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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]

May 15, 2007

April

1. My colleagues call this Little Winter. The clocks have been set back and darkness falls now by 6:00. With no city lights to dull the stars, the sky is magnificent. On any given night, I can find the Southern Cross, the Milky Way, and if I wait long enough, a handful of shooting stars. It's cold in the mornings and the evenings and a steady wind blows across the veldt, shaking the branches of the acacia trees, rattling windows, blowing papers off learners' desks and tossing dust and sand in our faces.

2. The first school term ended on April 24th for learners. The white farmers came to collect the children of their workers like livestock in the backs of open bakkies. Some children were not collected, and there was no lunch or dinner provided for them. After it got dark, I walked down to the yard between the hostels where the only outdoor light is and found a group of children huddled together on the cement stoop. I brought slices of bread with butter and sugar, but I didn't have enough for everyone.

3. A week before the term ended, we found out that our school will receive 45,000 Euros through the German embassy. That's 315,000 Namibian Dollars. Gabes told us in the staffroom after he got the phone call. He explained that one of the German teachers connected with the film project had arranged the donation in Germany to renovate our hostels (the dorms where the children live). In theory, this is wonderful. The hostels are in very poor condition: windows are broken, showers and sinks don't work, there aren't enough beds or even enough mattresses for the beds that are there, and the walls and floors are bare cement, like jail cells. There are no shelves or cupboards for belongings, so things are often stolen, and the Ministry never gives us enough cleaning supplies, so the whole place is in a constant state of filth. If one child gets lice, they all get lice. It's definitely a fixer-upper. But. The Ministry also just decided to renovate our hostels, and they even came out to take measurements and estimate cost, so the German money won't be put toward the hostel. Instead, the staff will get to decide what to use it on.

4. And maybe now is a good time to explain what I see as the Foreign Aid Tragedy at my school, and in a lot of other schools in Namibia: there is zero accountability. This school has had resources dumped on it, and it has squandered them. The stuff that people keep giving us never gets used because no one takes into account the necessity of responsible adults to guide and assist the children in using the stuff, or no one explains how the stuff works and it gets broken right away. Since I've been here, I've found so many treasures in corners and cupboards, gathering dust behind locked doors: stacks of brand new board games, a ping pong table, dozens of ping pong balls and paddles still in their original packaging, jump ropes, kites, badmitten sets, a volleyball net, two broken televisions, a donation of 700 books still taped up in boxes even though they arrived in 1998, a class set of knitting needles, a room full of sleeping bags, another room full of unused furniture, a solar oven large enough to cook an entire goat, tennis balls, frisbees, and a mountain of 10KG bags of maizemeal crawling with wevils. I'm not even going to start on the money that regularly disappears, unexplained and unquestioned, from the school's accounts. When it was announced that we were getting this new money, I smiled with everyone else. I was happy to hear teachers making suggestions for improvements that the school could really use, like a new soccer field, netball court, electricity and doors for all the classrooms. But in my heart I know the only solution to the problems here is to hire more responsible adults to supervise the children and take care of the school. Until these magical people pop out of thin air, no amount of green grass fields or new dining hall chairs is going to make any difference.

5. I really enjoyed teaching this term. I feel like I'm able to accomplish so much more with the smaller class sizes. I almost never have to raise my voice, and our routines are so set that the class often seems to run itself. The learners are comfortable enough with me now to ask questions when they don't understand, and they always seem eager to answer questions and do sums on the board. It's easier to relax with the smaller groups, too, and we laughed a lot this term. I feel like I finally know who I am with these kids, which sounds weird, but it was hard getting here. I was sad when I had to give up my computer classes at the end of March. After the school inspector paid us a visit, it was decided that I would take over grade 7 math and science from a teacher who is in poor health. Because he had taught nothing all term, the students were miserably behind, I had to do afternoon and Saturday classes just to prepare them for exams. We're still really far behind in the syllabus and I don't know if it will be possible to catch up without doing more afternoon and Saturday classes next term. It's stressing me out, but teaching science is a nice change from math. I found some interesting simple experiments on the Internet that I'm going to try next term, and I have lots of ideas for projects. The major stumbling block is that the reading level here is extremely low, and many of the children can't read their own notes. Next term is definitely going to be a challenge.

6. Karools in grade 7 is cross-eyed. If he looks the world in the face, he sees two of everything. To solve this problem, he looks at the world sideways, turning his head away from you when you speak and finding you with his left eye. In class he keeps the head of a stuffed bear on his desk. He turns the head toward the teacher when the teacher speaks. Every so often, he turns the head toward himself and leans down to tell it something, then appears to listen intently to its reply. When asked what he is doing, he says, 'Talking to my friend.' When the lunch bell rings, children pour out of classrooms like marbles spilt from a bag, some even jumping out of windows, all desperate to win the coveted first spot in the lunch line. Karools is always last, stepping sideways across the school yard, dragging his right side behind him down the path in a slow electric slide.

