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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Even when I sit perfectly still, I can hear things: the distant grind of cars on the highway like the gears of a machine turning; the deep rumble of a plane flying overhead. The house itself makes noise. The dishwasher changes cycles or something inside the refrigerator switches off. In Namibia, on Saturday or Sunday afternoons when the heat was unbearable and everyone was sitting as still as they could in whatever shade they could find, it sometimes got so quiet I’d wonder if I’d gone deaf, and then I would make a noise—dropping my pen, turning the page of a book—and startle myself back into existence.
Many things are strange. But I suppose the strangest part of this whole business is its finality. There was no gradual transition, no winding down or slow goodbye. It doesn’t matter how much I prepared for the ending, because the truth is that one day I was there, and the next day I wasn’t.
My last week in Windhoek was surreal. There were 10 of us closing our service on the 7th, so Peace Corps put us up in a nice plush guest house in the city. We ran around all week working on administrative things and trying to do all the other stuff we’d been saying we’d do in the last days. Souvenir shopping was difficult. I browsed through the wooden giraffes, beaded necklaces, and ostrich eggs I’d been avoiding for two years, but it was impossible to make myself want any of it. It was especially difficult because we’d spent so much time making fun of tourists walking around the city in safari outfits, knocking into people with their giant carved animals.
At night we stayed up too late talking about how strange home would be, and how much we would miss our Namibian lives, despite being ready to leave them. We went to our favorite bar, El Cubano, taking in, for the last time, the odd décor: Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait in the corner, the Cuban flags, and Che Guevara’s face pasted all over the walls. We gossiped about other volunteers, discussed plans to apply to grad school or get jobs, and talked about what we’d eat first when we got home. We stayed until they turned the lights on and made us leave.
On my last day, we went to an outdoor café to celebrate my birthday. We sat around trying to figure out how we’d gotten so old. Weren’t most of us 22 when all of this started, fresh-faced college graduates full of promise and that certain brand of idealism that can only be found in clueless people?
All week, I had been thinking I should feel something that matched the gravity of an ending, some flood of emotion that would mark this turning point in my life. But I felt nothing. We finished lunch and wandered around the city in the miserable heat for awhile before returning to the guesthouse. I played ping pong with Luke while I waited for the van to come and take me to the airport.
While we played, he told me about returning home to Chicago last Christmas where he learned that his old high school had just voted to spend 94 million dollars on a new diving well. He told me that when Kaitlyn got on the plane to go home last year, she thought, “I’m the only black person on this plane.” (Kaitlyn is white.) He told me he’d had a conversation with a Namibian colleague once about the man’s primary school experience. He’d been in school during the fight for independence, and once he and a friend had found a grenade on the ground. Only they hadn’t known it was a grenade, so they’d played catch with it. They’d thrown it back and forth, back and forth. Then the man’s friend blew up. And the man kept saying he didn’t know why his friend blew up and he didn’t. He had never understood that. I told Luke about one of my colleagues, Lora, who remembers the South African army dropping tear gas on her school when she was in grade 2. She remembers everyone running and screaming and she couldn’t find anyone who would help her, and she couldn’t understand what was happening, couldn’t make sense of it.
Then the van arrived. It was a brand new red VW van and there were three German people already in it. I hugged my friends and got inside. Because some of the volunteers were traveling and none of us were flying back to the same place, we were all leaving at different times. I was alone. When we pulled out of the guesthouse driveway, the owner shut the gate quickly. And that was that.
At the airport, there were German tourists everywhere. They had big cameras and zip-off pants, and they kept talking in German. I sat down for a while, but I felt like I was making a loud noise, and it was strange that no one could hear me. At one point I looked up and caught the man across from me staring at my feet. My feet were really dirty, nearly black on the bottoms where my two-year-old calluses picked up all the grime and sludge of the city. I went to the bathroom, intending to wash my feet somehow, but even the bathroom was full of German tourists, so I couldn’t exactly put my feet in the sink.
