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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]

July 28, 2007

The Myth of Sisyphus
or: Yes, That Is Me Under The Giant Boulder
or: Please Come Roll The Boulder Off Me

I haven't written for awhile. I have an excuse, but it's going to take some explaining about Peace Corps Volunteers in Namibia. Most volunteers go through a very specific set of stages regardless of individual personal beliefs, previous experience, educational background, etc. They are as follows:

Stage 1: Fear (also known as the "Second-Guessing" Stage)

In this, the second-briefest of stages, we find our Volunteer waving stoically goodbye to her tearful family and boarding a plane to a Big American City where she is introduced to the Swiss-army-knife carrying, dried-fruit eating, zip-off-pants wearing hippy freaks she will be spending the next two years of her life working alongside. Our Volunteer makes valiant attempts at jocularity and extroversion, but finds herself losing sleep over seemingly unimportant things, like her new roommate's matching set of red luggage, the observation that everyone but her seems to own a pair of Birkenstocks, and the nagging feeling that she has been using her fake laugh a tad too frequently and people have started to notice.

Stage 2: Panic

The beginning of this stage coincides exactly with the lift-off of the next plane, and we find our Volunteer trapped on a semi-direct flight to South Africa, stopping only in Dar Es Salaam to fuel up, where no one is allowed to alight. What has our Volunteer gotten herself into? What was she thinking, putting so much ocean between herself and everything familiar, only to disappear into a country she could not locate on a map two months ago? Is all this bumping turbulence, or what? What IS that slimy yellow thing on the dinner tray? Is her seatmate asleep, or has she, in fact, died? She isn't moving. And so it goes. Hours and hours later, the thoughts will culminate with a final observation before our Volunteer's mind goes completely numb: as the plane soars above Namibia and approaches the airport, she gazes out of the window at all that vast, orangey nothing and wonders, Where is. anything?

Stage 3: Exhaustion/Euphoria

Strange how these sensations are so often coupled, but there you go. Exhaustion is a side-effect of all that sleep lost to fear and panic, and euphoria is one name for the drunk feeling experienced by exhausted people forced to attend long sessions in scorching, African heat, in
semi-professional dress, on such exhilarating topics as their new susceptibility to extreme diarrhea, the importance of being culturally sensitive, and strategies for maintaining their mental and emotional well-being (as IF). In addition, our volunteer attends a language class where she is told that she must learn a language that sounds uncannily like tiny marimba's and wood blocks being played inside a person's mouth. It doesn't take long for her to realize that her own mouth is equipped with only tone-deaf, back-row church choir members, and that she is doomed to spend the next two years not understanding most of what people say. Luckily, she is still exhausted, and therefore, euphoric, so all this just registers as funny. Feelings of euphoria are enhanced by the fact that they are shared: every member of the Volunteer's training group has entered this stage together, and in so doing, they have stumbled upon common ground. Suddenly, and without exception, everything is funny. People begin to climb trees, choreograph interpretive dances, and mix large batches of powdered beer in plastic swimming pools. Two months of training pass in a glorious haze.

Stage 4: Bloating

The absolute briefest stage. Typically it begins immediately after a volunteer is officially sworn-in and lasts for the duration of the
bus/combie/back-of-open-bakkie ride from the luxurious Safari Hotel in Windhoek to her new home. Characteristics of this stage include feelings of pride at being brave enough to embark on such a journey, on having made it this far without giving up, on doing something so positively worthwhile with her life, on the prediction that she will succeed at being the World's Best Volunteer and everyone will love her and she will be elected Number One Most Spectacular Best Person In The Universe, and so on. With each new thought the circumference of our Volunteer's head increases until, without warning, our Volunteer finds herself standing in the middle of a deserted courtyard clutching her duffle bag in one hand and her Peace-Corps-issued blanket in the other, watching the bus disappear in a cloud of dust, and with it, a not-insignificant chunk of her mental and emotional well-being. (Those listening carefully might hear a gentle pfffft sound as our Volunteer's head returns to it's pre-bloated size and then, oddly enough, continues to shrink.)

Stage 5: The Bipolar Months

For an education volunteer, this stage of up-up-ups and low-down-lows stretches across the whole of the first school term. A typical morning in this stage might proceed thus:

- Monday, 7am: Our Volunteer is ecstatic, it's a new day, a new chance to teach a group of smiling learners how to diagram a simple sentence, to convey the joy of distinguishing between the various and magnificent parts of speech, to be the passionate, intuitive, and creative teacher she was always meant to be, to really *reach* young minds who may never have been reached before, all those little sweethearts, those cherubs!

- Monday, 7:01am: Our Volunteer is deflated, demoralized, depressed, and frankly on the verge of running to the bathroom and locking herself in to have a good long cry. The kids are horrible, they're clawing each others eyes out over a pencil, they're screaming at each other in Khoekhoe, they can't read, they can't write, they're eating the paper out of their exercise books, and that one with the big head just ate the chalk.