7. During my free period on Tuesday, I sit at my desk in the library to mark papers and plan. Outside, it is that very still kind of hot that settles on a person's skin and just clings to it. Flies buzz at the window and ping stupidly against the glass and the smell of burning trash from the metal can outside is thick in the back of my throat. One by one, my grade 7 girls come inside. (I started thinking of them as mine when we started Girls Club, but only now as I write this am I conscious of it.) They are supposed to be at PE, but no one is watching them and the ball is flat and it's too hot anyway so Miss, can we stay? Of course. They are like new calves, shy and awkward and curious. They look at some books and giggle quietly over a few pictures, but eventually they all end up at the desk, some propped on fists and elbows, watching the movement of my pen; others touching objects on the desk with a quiet reverence: my good markers, a length of red velvet ribbon, a sheet of foil stars. Others move behind me and begin to plait my hair. Some just want to be close enough to touch my arms. Rarely do we talk, and I imagine we are all afraid to spoil the enchanted calm of these moments. I can't put this into words, so I'll try something else. A memory: My mother sits on one end of the sofa at home in North Carolina, sometimes with a book, sometimes just staring out the window. Her hair is loose curls, then short waves, then she is bald and wearing a scarf, then her hair is short and baby soft and silver; I am 3, I am 9, I am 12, I am 17, I am lying on the sofa with my head in her lap and her hand is on my neck or my shoulder and we are silent. Outside the sunlight glitters in the spaces between leaves. Soon I have stared at the same place for so long that I can no longer tell which colors and shapes are tangible and which are merely light and shadow. There is nothing but the moment, no one but my mother and me, nothing more lovely than her hand on my skin, no boundary between the end of my body and the beginning of hers. This is what it means to feel loved, that first love, before best friends and lovers, and I worry that these girls who spend so much time away from home, who grow up far away from their mothers, whose mothers and fathers die when they are young, I worry that they will never know what it feels like.

May

School Holiday For the school holiday, my plan was to go camping with some friends in parts of Namibia I had not seen yet, and then to hike Fish River Canyon again (because, I guess, it didn't hurt enough the first time). The camping was wonderful, but we can't hike Fish River. Because there was very little rain this year, the river is not flowing and the water has become polluted, so to hike it we would have had to carry all of our drinking water with us for 6 days along with all our gear. We opted not to do that. It sounded painful and not fun. Instead, we decided to hang out in Windhoek and eat too much until school starts back again on the 22nd.

These are some pieces of the camping trip.

Epupa Falls In Epupa, we hike to the top of a ridge and look down at the falls and see that they spread across a wider area than we'd imagined. The Kunene River forms a natural border between Namibia and Angola. At the falls, it spills over the sides of a long, narrow gorge that opens into a canyon. Baobab trees cling to the ledge, their roots like balled fists gripping earth and rock. At the bottom of the canyon, more boabab, their trunks plump and rounded at the bottom like old mens' bellies.

The Road On the way to Palmwag, we drive through a steep and rocky mountain pass, through an area of desert where all the sand is a pale yellow gray and there is no green in site. Just as the land begins to turn pink at dusk, we come to the crest of a hill and find ourselves staring down a full-grown giraffe. It stands like a statue in the center of the road, as though it were awaiting our arrival, watching us with its big doe-eyes, the graceful arc of its neck unmoving. On the side of the road, a baby giraffe stumbles among the rocks, then stops to size us up. We stare at the giraffes staring at us staring at them. Their hides are a perfect patchwork, spots like the flat stones of a high wall. Eventually the mother giraffe turns away from us and crosses the road, and the baby follows, and then they are gone, running between rocks toward the hills.

Palmwag Damaraland. Burnt umber hills and mountains rising steep and flat-topped in the distance, walling in the rocky plains. Milk bush, acacia, white blossoms on desert thorns, a Welwitchia plant with flat green tentacles, its centers like a pair of pursed lips. Elephant dung in mounds, fibrous and moist where elephants passed our campsite in the night, waking no one. Wind with nothing to buffer it, so strong it can steal your balance, so strong it can steal the words from your mouth and send them flying before they ever reach their destination. A hut made of mud and sticks and thatch, a fenced square in the center of the plain. A tarp covers one wall, aquamarine, the color of the ocean. A lone farmer walking the footpath, skirting the Red Line, tossing his stick into the air and catching it, tossing it again. With his other hand he guards his straw hat from the wind. In the night, the mosquitoes humming in my ears and the sound of animals crying out in anger or in ecstasy.


(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)