I noticed the cleaning lady sitting on a bench by the mirror. She was Namibian, a big, solid woman with ringlets of facial hair lining her jaw. I went over to tip her, but I couldn’t find any change in my bag. I sat down on the bench beside her to dig through my purse. I found some gum and gave her a piece, and she grunted her approval, as Namibians do. I gave up looking eventually and began to tell her that I had used all of my change, because I was leaving and not coming back, and then I realized that I was leaving and not coming back. And then I didn’t say anything. I can never be certain, in situations like that one, when my resolve to feel nothing will falter, and I can’t stand strangers feeling sorry for me. Instead of speaking, I played a game I used to play as a child. I pretended I was an extension of the tiled wall I was leaning against, and that no one could see me. I tried not to think about how I would get up again.
But in the end it was automatic. They announced my flight, and I left the woman, whose name I never asked. I moved with the crowd of Germans through the waiting area and out into the dull heat. It was almost 9 p.m., and the lights from the airport were too bright, and I was walking too slowly. People kept bumping into me. It was dark beyond the airport lights, too dark even to see the stars, but I knew what was there. I remember stepping off the plane that first time, squinting into the sun.
Hysteria and the Shopping Cart
How can something like this have an ending? Is it possible that some alternate-universe-me will continue with her life at Baumgartsbrunn, that she will return to school in January, unlock her classroom door, and wait for the sounds of the children’s footsteps running to her class?
On the students’ last day, I walked down the hill to the schoolyard to find all of the teachers and all of the students waiting for me. They were in rows by grade level, all standing in pregnant silence, all eyes on me. I listened to the principal tell them again that I would not be back next year, and that it was my last day as well as theirs. The principal has a bizarre fondness for emotional situations, and he often tries to make them worse by talking about things until people cry. He refuses to stop until somebody breaks down. I’ve seen him do it all too many times in the staff room when colleagues’ return from funerals; he’ll go on and on and go until they have to excuse themselves. It was clear to me that morning that the principal was gunning for mass hysteria and I should brace myself. And sure enough, after reiterating in three languages that the learners would be looking for Miss Irene in her classroom next year and they wouldn’t find her, the crying started. Rizelda hid her face in Melody’s hair; Melody covered her face with her hands; Wellenda looked at her feet; shoulders started shaking and pretty soon, most of the girls had lost it. Some of them were probably faking it, but others’ sobs were all too real. It was obvious what they wanted from me, but I couldn’t do it. In emotional situations, I can never do something normal like cry. My signature reactions are laughing and saying things that make other people uncomfortable. All I could do was make an awkward speech about how much I would miss everybody and how I hoped to visit them someday. Luckily, I’d anticipated some kind of emotional showdown, and I’d planned a school dance for the last evening, so I ended by reminding them that we were still going to have fun together at the dance.
And we did have fun. After dinner, Gabes brought his sound system (another random gift from the Germans) and the students pushed the tables against the walls in the dining hall. The boys started dancing right away, while the big girls all ran back to the hostel; when they came back, they were all wearing the same shade of red lipstick.
I love how nobody in Namibia has any hang-ups about dancing in public. They know dancing is fun, and it seems not to have occurred to anybody to be self-conscious about the way they look when they’re doing it. I guess it also helps that most of them are really good at it. I, however, am a terrible dancer, but that doesn’t stop me. I spent the evening trying and failing to learn any of the dances they taught me, and when they demanded that I teach them something, I had no choice but to bring out the electric slide, the Macarena, and the boot-scoot-boogey, the only three dances I have memorized (unless you count Awkward White Girl as a dance, but that’s more something you’re born with than something you can learn). By the end of the night I had them doing the robot and the shopping cart, and I was laughing so hard my stomach hurt. When the matrons came to collect the children for bath time, there were lots of hugs, but no tears.
In my parents’ house there are so many things. Books crammed onto shelves, pots and pans and gadgets occupying every square inch of cupboard space, the bathroom cabinets overflowing with cleaning supplies. My old bedroom is a museum of all the stages of my life, souvenirs from childhood, high school, and college displayed on every surface. How is it possible that I own so many things? At times it feels as though my possessions have taken up residence in my mind, crowding out the ends of sentences, derailing trains of thought. I want to tell people about Namibia, about my life there. But every story is preceded by another story, and it is exhausting, searching for a place to start.
