com

[Return to Harvley-Felder's blog home page]

January 23, 2007

Monday morning, empty schoolyard, one plastic sack dancing in the hostel courtyard, a second caught in the barbed wire, slit open like a sail. A small, dirty school shoe, lace-less, tongue-less, abandoned at the stoop of the grade 2 classroom. Crumpled bits of paper catching in the wind like tumbleweeds. In my classroom, cobwebs knit table legs to chairs, mouse droppings pepper the floor. Something in the ceiling is alive. Its footsteps click back and forth above me as I work to gather all the old Afrikaans textbooks. I carry the books to the metal dustbin in the field behind the kitchen, drop them in, strike a match. Later, from the open library window, I see orange flames licking the air above the lip of the bin. A cow wanders slowly toward the blaze.

Tuesday afternoon, nothing but heat. The world on fire. Sweat dripping down my neck, soaking my collar, tracing the length of my spine. I am underwater. I watch my hands clutch a stack of books to shelve. It takes years, centuries, to cross the width of the library floor. I stop to catch my breath. A faint thumping at the window where bugs fling themselves against the glass. Outside, the sky is empty white like new cotton, like powdered sugar, like snow.

Wednesday morning the meeting drags like a stick tied to a donkey's tail. Conversation moves slowly in a circular rut, its dialogue shifting between broken English and Afrikaans. I have long since given up listening. Things will happen, or they won't, regardless of the noise we make to fill these hours. Parents wander through the staffroom to the secretary's office. They limit their gaze to the floor, clutching the hands of their children, babies bundled on their backs. They are here to pay school fees, or to make promises of late payments that, despite their sincerity, will probably never be made. Outside the open doorway, a man with a face puckered like a raisin squats against the wall in a narrow patch of shade, uses his cap to swat away flies. Beside him, a small girl traces lines in the dirt with one finger.

Thursday, 10:00 break, the earth heating up like a frying pan. A kitchen worker holding her small boy aloft so that he might hit the dinner bell with a stone. Children bursting forth from classrooms where they've been caged these past two hours, watching dust motes swirl. A stream of familiar faces, a chorus of "Hello Miss I-Renes." Two straight lines of girls and boys in patched blue shirts, gray skirts with the hems let out, pants that show their ankles. They try their best to stand still, belt out the Lord's Prayer, and one-by-one accept slices of bread. Jackie, grade 5, carries his bread to the big stone by the library door. He wears only a left shoe, the top split from its sole and flopping open like a maw. He meets my eyes, swallows. A smile breaks on his face like a hangnail moon.

Friday night: a small house in the shadow of a church with irregular sides, whitewashed, red-roofed. A valley in the foothills west of Windhoek, the rolling veldt a wrinkled carpet at the base of the mountains, the last violet swathe of their range bleeding into the sky. Bedroom window propped open, the hum of mosquitoes like a distant motor, mosquito net shifting in a breeze I can't feel. A donkey brays. From the small boy's hostel at the base of the hill, a child cries out in his sleep. Then nothing. This is the silence that makes me doubt my own existence. If I lie still enough, I can disappear. And who would ever know? Everyone is invisible here in the quiet of this valley, a valley amid thousands. The shape of us all bleeds into the night. Our hearts alone give us away, beating like footsteps in endless, empty corridors.

Saturday dawn, a rooster crows. The memory of a dream hangs in the air, but the shape of it is lost. It's wash day. I leave clothes to soak in the tub. I walk for a long time away from the school, down the dusty road that ends hundreds of miles west at the sea. I think about the sea, about the color of the sea. Up ahead, a dark shape darts across the road, followed by three smaller dark shapes. Baboons. Above the baboons and me, the sky is wide and blue. There is one cloud. It is shaped like a fish. It is also shaped like an airplane. Behind me, the noise of an approaching bakkie. I listen to it and think about airplanes, about this country from the window of an airplane, the faded, empty quilt of its landscape, patches of dusty brown, yellowed brown, thorn-bush dotted brown. Faint seams of dried riverbeds. The bakkie passes, leaves a cloud of dust in its wake. I watch the dust settle slowly like a spider web torn from a high branch. I bite down on grains of sand. Above me, the wind is pulling the tail fin from the fish, the wing from the plane.

Sunday morning, 7am, already sweating. I want to swim like a pregnant lady wants pickles and ice cream. I must swim. There is no choice about it. I know there is a pool. It is at a lodge, I've seen it, I walked there last
November with a friend. The water was so blue. It doesn't matter that I don't remember precisely how to get there, that there is nothing but veldt between the school and the lodge. I choose a path, I turn on my ipod, and if I don't have a sense of direction, I at least have a purpose. I will swim today. When the path forks, I make my choice with confidence. The path forks many times. An hour passes. Another hour passes. At 9 am, I eat my peanut butter sandwich. The menu button on my ipod has ceased to function. A warthog crosses the path in front of me, its head oddly large in proportion to its tiny rear end. I climb up on a rock to see if I can see anything but thorn bushes and flat-topped acacia trees, and I'm in luck: in the distance, a farm sprawls. I climb over fences and step in cowpats to reach it, coming first to the workers‚ compound. By chance the first man I see is the father of Susannah, a grade 4 learner from the school. He has a kind smile. I say words he doesn't understand. He says words I don't understand. In a handful of English and semi-English words, Susannah tells me she will take me to the lodge. As we head off down a series of forking paths Susannah seems to know like the veins in her hands, our conversation proceeds thus:

Susannah: Is Miss coming this side? Motions vaguely in direction of nothing.
Me: Which side?
Susannah: That side of the Windhoek?
Me: I'm coming from that side. I point vaguely in direction of nothing. We walk in silence for a while.
Susannah: Was Miss come that side of school?
Me: I came from that side over there. I point at a tree.
Susannah: Miss must come this side. Miss coming here that side. That side of the school.
Me: Which side?
Susannah: Miss coming that side of farm. But Miss must coming that side.
Me: That side?
Susannah. There is snakes. You must look grass to snakes. Mimes looking in clumps of grass. Miss must look, look, look in grass.
Me: Where's a snake?
Susannah: Miss must coming that side of Windhoek. That side goes far, far to.
Swakopmund. This side of school is coming.
Me: I want to swim?

We walked another half hour before we reached the lodge. I bought Susannah an orange Fanta and she was in heaven. The swimming pool was even cooler, even more blue than I'd remembered.

Other than writing this ridiculously long blog entry, this is what I did this week: baked a cake in a solar oven, cleaned out the youth center and opened it, watched twenty boys try to play ping pong with badminton racquets, showed everyone's favorite movie on my laptop ("Miss, we want to watch Charlie Chocolate") to a crowd in the youth center and another crowd loitering at the windows, fought with the post office to claim a donation of books from home, somehow managed to label and shelve the books (with Ms. Harases‚ help) despite my desire to just lock the door and read them all, wrote out a scheme of work (that I probably won't follow) for my grade 5 and 6 math classes, made a white board with chart paper and reams of plastic, planned the first Girls' Club meeting with Jeanette (we're making daisy bracelets!), failed to get the main computer to boot up, watched in amazement as Gabes succeeded in getting it to boot up simply by hitting it repeatedly, and collapsed from exhaustion. I did not mop my floor. I did not do the dishes. I did not scrub the bathtub. I did fantasize about grad school, about cold weather, about Paris and London and Italy and all the Italian men I'm not dating.

(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)