Stage 6: Trudging

This stage begins promptly upon returning to site after the first school holiday. Our Volunteer has met with her fellow volunteers and found a kind of dull satisfaction in learning that everyone else is having the exact same problems. She starts the second term knowing, for instance, that absolutely nothing will go as planned, and just knowing this takes the edge off. She knows, for instance, that she will spend four solid weeks teaching little Jimmy that 1+1 is 2, only to have him write his own name in the answer blank for the same question on the test; that on Monday, inexplicably, half the desks and chairs in her classroom will have disappeared despite the doors and windows having been locked all weekend, but that around Thursday they will inexplicably reappear; that no matter how many times she explains the
macaroni-jar reward system (when it's full, the class earns a party!), the learners will continue to thwart themselves by eating the macaronis when her back is turned. She knows that the principal will interrupt her mid-sentence on a daily basis to order her students to get up right now and sweep the floor. She knows the learners will eat their test papers before she can paste them in their exercise books. She knows that every single solitary time her class needs some good sound discipline to keep them in order, she will only ever be able to laugh.

She knows, she knows, she knows!

And because she knows all this, and because the year will, at some point, end, and a new clean-slate year begin, she can trudge. And she
is able also to see what she is doing less from the dizzying, birds-eye perspective of a person on the outside criticizing her own actions and weighing everything against how she thought things were supposed go, and more as the person in charge of her own life, which she is, in fact, living. And though the sad and bitter things still sometimes take her breath away, the good moments taste ever so much sweeter.


One day a group of young boys calls out to her on the bridge and she hesitates, expecting them to ask for money. Instead, she turns to find
one running toward her with a newly bought sweet in his hand and a broad smile on his face. "For miss," he says.


One day Erna Haarlons beats insistently on her door until she opens it, expecting to be asked for food, only to have her hand grabbed and
her self pulled out into the open school yard where every child is standing stock still and peering up at the sky. An airplane is flying high overhead, a glint of silver, the faint hum of its engine like an insect. Quietly, "Look, miss. Look there."


One day she hears the grinding of an old bakkie engine outside and then a knock on her door, and she opens it to find Mr. Glaser standing
there. Mr. Glaser, the science teacher who makes his students queue up to be beaten each time they fail a test. The man who once beat Elleretha for referring to him as her father in public, even though he is her father, if not by his wife. He has come to take her to his garden.

The Volunteer sits stiffly in the bakkie's cab; she believes she has already passed judgment on this man. But the garden stretches improbably green and lush for an acre in the middle of the dry scrub brush, and she is touched in spite of herself at his eagerness to take her through every inch of it. He is impossibly gentle when he touches the new fruit of a young mango tree, the wide leaves of a melon vine. She is only beginning to learn herself. How can she be so arrogant as to believe she understands this country, or the history that shapes its people?

She spends the day picking tomatoes off the vine with Mr. Glaser's wife and her sister, so pregnant her breasts and belly strain against the buttons of her dress. The women teach her to click off the words for soil, for sky and for rain. At the end of the day they send her home with more pumpkins, tomatoes, and butternut squash than she could possibly eat. She is overwhelmed.


She is wrong, she has been so wrong, she will be wrong again.
And so it goes.

Stage 7: Invincible

The Invincible stage begins with the beginning of the second year. Our Volunteer knows now that she can add a solid ten days to the official start date of anything in order to calculate the actual start date, so it is with a relaxed attitude that she arrives at school on the first day two hours late, but still an hour earlier than anyone else. It's all good. She has a list of projects to start and she starts on them because what's the point of waiting? If nothing else, she has learned how to pass the time. When the children finally do show up, she knows their faces and most of their names, and nothing is frightening anymore. She is somehow efficient with her projects, her teaching, and her extracurricular activities, and she no longer feels needlessly guilty about trivial things like eating and going to town. After all, how else is she to stay sane?

In the words of a fellow volunteer, "I blinked sometime in February and three months passed." The invincible stage extends into the second school term with a characteristic surge of productivity, but as we all know and [Newton?] demonstrated, what goes up, must come down.

Stage 8: Crotchety

No one is certain precisely what factors contribute to the beginning of the Crotchety stage. Experts have hypothesized that something as mundane as a volunteer misplacing a set of house keys, losing electricity when she is trying to boil water for coffee, or finding that a bird has gotten trapped inside her classroom overnight and has succeeded in crapping with an abundance not usually seen unless a flock of migratory birds has just passed overhead, can be responsible for the snapping of the single nerve fiber responsible for transition into Crotchety. Symptoms of this phase include a dull apathy toward all things work-related, a propensity for baking chocolate cakes and eating them, alone, in one sitting, a very short temper for her neighbor's children's hobby of throwing things at her front door accompanied by their ceaseless crying, and a constant drone of worry in the Volunteer's head about the fact that this whole thing will come to an end soon and she must figure out what the heck she will do when she goes back to America.

To combat these feelings, our Volunteer might engage in such irrational behaviors as getting up at 5 am on a Saturday to hang her laundry
all over the line before her neighbor can get a chance to hang her own laundry, just to be mean; hitting herself in the face repeatedly in enthusiastic attempts to ward off those tiny biting flies that she can never actually seem to injure; turning on all the lights AND the oven when the neighbor's children have been crying for more than an hour just because she knows it will kill the electricity and rouse her neighbor from her television-induced stupor; and assigning her grade 6 class the task of simplifying fractions in silence for a whole class period, a task she well knows they are incapable of, just so that she can stand in front of the calendar, counting and re-counting the days until December 15.

And now we have arrived at my excuse for not writing. I'm crotchety. And I've been too embarrassed at myself to write anything at all. Luckily, I hear this stage is short-lived; next time I write I'll be able to explain the final stage, but right now, quite frankly, I'm feeling pretty apathetic about the whole 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 Harvley-Felder)