Tomorrow, Next Month, Next Year
I imagine my classroom six months from now: the learners’ 3-D Shape mobiles blowing in gusts of wind from broken window panes, a cone and a cube on the floor gathering dust. Perhaps a bird is trapped inside. Often they fly in through holes in the ceiling, moving frantically through the doorway between the classroom and the library, darting from bookshelf to desk to window ledge. They search and search but find no way out. In a year, my calendars crumple to the floor, the writing faded from harsh sunlight, the birthdays and meetings already a part of history. The corners of posters curl away from the wall and flutter in the breeze. In winter the children walk with their morning bread to the outside wall that faces east; they turn slowly as they eat, soaking up the sun. When they are finished, they press their faces against the windows of my classroom and peer inside. They remember me.
My school’s application for a replacement volunteer was not approved, so I will not be replaced next year. It’s possible they might get someone in the future, but Peace Corps has decided that my school has problems it needs to solve independently before it can be deemed suitable for another volunteer. I’m disappointed that the projects I started won’t be continued next year, but at the same time, I understand why this decision was made.
Someone once told me that Namibians view time differently than people in western society. Whereas Americans imagine time to be a straight line aimed always toward progress and development, Namibians think of time in cycles. Americans move quickly and worry constantly about missing their chance or arriving too late, but Namibians are blessed with patience: if something doesn’t get done today, there is always tomorrow, next month, next year.
If this is true, it goes a long way toward explaining how Namibia reacts to foreign aid organizations. No one can make a general statement about foreign aid in Africa after only two years, but from my experience in Namibia, I can understand why many people believe that foreign aid is doing more harm than good. It would be easy to say that our presence is only perpetuating Namibia’s dependence on help from the outside, and that it’s conditioning people to wait for solutions to fall into their laps rather than take the initiative themselves. Too often, a project is started or a donation made by a well-meaning organization that has no plan for assessment or accountability. Few people hang around long enough to make sure promises are kept, and as a result, donations are mishandled and people are tempted into corruption. Many people think the only way to break this trend is to pull aid out entirely. But it isn’t that simple.
In one of the many conversations I’ve had with other volunteers about our reasons for joining Peace Corps, a friend remarked that one of her goals had been skills transfer, and that she had struggled for two years to come to terms with the fact that in Namibia, that goal is almost impossible to achieve. It surprised me that that was one of her goals, because it was never one of mine, not even when I was applying for the program. I never thought I had any skills to transfer to other teachers; I only thought in terms of what I could do with the children. And even the vague notion that I was there to change things or to solve a problem—even that faded quickly once I arrived at the school and no longer had daily contact with Peace Corps. I thought of myself as a teacher independent of any organization other than the school I worked in.
Most Namibian teachers show no interest in doing things differently from the way they’re already doing them, even though their methods aren’t working and the entire system I witnessed is a charade. When a school applies for a volunteer, it isn’t thinking about changing itself. It’s thinking it would be nice to have an extra body around to share the workload. These are not Peace Corps goals, but they are the reality. Most volunteers show up at their sites prepared to do the things Peace Corps has told them they should do, and they spend anywhere from a period of weeks to months to the duration of their service trying to twist reality to fit what Peace Corps has told them is right. The sooner they’re able to get over it and figure out how to meet learners’ needs without becoming a total pushover for the school, the happier they are.
But what are volunteers accomplishing in Namibia if not the goals carefully laid out for them? And what keeps them in the country once they realize that everything they thought in the beginning was wrong?
It comes down to individual people. If I had never gone to Namibia, I never would have lost at chess to Rodney Araeb, a grade 6 learner in Witvlei. I never would have danced long past midnight in Josephine’s house and had to run home in the rain and the dark, dropping my key in a puddle along the way. I never would have baked cookies with Selinda and Verona, or been attacked with hugs from Shafa and Toya at the end of every school day. When I remember how it was that first night on my own, when none of the night sounds were familiar and all of the faces were more similar to pictures in magazines than to anything in real life, when I think of how frightened I was—only then do I realize how much I learned. And I wouldn’t change one single thing.
(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